‘The Student Conductor’ masterfully merges politics, history, fiction, and musical reality

By Ande Jacobson

Robert Ford isn’t exactly a household name, and it’s been over a decade since he published his first (and seemingly only) novel. He went on to write several award-winning one-act and full-length plays that have been produced both in the U.S. and in Europe, but his novel remains a unique work. The Student Conductor was first published in the U.S. in 2003 with subsequent editions in Europe and Australia. It gives readers a look into Ford’s imagination as he conjures up plenty of intrigue and heart. He also guides readers deep into the magical world of classical music giving them an idea of just what it takes to become a professional symphony conductor. Continue reading

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‘Lord of the Flies’ reveals the savageness within us

By Ande Jacobson

A Theatre Near U tackles the stage adaptation of William Golding’s classic novel, Lord of the Flies, a story touching on timeless themes showing just how tenuous a thing civilization can be. Golding’s novel was published in 1954, a time of high tension in various parts of the world. He’s quoted as saying that writing this story was “like lamenting the lost childhood of the world.” He knew of whence he wrote having lived through both world wars, served in the Royal Navy in WWII, and spent several years as a schoolmaster. As such, he was well-versed in the fortitude and foibles of humanity overall, and of schoolboys in particular. Continue reading

FMT lets its Freak Flag fly!

By Ande Jacobson

This summer, Foothill Music Theatre (FMT) shows its heart with its rendition of Shrek The Musical. The show is based on the animated DreamWorks film, Shrek, and it puts all of the magic and message of the film live on stage. The musical version (with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori) debuted on Broadway in 2008 and in London in 2011. Since then, the show continues to be a family-friendly audience favorite as it now makes the rounds in regional and community theatres.

The story is, in broad strokes, a sassy mashup of traditional fairy tales mixed with some current events. Its well-known Freak Flag anthem packs a powerful, positive message about celebrating one’s uniqueness. The lively story turns the traditional boy meets girl theme on its head with a clever twist and sends audiences home in high spirits. Continue reading

The piano: the principal prelude to musical prowess

By Ande Jacobson

There is no question that music touches us deeply. There are also myriad studies showing the cognitive benefits of listening, but there are even more benefits when actively participating in making music. For the purposes of this discussion, the assumption is that the reader, for whatever reason, is now intent on learning to play a musical instrument. Whether their goal is personal or professional, an initial instrument must be chosen, i.e., they have to start somewhere. This commentary proposes that the piano be that starting point.

There can be many goals such as:

  • Mastering the piano and all of its intricacies;
  • Composing music;
  • Playing the guitar, or bass, or drums in a rock band;
  • Playing the violin, or cello, or bassoon in a symphony orchestra;
  • Playing the clarinet or trumpet in a wind band;
  • Playing the saxophone or trombone in a jazz band;
  • Conducting a band or an orchestra;
  • Teaching music;
  • Becoming a music therapist;
  • Developing more tools for connecting with family and friends;
  • Mastering one’s voice for the theater, the opera, or that rock combo.

No matter the goal, the piano is still the best prelude for all of it. It can take a lifetime to master the piano (if one ever truly does). Even when one studies it as a stepping stone to any other musical endeavor, the foundation that piano study helps to build makes everything else much easier to learn.

Piano study gives all budding musicians a head start on reading music, no matter their ultimate instrument choice. Besides basic note reading, a student learns to read two clefs (treble and bass) simultaneously while often playing multiple notes with each hand. Those same clefs are used by many other instruments, and playing a piano provides excellent physical and cognitive exercise. The cognitive benefits are increased when this is combined with reading music rather than strictly playing by ear because of the language processing involved.

Even for the few instruments that might use a different clef (e.g., the viola which uses an alto clef, or the cello, trombone, or bassoon which sometimes use the tenor clef), once a player can read two, it’s all that much easier to pick up another. Unlike most other instruments, when learning to read music on a piano or other keyboard, the player can read the notes on the page and then see how they are laid out on the keyboard while they are playing them. The relationships between the notes are directly mirrored on both the page and the instrument.

