9 Music Books to Read in 2015

 

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There are so many amazing books about music out there, and sadly, there’s not even a fraction of the time we would need to read them all.

So, while you’re prioritizing which music books to read this year, here’s a list of 9 to help you get started. They are some of my absolute favorites.

1  |  The Perfect Wrong Note

This is one of the best books I have ever read. At it’s core, it is an exposition of Beethoven’s “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” The author shows the importance of involving body and emotion (not just brain)  in the execution of a piece and teaches really practical ways to avoid tension and let your body follow its natural flow without sacrificing mental alertness. The goal is this: if you’re going to play a wrong note, play it well.

2  |  Music at Your Fingertips

This one is every bit as good as The Perfect Wrong Note, just in a very different way.  I appreciate so much about the advice in this book. The author is an experienced, international pianist, and she gives extremely practical advice on practicing, musicianship, memorization, developing finger control, preparing for performances, listening, teaching, sight-reading technique, selecting repertoire, and more, and it’s wonderful. This is NOT a how-to-play-the-piano-in-5-easy-steps kind of book. It’s about learning how to handle your instrument like an artist.
READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE.

Mini-Reviews for 9 Music Books to Read This Year. The Gift of Music. www.sfzMusicBlog.com #book #reviews #books #classical #music3  |  The Gift of Music

I have used this book so many times when studying composers.  Each of the 42 chapters is devoted to a composer and includes a quote, mini-bio, recommended reading list for further study, and recommended listening list.

As a musician, I appreciate the scholarship, history, and education in this book.  As a Christian, I appreciate the authors’ analysis of the composers’ lives, priorities, and standards. Using the recommended listening lists as a guide is a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with the great composers’ most known works. Definitely add it to your library!

4  |  Robert Schumann & Mascot Ziff

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be adorable. It’s a fantastic overview of Schumann’s life and musical career, and it gave me a greater appreciation for his work. It’s a kids’ book, true. But it’s great for adults and families, too.
READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE.

Robert Schumann & Mascot Ziff | #Composer #Biography #Review on The Music Blog. www.sfzMusicBlog.com #music #schumann #composers #books #classicalmusic

IMG_8990-25 | What Makes Music Work

This is the most comprehensive book presentation of basic music theory that I’ve read to date. Most “Introduction to Theory” books confuse even the most basic concepts by using the most technical and musically scientific terms possible. This book was radically different – simple, concise, and in plain language that beginners can understand. Music theory is only confusing if you make it so, and this book doesn’t.

This book is intended to be a informal course for beginners, though it does venture into some relatively intense theory by the last third of the book – particularly advanced chord structures, harmonization, and composition. These more advanced concepts are taught extremely well, but if it is confusing for the time being, lay that part aside for a while and come back to it when you have worked your way to that point.

6 | The Joy of Music

Actually, I recommend that you read half of this book. Specifically, these chapters:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
The World of Jazz
Introduction to Modern Music
The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach

These are a collection of scripts from various radio/television interviews the famous conductor / composer Leonard Bernstein gave over the course of his life. So, while half of the scripts are hard to appreciate because they lack the musical context that would have been present in the radio programs, the four chapter listed above are amazing. It’s extremely educational (Bernstein often jumps into conversations on chord structures, compositional forms, and stylistic specifics, complete with musical scores), but the conversational style of the chapters keeps it easy to understand.

Note: There are a few issues with the other chapters in this book, namely language and morally questionable operatic scenes.

7 | What to Listen for in Music

This book is a listener’s introduction to fundamental elements and forms of music, written by 20th-century composer Aaron Copland. First, he talks about what makes music: rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color, texture, and structure. Then he goes on to explain fundamental music forms: sectionals, variations, fugues, sonatas, free form, opera & drama, contemporary, and film scores.

It’s a great resource for music students and music enthusiasts. Although… if you’re an enthusiast, you’ll be a student by the end of the book. ;)

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8 | Glory & Honor: The Music & Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach

This is a unique biography because it is divided into three parts:

PART I is a great overview of Bach’s Life and Musical Career. It outlines the highlights of his career without getting bogged down on unnecessary details. And the best part? It’s interesting. It’s worth reading just this section if you’re short on time.

