Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thank you!

To the few loyal and responsive readers of this blog who annually contribute to its continuing, many thanks! 

The blog is important to me for several reasons: It is, as are all blogs, a place to rant and rave without editorial (or commercial - often the same thing) interference.  It is also a means for me, and hopefully for you, dear reader, to keep track of how complex this music thing is.  Just when you think you've got it, surprise!, a whole new area lights up.

This applies to teaching as well as to making music.  When I tire of either one I will become a professional potato masher - not that I have anything against either potatoes or those fortunate souls who get paid (!) for mashing them.

Everyone reading the blog thanks you who support it. 

An easy way to join them is at where a link takes you to Fractured Atlas, the arts-services non-profit which enables you to make a credit card tax-deductible gift. 

Thank you!

Origins of Rhythm

A member of the Music Theory Society raised the interesting and complicated question of what in a piece of music generates the beat.

It is far from a simple thing to observe.  There are people for whom the beat comes naturally and generally for them the difficulty comes when they want to alter the beat for some reason, to play as if improvising in a cadenza, for example.

But I believe that the most interesting and reliable source of a beat is the tone itself, or rather the tones themselves: As soon as there are two or more tones in play there is a hierarchy that the ear "invents" in response to their relatedness.  The result of this is the desire to hold one of the tones longer or make it stronger than the other(s).   Whether or not one has permission to do so is a function of the note value.  Wanting to hold a note that one must move away from is fraught with tension.

That tension is characteristic of the composed rhythm we encounter in classical repertoire, and that may include works written this morning.

Not paying attention to that tension is a sure-fire way to obliterate tone awareness, not for everyone, to be sure, but often for the most gifted children.  Alas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doors Opening

My brother, James Caballero, taught math for many years at Santa Monica High School, where he pioneered a math curriculum that not only incorporated computers but also, and more important, treated head-on the difference between thinking for yourself and having the illusion that a machine could do it for you. 

He has a quote in a newly released book of quotes about mathematics, one for every day of the year, by many notables including Richard Feynman, Winston Churchill, and so on.  His advice: "The day you decide not to take any more math courses listen carefully; you may hear a lot of doors closing."

I have thought about this, not that I know anything about studying math, but I do know about doors openings and closing.  In the arts it is a bit different than in organized academic pursuits, though musicians are trying like mad to get their art to conform to organized academia.  (All those Ph.D.s running around!  I call them PhuDs.) 

My solution: Make your own door. Start a non-profit.  Go for the source of the greatest energy you can find.  It's probably not on a campus anywhere.

Risk it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


A discussion is raging (well, maybe not raging) on the Music Theory Society chat line about appropriate models to use to teach various musical syntactical procedures.  One professor pointed out that students were likely to be more bored with a recording of  [famous pianist] playing Mozart than by a recording of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." 

Here we have a beautiful example of a fundamental flaw in our system of commercialized music:  Because Mozart is supposed to be all by itself better than Irving Berlin, less artistry is required in recording it, right?  Just put a famous name on the label, take out all the errors (read, life) and it will sell.   Lousy model.  Poor Wolfgang.

But for I. Berlin we will do everything we know how to do with mikes, with reverb: we will pull out all the recording stops to assure success and long life to the artifact that is the recording.

Apparently even musicians aren't aware of how much more sophistication/art goes into pop recording than into the classics.    Hello!!!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Notes are Taken Far Too Seriously

A refreshing Ph.D. in Music Theory, Isaac Malitz, actually has started posting on the Theory Society Chat Line about how notes furnish only one of what should ideally be several possible models for music.  He uses a model of his own devising that has to do with meaning.

Tonal Refraction is an alternative model that  does not pretend to model music but rather the experience of musical elements, an experience directly analogous to life, thus subject to infinite variability.

None of the terms of Tonal Refraction is fixed, not the colors, not the spatial aspects representable on the grid: everything is fleeting, subject to change depending on a multitude of ever-changing conditions, needs, etc.  Check out the website:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Too Often It's Just Notes

It should be the case from the very beginning of lessons that children (and adults!) learn to distinguish between notes and music.  You can play a lot of notes without making music and you can play a lot of music without playing "notes."

A lot of notes may be the composer's invitation to let go of inhibition and enjoy the ride, sometimes associated with drunkenness, as in Bach's Hunting Cantata, or in Schumann's Pieces in Folk Style for cello and piano, where the impossibly difficult double stops on the cello are a precise imitation of the kind of maudlin 3rds and 6ths that to this day drunks sing on the continent.....  Let go, people!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Run the Risk - Always

Contrary to what marching band leaders and other music teachers say whose livelihood depends on your obeying them, it is very often a better idea to not be together than to slavishly pound out correct beats all the time.

Last night my son and I hosted one of our periodic Bach cantata evenings: A whole slough of players showed up despite pouring rain with natural horns, oboes da caccia, flutes, strings, even a double bass which came all the way from Brooklyn!  I knew some, not all of the guests: some were friends of invited friends - the more the merrier. 

After thanking everyone for having the courage to show up at the home of a stranger in the company of who-knows-who to risk playing some of the most engaging music that exists to what standard (? ) who could say in advance....after thanking everyone I said merely that the purpose of the evening was not to emulate recordings of Bach but to have a blast.  Don't worry about right notes or wrong, beats or not, just get into it.

It was music that none of us knew except for the familiar aria, Sheep May Safely Graze.  At one moment, in response to a tenor struggling with some pretty florid tenor lines, one of the amateur players suggested we take a slower tempo.  "No, no!" responded an experienced professional, "that would ruin everything!?  So on we flew.  It was hilarious.

I dreamed about that aria all night and am still laughing.  From the Hunting Cantata, it was obviously (in hindsight) Mr. Hunter himself getting tossed about by his galloping steed.  I wouldn't have missed it for all the world.