Once reading the notes, note values, and rhythms are mastered, it’s a fairly quick process to play some elementary pieces that sound quite good even though they are simple to play. Although it takes many years to master the subtleties of expression and technique and become a virtuoso on any instrument (about 10,000 hours of practice according to many studies), in beginning piano, the player only has to hit the right keys without worrying about breath control or the peculiarities of the instrument itself.

This is very different from playing a wind instrument where the embouchure (i.e., how one uses their mouth to blow the instrument), tonguing technique, breath control, and the quality and selection of the physical hardware all have direct impacts on one’s ability to make their instrument sound musical. Likewise, when playing a bowed stringed instrument like a violin, viola, or cello, in addition to the quality of the instrument itself, the pressure of the bow on the strings and the fingers on the fingerboard affect the quality of the sound such that many beginners produce very screechy noises early on. Even a guitar or banjo requires more than simply touching/striking a string to really make music.

In addition to the other idiosyncrasies of instruments other than the piano, the responsibility for intonation (i.e., playing in tune) is placed squarely on the player’s shoulders. A woodwind, brass, or string player must listen very closely to others around them and make subtle changes to their tuning while they are playing. This isn’t something a pianist has to do, or even could do if they wanted to. A piano is tuned by a trained technician, and its tuning is what it is when it is played. If the piano is out of tune, everyone else must tune to it, not the other way around.

When studying piano, it’s easy to pick up portions of music theory rather painlessly. The scales that define key signatures are also more quickly learned on the piano than on any other instrument because it’s so much easier to see the relationships directly on the keyboard while playing them. Intervals (i.e., the distance between the notes of a scale) are immediately visible both in the music and on the keyboard. This enables an eager piano student to gain an understanding of chord structures and key signatures. A pianist also gains an understanding of how certain sharps or flats appear in various key signatures based on the underlying scale’s starting note. Those sharps and flats are used to keep the intervals of the scale consistent for its type (such as maintaining a major or minor key). Additionally, it’s very easy to see the effects of accidentals on a keyboard, i.e., raising (sharping) and lowering (flatting) tones in general, whether deviating from a set key signature, or just dealing with atonal music that has no specific key/scale behind it. A fair amount of contemporary classical music falls into the atonal category.

It’s certainly possible for some players to play an instrument (including the piano) almost entirely “by ear” (i.e., without written music), but that would eliminate a large portion of ensemble (i.e., group) participation outside of improvisational settings. It would also limit their ability to personally play a large portion of music as the composers intended it to be played.

Another very positive aspect of having a piano foundation is that it can be a solo instrument giving a complete picture of various musical works. Many other instruments can play alone, but while there is some appeal and literature for unaccompanied “non-piano” instruments, those instances are more limited than they are for piano. For many works, a single woodwind, brass, or stringed instrument wouldn’t have the needed depth, and other parts would be necessary to make them sound complete. A piano (or keyboard) can be played alone, or in combination in far more settings, and in that, it’s the most versatile of instruments.

Regardless of one’s final goal, the basics of reading written music and the theory behind its structure are completely transferable. When learning a new instrument (even voice), a strong piano foundation allows a player to focus on the mechanics of that new instrument because they’ll already know the language of music.

Speaking from experience, studying the piano first made it far easier for me to learn the clarinet, saxophone, flute, and trumpet later on. The early stages on each new instrument always went very quickly. The reason that learning many other instruments later was so much easier in the beginning was that I already knew how to read, but more importantly, I only had to play one note at a time on a wind instrument.

Having a piano foundation also made learning vocal parts much easier. I could accompany myself (slowly), but more importantly, I could play the vocal parts on the piano to help myself learn them when the situation arose. Playing the piano doesn’t do anything for learning the words though. Memorizing lyrics is a completely different endeavor, but the piano is extremely helpful for learning melody or harmony, and those always come far easier for me when I play them on the piano first.

Another side benefit of having some piano in my background is social. At times, it helps in connecting with family and friends.

Over time, look for an upcoming series on my personal, magical, musical journey. Until then, if you’re just starting out, consider making the piano your own principal prelude to musical prowess.

References and additional information:
Piano For Dummies
Music Theory For Dummies
Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises, Complete (Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, Vol. 925)
Czerny: The School of Velocity, Opus 299 for the Piano
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

Why care about classical music?

