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Mastering multiple embouchures on wind and brass instruments

Hola a todos. This article is specifically about the Classical Music genre since that is my area of training and experience, but a musician mastering more than one wind or brass instrument with different embouchures applies to the jazz and rock genres as well. I mean, why wouldn’t it be if one has truly mastered other wind and brass instruments and their corresponding embouchures? Embouchure (or lipping) is the use of the lips, facial muscles, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument. This includes shaping the lips to the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument or the mouthpiece of a brass instrument. Many musicians who perform in other genres originally trained in the Classical Music tradition. I was listening to jazz artist, Steve Slagle, being interviewed on Jazz 91-KCSM and their Latin Jazz programme on 17 March 2019. Steve talked about how he dropped out of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He dropped out while on scholarship there, which not too many people were pleased with. He said he had become restless of going to school since he had been going to school since he was 5 years old. He felt he needed a break — I remember feeling like that at one point when at the Conservatory of Music where I trained — and he wanted to get out there and play gigs rather than sitting in school. Then, after he got that out of his system, he later went back to school and got his Master’s Degree at the Manhattan School of Music and taught there for 21 years. Then, in one of the pieces they played of his performances immediately afterwards he said: In this piece I start out playing alto saxophone and end up on flute. He didn’t say a word about the two very different embouchures required for those instruments — saxophone and flute — used in the same piece. Steve is especially known for playing the alto saxophone but also mastered the flute. He mentioned another musician who plays the flute and trumpet (two different embouchures) and he was asked by that trumpet player, “How is it that you play that saxophone and flute?” He laughed and responded, “How is it that you play that trumpet and flute?” They both laughed. For his flute sound, Steve very much admires the late Eric Dolfy. Eric Dolphy, Jr. was a jazz alto saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flautist. And on a few occasions, he also played the clarinet and piccolo. Quite a versatile musician.

I’ve become more and more curious about orchestral instruments from watching the stellar musicians of my favourite Orchestra, the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

I read that the hr-Sinfonieorchester is especially known for their wind section. Among all of their highly-skilled wind and brass players, they have two superb principal flautists, Sebastian Wittiber and Clara Andrada de la Calle. They both look like lovely people, and play beautifully. You can hear them both in these performances. And I think they have a third principal but I’m sorry I don’t know her name. They all rotate as principal flautists. Clara Andrada is also a flautist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

As for playing the flute and other wind instruments, a wind musician online wrote that he learned all the woodwind instruments in high school and is going to do his DMA (or already has his DMA by now) in multiple woodwind instruments. He wrote this:

“If you have a basic idea of being a musician and know your theory pretty well, you will be fine. It’s going to be mainly learning embouchure and fingerings. The fingerings are similar…but you will need to think of it as a completely new instrument, rather than think about how much they are the same. I treat each instrument as an individual, carrying over only my musicality to each. I started my serious musical life as a violinist in middle school, and still play it now, but learned all the woodwinds in High School after being bored with my high school orchestra. I now have a bachelor’s and master’s in oboe/English horn performance [ed. they are two very different embouchures], and am going to do my DMA [ed. for those who don't know, that means the Doctor of Musical Arts degree] in multiple woodwinds.” (See source below).

In comments, some musicians make a big deal about embouchure whereas others don’t. Oh they mention it, but they don’t make it sound like that big of a deal for them.

One of my commenters — a flautist or flutist, whichever she prefers — recently touched on the mastery and artistry involved in playing the flute, in particular embouchure. She pointed out that the embouchure for the flute is very different from the embouchure for the clarinet, which, if one has closely watched a flautist or clarinetist play their instrument one should be able to see that.

So I was wondering: Are the embouchure differences between the clarinet and flute as drastic as the differences between playing the piano and pipe organ, for example? Or can that comparison be made? I ask that question because many keyboard musicians have mastered both piano and pipe organ. And I would say that the pipe organ is probably the most difficult instrument to master, which I’ll explain in a moment. It’s considered “The King of Instruments.”

I trained in the keyboard instruments: Piano, harpsichord and pipe organ. It is often said that one should have a good piano technique before studying the pipe organ. I agree with that because they are two very different instruments, perhaps as different as flute and clarinet, if not more so?

The piano with its 88-keys — or a Bösendorfer made in Austria with its 97-keys with the extra 9 keys being at the bass end and painted black and the piano costing between US$256,000.00 and $560,000.00 — extend the length of the piano keyboard. The keyboards on the organ are called manuals. They are shorter and contain five octaves (61 notes) each and are stacked in stair-step rows with all the rows matching. One might be asking: So what happened to the bass notes that are on the piano since the manuals on the organ are much shorter? How are the bass notes played on the organ? The bass notes on the organ are played by the feet on a two-and-a-half octave (32-note) pedal board. When playing the pedals, well-trained organists use their heel and toe appropriately for legato playing and depending upon the situation: toes for “black key” and heels for “white key” combinations when there’s a white and black key in consecutive sequence. The toes generally play the “white keys” when there is no “black key” note to play, although one can use toe-heel on consecutive “white keys” especially when the right foot is busy changing volume dynamics and the expression boxes/pedals (not to be confused with the bass pedals). It depends upon the situation and per the score and good organ pedal technique. Those who are not well-trained in pedal technique use the toes for every pedal regardless, or they don’t play the pedals at all because they’re scared of them. I grew up knowing one or two untrained church organists like that. “Those menacing pedals down there; I’m scared of them!” I was the opposite. I was eager to learn the pedals, in part, because of the deep, low bass sound they added to the sound of the manuals. The right foot when it’s not busy playing the bass pedals is busy controlling the multiple expression boxes/volume-level pedals of the organ.

