Tag Archives: kogut

Point Of Sound

One of the causes for strain, stress, injury and other maladies pianists, organists and typists experience is simply that they press too hard into the keybed of their device or instrument. Let’s first take a look at sports and then physics (that HS subject you think you don’t use in real life).

As a baseball player stands at home plate and the ball is hurtling toward him, he back-swings, forward swings, hits the ball, then all the energy left over from the swing dissipates into the follow through. The same action occurs when an athlete swings a tennis racquet, kicks a ball, swings a golf club, punches someone, throws a ball, etcetera. That is Newton’s third law of physics that every action has an equal and opposite action. In order to forward swing, one must first back swing. Even when we walk forward, as one leg is extending up and forward, the other leg is pushing backward. So according to the laws of physics, in order to type or play the piano down, one must first lift up. Many of us were trained or taught to play or type from a resting and relaxed position which actually creates tension because holding a position requires effort. So we know that everything requires an opposite motion and a follow through. I bet all you smart kids out there know exactly where I’m going with this.

Now imagine that our baseball, tennis, soccer, golf, football players or boxers are standing before a concrete wall and they backswing then forward swing but instead of hitting an object and following through, they strike the immovable wall. All the energy of the swing, instead of following through and dissipating, ricochets back into the athlete. That can hurt.

A piano is much the same. Many pianists press into the keybed of a piano and not only does that fail to produce any more of a tone but, all the energy of pressing down is being transferred back up into their finger joints and tendons. We often don’t notice this until after an hour or so of practice or the next morning when we wake up with stiff fingers. We are taught by bad teachers “no pain, no gain.” In this case, it is very much a lie. No pain, no gain is fine when building muscle but not for bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and certainly not for our technique. Often poor technique, strain or missed notes are a result of what we are not doing rather than what we are doing and often we are using the wrong muscles.

Sit at any acoustic piano and very slowly, depress a key so you don’t play a sound. At some point you will hit a little bump in the action, then press through it and you will hit the keybed. That little bump is the point of sound once you actually play.

As a pianist drops the controlled weight of their arm onto a key, they must use Newton’s third law. As they hit the point of sound, much like an athlete striking a ball, they must then follow through without hitting the keybed. When they press into the keybed, not only is their energy backfiring but, they are pressing down and according to Newton, we can’t set up for the up motion if we are pressing down. This hinders technique. You can’t play down if you don’t play up and you can’t play up if you are pressing down.

So, the key and cure to playing without tension or pain is learning to play to the point of sound and simply following through and not pressing into the keybed. Unbeknownst to most teachers, their students press into the keybed. It is a motion that is often invisible. When a student experiences problems with technique or pain, the teacher often says practice more or run exercises to build strength and endurance and the teacher is often oblivious that the way the student practices is what needs to be addressed, not a clock.

Danger Will Robinson. Before anyone tries to learn to play to the point of sound, there are other components of technique which must first be in place. This includes controlling arm weight, controlling up/down, controlling in/out from the shoulder and elbow, using the fulcrum of the elbow, controlling rotation of the forearm through the use of the pronator and supinator muscles. Likewise, there are movements to avoid such as abduction, curling the thumb under the palm, isolating a finger, equalizing fingers, radial and ulnar deviation, and trying to play too relaxed, still and quiet.

A virtuoso technique looks like it is effortless and relaxed. That is true, the fingers are relaxed because the arm does all the work. Observers are often looking at the pianist’s hands and fail to notice the elbow and arm is actually doing most of the work. Pianists who attempt to play from the fingers and have fatigue, are told to relax so, they relax the same muscles they are continuing to use and they achieve nothing.

Once all of the proper motions are achieved and the improper ones eradicated, point of sound will just happen. Some “techniques” such as the Russian Technique, surreptitiously imbue the pianist with these movements but personally, I would rather learn the physics and ergonomics of movement rather than being tricked through mindless imitation. Although, it works to some degree. Where it fails is when a pianist encounters a passage they can’t execute and if they knew the mechanics of the arm, would be able to figure out what sort of adjustment is required to play that passage.

I once studied with a leading concert pianist in my area who didn’t know what he was doing but had a phenomenal natural technique. His instruction to me was to watch him play then imitate his motion. That would have been fine but I already had bad habits hardwired into my brain which were getting in the way. Since he didn’t know anything about ergonomics nor physics, he had no idea how to fix me other than prescribing “practice more.”