IMG_8902PART II is a close look at Bach’s Character. The author talks about his many strengths and a few of his weaknesses. This is the longest section and does feel lengthy if you’re trying to hurry through it. Still, if you take your time, it is interesting to get such a close look at the person of Bach.

PART III discusses Bach’s Legacy – the way his work affected classical music, history, and us. It really is incredible how great of an impact one person can have on so many other lives.

It’s a great book. I would NOT recommend trying to plow through this one, or it will feel dry. This book has a lot to offer, and it would be best to spread it over a month or two. Definitely a valuable book for Bach lovers.

IMG_89619 | Classical Music

This one is similar to The Gift of Music, only it is twice as thick, covers more composers, goes into greater depth, has fun Q & A boxes, gives more thorough listening lists, and is written from a secular perspective.

Classical Music covers 50 composers, and each with a detailed mini-biography. The author also gives four listening lists for each composer:

The Starter Kit (5 pieces)
A Top Ten (10 pieces)
A Master Collection (25 pieces)
A Beethoven Library (A LOT)

The author is a good writer and has a touch of humor to boot. It’s really an enjoyable book. I have not read all of way through this one, so I’m not able to comment on any problems that may present themselves in the later part of the book. However, the scholarship is excellent, and it is definitely a fabulous resource for musicians.

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I hope you are able to enjoy some of these wonderful books this year. If you read any, I would love to hear your thoughts on them!

 

 

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CLASSICAL MUSIC GIVEAWAY!

 

Giveaway 

One year ago today, The Music Blog said hello to the Internet!

In celebration of The Music Blog’s 1st Birthday, I’m giving away
3 of my favorite music resources:

Music At Your Fingertips, for musicians.
The Gift of Music, for music-lovers.
Great Composers Coloring Book, for the little ones.

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TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY…

…leave a comment and tell me which book you would like to win. I will choose 3 winners at random next Saturday, January 10th.

 Please Note: I am only able to ship to the continental US and Canada.

For Extra Entries in the Giveaway…

// For 3 extra entries       Like The Music Blog on Facebook.
// For 2 extra entries       Share the link to this giveaway on Facebook.
// For 2 extra entries       Follow my music profile (@teachlearnmusic) on Instagram
// For 1 extra entry          Regram my giveaway photo on Instagram
                                        with the hashtag #2015classicalmusicgiveaway
// For 1 extra entry          Tweet a link to this giveaway.
// For 1 extra entry          Pin this giveaway on Pinterest.
// For 1 extra entry          Share a link to this giveaway on Google +.
// For extra entry          Post about this giveaway on your Blog.
That means you can have up to 13 entries!  

Make sure to leave separate comments on this post for each entry you complete, or they won’t all count as extra entries! When you share the giveaway on Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Twitter, or a blog, be sure to include the link to your post in your comment below.

||  The give-away ends next Friday, January 9th at midnight CST.  ||
Winners will be selected and announced January 10th here on The Music Blog!
www.sfzMusicBlog.com


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Now, here’s a bit about each book…  Have fun choosing!

IMG_8629For Musicians | Music at Your Fingertips

Ah, my musical friends, I love this book. The author is experienced, extremely practical, and to-the-point. In this book she talks about productive practicing techniques, musicianship, memorization, developing finger control, preparing for performances, listening, teaching, sight-reading, and more, and it’s wonderful. This is NOT a How-to-Play-the-Piano-in-5-Easy-Steps kind of book. It’s about learning how to handle your instrument like an artist.  Read my full review here.

IMG_8615IMG_8635For Music Lovers | The Gift of Music

I have used this book SO. MANY. TIMES. when studying composers.  It features 42 composers, and each chapter includes a quote, mini-bio, recommended listening list, and recommended reading list for further study. As a musician, I appreciate the scholarship, history, and education in this book.  As a Christian, I appreciate the authors’ analysis of the composers’ lives, priorities, and standards.

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For Little Ones | Great Composers Coloring Book

I REALLY like this coloring book.  Each page has a illustration and a short description of the composer, so your little peeps can get to know the composer’s significance while becoming acquainted with his face.  The Illustrations are classic, and the descriptions (50-70 words each) do a great job sharing the most important aspects of the composers’ lives and work, along with a few fun music history tidbits to boot – a great way to spark your little ones’ interest in music history!
Read my full review here.