A keyboard musician who has mastered piano, harpsichord and pipe organ could play all three instruments in the same concert, even though their playing styles are different between them. Think of a concert featuring a varied programmed of works with the featured keyboard artist playing the harpsichord for Händel’s Dixit Dominus and other Baroque works. Then the same keyboard artist as piano soloist for a segment of Russian piano works by Sergei Rachmaninov and later ending with the keyboardist being the featured artist on the Concert Hall’s pipe organ for Jehan Alain’s Litanies and other French organ works, ending with the Widor Toccata. That’s just a programme I came up with off the top of my head. It sounds good to me and it’s a varied programme, and make sure to invite the superb Chorus in the performance above from the hr-Sinfonieorchester performance. We want choral excellence here.

I have played organ and piano in the same performance (although not in the same piece) and it requires a brief adjustment period when going back to either instrument. That’s because each instrument has a different feel and playing style from the other. The playing technique is different including the keyboard action being different than on the organ, as well as the playing style with using the damper pedal on the piano, and positioning oneself on the piano bench. Even though I love playing the pipe organ — and I won’t attempt to speak for other musicians — but for me, the organ requires more of an adjustment period because of its difficulty, and I rarely have the opportunity to play an organ. And it’s a much more complicated instrument. If one hasn’t played an organ in years, one’s pedal work — which is mostly played by feel — will likely be rusty giving one incorrect bass notes and “bumps” in the sound. Although one is free to look down and watch the pedal board if one needs to. Also, each organ is different in how its designed. The registration stops are not in the same place on each organ so there’s sort of a new learning curve with each organ and where things are. The keyboard action is very different between the piano and pipe organ. Then there are the thumb and toe pistons for registration changes, and expression boxes/pedals depending upon the size of the organ of course. But it only takes a short time to re-adjust to each instrument if one has mastered both piano and pipe organ to begin with and has played both instruments recently to be at the top of one’s skill level. In my case, not having access to an organ for practise purposes nor the space for a organ at home or the money for one, if I were to have the opportunity to play an organ again it would probably take me awhile to properly re-adjust to the instrument per my training. Oh I could easily wing it and get by right after sitting down on the organ bench and the average person listening to me play wouldn’t know the difference, unless I were playing something like the Widor Toccata. One can’t easily “wing” that piece! You may have the manuals part mastered from practising those on the piano, but the pedal work will be a problem. But if I were to play the organ the way it’s supposed to be played per my training, that would be different and more difficult and take me longer to get my skills back up. But I’m specifically speaking here about musicians who play both instruments on a regular basis. Even concert organist Diane Bish looks at her feet on occasion as experienced as she is and having played French organ works for decades. Also, what’s known as the “natural hand position” on the piano is the same on the organ, but the seating position is different on the organ than on the piano, even though they pretty much look the same. What I mean by that is that on the organ one has to sort of balance oneself on the bench. One cannot brace oneself with one’s left foot as one can do at the piano because then the bass pedals will sound, unless you have them turned off of course. The piano bench is moveable of course but the organ bench is less so, generally speaking. Well, I never moved it and never saw anyone else who did either, that’s why I say that. I assumed the organ bench was in the place it needed to be for easy access to the pedals and expression boxes. On the organ, both feet are busy playing the pedal board or dealing with the expression boxes (right foot usually for that), along with changing the toe pistons (which also change the registration) which are located above the pedal board, and the hands are busy playing the manuals and hopefully fluently moving the hands between the manuals for specific registration effects already set on each manual per the score, or one’s improvisation creativity. The hands can be rapidly jumping or slowly “finger-crawling” (that’s what I call it) from one manual to another depending upon the piece (a French toccata, for example), and changing registration either manually or through thumb pistons (the white buttons under the keys), assuming one does not have a registrant. A registrant is another musician (hopefully) who reads music standing by the organ changing the registration for the organist, and also turning pages. It’s considered acceptable for organists to use their scores in performance, whereas the same is not true for pianists, another glaring hypocrisy and something I disagree with in the classical music tradition. (Related: Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.) Then there are the improvisational skills required of the Organist in Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Liturgies, especially Anglican. Some of the finest organists train in and specialise in improvisation.

Also, I have found that organists and churches are — well, don’t let me get started on church organists! — not at all welcoming to having a Conservatory-trained organist practise on or use their organ even when offering to pay them for practise time. Does the church organist think that someone is trying to steal his/her job? And you have to tell a church organist of your training otherwise s/he thinks you’re just someone walking in off the street who wants to play an organ and could “break it.” But, if you tell them you’re “Conservatory-trained” they seem to be intimidated by that and think that even with such training that one will “break” their organ. Even if you manage to get in the door (highly unlikely) you’ll hear, “Don’t change my presets.” So I started writing in introductory letters to organists that I wouldn’t change their presets. But after many futile efforts on my part, I gave up on trying to practise in churches and dealing with difficult church organists. Most of my experience with musicians has been good; very favourable, but not with church organists. They are a different breed entirely, and I don’t know why. It really was a no-win situation and I had to deal with so many church organists with “issues.” And most church organists seem to think they personally own the church’s organ. Most church organists from my experience are quite a piece of work. Can’t stand them. I have little positive to say about most of them. A few of the church organists in my childhood were dear friends and didn’t act like these people. So I can imagine the stories that Concert Organist Diane Bish has to tell from her decades of recording in parish and cathedral churches in the US and in Europe. I remember her saying that church organists can be “touchy.” Oh Diane dear, that doesn’t even begin to cover it! Why don’t you tell us what you really think about them, or could that not be printed?! And Diane produced some splendid programmes during her long career with The Joy of Music.

