Behind the scenes in music

Music Teacher’s Positive Influence – Chapter 1

Hi, welcome to the first of many blog posts for Piano Dance. The purpose of these articles is to enhance your interest in the stories featured in my book, by providing more of the interesting “behind the scenes” information. If you have not yet read Piano Dance, I recommend reading the book before reading these posts. They will make a lot more sense if you have the background of the original stories. You do not need to finish the entire book before reading these articles. You could read each article here after reading the designated chapter, as each article will relate to the theme of that chapter in the book. For example, this article will tell a little more about my music teacher’s positive influence, related to Chapter One. After all the chapters of the book are embellished, I will post new stories that were not completed in time for publication of the book.

Music Teacher’s Surprising Skill

Our first story, of course, will be about Mr. Grubb, the subject of chapter one. Mr. Grubb was the product of an era long before our present day; a time that was much more formal. He always wore a black suit with a white shirt and tie for the lessons that he taught, and he always taught in an imposing manner with his deep bass voice. It surprised me, then, when he invited me to a Sunday afternoon party at his house in southern Delaware. A number of musicians and poets were there, having fun playing four hand piano, improvising uptempo jazz and ragtime music. One time, Mr. Grubb played the treble hands while Ronny Davis, the poet laureate of  Delaware played the bass. People were laughing and applauding as they finished. As Mr. Grubb got up from the piano, he noticed my astounded expression at seeing a playful side of him that I had never seen. In answer to my expression, he came over to me, leaned over, and said very slowly and distinctly in his deep, resonant voice, “The sign of a misspent youth.”

Mr. Grubb’s Music Composition

For years, Mr. Grubb had been working on an opera. Ronny Davis had written a libretto and Mr. Grubb was working on the music. They completed one beautiful aria for the soprano lead, and Mr. Grubb had my mother sing it at a recital at the Wilmington Music School. Mr. Grubb was concerned that the melody might be stolen if there were a recording, so he had me turn off the tape recorder just before Mom sang the aria, and turn it back on for the rest of the recital. As a result, we have a recording of all the rest of the recital, but not the most beautiful part.

 

Years later, when I visited Mr. Grubb at his retirement home in Camden, Maine, he was still working on the opera, although Ronny Davis had already passed on. Mr. Grubb was not making much headway, as writing did not come easily for him. He died a few years later, and I never heard what became of the opera score. I suspected that it was just lost in a pile of other paperwork. For years I thought that was a sad ending, but not when I got older. As I aged, I discovered that life is not like a short story that gets tidied up with a bow at the end. At this later stage of life, the process is more important than the result. It is very useful for a senior citizen to always have a project to work on. That way, one is always involved more with living than with dying. Mr. Grubb had a happy and productive life, and he always had the satisfaction of being engaged in a creative endeavor.

My Music Teacher’s Positive Influence

Many years later, I received all my mother’s music after she passed away. As I went through the many pieces, I found a handwritten copy of Mr. Grubb’s aria, “If Love be Sin”. I was delighted, because I thought it had been lost. Mr. Grubb had inscribed it to my mother, saying,”Odessa (Delaware) – March 23, 1966. Dear Winnie: It is my hope you enjoy this as much as the writer – LWG.”

 

I played through it on the piano, and it is as beautiful as I remembered. I don’t know what to do with it, so for now it is in a small pile of music on my piano, and I play it for myself from time to time, remembering two wonderful musicians who made an outstanding contribution to the amount of joy in my life.

 

I do not have a recording of the aria, but you can get a sense of the beauty and extraordinary range of my mother’s voice on this recording of O Holy Night from a New York radio broadcast from the 1940’s. There is some wavering of the tone due to the warping of the 78 rpm record. After playing the recording, just push the back button to return to this page. LINK.

 

 

 

Piano Tuning School and the Vendome Fire – Chapter 2

Hi, this is the second blog post giving background information about the stories in Piano Dance. Chapter 2 discussed learning piano tuning at North Bennet School, the Vendome fire, and the Boston Pops’ performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. While I was in piano tuning school, my hope was simply to be able to make a living by tuning pianos in homes. I did not realize that I was getting the premier education in the piano technology field, so that I could tune for major symphony orchestras and famous performers. When I heard the concert led by Arthur Fiedler of Copland’s music, it did not occur to me that I might someday cross paths with not just one, both both of them (Chapters 8 and 9).

North Bennet School

In 1972, North Bennet Street Industrial School occupied its original 19th century building next door to Old North Church in the North End of Boston. Thousands of tourist walked by it every year without giving it a second thought. By 2013, North Bennet had rightfully gained the reputation and financial backing it deserved, so that it could purchase two new buildings that were up-to-date for all the instruction that was offered. For a link to read of the present day school, click HERE.