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Have fun, friends! :)

What to Bring if You’re Playing at a Wedding: A Checklist for Musicians

 

What to Bring if You're Playing at a Wedding. A checklist for musicians on The Music Blog. www.sfzmusicblog.com #wedding #music #musician #tips

 

You’re playing at a wedding – you’ve learned the wedding music, and now you’re thinking about what you need to bring.

That’s a good plan, since you certainly don’t want to show up and realize you overlooked an important item. Or two. Or three.

Here are a few things that have become my regular “wedding bring-alongs” over the years.  You will be able to expand the list with more items specific to your needs, but these basics will help get your list started. 

 

INSTRUMENT ACCESSORIES

It wouldn’t do well to show up with your violin only to realize that you left your shoulder rest and rosin at home.  Make sure you have all the accessories your instrument needs safely packed the night before so you don’t forget any items in the last-minute rush out the door.

Note to String Players:  Always remember to pack at least one extra set of strings!

SHEET MUSIC

Make copies of all of the pieces you will need for the wedding and insert them into a 3-ring binder in the order you will play them.  Wedding ceremonies are fast-paced, and you don’t want to lose time shuffling around for the right book for the next song.

MUSIC STAND

Even if the location says they have plenty of stands, bring one anyway. Theirs might end up being squeaky, rusty, unadjustable, or… lost.  Always take extra precautions when you can so you’ll be prepared if others make mistakes.

PRINTED ORDER OF CEREMONY

Ask the wedding coordinator for the order of ceremony ahead of time so you can know the exact order of events before you show up.  Print it out and put it in the binder with your wedding music so it will be easy to find once you get there.

TUNER

If you’re playing an instrument that requires regular tuning (violin, cello, flute, trumpet) and won’t be playing with piano accompaniment, bring a tuner.  It’s best not to rely on their piano being in tune, ’cause you never know…

PENCILS

Lots and lots of pencils. With erasers. If the wedding coordinator gives you any last-minute instructions or schedule changes, you’ll want something more reliable than your memory to count on.  Grab your pencil and write it down in that faithful 3-ring binder!

PAPER CLIPS OR TAPE

This one’s actually really important.  Why? Because I once watched a poor pianist at an outdoor wedding try desperately to bumble her way through Canon in D while her sheet music twirled all over the lawn with someone chasing after it like a maniac. So. Bring something you can use to fasten your music to your stand, even if it’s an indoor wedding – AC drafts play tricks sometimes, too!

MOISTURE-ABSORBING CLOTH

Moist hands, spills, cleaning your instrument, etc… There are a number of reasons this might come in handy.

WEDDING COORDINATOR’S PHONE NUMBER

Keep her number at all times in case of last-minute questions or emergencies.

PRINTED ADDRESS & DIRECTIONS

Yes, printed. It’s great to have it on your phone (isn’t GPS handy?!), but phones are electronic. Things happen to them. They die, crash, and go berserk. ALWAYS have a back-up copy of the address and directions on paper. Cause guess what? If your phone dies and the directions, address, AND the wedding coordinator’s number are all inside… Well, yeah.  Not good.

CELL PHONE

All that being said… make sure you have your phone!  The wedding coordinator needs access to you at all times on the wedding day should anything come up.

COMFORTABLE CLOTHES & SHOES

Take a little walk around the house. Move your arms around like you’re playing your instrument. Make sure your shoes are comfortable and that your clothes allow your arms and body the full range of motion you will need.

WATER

If you get thirsty during the ceremony, it’s a plum bad idea to go hunting for a drink of water.  Pack a bottle or two of water, just in case. (A contained snack – like a granola bar – wouldn’t be a bad idea either, depending on the time of day.)

 

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Aaaand of course you’ll probably want to bring your instrument.  If this one isn’t obvious, you might want to reconsider be playing for that wedding…

#pianosexcepted

;)

Above all…

…take the time to make your own list and to pack everything well ahead of time so nothing is forgotten.

Have fun at the wedding!  I hope it goes well.

Can you think of any other items to add?  Add your ideas to the list in the comments below!

 

My Summer / Fall Repertoire Challenge

 

Summer Fall Piano Challenge on The Music Blog  www.sfzmusicblog.com

 

Alright, guys.  There’s a stack of piano repertoire I’ve been intending to knock out for a few years now and just haven’t gotten around to.  (Can anyone else relate?)

So I decided to issue a repertoire challenge for myself to take on this summer & fall. And, just so I’ll take myself seriously, I’m gonna make it official with a repertoire liszt!

I mean list.  *cough*

I’ve divided my list into two sections.

    1. Pieces to learn for the first time.
    2. Pieces I have learned in the past and need to bring back.

Many of them are easy classics – like Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata mvt. 1, and Brahms’ Waltz in A-flat (you know, the lullaby one) – that I never got around to perfecting but really should… at least if I’m going to call myself a real classical pianist.  ;D   There are hard ones, too, like Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in c# minor, Mozart’s a minor Sonata K. 310, and a couple of Chopin’s etudes.

Then there are doozies like Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau and Liszt’s La Campanella.  Oi.

 

L'Alouette - The Lark - by Glinka  www.sfzmusicblog.com  #classical #piano #music
L’Alouette “The Lark” (Glinka)

 

Beethoven Pathetique Sonata www.sfzmusicblog.com  #classical #piano #music
Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 13 “Pathetique”, Mvt. I

 

Jeux d'Eau by Ravel  www.sfzmusicblog.com  #classical #piano #music
Jeux d’Eau (Ravel)

Here’s the complete run-down:

 

LEARN ||

Goal: 12
Current Progress: 12/12

Scarlatti                Sonata K. 141 (12/22)
Bach                     Fugue No. 2 in c minor (11/23)
Clementi               Sonata in D Major, Op. 4, No. 1, Mvt. 1 (12/27)
Beethoven            Fur Elise (8/30)
Schubert               Impromptu Op. 90, No. 2
Brahms                 Waltz in Ab, Op. 59, No.15 (7/25)
Chopin                  Etude Op. 10, No. 2 “Revolutionary”
Chopin                  Fantasie-Impromptu
Chopin                  Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 in Eb (12/31)
Chopin                  Waltz Op. 69, No. 1 “L’adieu”
Chopin                  Waltz Op. 69, No. 2 (12/30) 
Greig                    Arietta, Op. 12, No. 1 (12/13)
Dvorak                  Humoresque, Op. 102, No.7 (11/25)
Glinka                   L’Alouette “The Lark”
Granados             The May Song, Op. 1, No. 3 (12/14)
Debussy               Arabesque 1 (9/10)
Debussy               Clair de Lune
Debussy               Golliwog’s Cakewalk
Ravel                    Jeux d’Eau
Tauriello               Toccata

RE-LEARN ||

Goal: 12
Current Progress: 12/12

Bach                     Italian Concerto, Mvt. 1 (10/3)
Bach                     Italian Concerto, Mvt. 3
Bach                     Prelude No. 2 in c minor
Bach                     Prelude No. 6 in d minor (12/19)
Mozart                  Fantasy in d minor, K. 397 (8/27)
Mozart                  Sonata K. 310, Mvt. 1 in a minor (12/31)
Mozart                  Sonata K. 331, Mvt. 3, “Alla Turca” (7/30)
Beethoven            Sonata Op. 13 “Pathetique”, Mvt. 1 (12/20)
Beethoven            Sonata Op. 13 “Pathetique”, Mvt. 2 (11/15)
Beethoven            Sonata Op. 13 “Pathetique”, Mvt. 3
Beethoven            Sonata Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”, Mvt. 1 (8/18)
Chopin                  Nocturne in c# minor (8/25)
Greig                    Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (12/27)
Liszt                      La Campanella
Pieczonka             Tarantella in a minor (9/3)
Joplin                    Magnetic Rag
Joplin                    Maple Leaf Rag (9/24)

 

My goal is to have 12 pieces from each list learned and performance-ready by Christmas.  Basically, that translates into four pieces a month between now and the end of the year.

Ambitious?  Probably.  (read: “Oh, my mad graciousness, what am I thinking?!?”)  I mean, I have an 11-week-old, people.

But it’s worth a try, right?  :D

I’ll update this post at the end of each month with my progress to keep myself accountable.

Summer Fall Piano Challenge on The Music Blog www.sfzmusicblog.com

So that’s it!  My Summer / Fall Repertoire Challenge.

I’ll be posting 15-second clips of me playing pieces off of my list over on my music instagram page every week.  Go check out my page and follow me if you haven’t already!

So tell me, what are y’all working on this summer?

 

Go LIKE The Music Blog on Facebook for fun music reviews, tips, & freebies! 

 

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Advice to Young Musicians: Book Review & Free eBook

Advice to Young Musicians  |  Review & Free eBook  on  The Music Blog

 

Title:            Advice to Young Musicians
Author:        Robert Schumann
Pages:         48
Reading Level: Young Adult – Adult
Audience:   Students, Teachers, Families
Stars:           ★★★

 

Robert Schumann’s collection of piano compositions, Album for the Young, is well-loved, and thousands of young musicians have played his charming pieces.  But not very many know that he wrote a tiny book of words, too, called Advice to Young Musicians.

Advice to Young Musicians is a classic wit-and-wisdom-style book.  It’s not written in chapters, or even paragraphs, but in sixty-eight short music “proverbs” containing what Robert Schumann considered to be the most important advice he could give to a young musician.

Like most wit-and-wisdom books, some of the proverbs are better than others, and not every proverb is profound.  But the book is enjoyable, and much of the advice is profitable for musicians on a variety of levels.

Here is a sample of the content ~

 

52.  Do not judge of a composition on a first hearing; what pleases you in the first moment is not always the best.

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31.  If all would play first violin, we could get no orchestra together.  Respect each musician, therefore, in his place.

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11.  You must not only be able to play your little pieces with the fingers; you must be able to hum them over without a piano.  Sharpen your imagination so that you may fix in your mind not only the melody of a composition, but also the harmony belonging to it.

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22.  You should neither play poor compositions, nor even listen to them, if you are not obliged to.

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39.  The study of the history of music, supported by the actual hearing of the master compositions of the different epochs, is the shortest way to cure you of self-esteem and vanity.

 

It’s a short little book – one you can read cover-to-cover in about 15 minutes.

To get the most out of it, though, reading it all at once isn’t the best plan.  Instead, pick one good quote at a time and make it your musical motto for the day – or the week! This way you’ll be able to focus on internalizing and applying the very best pieces of advice, instead of just reading straight through all of them at once.

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NOTE:  Advice to Young Musicians is a book for “young musicians”, not “young children”.  It is written in older English, so some of the language can be a bit challenging for our modern phrasing and vocabulary.  This isn’t a criticism of the book, just a clarification.

If you would like your young child to benefit from the book, try reading it aloud to them in small portions, offering explanations and application along the way.[/box]

It’s always fun to add a book by one of the great composers to your music library.  You can get your own copy of Advice to Young Musicians from Amazon HERE, or if you like, you can READ THE BOOK FOR FREE here!




Masterpiece: 400 Years of Classical Music in 12 Minutes

If you’ve never heard The King’s Singers’ performance of “Masterpiece”, you’re in for a serious treat!

This vocal piece summarizes the development of western classical music over the last 400 years in 12 minutes.  It highlights some of the most influential composers and demonstrates their individual styles while singing the composer’s name or their most-used musical elements.  It’s a brilliant composition, and talk about a fun performance!  
(Note: the singing starts 30 seconds into the video.)

 –

Here’s a break-down of the composers featured in the piece:

0:30      Johann Sebastian Bach
1:29      J.S. Bach vs. His Sons
2:30      George Frederic Handel
3:30      W.A. Mozart
4:43      Ludwig van Beethoven
6:25      Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
7:05      Strauss Family
8:44      Claude Debussy (Impressionistic Composer)
10:01    Richard Wagner (Wagner was known for his drama; thus the outburst.)
10:15    Assorted Composers in Impressionistic Style
10:22    Back to Wagner
10:46    Assorted Composers in Impressionistic/20th Century Style
11:10    William Bird
11:23    John Cage (Ever heard his 4:33?)
11:27    Assorted Contemporary
11:35    George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blues)
11:44    Back to J.S. Bach

This is a fun resource for studying music history and composers’ styles.   So enjoy it and share it with your friends, family, and music students!  They’ll love it.

 

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Music At Your Fingertips: Review

 

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Title:         Music At Your Fingertips
Author:     Ruth Slenczynska
Pages:      162
Reading Level:  Adult
Audience:     Students & Teachers
Star Rating:  ★★★★★

 

I appreciate so much about the advice in this book, but I think it all boils down to these three things:  It’s experienced, practical, and to-the-point.

Ruth_Slenczynska_PianistExperienced

Ruth Slenczynska has spent the greater portion of her life at the piano.  She started studying at age three, made her debut performance in Berlin at age six, and performed in Paris with a full orchestra by age 11.  She spent her following years performing around the world and studying with renowned musicians, including the iconic pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.  So when she writes about the piano, she isn’t writing dreamed-up ideas of an experienced-pianist wannabe.  She is a real expert, and her writing shows it.  She talks about tried-and-true exercises, and techniques that helped her to develop her strengths and master her weaknesses at the piano, and they work!

 

Practical

So practical.  The subtitle of the book is “Advice for the Artist and Amateur on Playing the Piano”, and it’s true.  Ruth Slenczynska is a concert artist, but these sixteen chapters are full of discussions that are every bit as valuable for student musicians as for world-touring professionals – principles and tips for practice, musicianship, memorization, developing finger control, preparing for performances, listening, teaching, mastering technique, selecting repertoire, and quite a bit more.

Consider this paragraph on mastering difficult passages:

[quote]There is no passage so difficult that it would not be possible to find a metronome speed slow enough to play it comfortably.  Technical problems are controlled by the mind.  We must train the mind before we train our hands… which we achieve by working at a slow tempo.  Forcing speed too soon is like forcing a child to walk before he is ready.  You make no progress, and you can jeopardize the equilibrium and control you may have acquired.  [/quote]

And these rules on developing a defined, expressive melody:

[quote]A melody without direction becomes purposeless.  Here are three basic rules:

  1. Concentrate for the full length of the musical line, with out interruption.
  2. Determine the mood to be expressed and make every detail point toward it.
  3. Find the focal point or climax of a phrase or section in order to give direction to your musical thought.[/quote]

And this tip on working towards a performance tempo:

[quote]…Always aim at a faster tempo than [you] will need.  In performance it should never be necessary to use your ability to the limits; there should always be a margin of reserve. [/quote]

This is advice that you can read, take to the piano, and immediately apply.  I love books like that.  And while it’s true that her instruction is addressed to pianists, the majority of the principles can be easily and effectively applied to other instruments as well.

 

To-The-Point

The author doesn’t waste time or space.  Most of the chapters are 8-12 pages – the perfect bite-size bits to chew on. No worrying about getting bogged down in the middle of a forty-page chapter!  The chapters are relatively disconnected from one another in subject, but each one addresses its topic with competence and perception.  She is concise, and her comprehensive approach to the piano is genuinely fun to experience.

[box style=”white” ]Important Note…  Most of the chapters address a broader arena than the title implies.  The chapters on building and preparing a solo concert program (#8-9), for instance, teach good methods for preparing for a performance of any kind, and the chapter on teaching at the college level (#15) gives teaching tips that are useful for much more than just the college classroom.  So spend a little time in each of the chapters, even if the title seems like it won’t apply to you.[/box]

 

In SummaryRuth_Slenczynska_Autograph

If you are a musician focused on improving your technique, you’ll enjoy the book.  It’s full of principles that will guide your progress and challenge you musically and physically!  You’ll also enjoy the new drills and historic trivia you learn along the way.

If you’re a music teacher, I encourage you to read the book!  Most of the principles for students apply to teaching students as well, and I gleaned so much from this book as a teacher.  It is, hands-down, the number one resource that has affected the way I teach.

Music at Your Fingertips is certainly not a glamorous book.  The cover design is outdated, the layout is basic, and the pictures are black and white and a little bit fuzzy.  But the content is exceptional!

 

You can see a preview / purchase the book  from Amazon HERE.  Have fun! 

Johann Strauss, II: Waltz King

 

Vienna---Painting-by-Bernardo-Bellotto-1758ecropped

Almost everyone has heard at least a line or two from one of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s famous waltzes, and all of us are familiar with the cheerful, lilting “oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa” rhythm that puts a bounce in our step.

But who exactly was this man – “The Waltz King?”  We know his name, but comparatively speaking, we know little of his story.

 

Strauss’ Early Life (1825-1844)Austria_Map

On October 25, 1825, near the glittering Vienna, Austria, a wee lad was born.  As the first son born to his parents, he was named Johann Strauss, Jr., after his father.