But that’s not all. Add to all that the location of the organ console in parish and cathedral churches of the Anglican Communion, Catholic and Lutheran churches is often out of sight. It can be in a pit in the Quire area, or up on the second or third story of the cathedral in a “gallery” or it’s in the back of the Quire area because the High Altar — and not the organ console — is the centre of attention in Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran parishes and cathedral churches. At St Paul’s Cathedral in London (Anglican), the organ console is up on the second story above the Quire area on the right side facing the High Altar. Then there’s the un-moveable organ console at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia. The console is in the very back of the Quire area (over on the right side) out of sight if you’re standing in the Nave. At WNC, the Cathedral Organist has to use a monitor above the music rack (the monitor is connected to cameras) allowing the Organist to see part of the Nave and the Sanctuary area. The Sanctuary area is where the free-standing altar is located. He uses the monitor to watch the Liturgy — from the hidden organ console — to know when to play and how much. During his organ improvisations he watches the procession and the priests and vergers and what they’re doing. When improvising during a hymn, he must determine when to start the next verse of a hymn following an improvisation based on what the priests are doing in the Sanctuary area around the free-stand altar, or how far along the procession is. He also has to watch in his monitor to see the Choirmaster who’s conducting — at WNC the Cathedral Choir sits in the Sanctuary area for some odd reason rather than in the Quire stalls — as well as the priests around the free-standing altar to determine the appropriate time to play in the Liturgy. He’s also watching for the acolytes to see where they are and that gives the Cathedral Organist a guide of how much improvisation he needs to do at that point in the Liturgy. He also has to watch the thurifer when incense is used at WNC before the Consecration to extend the music (the hymn or an improvisation) accordingly. Or, if an Organist is at a parish church where the organ is up in the back gallery with the Organist’s back to the High Altar, the Organist has to use a large mirror or a monitor for when to play at various places in the Liturgy. No other instrument that I can think of needs this additional expertise and skill level that some church musicians are required to do.

As one can see, the piano and pipe organ are drastically different, yet they can be played by the same musician in a concert, and this is the specialty area of training I’m very familiar with. So I have to ask:

Does playing the pipe organ — especially in a cathedral setting as I explained — sound more difficult than mastering one of the wind or brass instruments and their corresponding embouchure, by comparison? I should think so. Yet well-trained keyboardists in both piano and organ can go back and forth between the two instruments relatively easily.

As I said earlier, my commenter pointed out that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is very different, and if I understood her correctly — she’s free to correct me if I misunderstood her — one would not see a wind player play both the flute and clarinet in the same concert. Therefore, based on what she said, I came away with the impression that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is so drastically different that it would be impossible to play another wind instrument.

But from my research, other wind and brass musicians do mention the embouchure differences, but they don’t make that big of a deal about it, as if they have a different opinion about this and it would not prevent them from learning/playing another wind (or brass) instrument and playing both instruments in the same concert. Jazz artist Steve Slagle comes to mind who I mentioned at the beginning where he played two different instruments with two different embouchures in the same piece. This is not meant to minimise the skill level/artistry of embouchure required for any instrument, or the talent required.

Or is Steve Slagle an exception? (Spoiler: No, he’s not an exception).

Can a wind or brass musician not master two or more very different embouchures? Other musicians seem to be saying: “Yes, we can, and we do” to that question.

Is is not possible for a wind musician to go back and forth between clarinet and flute or other wind instruments just as a keyboardist goes back and forth between piano and organ, for example? It seems to me that if a musician has mastered the embouchure for one or more instruments, why couldn’t one play multiple instruments well/superbly, even in orchestras? Again, not in the same piece of course, although Steve Slagle does that. As an analogy, different types of guitars can be played by the same musician, even though the guitars — such as going from an electric to an acoustic guitar — are very different.

Each musician is different with different training, talents and skill levels. So what some musicians can’t do or find difficult to do, or have no interest in doing, other musicians can do and do exceptionally well, including playing multiple wind and or brass instruments with different embouchures in the same performance.

Some examples: From my research, I learned that there are musicians who play or are studying both flute and clarinet or various wind and/or brass instruments. I found it quite interesting.

The first commenter below (it’s the same quote that I have at the top of the page in case someone missed it up there) from the site “From Moving From Flute to other wind instruments” learned all the woodwinds in High School and is getting his DMA in multiple woodwinds:

He wrote this in response to the question about moving from flute to other wind instruments:

“If you have a basic idea of being a musician and know your theory pretty well, you will be fine. It’s going to be mainly learning embouchure and fingerings. The fingerings are similar…but you will need to think of it as a completely new instrument, rather than think about how much they are the same. I treat each instrument as an individual, carrying over only my musicality to each. I started my serious musical life as a violinist in middle school, and still play it now, but learned all the woodwinds in High School after being bored with my high school orchestra. I now have a bachelor’s and master’s in oboe/English horn performance, and am going to do my DMA [ed. for those who don't know, that means the Doctor of Musical Arts degree] in multiple woodwinds.”