I once gave a lecture on this topic and a pianist disagreed with me about Newtons third law citing that the piano is down, not up. The finger must come straight down onto a key. If the pianist is playing with a “still and quiet hand” and they must also play black keys, note that the black keys are higher than the white keys. This results in the still and quiet pianist to stretch or twist to reach those keys which in turn create vector forces or, two muscles pulling one bone in two directions simultaneously. This creates tremendous imbalance in the arm which controls the hand and fingers and this leads to an incoordinate technique. Keep in mind your fingers have no muscles. They are moved by the flexor muscles in your forearm so that is where the pianist must first play from.

If you were to walk up stairs, your ascending leg would lift HIGHER than the next stair, then come straight down onto it. If you tried to walk upstairs without lifting your foot higher than the step, you’d trip. Playing the piano is the same. We must use the larger muscles of the arm to get the fingers higher than the notes we are desirous to play. Of course as we become more efficient, we minimize the height but make no mistake, although it may appear invisible, it is still there. Hanon knew this and prescribed the pianist to isolate one finger and lift it high but, this isolation engages the flexors and extensors at the same time resulting in strain to the long flexor tendons which leads to median nerve entrapment (AKA carpal tunnel syndrome). Remember the arm, hand and fingers can only move in one direction at a time. By abducting, for instance, the hand gets pulled in two or four directions despite the pianist trying to play a passage in a specific direction.

I have no conclusion to this post other than don’t try this at home. Find a teacher who knows what a pronator and abductor is and work from there.


A better send-off than wretched 2016 deserved

Songs to Amuse, Steamer No. 10 Theatre, Dec. 31
Shawn Stone | Monday, January 2 2017

Keyboardist Malcolm Kogut and singer Byron Nilsson (aka B.A. Nilsson in these pages) brought their cabaret act Songs to Amuse to the stage at Steamer No. 10 Theatre on New Year’s Eve, where a happy crowd heartily laughed at a two-hour (including intermission) program of (mostly) 20th-century songs intended to, as advertised, amuse.

They began with “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which was originally introduced in a 1939 movie by Groucho Marx, and widely known now thanks to Kermit the Frog’s version. It’s a pun-filled, slightly salacious chronicle of one woman’s varied and outlandish body art, and as an opener, a pretty good indication of what was to come. Written by Harburg and Arlen around the same time they were composing the songs for The Wizard of Oz, Nilsson also told the story of–and sang–a lyric excised by a studio exec out of concern that it would “date” the number. The line? “When she sits, she sits on Hitler.”

What was the thing with everyone underestimating Hitler’s long-term prospects?

And that was the show: Smart, varied musical approaches by Kogut, fine singing and snappy patter by Nilsson. There were songs by Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer (the latter allowing Kogut to add a little synthesized Irish fiddle); songs made famous by the likes of Al Jolson (“Why Do They All Take The Night Boat to Albany”) and Blossom Dearie (Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie”); a trio of thoroughly delightful numbers written by the Brit duo Flanders and Swann; and many more.

Nilsson even tossed out a couple of lines from DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s “Turn On the Heat,” one of the more demented songs from that most demented year of Hollywood musicals, 1929.

Particularly enjoyable was the woe-filled (as opposed to woeful) temperance ballad, “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” This horrible tale of 19th-century death and abandonment provided the opportunity for a jaunty sing-along. The duo helpfully included the lyrics to the refrain on the back of the program: “Mother, oh! Why did you leave me alone/With no one to love me, no friends and no home?/Dark is the night, and the storm rages wild/God pity Bessie, the Drunkard’s lone child!”

While there was no happy ending for “Bessie,” we in the audience had a fine time singing about her misery.

As the second half of the program wound down, the duo saved something special for the end: the 1937 labor ballad, “Capitalistic Boss.” This rich bastard’s lament gave Nilsson a chance to tear into a life of greed, exploitation, indolence, political violence and selfishness with an angry glee, as the narrator continually returned to one line of defense: “Something is wrong with my brain.”

The evening ended with everyone joining in on “Auld Lang Syne.” Kogut and Nilsson sent us out into the cold with warmer spirits than when we arrived, and ready to enjoy whatever revelry the last three hours of 2016 had in store.


Becoming a Better Singer

Ugh, I went to an organ recital recently and the organist, though technically proficient, was devoid of energy, interpretation, originality or excitement. No wonder today’s youth are not taking up the organ as an instrument because they have to listen to people like that in their churches every Sunday. What a turn off. In many of our churches on Sunday, the organ is like a sports car, backed out of the garage for one hour each week and only to the end of the driveway then back into the garage.

When I work with singers either in the church, workshop or theater venue, I often share one of several simple videos with them. We first watch the video with the sound off. Then we watch it a second time but this time I tell a story based upon the facial expressions and movement of the singer. Then the singers each take a turn doing the same. I then tell them the story of the song and we watch it one final time with the sound still off. Finally, we watch it with the sound on. Listeners often hear the notes and not the words because singers, like organists, put more effort into the notes rather than communicating.

This exercise not only makes the singers aware of their expressions, movement and inflection, but it also makes them cognizant of the importance of words and story telling. All too often singers are mired down with technique, notes and style rather than simple communication. This applies not only to theater performers but church musicians often fall down into that hole, too. I’m not saying they need to employ theatrics into their delivery of the Psalms and holy scripture, just become better communicators of it through basic facial expression, making eye contact and most importantly – BEING PREPARED. If you have to look at the page more than 20% of the time, you’re not prepared to interpret.

I’ll say no more on the topic. You can use any video you like but one of my favorites to start with is Betty Buckley’s interpretation of the song “Meadowlark.” The first video with commentary but, without sound can be found here:

Here is the original video with sound:

So, all you singers, story tellers, poets and organists, “SING . . . ” for me.

Halloween Organ Recital Q&A

When?  Before everyone else, on October 18th, 3:00 p.m. 2015

Where?  Trinity Lutheran Church, 42 Guy Park Ave, Amsterdam, NY 12010 (the United States one, not the other one where pot is legal).

Is there a Cost?  Only my blood, sweat and tears.  All others, free.

Will there be refreshments?  I wouldn’t play otherwise.

Is the church handicap accessible?  Yes, there is a spacious elevator located on the parking lot side entrance. If need be, I will carry you up the stairs (I’ve done it before). Watch the end of the demo video, I show you how to find it.

What kind of organ are you playing?  It is a newly installed three manual tracker, built by a local builder. There will be a dedicatory recital in the upcoming months.  Come to find out when and all the other pertinent deets.

I hate organ recitals, they are boring, arcane, esoteric, stuffy, recondite and they all sound alike.  What are you playing?  I hate organ recitals, too.  I will be playing the ubiquitous, standard “scary” organ music such as the Chopin Funeral March, Bach’s (sic) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Boëllmann’s Toccata  plus a few novelty songs and pieces arranged by me.

The organ is currently lounging in it’s summer tuning estate but, here is a demo video of me at my first practice session getting to know the instrument and finding my arm weight. Here I demonstrate the en chamade and the full organ (which distorted my camera’s microphone).

See you then.

-Malcolm (The pastor wants a bio) Insert pretentious crap about myself here)).

Malcolm, a true Capricorn, is actually not funny. He is just really mean and people think he is joking.  He is a lover of ice cream and a runner – because of all the ice cream.  Malcolm is a Nomad in search for the perfect burger and is an especially gifted napper with killer abs (want proof, check out “Mount Baker Glacier Clips.”  Do not judge him before you know him, but just to inform you, you won’t like him.  He is not on Facebook and most likely wouldn’t friend you anyway so this is all you are ever going to get.  Malcolm feels sad for seedless watermelons because, what if they wanted babies?  The humanity.


baker mountain


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seattle great wheel malcolm kogut washington



hoh rain forest malcolm kogut tree moss

malcolm kogut bald eagle



malcolm kogut breaching whale










malcolm kogut

A Peek Under The Hood Of Modes

Modes are ancient scales of the church which are still used today by jazz musicians.  You can also hear modal music in many of today’s film scores and in some churches who still value their rich musical heritage.  Film composer John Williams composes many of his movie themes in modes.  One of the first jazz musicians to come to mind when I think of modes is Chick Corea.  Most jazz musicians are actually drawn to these classical scales because they are very rich in melodic and harmonic possibilities.  The church, in an effort to dumb down for the common person is actually dumbing down the common person.  If you can find a church offering a Tridentine Mass, most likely you will hear a lot of modal music.  As much as I love contemporary Christian music, it is very much trapped in the Ionian Mode (major scale) and doesn’t give a sense of the sacred as many other modes do. When I attend other churches, I usually leave feeling numb from the “white bread” music and musicians.

This video is a simple example of how one may explore the modes as an improvisational tool.  One does not need to explore the modes for only jazz styles, but they are a great tool and inspiration for writing melody and fleshing out rich harmony.

For further listening:
Theme from the movie ET, Jurasic Park, The Simpsons

Owning our Mistakes, Honoring our Mistakes, Everybody Makes

I recently performed a concert with a young artist who is going off to college to study opera.  He has dreams to then move to Europe to live and perform music.  Not only does this young man have a deep and rich bass voice but, he was also a pleasure to accompany.  Rarely do I get to play for someone who can both lead and follow an accompanist at the same time.  Many singers will either hijack a piece and force the accompanist to blatantly follow them or in contrast slavishly follow the accompanist.  When I encounter a singer who is neither a leader nor follower but does both, that is when music happens and a pleasure to work with.

There was one moment however when he began to sing the wrong verse at the end of the song.  He stopped and corrected himself, everyone knew he made a mistake.  Many musicians learn and memorize their music from rote by practicing them dozens of times over until it is “memorized.”  That method can set up many traps and things to go wrong without notice.  Rare is the musician who eats, drinks and sleeps their craft so that they are one with the song.

I once played the show “Nunsense” for a year and a half, performing six shows per week.  All the musicians in the pit had the score memorized.  One evening, Mother Superior accidentally sang the wrong lyrics and without a second thought, all the musicians looked at one another and we all seamlessly jumped to the spot where she was.  After her verse was over, knowing that she skipped an important lyric, Mother Superior walked to the edge of the stage, looked down and said to the pit “Vamp boys.”  Then she proceeded to tell the audience that she skipped a verse and said to the pit “take it back to the second verse” and we all flipped our pages, she counted us off and it was magic to have a mistake a living and breathing part of the performance.

At my concert last weekend when my bass started to sing the wrong lyric and melody, I knew exactly where he was and was prepared to jump to that spot because I was prepared for the possibilities.  When I practice music, I jump around on the pages, mixing and matching beginnings and endings, playing the piece in different keys, different styles and in general, exploring the possibilities of the work.  This helps me to learn it and to be prepared for whatever may go wrong or, in other words – own the song.  I thrive on these challenges.

My suggestion for all musicians, especially singers, when you practice with your accompanist, don’t just practice the song the way it is “supposed to go.”  Play with it.  Try different rhythms, accents and styles.  Without notice, jump to a different section so that the accompanist has to find you.  If your accompanist can’t do this, find a new accompanist.  There is nothing more frustrating than trying to make music with someone who is not a “musician.”  Music should not be something which is regurgitated from a page or set in stone.  It should be a living breathing expression of our selves and spirit.

The worse thing for a musician to do when they encounter a bump in the road is to stop.  Don’t train your mind to stop.  Don’t practice making mistakes.  Train your mind to be flexible and prepared for the possibilities.  I once worked with a great singer who during rehearsals would stop every time she made a mistake.  That practice manifested itself when she made a mistake on stage, she didn’t know how to recover and everyone in the audience knew it.  It also made rehearsals unbearable for me.

If one were to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, chances are we are not reciting a memorized version of the story but, extemporizing, improvising and re-living the story pretty much in our own words.  If we make a mistake, we don’t stop, go back or apologize.  We effortlessly and almost invisibly correct it on the fly and continue with the story.  Nobody would even notice.  Music can be like that too if we are not a slave to notation, propriety or our egos.  The purpose of telling the story is to tell the story.  The purpose of music should be to tell a story, not put on a concert.  Janis Joplin once said that she doesn’t put on concerts when she sings, she makes love to the audience.

This is what making music should be about. That is the difference between an amateur, professional and artist.  Very often amateurs can also be artists and very often, professionals can be mere amateurs.