Interplanetary

Phil Ford

Hi blog. How ya been? Good? I know I haven’t seen much of you lately, but I’ve been real busy, see, and . . . oh no no no, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve just been busy and . . . aw, don’t be silly. We’re still tight. No, we’re good. Really, I’m totally committed to this relationship.

It’s an odd moment, feeling things running down in Austin and waiting for them to power up in Bloomington. I remember this feeling from the last time we moved, when we were getting ready to leave California. You’re like a rocket leaving one planet and heading for another, reaching the point where the gravity of the home planet has slackened and you’re only beginning to feel the pull of the other. The next big thing for us is selling our house in Austin and buying one in Bloomington, but until school is over next month all we can do is look at online listings, staring at tiny, poorly-lit, oddly-framed thumbnail images of houses and trying to imagine what it might be like to live in them. I love the ones where they take a picture of the TV, with the TV on. Imagine, you could be watching TV in this house!

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Sometimes they take pictures of pretty random things:

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And for some reason an unseemly number of Bloomington houses are disfigured by horrible fake-wood paneling or some even more inexplicable interior design decision:

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Kind of cool if you’re a big fan of Twin Peaks’ Dr. Jacoby, I guess.

Anyway, so now I’m walking around, inwardly enumerating the things about Austin I’ll miss. A couple of days ago my son’s piano teacher, Patches King, had her studio recital in an Italian restaurant called Romeo’s. What a great idea — everybody was relaxed (the fact you could have a glass of wine probably helped), convivial, happy — Nicholas played great, and my meatball-and-sausage pizza was exactly what I wanted, the pizza crust as a delivery device for a deep rich slathering of spicy meat and smoked cheese. (Think Frank Sinatra Italian, not Luciano Berio.) What could be better? I’ll miss Austin restaurants, to be honest, because while Bloomington has its charms (not least Mother Bear’s pizza, the most carnal pizza experience there is), it doesn’t have Austin’s food culture. The Mexican and tex-mex I eat elsewhere now seem but a feeble mockery of the real thing. No-one outside of Texas has the slightest notion of the Margarita. And let us not even begin to discuss BBQ.

And Patches, Nicholas’s piano teacher, is irreplaceable, and not only because she had the idea of doing her studio piano recital in a restaurant with fake grapes hanging from the rafters. My son has no idea how lucky he is. The main thing in playing an instrument is to start out well. I didn’t, and had crippling (literally) physical/technical playing problems it took me years to get rid of. It’s hard to find a piano teacher who can set a kid up well, and who also has a clue about how to treat kids. Patches manages somehow to find that elusive kid wavelength, talking to them in ways they understand and respond to, while never talking down to them, either. She manages the trick of remaining patient and kind while at the same time never lowering the bar — which, as Jonathan pointed out, is really THE trick of teaching.

And one other thing. If I can be said to have a philosophy, a kind of personal crusade, it is to oppose everywhere the pernicious nonsense by which we make distinctions between style and content. The title of Virginia Postrel’s wonderful book The Substance of Style perfectly sums up my belief: style is substance. In writing, for example, people will treat ideas and prose as separable items, and will say stuff like “well, I just wanted to get my ideas out, I can work on the writing later.” But the ideas flow from the writing, and vice versa. If you treat ideas and their expression as totally different things you will end up with neither ideas nor expression. And this is the problem with a great deal of academic writing.

And likewise in piano pedagogy, many is the teacher who approaches technique — the physical business that goes into the depressing of keys — as somehow separate from musical sense. What makes Patches a truly great piano teacher is the fact that she never treats “expression” as something to be extruded into a mold of notes and rhythms, but rather approaches technical problems as musical ones. This may sound pretty hifalutin for a kid’s piano lesson, but there is no harder job in the world than teaching children to play a musical instrument, and no more important one, either. The ones who are good at it should get their propers, and it always seems a bit unfair that it’s usually the ones at the other end of the process, the ones that groom their students for the Queen Elizabeth Competition and whatnot, that get all the attention.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Interplanetary