Like many composers, the young Johann suffered a difficult childhood, but tragically, the source of all his hardship was at hands of his ruthless father. Strauss, Sr. was a successful conductor and composer in Vienna, but he indulged most of his income on himself and his orchestra, leaving little to provide for his wife and children. He was a selfish, demanding, unfaithful tyrant, abandoning his poor family for months at a time and coming back home only to provide them with grief.

Strauss, Sr. adamantly refused to allow his children to receive any form of musical instruction, but despite the many trials little Johann endured at the hands of his musical father, he loved music and had already begun to write compositions in three-quarter time at age of six.1  Johann’s father demanded that he become a banker.  He did, but he also studied violin secretly with the first violinist of his father’s orchestra.  By the time he was a teenager, he was a proficient violinist and promising composer, as well as a banker.

When Johann was 17, his father abandoned the family for good.  Johann, with the complete support of his mother, was then able to pursue his love of music with nothing to hold him back.

 

Strauss’ Musical Career

Young_Johann_Strauss_Jr

Debut & Early Career (1844-1849) 

An enthusiastic Johann Strauss, Jr. set out to find someone who would help him launch his new career as a composer, but many entertainment establishments were reluctant to give the younger Strauss a contract, knowing it would sever their relationships with his father.  Finally, Deommayer’s accepted young Johann.  In October 1844, at 19 years of age, Johann gave his debut concert, conducting a host of popular pieces and including six compositions of his own.  It was a complete success!  The press and even his critics showered him with praise, but his enraged father withdrew his support from the company and refused to speak to Johann for two years.2

As a performing composer with his own orchestra, Johann now found himself in direct competition with his own father.  Hard times followed for Johann, despite his successful debut, and money was sometimes scarce.  He eventually accepted commissions to begin performing away from home, and this provided him with many wonderful music opportunities he could not yet find in Vienna.

In 1849, Strauss, Sr. died of Scarlet fever.  Johann immediately merged his father’s musicians with his own and began to tour with his newly strengthened orchestra.  That is when his fame and his career began to soar.

 

The Waltz King (1850-1899)

Young Strauss flourished as a composer, and Vienna embraced him with eager arms.  Johann enlisted the help of his younger brothers, Eduard and Josef, and they were soon directing additional orchestras under his oversight.  Some evenings found six Johann Strauss orchestras performing his lovely waltzes throughout Vienna, and Johann made appearances to conduct a few pieces at every performance they gave.

Waltz_Wilhelm_Gause_Hofball_in_Wien

Strauss’ admirers were many, and Strauss himself was most sought-after composer of dance music during his time.  His schedule overflowed.  He conducted performances during the day and composed his beautiful music in the quiet hours of the night.  The abundance of mental and physical demands began to affect his health, and eventually the stress won.  He had a nervous breakdown in 1853, and his doctors ordered him to take a vacation.  During his six-month absence, his brother, Josef, took charge of his orchestra.

Once Johann recovered, he returned to his music with vigor.   In 1867, Strauss debuted his masterpiece, The Blue Danube, in Vienna.  It was a flop!  Strauss wisely decided to try again.  While on a tour, he introduced The Blue Danube to Paris, and it was an overwhelming success.  It’s popularity spread wildly, and The Blue Danube soon became what is now undoubtedly Strauss’ most famous and well-loved piece of all time.

Johann_Strauss_and_Brahms_in_Vienna

Strauss was personal friends with Johann Brahms, and a fun story is often told of this famous composer:

Strauss’s wife Adele approached Brahms with a customary request that he autograph her fan. It was usual for the composer to inscribe a few measures of his best-known music, and then sign his name. Brahms, however, inscribed a few measures from the “Blue Danube”, and then wrote beneath it: “Unfortunately, NOT by Johannes Brahms.” 3 

Strauss continued to tour the world with his orchestra, and for twelve consecutive summers they travelled throughout Europe, visiting France, England, Austria, Poland, Germany, and – most often – in Russia.  His performance in England was acknowledged by Queen Victoria4,and his evenings of waltzes in Russia were even honored by the presence of the czars.  In 1872, Strauss was invited to Boston, where he was paid 100,000 U.S. dollars to conduct just one composition – The Blue Danube – 14 times during his tour. Thus, Strauss soon found himself and his music loved by admirers of all nationalities around the globe.