Another commenter wrote:

There are similarities and differences. Fingerings of the oboe and saxophone are similar to the flute (but not identical). The basic fingerings (D, E, F, G, A, B) are essentially the same in the lowest octave (if the flute LH thumb key is closed). Flute, oboe, and saxophone are all octave based instruments. The second octave fingerings are mostly the same as the lowest octave. The big difference from the flute however, is that the oboe and sax use an octave key to jump to the second octave, whereas on the flute the second octave is achieved by overblowing to the next harmonic. In the third octave, the fingerings are different on all three instruments. The clarinet is not octave based. Instead it overblows a twelfth. The lowest octave is called the chalumeau register and the fingerings are offset by a twelfth from the flute fingerings. For example, on the flute, oboe, and sax, with the first two fingers of the left hand down, they all play a written A. On the clarinet in the lowest octave, the first two left fingers play a written D below the staff. With the same fingering, but adding the register key, the clarinet jumps up a twelfth to the A one ledger line above the staff. The flute has little resistance when blowing. Flutists are always trying to conserve air to keep from running out. The oboe has great resistance, so it’s exactly the opposite of the flute. Oboists sometimes have to exhale excess air before taking another breath. In terms of resistance, the order (from least to greatest) would be flute, saxophone, clarinet, and then oboe. So, for a flutist, from the perspective of fingerings only, it would probably be initially easier to learn oboe or sax. IMO, the saxophone would be the easier instrument for a flutist to learn. The fingerings are closer in the first two octaves and the embouchure is looser on the sax than on the clarinet or oboe so there’s less likelyhood of interfering with your flute embouchure.

Another commenter wrote:

“Personally, it feels like the clarinet is much more physically demanding. It has quite a bit of resistance and fingering takes more effort. I actually get fatigued after an hour of playing the clarinet but not so with the flute.”

Other commenters on another site:
Subject: Clarinet harder for young players than the flute?

I’ve been a clarinet player for many years (over 20) and I started playing the flute about 6 months ago and have made astounding progress. Over the years I’ve noticed at competitions that the young flute players are always much better than the young clarinetists of equal age. And having just gone through the process of learning flute I can offer some reasons why. In the beginning, a young clarinetist can’t play for more than 5 minutes because of the pain of having the reed on the teeth. Also the embouchure needs to be strengthened to play longer. With the flute there is no such mouth pain, it’s much more about control than strength. So a young flute player can practice much longer than any young clarinetist because there is no mouth pain associated with playing….The reason I mention my findings is because it took me about 6 years to get to a level advanced amateur proficiency. Granted, because I know music theory, breath control, rhythm, have finger dexterity, and strong mouth muscles, learning another wind instrment was easier for me. With flute all I really am concentrating on is tone quality and fingerings. I’ve worked through two beginner books in about a month, and now I’m working through the Voxman duet book. But I am still amazed at how quickly I’m progressing.

Another commenter:

Just some observations. Not quite as organized as your thoughts. I’ve played the clarinet for a long time, flute about 3-4 years now, sax maybe 2-3. My clarinet/sax teacher is convinced from his own experience and that of teaching others that your conclusion that the clarinet is the most difficult of the three for the same reason. He would much rather teach the clarinet first if a student is interested in learning more than one instrument. From what he has seen it is easier for a clarinetist to switch to the flute and sax than flute and sax players to learn the clarinet later. An observation of my own is that it seems harder to keep the flute embochure in shape when I’m playing the clarinet a lot and maybe not keeping up with the flute like I should. I can’t slack off for too long on the flute or it really shows.

Another commenter:

I remember my 6th grade band director telling us the flute was the easiest instrument to learn and the clarinet was a bit harder. The clarinet section always seemed to lag behind a bit. Metal clarinets still have the same mouthpiece/reed set-up. That seems to be what gives young players fits. The embouchure is difficult to master for them.
[Source: The Clarinet BBoard: Clarinet harder for young players than the flute?]

Then, at least one commenter on this site said: “I play both woodwind and brass instruments.”

Well, that is my point. That person has learned very different embouchures in order to play woodwinds and brass instruments, so it can be done. It seems that the musician has to practise/play both instruments to keep them up at a proficient level and not let one of them fall behind, because that’s where some musicians run into trouble from what I’m reading them say. Similar to myself in that I’m not as proficient on the pipe organ because I don’t have a organ to practise on.

While writing this article I talked with mi amigo/my friend about this topic. He asked: So why couldn’t one play flute then clarinet, for example, in the same performance? (Not the same piece). Like you say, it doesn’t sound as difficult as going from piano to pipe organ and all that you’ve detailed about the organ, which has a lot more going on than “what the mouth, lips and face do with the instrument” (embouchure). It sounds like to me that there’s a lot more to playing pipe organ than the embouchure factor with either flute or clarinet. And from your research, those who have mentioned the embouchure differences really haven’t made that big of a deal about it.

I noticed that the third chair clarinetist (the guy with the thick shoulder-length grey hair) in the hr-Sinfonieorchester also played the bass clarinet in the same concert. He played the bass clarinet in the Bartók piece: Der wunderbare Mandarin. You can see him playing the bass clarinet at 3.55 in this video:

Then in the Brahms piece on the same programme, he played the soprano clarinet. The bass clarinet is often mistaken for a saxophone. And, the embouchures are not the same for the two instruments from my understanding. [Source]. You can see him playing the soprano clarinet at 12.58 in this video:

Another commenter wrote:

“It’s my impression that most classically trained bass clarinetists use an embouchure that’s reasonably similar to what they use on soprano clarinet. Especially, in having the bass clarinet mouthpiece at an angle rather than playing it straight on (ie, like a saxophone).

That said, I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with a local friend who is a fine classical bass clarinetist. It’s his impression that while most bass clarinetists use a soprano clarinet kind of embouchure there are some classical bass clarinetists on the cutting edge who are exploring non-traditional embouchures.

I, personally, use what I describe as a “hybrid” embouchure in that I take a lot of the mouthpiece beak into my mouth and lift my front teeth off the mouthpiece. I don’t curl my top lip under my teeth as in a “double” embouchure. At most, I’ll have a very thin amount of lip under the teeth. Finally, I puff my checks (I only do this on bass clarinet). I also play the bass clarinet so the mouthpiece has an angle similar to what I use on soprano clarinet. This approach gives me a very full sound and excellent response & articulation throughout the range of the instrument.