  1. There’s a good analogy here with the often-false distinction between style and substance and the similarly often-false distinction between Composition and Orchestration. I do think there’s such a thing as a good idea poorly expressed or a bad idea well expressed, but the poor expression often interferes with the accurate communication of the idea, and pretty packaging can make bad ideas palatable. I’m talking about writing prose, there, but it carries over into composition. A beautiful melody orchestrated badly is still a beautiful melody in a sense, but it won’t be percieved that way except by a listener who can re-imagine it with a successful orchestration, i.e. re-orchestrating it in his mind. At the same time, I’m always struck by the fact that some music survives many different orchestrations while other music doesn’t. I the early days of computers with soundcards playing primitive FM synthesized MIDI, you’d often get a handful of sample files. The Bach pieces always sounded good and musical, but the Beethoven pieces always sounded awful.
    And finally, I’m thinking of my old composition teacher Davy Rakowski and his term OLAMBIC — “Orchestrated Like A Motherf***er, But It’s Crap.” I’ve heard plenty of music that seems to qualify, but I wonder if it’s fair to prioritize pitch content over orchestrational content in judging quality, especially since orchestration is inextricably linked to note content; and from an acoustics standpoint it’s a set of choices about which overtones to include and which to exclude which is another kind of pitch content.
    Anyway, thought-provoking. And congratulations on hitting the Job Market Jackpot 🙂 I hope you like Bloomington — good luck with the move.

  2. Lee says:

    I found Postrel’s book pretty interesting, and agreed with a lot of it, especially her argument for the inseperability of form and content.
    I also appreciated her take-down of the claim that stylistic distinction must always be about social competition (although it clearly sometimes is). Sometimes something just looks nice on its own terms. Evolutionary psychologists might claim that our sense of beauty is a byproduct of megasocial competition of a sort, but that doesn’t change the genuine experience of beauty on its own terms.
    My main objection to Postrel’s book is her frequent use of the term “democratic” to describe the market’s increasing awareness of aesthetics as a category. This seems to be a species of what Tom Frank calls “market populism,” equating cheap availability of goods and services on the market, and subsequent consumer choice, with democratic choice.
    Still, I think that her main point is quite valid and important to understand: the marginal force of aesthetics on the bottom line has clearly increased. Technology like 3-D “printing” will make it even more important. See this NYT article (if I had a few thousand dollars I might become a 3-D printing enthusiast myself):
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/05/business/05scan.html?pagewanted=1&8dpc&_r=1

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    Phil,
    I think your discussion of your son’s piano teacher, and of the relationship of technique and expression, is quite wonderful. It really struck me that this is what I had somehow failed to get out of my church choir — that everything they sing, from the very first attempt, should be music. The expression, which I have worked so hard on, is not something they can add later. (I have often chided them for belonging to the “bricklaying school of music,” in which notes are just put in place like bricks in a wall, instead of making them into phrases.) This realization was quite powerful to me, and I talked about it at some length at our rehearsal last night. Unfortunately, that was likely my last rehearsal with the choir, which I am giving up after 20 years. Still, I know I have connected with a few of the singers, who have learned something over the years.
    Anyway, thanks for that insight. I understand both my own approach to music and what I have tried to do with the choir a little better today. –peter a.

  4. Peter Alexander says:

    p.s. I hope I’ll see you in Bloomington on one of my trips back. Meet you at Mama Bears?

  5. Roxanne Rieske says:

    It’s been YEARS since I’ve been to Bloomington. I grew up about 22 miles east of Indianapolis, and have only been to Bloomington a handful of times. I saw The Nutcracker for the first time at the University (which was er..85-86 somewhere around there). A friend of the family, Tammy Rhodes, was dancing the part of Clara for that years production. I remember it so clearly because it was the first time I ever saw an Orchestra play. I remember being completely awed by everything (but that’s not difficult for a 10 year old).

  6. ECG says:

    Ah, Felipe. Once again the nail’s head smarts from the ringing blow with which you done struck it: as a dance accompanist, little drives me battier than the ubiquitous segregation in the dance studio between ‘artistry’ (or whatever they choose to call it on any given day) and ‘technique’. It’s especially pernicious in the ballet world, and goes some ways towards explaining the negative light in which it’s so easy to view the so-called training that too many ballet dancers receive. It makes me CRAZY, I tell you (probably JB would agree — ). Kudos on the J.O.B., even if it makes me yak with envy (but so much does, these days).

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