 

Strauss’ Family Life

Sadly, the history of Strauss’ married life is not a pleasant one.  Neither Strauss nor his spouses approached marriage with the respect and commitment that God requires of husband and wife, and Strauss experienced the consequences.  Strauss married three times, and all three of his marriages were tainted with unhappiness, indiscretion, and strife.  His last marriage, to Adele Deutsch in 1882, was the happiest of the three.

 

Johann_Strauss_JrStrauss’ Late Career & Death (June 1899)

Adele encouraged Johann’s creative outflow as a composer, and he was very productive during those years of his life.  At her encouragement, he handed his orchestra to his brother, Josef, so he could concentrate on composition.  He continued to write waltzes, polkas, and other forms of music, and also began work on his ballet, Aschenbrödel.

In the spring of 1899, Strauss contracted a respiratory illness that developed into pleural pneumonia.  On June 3rd of that year, Strauss died.  He was buried near the tombs of Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert6, in the place where he had spent the majority of his life – his beloved Vienna.

 

Strauss’ Music

After Strauss’ death, his younger brother, Eduard – who had been jealous of Johann all his life – burned all of his unpublished music.7  His Cinderella ballet, although unfinished, somehow survived this unhappy ending, but we will never know how many of his waltzes, polkas, and other unheard compositions went up in flames.

Thankfully, we still have nearly 500 of Strauss’ finished works – lilting waltzes, cheerful polkas, marches, quadrilles8, galops9, operettas, and others – to learn from and enjoy.

The_Blue_Danube_Free_Score

Not all great composers are recognized in their lifetime, but this cannot be said of Johann Strauss, Jr.  Johann Brahms declared Strauss “a master”, and Richard Wagner remarked that he was the most musical head he had ever come across.  Strauss’ admirers said of him, “Strauss can only speak in German, but he smiles in all languages.”

The Strauss Family lived during the golden age of Vienna, and Johann, Jr.’s music embodies the ideals and spirit of that era.  His music is lighthearted, energetic, and sparkling with life.  The waltz – that elegant dance of German origin, meaning “to turn” – was his main form of composition and became the work that defined him.  Strauss’ music sings with a simplistic beauty, but it is written with the ingenuity that evidences a musical master.

Waltz_PhenakistoscopeRECOMMENDED LISTENING

When it comes to listening, it can be hard to figure out where to startBelow is a “recommended listening” list to help you become familiar with the pieces that have proven to be some of Strauss’ best-written and most-loved compositions.  Enjoy listening to these charming pieces!

  • Waltzes:   The Blue Danube,  Tales from the Vienna Woods,  Wiener Blut, Artist’s Life, Emperor, Roses from the South
  • Overtures:  Die Fledermaus (The Bat), Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron), Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice)
  • Polkas:   Tritsch-Tratsch, Neue Pizzicato, Auf der Jagd, Explosionen, Unter Donner und Blitz
  • Marches:   The Egyptian

VIEW COMPLETE LIST OF STRAUSS’ WORKS

 

Strauss’ Legacy

Johann_Strauss_II

Spiritually, Johann Strauss was a man that none of us should imitate.  He made his own rules, lived for his own pleasure, and did not even acknowledge the Creator that gave him his exceptional gift of music.10

Musically, Strauss was an ingenuous architect. Many composers made use of the waltz before the Strauss family entered the stage, but Strauss, Jr. refined it in a way that no composer had done before him.  He developed, enriched, and perfected the waltz into an art form.

Johann Strauss, Jr. was devoted to his work.  He was creative, productive, and determined not to let the hardships of his early years define his entire life.  And now, over 150 years later, we are still enjoying the gift of his music.

Which ones of us will that be said of… 150 years from now?

 

RECOMMENDED for FURTHER STUDY:
The Gift of Music by Smith & Carlson, pp. 81-85 – “The Strauss Family”
Classical Music by Phil G. Goulding, pp. 508-514 – “Johann Strauss”

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  2. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  3. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Strauss_II
  4. Source: The Gift of Music, page 83
  5. Source: Classical Music, pp. 508
  6. Source:  http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/straussj.php
  7. Source: Classics for Kids: Johann Strauss, Jr.
  8. The quadrille is a precursor to traditional square dancing.  
  9. The galop is a lively country dance.
  10. Strauss openly attributed Vienna with the entire credit for his creativity.