My bass clarinet friend has also been exploring non-traditional embouchures. He suggested that I try puffing my cheeks. Lo and behold, it made a positive difference!”

And another commenter:

“Here’s an update…for me, the embouchure I’m using is not a sax nor a true Bb Clarinet embouchure, but more of a hybrid. I guess the best way to describe it is “it’s a bass clarinet embouchure”. The first 15-20 minutes I was wondering if it was going to work out, but with a bit of patience and long tones the sound got better and better.”
[Source: Here and here.]

The use of vibrato:

I was also curious about the use of vibrato. The flautist has to master the skilled use of vibrato, as do other instruments. I mention the flute in particular because I’ve been paying special attention to the principal flautists of the hr-Sinfonieorchester.

As for vibrato added to flute playing, from my understanding, vibrato technique on the flute should be applied carefully and tastefully as an expressive part of one’s playing, rather than used for every note. When used too often, it can detract from a performance. Yeah, tell me about it! Just like it distracts from a performance when operatic singers screamers are unfortunately invited into a symphonic choral performance, for example, and mistake that for opera, barking and screaming their way through the solo vocal parts. Their annoying voice with heavy-vibrato does not match the choral sound at all, assuming that the Symphony Chorus is singing with a beautiful straight tone. Vibrato on the flute should be seen as an enhancer of already excellent flute tone. It should not be used as a means to cover up tone or intonation problems. Again, think an operatic singer screaming diva in a symphonic choral performance or in an opera. The flautist should be able to play with solid, consistent, non-vibrato sound, and that is just as critical in one’s playing as mastering the vibrato technique for added artistry.

If only operatic singers screamers could grasp that same concept of vibrato rather than rearing back and belting out/harshly screaming with a wobbling, fluttering and quivering voice every note they propel from their mouth like a jet engine where the listener is trying to deceiver what notes this diva-screamer is trying to “sing” because they’re singing or rather screaming in between pitches/notes making their screaming sharp or flat. With operatic screamers and with ill-prepared Orchestra Choruses singing with very noticeable annoying vibrato preventing perfect intonation, too often their poor use of vibrato is for covering up bad vocal technique and their inability to sing on pitch. Orchestras are quite skilled at playing extremely softly so the long-held myth that one must scream to “sing over the Orchestra” is brainwashed nonsense that the Vibratobots among us love to spam all over the internet to justify their ugly, wobbling, fluttering, quivering, heavy-vibrato harsh screaming. There’s nothing remotely musical about screaming. Any fool can scream. Listen to how quietly and absolutely beautifully my favourite Orchestra, the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony plays at times, according to the scores markings of course. I’ve seen a few vocal screamers (invited vocal soloists) rear back and needlessly scream over the hr-Sinfonieorchester per the “singers”/screamers brainwashing and I had to click off. Such ugly screaming ruined the performance for me.

My own experience: Being a “choral person” my degree programme was in the vocal music concentration (piano major, voice and organ double minors), not in the instrumental concentration. I served as piano accompanist for — what seemed like — half of the Conservatory (orchestral musicians mostly, a few vocalists). I’m exaggerating a bit, but the point is that I had too many people to accompany. The faculty director for the Accompanying Department kept sending people to me to see if I would accompany them, in part, because I was also piano accompanist for the Conservatory’s Concert Choir. I initially appreciated all of the referrals from her and was complimented/flattered by them. But, after awhile it just became too much — I had too many students — and because she had referred them to me I was hesitant to say, “No, I have too many musicians already to accompany. You’ll have to find somebody else. Why don’t you try that stuck-on-herself, ugly-personality pianist with her big head who is seemingly jealous of any pianist around here who works on or even sight-reads the same pieces she’s played and who plays all the piano concerti around here on campus where no one else has the opportunity. Why don’t you ask her? You know who I’m talking about. Some of us call her ‘The Concerto Swine’ because she hogs all of the concerto opportunities. Maybe that jealous piece of work will take you on.” The thing is: I always tried to be nice to her when I saw her on campus and I even complimented her playing, which took a lot from me considering the way she treated me. She never did the same to me. All she would do was criticise me even to my face and around other students and tell me how many wrong notes she had heard me play while I was sight-reading one of the pieces she had played. I thought but didn’t say to her: Did you sight-read that concerto perfectly when you sight-read it, Ms Witch? And you have nothing better to do with your day than to stand outside my practise room listening to me sight-read or practise repertoire? Don’t you have another concerto to learn or something showy that you should be working on rather than worrying about what I’m doing in my practise room? What is wrong with you, ‘Concerto Swine’?” But she wanted nothing to do with me, and I never understood what I had done to her to cause her to behave like this to me. My music friends later said that they thought she was jealous of me — and that’s why she acted the way she did towards me (cold and belligerent) — because of all the piano accompanying I did on campus. I said to them: But she’s a Performance Major in Piano (Bachelor of Music Degree). She’s not in accompanying or in my degree programme, although as a Piano Major I was trained more like a Performance Major than most of the other pianists in the BME degree programme. My friends said: Maybe she’s confused and realised after being here awhile that she doesn’t really want to perform after all. That may have been the case, because I found her online in recent years and today that’s what she’s doing: Accompanying. She’s not concertising or playing with orchestras. Now anyone can have memory slips while performing, but maybe her multiple and scary memory slips during concerto performances made her re-think things. In one of her performances with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, the whole thing (the concerto she was playing) almost shut down entirely because she didn’t come in at the right time because of a memory slip. Then, sections of the Orchestra were to get their entrance cue from the piano so they didn’t come in either, and other sections didn’t come in. Let’s just say the sound was pretty bare at one point. I thought the conductor was going to have to take his score over to her and whisper, “Let’s start here, dear, play something!…try this again.” And tell the same to the Orchestra. But finally, she played something that got it back on track but it was very obvious she was having a major memory slip. I think some of us started looking at each other in the audience when this happened as to say: Is she going to get through this? Did I rub that in her face? No. I either told her that I enjoyed her performance or I said nothing. On that occasion, I probably said nothing because saying that I enjoyed it could come off as being sarcastic considering her major memory problem during the performance. In one or two other concerto performances, she also had memory slips, but they were not as severe as this one. Of course if she had used her score with a page turner this wouldn’t have happened. But by silly tradition, pianists are not supposed to use their scores (roll eyes) in performance. (Related: Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.) Also, interestingly, I had a very good rapport with her piano professor. She was very nice to me. I even helped her on one occasion. Hope you enjoyed that little “behind the scenes” story from my Conservatory experience.