The Vendome Fire

For more information about the history of the Vendome and the tragic fire, click HERE.

Registered Piano Technician

In this chapter, I introduced the importance of having a certified person to work on your piano. For a link to the Piano Technicians Guild website and their explanation of the certification test, click HERE.

The Hatch Shell

For a link for more information about the Hatch Shell, where outdoor concerts are held near the Charles River in Boston, click HERE:

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture

According to KUSC, in 1974 Arthur Fiedler was the first conductor to perform the 1812 Overture on July 4th with canons and church bells. I highly recommend the video of the 1812 Overture performed in Boston on July 4th with cannons. Please click HERE.

Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man

 

For a link to listen Fanfare for the Common Man, click HERE.

I hope you enjoyed all this extra information. I enjoy listening to the music every time.

 

 

The Most Skillful and Sensitive Choral Conductor – Chapter 3

This article is about Alfred Nash Patterson, director of the Chorus Pro Musica (CPM) of Boston. He is the reason Serge Koussevitsky, director of the Boston Symphony, called CPM the best chorus he had ever heard. Mr. Patterson had a unique talent for working with a chorus to  create the greatest beauty of sound possible. It was a privilege for me to be part of it and watch him work. For decades CPM was the favorite chorus of Boston Symphony Orchestra conductors. CPM has a website which has greater depth of details about Patterson’s talent and the history of the chorus. It makes for fascinating reading at this LINK.

 

At that link, you can read of the next conductor of the chorus, Don Palumbo, who eventually became the Chorus Master at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. In addition to his studies all over the world, Don also was the assistant conductor of the chorus for years and watched Mr. Patterson work his magic with a chorus.

 

At the end of the story, I told of Don conducting parts of the Mozart Requiem at Patterson’s funeral. One of the important parts of that event was a poem in the program. It was written by the poet Jean Kefferstan, a good friend of Mr. Patterson. I searched for a descendant of hers in order to get permission to use the poem in my book, but I was unsuccessful. Copyrights cannot be infringed upon for poems, so I was careful not to print the poem in the book. If a descendant of Jean’s reads this, I hope you will not mind my writing here my recollection of part of the poem:

There is some solace in tides,

the gently rolling in and out.

It gives some comfort that a little boat

may carry this sleeper with his good dream

To his everlasting peace.

 

Flying Pianos – Chapter 4

The chapter about flying pianos needs only videos to complete the story of how to have fun with pianos. There are a number of videos available from YouTube now, but lately I have not been able to find the original video of the first piano drop. If you find it, please send me a link. I have a contact page on the website HERE.

 

Here is one video that has links to several drops over a few years:  CONNECT

 

I hope you enjoy these.

The Finest Piano Tuner – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 told some of the story of Barry, an exceptional tuner I worked with at the piano store in downtown Boston. I told of one incident when I followed up on a tuning by Barry at a radio studio. Another time that I got to follow up on one of Barry’s tunings was at New England Life Hall.  Barry had tuned a grand piano for a recital of the students of a prominent teacher. When he finished tuning, he started to leave.  The teacher admonished him, saying, “Don’t leave yet, I haven’t checked the tuning.”

 

Barry replied, “You can check the tuning all you want.  I’m leaving.”

 

The teacher was so irate on the phone to the owner of the store that the owner sent two of us out to placate her.  I was along for show and for training.  Bart, the head technician, was instructing me in how to deal with difficult and demanding people.  He instructed me to watch how calm he remained and how he did whatever they requested.  They were just asserting their authority and he beat them at their own game by never letting them get to him.  In his mind, by acting submissive, he ended up winning.  This teacher was complaining about a bass octave that Barry had tuned optimally.

 

Bart said to her, “I’ll just gradually change it, and you tell me when you like it.”  Barry had tuned that piano incredibly well.  I know it’s hard to understand, but usually it’s ludicrous for a musician to try to second-guess a great tuner.  If a piano is tuned badly, a musician can tell, but at the level Barry tuned, only a tuner would have the training to be able to check it accurately, and then not completely.  There are things that you could not tell without tuning it yourself to see if that was the best possible or whether it could be improved.  Because of the slight variation in manufacture and therefore in overtone pattern of strings, there are many times where you tune the best possible, and perfect is not possible.  You couldn’t tell that without tuning it yourself.  That is not something a musician is capable of.  Additionally, a musician does not have the technical training to separate the tuning from the tone, touch, inharmonicity, and overall sound of the instrument.  The musician either likes or dislikes the sound, they can’t differentiate whether it is the tuning or some other aspect of the piano that led them to dislike it.

 

There were numerous prominent musicians who did appreciate Barry’s work, though. One was Neil Young.  When he was in Boston for a concert, he rented a Steinway vertical piano for his hotel room, for practicing and for composing.  Barry was sent to tune that.  They got along so well that Neil invited Barry to go on tour with him, so he would always have a well-tuned piano.  Barry considered it, but concluded that it wouldn’t work for him.  His wife, his friends, and his singing group were all in Boston.  Plus, he knew how to get around Boston.  For him to be in new places all the time would be worse than sitting in the recording studio all day.  He would be bored to death sitting around most of the time, being unable to get around easily in a new place. Still, Barry did appreciate that a musician as great as Neil Young thought that highly of him and of his work.

Steinert Hall – A Lost Boston Landmark – Chapter 6

Chapter 6 told of Steinert Hall, an abandoned concert hall below street level in Boston, that I was able to explore in 1972. There are several videos now, so that you can get a sense of what it looks like. All of them have lighting, so it does not look near as spooky as the day we walked in with just a couple of flashlights.

 

Here is a link to a video that is fun to watch:

Video of Steinert Hall #2

 

I hope you enjoy it.

Gladys Troupin and George Gershwin – Chapter 7

Chapter 7 tells of tuning for Gladys Troupin, a fixture of the Boston music scene, and of her story of being engaged to George Gershwin at the time of his death. There is a new announcement put out by the Lenox Hotel about a tribute that was held for Gladys. Both the announcement and the video link it contains continue the story about the George Gershwin engagement:

TRIBUTE

That image in the announcement is of a later pianist. That is not how Gladys looked. I have not yet been able to find a picture of her with her white curly hair and beautiful dresses with matching hats.

Meeting Aaron Copland – Chapter 8

Chapter 8 talked about the experience of meeting Aaron Copland after hearing him conduct his composition, “Quiet City” at Tanglewood, on a summer evening. Tanglewood can be better appreciated by pictures than by verbal descriptions, so here is a LINK for seeing how beautiful a place it is.

 

People often would bring candelabras and elaborate lunches or dinners to spread on a blanket on the lawn before concerts. In the 1970’s, a very popular dish was borscht, a cold beet soup that was purchased at Alice’s Restaurant, made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song and movie.

 

“Quiet City” was discussed on an NPR program with portions of the piece played, and here is a LINK  to listen to that. The NPR program does not play the entire piece, so here is a LINK so you can listen to it in its entirety. If you don’t click on any other link in these blogs, this is the one to listen to. It is remarkably beautiful. You can hear the contrasting sonorities of the trumpet and English Horn throughout. As you listen, you might imagine it played outdoors on a beautiful summer evening in the Berkshire Mountains. I always do.

Thank you for your interest in beautiful music.

Christmas at Pops with Arthur Fiedler – Chapter 9

Arthur Fiedler was 80 years old when we performed with him in 1974 at Christmas at Pops with Arthur Fiedler. He lived only 5 years longer. Conducting three performances in two days would be a major feat for a much younger person. Here is a LINK to information about him.

Also, here is a LINK to some pictures of him as the POPS plays their signature piece, Sleigh Ride.

It was a privilege to have worked with him, and to have seen how he managed an orchestra, both in rehearsal and in performance.

 

 

The American Bicentennial Celebration – Chapter 10

Chapter ten told the story of the bus ride to the Boston Common for a concert of American music during the summer of 1976. We had all met at Symphony Hall, the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Symphony Hall was widely considered to be acoustically one the three best concert halls in the world, and the only one of the three in America. I thought you might like to read some of its history. HERE is a link.

The concert was held on the Boston Common, which also has a fascinating history, which you can read Here. I was never taught in school how Puritans treated any Quaker women found in their midst. Another interesting story was about the swamp on the Charles Street side. For years a debate raged regarding potential expense of filling it in, until the digging of the green line subway created a huge amount of dirt that was exactly what was needed.

There had been numerous other concerts of American music during that summer. The Chorus Pro Musica had performed several around the Boston area. One that was particularly memorable was an evening concert outdoors on a bluff overlooking Marblehead harbor. We had prepared especially difficult and challenging works by Charles Ives, a New England composer of the early 20th century. His biography is particularly interesting, and can be read HERE. His music was so difficult and so far ahead of its time, that it was rarely performed in his lifetime. The people who appreciated him most were other composers. Stravinsky, Mahler, and Schoenberg all praised his work. The members of the chorus were up to the challenge of performing Ives’ compositions and produced a beautiful and interesting concert of American music.

For me, I was surprised that performing several concerts like these during the bicentennial stimulated a greater sense of my own belonging as a participant in our national history.