By Ande Jacobson

Many years ago when I was still married, my husband asked me if I would have become a musician if my parents hadn’t played instruments. I told him that there was no way to know for sure if my study and lifelong affinity for music would have happened had I not had my early childhood exposure. That answer surprised him a bit. He knew that I grew up with music as a very important part of our family life, a subject I wrote about in my book, Remembering Mom and Dad, in the story entitled Music in the House. He also frequently had to put up with my practicing various instruments for my numerous musical endeavors.

After taking a music appreciation college course and dabbling with the piano for the first time, he decided that wasn’t for him. Still, he wanted to learn to play an instrument in self-defense, although he was careful to select something I didn’t play (I play the woodwinds shown above for public consumption along with piano and trumpet for my ears only). He didn’t have any musical training other than that very brief introduction in his music appreciation course, so he found a teacher and started from scratch learning classical guitar. Continue reading

Take a farcical romp back to high school

By Ande Jacobson

A Theatre Near U is presenting another Tony Kienitz world premiere, this time taking a farcical trip down memory lane back to the all-important crises of high school. His latest work, Like, Like, Like?, presents a unique view of high school to which audience members of all ages can relate. For those whose high school years are viewed from a distance through the rear-view mirror of their life, this presentation will likely trigger a bit of nostalgia. For those in the midst of their high school years, these young actors may embody a view of their friends with a level of familiarity. And for those eagerly awaiting to start high school, the characterizations may show them that they have nothing to fear and plenty to savor. Continue reading

Hershey Felder conjures an incredible portrait of ‘Beethoven’ at TheatreWorks

By Ande Jacobson

We have all heard his music. Ludwig van Beethoven, famous for his nine symphonies along with his ubiquitous piano compositions and other chamber works, is more than just the sum of his music. Hershey Felder is back on the TheatreWorks stage telling the fascinating story of Beethoven’s life from the perspectives of both Gerhard von Breuning and the maestro himself. Hershey Felder, Beethoven, with text by Hershey Felder, is based on Dr. Gerhard von Breuning’s personal recollections published in 1874 in “Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus.” Felder’s presentation, punctuated by his piano virtuosity, is absolutely stunning. Continue reading

Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 1: Common Myths

By Ande Jacobson

In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari discusses several thought-provoking aspects of human history. One of the most fascinating and far reaching developments is what he describes as “common myths.” He gives the following introductory description of this concept in his discussion of key developments from the Cognitive Revolution:

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. … States are rooted in common national myths. … Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. ….

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Based on his description, all of the vagaries and debates that philosophers have waged since the Cognitive Revolution occurred can be chalked up to fiction. In the modern world beyond the list above, organizational constructs such as corporations would also qualify as common myths that are accepted by our collective imaginations. Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where we might be going

By Ande Jacobson

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, was first published in the U.S. in 2015, and it took the country by storm. It quickly became a New York Times best seller and is used in numerous history courses around the country. Great Britain saw its English language release a year earlier in 2014, but the author’s countrymen saw it first published in his native Hebrew a few years before that in 2011. Beyond that, the book has been translated into over thirty languages worldwide, and at least the American English version is credited as being translated by Harari, with help from John Purcell and Haim Watzman. Why did Sapiens:… make such a splash around the world? It tells a fascinating story. Harari is an Israeli born historian and a tenured history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a passion for how every human endeavor affects history and the world. Continue reading

It’s time for ‘Pear Slices 2017’

By Ande Jacobson

For the 14th time, the Pear lovingly offers up eight new slices of theatre in the form of short, one-act plays (in reality more akin to a series of single scenes) that provide a full evening (or afternoon) of entertainment. What started as an experiment has become an annual event showcasing somewhere between six and nine new works, written by members of the Pear Playwrights Guild, and performed by a select troupe of actors assuming multiple roles throughout the presentation. This year’s Slices includes:

  • For Art’s Sake by Elyce Melmon
  • Stella Wind by Bridgette Dutta Portman
  • Mirror to Face by Leah Halper
  • Anasazi Breakdown by Douglas Rees
  • Deuce Cooper: The Bloomfield Case by Paul Braverman
  • Aboriginal by Susan Jackson
  • Meantime in Between Time by Leah Halper
  • Proposal by Max Gutmann

Continue reading