The accompanying I did was interesting but I really didn’t learn much about each instrument unfortunately, because that was not the purpose of it. The purpose was accompanying experience. It was good experience but it became too much with rehearsals and end-of-semester juries and that sort of thing. The Conservatory required piano majors in the BME degree programme vocal concentration to accompany three musicians. Well, I had far more than that, along with the repertoire for my choral accompanying and my own piano major, organ and voice minors repertoire. And I chose to do three years for the minors as opposed to the required two years.

Maybe they have changed things by now, but I really think that the two concentrations (vocal and instrumental/orchestral) should overlap at least some so that each concentration has a knowledge of the other. Choral people should know as much about each instrument as possible, at least in a basic sense. I don’t mean studying to play each instrument necessarily but at least know the basics “on paper.” Maybe spend a week on each orchestral instrument with demonstrations about the instrument. The degree programme time would be better spent on that rather than some of these useless courses (such as algebra) that we were required to take — and I questioned at the time — in order to earn the degree. Their thinking: “But the Choral Music Director in a public school might need to teach algebra if the algebra teacher is out sick.” (roll eyes) I said: Screw that. Give the algebra classes a study hall that day. (lol) But that was the rationale used for having us in the Conservatory’s vocal concentration for the Bachelor of Music Education degree study algebra. And I’ve not used algebra since the day I took the final exam! In the long run, what a waste of time that class was.

At this point in life and especially after watching many performances by the superb hr-Sinfonieorchester, as I said earlier I’ve become quite curious about some of the orchestral instruments and for awhile have been thinking of studying the violin. After a few classes I’m sure I would be at a level to audition for Second Concertmaster with the hr-Sinfonieorchester, don’t you think? Even if that chair isn’t available. Move over superb Second Concertmaster, Florin Silviu Iliescu. You’re now third chair, mi amor. No dear reader, I haven’t gone insane. Not quite yet. I’m just joking if you don’t already know my usually-sarcastic sense of humour. But that is what some of the people who came to me for piano instruction thought. Yes they expected to be able to play one of the extremely difficult Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux in a couple of weeks apparently just because they were “sitting down with me at the piano” and they expected to play it just like me in a few classes, without having any prior piano training at all. Insane. I had multiple prospective students tell me about the difficult pieces they had heard and expected to play in a matter of a couple of classes. Astounding. Of course I didn’t tell them any differently. I didn’t really say anything other than, “Oh they are lovely pieces and very difficult.” I thought I would just allow my student to slowly take it all in and realise the mistake in their thinking. I have no idea where they acquired that thinking. Perhaps from watching one of those one-finger play-by-number infomercials on television where the key lights up on the small electronic keyboard (not even Digital and without full-sized keys) when you touch it? Or did they get this thinking through our US instant-gratification pop culture? I couldn’t tell you where they got it, but these students didn’t stay with me. After they realised there was some work involved, they were gone.

And I suspect the same is true for all instruments. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. The same is true for all musical instruments. It’s just that a well-trained, true artist makes it look so easy and effortless, or that’s the way we were trained that it’s supposed to look. Perhaps that’s, in part, where some people acquire this thinking that, “Oh it’s so easy, only a few classes will be needed for me to play just like well-trained outstanding musicians one has seen perform.” Chau.—el barrio rosa


Since I already play the flute, how different is it to play the clarinet in terms of difficulty?

Why the organ really is king of musical instruments

Brahms – Schicksalslied ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Vocalconsort Berlin ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Hola a todos. Feel like some Brahms? If so, either of these performances below should help lower your blood pressure. Below are two superb performances of Brahms’s Schicksalslied from the Alte Oper Frankfurt and my favourite the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

The performance date for their more recent performance of this work is: 8. Februar 2019 (8 February 2019). This performance causes tears to come to my eyes in places — such as during principal flautist Sebastian Wittiber’s lovely flute solo. That begins shortly after 14.20 in the first video below. Andrés, the conductor, looked very moved as well. How could you not be the way Sebastian played that? Absolutely beautiful playing with the consistently stellar performance results from the hr-Sinfonieorchester, and its guest Chorus.

The hr-Sinfonieorchester do not have their own Symphony Chorus. I presume by choice. There are quite a few orchestras without their own Chorus. Some that readily come to mind: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Baltimore disband their Symphony Chorus years ago citing that they weren’t that good, not up to the Orchestra’s standards and they started inviting the superb University of Maryland Chorus to perform with them. The Kennedy Center’s resident Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, does not have its own Symphony Chorus. The NSO usually invites the Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Washington Chorus or the University of Maryland Concert Choir to perform with them. There are other orchestras without their own Chorus. Then there’s one Orchestra that comes to mind that does have their own Chorus but might wish they didn’t if it weren’t for James Burton to work his wonders with them: The Boston Symphony Orchestra is currently having their Chorus Director, excellent James Burton originally from the UK (Hallé Choir/Choral Director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester), overhaul their Official Chorus, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which has been lagging in choral excellence for sometime and many people have finally noticed.

