Tag Archives: pianist

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.



Musicians Warming Up

Every once in a while I come across a piano teacher or musician who think that they need to stretch their hands or run scales to “warm up.” The myth behind warming up is that you are able to isolate a body part such as the hands and move them to warm them up. If that were true, the blood that you think you warm up in your hands while moving them, because of circulation, doesn’t stay there. It circulates throughout the rest of the body meaning “cold” blood is coming back into the hands. Furthermore, you are not warming up the blood or muscles, the blood is already at its maximum temperature. The real issue is circulation.

A danger in moving cold hands or other body parts is that the elasticity of the muscles and tendons are compromised because they are in a contracted state and if you try to move cold body parts fast, you can cause damage to the tissue such as micro tears and pulls to either the muscles or the tendons. Slow movement and in the medium range of motion is always advised when the extremities are cold.

When the body is cold, the blood is kept near the core vital organs and circulation is slowed to the extremities such as the hands and feet. That makes our hands and fingers feel cold and stiff. Stretching is not a solution and our teachers and coaches have been teaching this mistruth about stretching for years.

When you stretch beyond the mid range of motion you are creating micro tears in the muscle tissue or tendons and the body’s response is to rush blood to that site to both immobilize and repair the damage. This process gives us the sensation of “warming up” when in reality we are damaging our tissue structures. Whenever we move, we must only move as far as the mid range of motion, not the extreme where we will stretch, tear and damage tissue.

There are actually two categories of muscle, fast twitch and slow twitch. Musicians should take the time to learn which ones are which and how to utilize them in their craft. Even so, forcing fast twitch muscles to move fast or to stretch them when they are cold and in their contracted state could damage them. Think of your muscles as being like warm gravy. The gravy can easily pour out of the bowl when it is warm. Now put the bowl in the fridge for half an hour and note that it no longer pours fluidly. You can’t just run a spoon through the gravy to warm it up, it needs to come out of the fridge and be warmed totally.

If you have a teacher or coach who prescribes stretching and isolation exercises to warm up the body, find another teacher. It is not their fault that they have been given erroneous information themselves from their own teachers, but, their ignorance on the subject can cause you permanent damage. Ignorance is not bliss if it results in tendon, nerve or muscular disorders. That is like going to a mechanic who says that your tires are bald but you can probably get away on them for another few months. He may be the best mechanic in the world but he is risking your life.

If one wishes to truly warm up the body and consequently the hands, one needs to sit in a warm room so that the whole body warms up, not just the part they are going to use. Another solution is to do some mild whole body movement to get the blood pumping throughout the circulatory system.

There are mini steppers on the market for under $50 that a musician can take to a gig with them and use in the green room before a performance. After doing twenty minutes or about 2,000 steps on one of those, the blood will be circulating efficiently throughout the whole body and one may even break a small sweat. You won’t have to warm up your legs because you’ve already been walking all day and, movement that is well known such as walking is as simple as the brain turning on and off a switch. One doesn’t need to warm up to remember how to ride a bike. The brain just knows what to do, like flicking a switch.

Conditioning is important, too. If you can only do three minutes on the stair stepper before fatigue sets in then you’re not going to achieve a full body warm up in that amount of time so, it would behoove you to do this every day so the body is conditioned to work at that level without fatigue. One doesn’t want to go on stage exhausted and weak. It is also advised to be hydrated before, during and after this simple body warm up procedure.

I’ll not endorse any particular brand but you can find mini steppers on Ebay, tax and shipping free. Read the user reviews on Amazon to find a brand you think you can trust.

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.

Spirit of the Living God

Spirit of the Living God
by Malcolm Kogut / Daniel Iverson
Arranger : Malcolm Kogut

This 1935 charismatic hymn to the Holy Spirit is given a positively captivating treatment here. While the SATB scoring is mostly what one would expect, it is dressed in a piano accompaniment that can be characterized as nothing short of lovely.

Sheet music: