Saturday, October 29, 2016

What Do Baseball and Beethoven Have in Common? Tension!

Believe it or not, baseball and Ludwig van Beethoven have something BIG in common. What could that be, you ask? One involves bats and bases, while the other has notes and musical instruments! But scratch just a little below the surface, and they both share a common element: tension.

Let’s start with baseball. When a game begins, there’s anticipation in the air, but not really a lot of tension – people are relaxed, and the athletes are ready to play. As the game progresses, the mood in the stadium becomes increasingly excited and anxious. When exactly is the pitcher going to throw the ball? Can a runner steal 2nd base when the pitcher’s not looking? Will the trailing team come back? Can the team in the lead stay ahead? (And if you’re a Cubs fan, will the Cubbies actually win the World Series for the first time in 108 years?? But I digress.) When I watch a game on TV, I notice the tension on the fan’s faces – people are anxiously clenching their jaws, with their hands placed on their cheeks or planted on top of their heads, and their eyes firmly locked on the field. The tension spikes even higher during pivotal moments of the game, such as when all of the bases are loaded and a slugger walks up to the plate. If a game goes into extra innings, this tension can become draining. While the fans and the players get brief moments of respite during inning breaks and in particular the 7th inning stretch, the only way for this tension to be fully released is for the game to end.
Statue of Hall of Famer
Billy Williams
outside Wrigley Stadium

Now let’s consider Ludwig van Beethoven. I regard him to be a master of controlling tension, which we can hear in his symphonies. Some begin rather peacefully (such as Nos. 4 & 7) while others jump right into the fray (like Nos. 1 & 5). Take his Fifth Symphony. The first movement (click to hear the link on YouTube) starts with a furious “fate knocking at the door” gesture; Beethoven shows that he means to build tension from the outset with this aggressive opening! He finds very creative ways to build up this tension, relax it, and then build it up even higher. By the end of the symphony’s 1st movement, you’re ready for that tension to release. Beethoven coyly does this by delivering a slow and soothing second movement, but he’s right back at building tension in the third movement. He masterfully keeps playing with tension until the very end of the fourth and final movement.

As a composer, controlling the tension is one of the most important things we can do in building an effective piece of music. If I can control when the music gets tense and when this tension is released, then I am able to tell virtually any story I want: I can start a composition as if we’re in the middle of a nighttime thunderstorm on top of a mountain, or I can make it sound like we’re walking slowly through a field of fresh spring flowers at daybreak. Managing tension and relaxation is just as important in non-narrative works too: I might make a piece progress from light, bright sounds with a slow tempo to an increasingly dark sonic world with a blazingly fast tempo. Basically, if a composer doesn’t have a firm grip on how to handle tension and relaxation, the audience will sense it. The resulting piece runs the risk of sounding as if it is aimlessly meandering, and the audience won’t feel the push–pull of the tension–relaxation dynamic.

So the next time you watch a baseball game or listen to a piece of music, see if you can feel the tension, as well as when that tension gets even higher, relaxes, and fades away completely. Now, let’s go Cubbies!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Buffing Up Your Writing Skills

As creative artists, we like to think that we need only to express ourselves through our craft: a well-constructed composition, a beautiful painting, or a stunning performance in a concert hall. While we may be doing fabulous work in expressing ourselves through our artistic media, there are plenty of times outside of our craft that we must be able to articulate ourselves clearly. You will likely need to write a biography for your website, program notes for a concert you’re giving, a cover letter for a job, a grant proposal for project funding, and so on. In all cases, you need writing skills to best express who you are, why you do what you do, and what you want.

I didn’t have formidable writing skills when I left high school, nor by the time I completed my undergraduate training. I had taken all of the required English classes and wrote my fair share of analysis and historical papers, but my understanding and creativity with the written word hadn’t yet materialized. Everything changed when I enrolled at the University of Chicago for my Master’s degree. The university offered a specialized writing class whose only goal was to teach its students how to write cohesive and cogent essays. We wrote a paper a week (this part was no picnic), which was then distributed and critiqued by the class. Slowly but surely, my writing skills improved. I credit this class with helping me successfully navigate the academic papers I wrote throughout my graduate work, as well as all of the writing I’ve done ever since, including these blog posts.

So what did I learn from this course that has made all of the difference? Besides learning how to construct strong opening and closing paragraphs (for which you can find plenty of information on the internet), the element that we practiced the most in the class was how to link our sentences within each paragraph, so that the reader can easily follow our train of thought. A link can be anything – a name, a noun, a verb, a thing, an activity, etc. You don’t have to link every single sentence in a paragraph, but the more sentences that you link, the easier it will be for the reader to follow.

For starters, notice how the word “train” is used to link these two sentences together; the links are in red:
I head out the door to catch a train downtown. The train is running late; I sigh and check email on my phone.
Now, here is a poorly constructed paragraph that is devoid of links:
I head out the door to go downtown. There aren’t any eggs in the fridge. Why is there a broken Q-Tip on the floor of the train? There are so many concerts to attend! The Civitas Ensemble  performed the first piece. The Gaudete Brass Quintet played. They’re stellar! With so many musicians and ensembles to check out at the Ear Taxi Festival, this is a glorious moment for Chicago’s new music scene. I need a cookie.
The above paragraph seems to consist of primarily non-sequiturs, making it appear to be a stream of consciousness. I find it confusing – what is the primary subject? It seems like the Ear Taxi Festival should be the focus, and yet it doesn’t get mentioned until the end. There are other issues as well – did the Civitas Ensemble and Gaudete Brass Quintet perform on the same concert, or on different events? How are the eggs, Q-Tip, and cookie at all relevant?

Here is the paragraph rewritten so that the subject is clearly stated in the first sentence, and with each sentence linked to the next via the words in red. Note that multiple links can occur in a single sentence:
This morning, I am in a rush to get to Ear Taxi Festival, Chicago’s first-ever six-day new music marathon. The lack of eggs in the fridge doesn’t bother me; I grab a cereal bar and head out to catch a train to the festival. While reading over Ear Taxi’s various concerts on the train, a broken Q-Tip on the floor catches my eye – why is it there? But there’s no time to ponder the fate of the Q-Tip – with so many events going on, I have to make a plan! I devise a strategy, arrive downtown, and catch the first concert of the day featuring both the Civitas Ensemble and Gaudete Brass Quintet. Wow, I think, these groups are stellar! As I settle in for a full day of Chicago’s finest ensembles on display, I take a moment to realize what a glorious moment this festival is for Chicago’s new music scene. I discover too late, however, that in my morning rush to make the train, I forgot to bring a cookie for an afternoon snack.
This new paragraph introduces the subject matter of the Ear Taxi Festival in the very first sentence and then steadily keeps the focus on it while occasionally taking quick side trips to other topics. You’ll notice that I’ve substituted some words with similar meanings for these links, such as plan and strategy, to keep the writing from getting too repetitiveNote as well that my final sentence actually links back to earlier in the paragraph where I first mention my train ride. As long as you can link to something introduced earlier in a clear and logical manner, then the reader can navigate your paragraph.

Virtually no creative person will be able to successfully navigate a career without having cultivated a set of writing skills. The more you practice writing, the better you’ll be able to express yourself with the written word.