As for this Brahms’s Schicksalslied performance, listen to around 15.16 in the first video with the strings. Exquisite. The tears that come to my eyes while listening to/watching these two performances below are, in part, from knowing the years and years of training, practise, devotion, discipline and high-skill level required to produce such stellar results. And with the hr-Sinfonieorchester, they do so consistently, often playing some of the most difficult repertoire such as Béla Bartók’s tour de force Der wunderbare Mandarin, op. 19, which was on the same programme as the Brahms.

Also assisting in the first Brahms performance below — as well as the Bartók — was the Chorus, Vocalconsort Berlin. I was curious how they got to Frankfurt from the Deutschland capital. Unless they flew, they likely had a 4.5-hour train ride to Frankfurt. Well it was well worth it as they sang superbly, their voices blended perfectly in all sections (SATB), and their diction was excellent. And I’m sure it was an honour for them to perform with this outstandingly stellar Orchestra.

For those who don’t know, the hr-Sinfonieorchester is the Symphony Orchestra of the Hessischer Rundfunk, German Public Radio of Hesse, one of the states of Deutschland/Germany, centrally located within Deutschland with Frankfurt being Hesse’s largest city. We have nothing like this in the States, here in the so-called “greatest country” and all that. But don’t let me get started on the ugly nationalistic mythology that many USians have been brainwashed with where they have to keep telling themselves and reassuring themselves what a (supposedly) “great country” this is, as I heard someone do while writing this which is partly why I’m bringing it up. Nevertheless, there is no npr or PBS Orchestra, and I suspect you won’t see one.

The superb Vocalconsort Berlin was prepared by Chorus Director, (Einstudierung) Christoph Siebert. He’s also Chorus Director for the Collegium Vocale Gent, the Chorus in the second video performance below. One of Christoph’s teachers was John Eliot Gardiner of The Monteverdi Choir. The Vocalconsort Berlin sang with a lovely straight (and darker) tone which gave them perfect intonation in all sections – SATB.

I was also pleased to see that Andrés acknowledged the Chorus Director at the end of the performance and had him take his bows and to have his Chorus stand to be acknowledged. I say that because sometime orchestral conductors don’t bring the Chorus Director out for bows for some odd reasons. Well, to some the Chorus Director is considered unimportant — don’t get me started on that; I fail to understand that thinking — and all the credit for the Chorus Director preparing the Chorus is misplaced by unfortunately giving that credit to the orchestral conductor who really had nothing to do with it. The only time the orchestral conductor works with the Chorus and makes any minor adjustments to how they have been prepared by the Chorus Director is usually in the one-and-only orchestral rehearsal on stage. Usually, the Chorus Director and the performance conductor go over the score before the Chorus Director prepares the Chorus according to the conductor’s wishes. So there is usually not much that the conductor has to say to the Chorus, including all final consonants being in their correct place. On occasion, a conductor might change his (or her) mind after hearing the Orchestra and Chorus together in the one and only rehearsal, and tell the Chorus to make a minor change here and there in how they had been prepared (such as: “Chorus, forget what I told your excellent Chorus Director over the phone when we first spoke. I have an idea, let’s do it this way instead…”). That was my experience having been in three major Orchestra Choruses in the US (see here, here, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Davies Symphony Hall).

Andrés is not one to give himself much credit for the performances he conducts. He makes it about all the other musicians, and that is so good to see. I think he would be a pleasure to work with. He’s so respectful of the musicians he conducts and smiles at them in approval at their lovely playing throughout the performance as if to say, “You’re playing splendidly and this is so much fun for me, and I have the privilege of conducting you.”

I also like how the Men of the Chorus were dressed. I’m not usually hot on all-black, but it certainly looks better than that traditional black and white tux rut worn by choral ensembles for decades — and still being worn by some — with stuffy bow ties for what seems to be centuries. I’ve seen this new all-black performance “look”/choral attire for sometime in the EU. From what I’ve seen, the choral ensembles performing for the BBC Proms wear all-black, although without jackets. That’s true for both genders, not just the guys. Some of the choral ensembles from the Nederlands feature the Men of the Chorus wearing long ties, each guy wearing a different coloured tie. I like that. That looks very pretty and adds a nice touch of colour to the stage.

Here’s the most recent performance from February 2019:

As I said, the hr-Sinfonieorchester have performed this piece at least once before awhile back (see video below). In that performance, they invited Philippe Herreweghe and the excellent Collegium Vocale Gent from Belgium to perform with Philippe conducting. I wrote about that here. In that performance, hr-Sinfonieorchester principal flautist Clara Andrada de la Calle played the lovely flute solo (beginning a little after 14.00 in the video below). Clara is also a flautist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

I liked the way both Sebastian and Clara played it — they alternate as principals, and I think they have a third principal flautist — each played it a little differently in a phrasing sense.

Here’s the performance with the hr-Sinfonieorchester and the Collegium Vocale Gent:

Schicksalslied, Op. 54:

Some people say that the Schicksalslied is sort of a small Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. (Related: Here’s a superb performance of that from a choral and orchestral perspective: From Copenhagen: Brahms – Ein Deutches Requiem – DRSO & KoncertKoret). Or they say that if they don’t have the time at the moment to listen to the Requiem, they listen to the Schicksalslied instead to get their cravings for Brahms.

Mi amigo/My friend commented on this performance from February 2019 saying he enjoyed it. Then he said, “Is there anything that those strings can’t play? In places they seem to come out of nowhere and so flawlessly, and they blend beautifully.” I do so agree. Their string section and their volume control is unsurpassed and rather amazing. Perfection. He also noticed how the people in Frankfurt (the audience) and the Chorus from Berlin looked more natural, less artificial, like real people including the women “not all dolled up,” and not trying to hide their age with hair-colourings and loads of needless cosmetics the way the “You must always look young” sheeple do here in the States having been brainwashed by the US corporate media that one must always look “young” regardless of one’s age.

Also, one of the choristers in the Vocalconsort Berlin is (or was) a chorister in the Collegium Vocale Gent — you’ll see him on the back row in the tenor section in both videos — when they performed this work in Frankfurt. He’s a superb tenor. I recognised him, so he has performed this piece at least twice in this venue.

Andrés is extremely good at working with a Chorus from watching him. That cannot be said about all orchestral conductors from my experience. Some orchestral conductors pretty much just ignore the Chorus. “You’re on your own” seems to be their thinking. With this unspoken, “I’m only concerned about or here for my Orchestra” which shows a lack of respect for the Chorus. (Related: The Second Class Musicians). But not with Andrés. He’s very respectful of the Chorus as well as all the other musicians on stage. He’s now one of my favourite conductors, and frankly you could count my list of “favourite conductors” on one hand. I’m not usually into conductors, per se, I’m more into the Orchestra and Chorus and or instrumental soloists. It depends upon the situation, the piece and the performing forces. I agree with Classical Music Violinist Nigel Kennedy who said, “Conductors are completely over-rated.” Finally, someone said it! Long overdue. (Related: Dudamel does it best! No, Bernstein! No, Solti! No, Karajan!)

Andrés Orozco-Estrada was born in Colombia but trained in Vienna where he lives. He’s also conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. A bit of Latin culture education: Orozco is his father’s last name and Estrada is his mother’s last name.

In this more recent performance, I would have preferred more space of silence at the end between the last chord and the applause. There must have been somebody there in the audience from the US or its poodle colony the UK — I’m specifically thinking of the audiences at the BBC Proms and their over-enthusiastic applause usually started by some screaming guy(s) — who doesn’t understand that you don’t have to jump in on the last note/chord with applause almost as if it’s written in the score. A respectful amount of silence is a good thing, especially after a piece like the Brahms. The same goes for Ein deutsches Requiem. That’s what Andrés was trying to do and signal to the audience. Watch his hands and arms, people. Allow Andrés to lower his arms completely. Then breathe. Then you can applaud. This reminds me of some classical music stations these days who leave no space at all between the last notes/chord of a piece and their jumping in and interrupting the mood by urgently telling the audience what they had just heard. Why the rush? I suppose they would say, “Oh because of the short attention span of the sheeple today, you can’t have any silence otherwise you will lose them.” You lose me when you don’t allow any silence. I find a lack of silence tacky. What’s the rush? And we’re talking about the classical music audience, not the short-attention span US pop culture audience who can’t remember 5 seconds ago. The classical music audience presumably has a long(er) attention span otherwise they wouldn’t be able to sit through lengthy musical compositions and major symphonic works and enjoy them. “But our marketing research tells us…” Isn’t your “marketing research” geared to US pop culture? (roll eyes)

Someone usually asks me: Have you performed this piece? Yes I did with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus under superb Chorus Director Vance George, a protégé of the late Margaret Hillis, Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Vance was very enjoyable to work with. Very down-to-Earth, good people skills, a really nice guy and he produced excellent results with the Symphony Chorus. He’s a stickler for good choral diction and that’s a good thing. And as Dr Paul Traver of the renowned University of Maryland Chorus said when they were around, “If you can’t sound good, you can at least have good diction.” (lol) That is so true, and the UMD Chorus was known for their excellent diction and their “good sound.” But I have a lot of respect for Vance George.

Anyway, enjoy these two beautiful performances from Frankfurt. We are so fortunate that they make their outstandingly superb performances available to the world. Chau.—el barrio rosa


Fauré – Requiem Op. 48 – Collegium Vocale and Chapelle Royale, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (Herreweghe)

Cristobal de Morales – Emendemus in melius (Collegium Vocale Ghent – P. Herreweghe)

Schubert – Große C-Dur-Sinfonie ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ Andrés Orozco-Estrada

(Note: A correction has been made to this article, which also affected the comments).

Hola a todos. What a marvelous and thoroughly enjoyable performance. You may have heard Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, D 944, (known as the Great Symphony) but I suspect you’ve not seen it played by being inside the Orchestra which takes a performance to a whole new level, which you can do by watching this HD video from my favourite, the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

This is the Symphony Orchestra of the Hessischer Rundfunk, German Public Radio of Hesse, one of the states of Deutschland/Germany, centrally located within Deutschland with Frankfurt being Hesse’s largest city. We have nothing like this in the States. There is no npr or PBS Orchestra, and I doubt there ever will be!

When watching this performance, if at one point near the end you think you’re hearing part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, you are correct. Schubert briefly “quoted” from part of the Beethoven (one occurrence of that you can hear beginning at 45.28 in the video. It appears at two different places in the score). I don’t know that Schubert could get away with that today due to copyright nonsense.

The hr-Sinfonieorchester have an excellent camera crew and record in HD. Their stage in the Alte Oper Frankfurt — if this building could think, I imagine it appreciates not being an opera house anymore and not having to listen to screaming, heavy-vibrato opera divas — is a recording set with microphones all over the place and with the winds, brass and percussion sections of the Orchestra elevated for camera views. It’s extremely well done. And these musicians are consistently stellar. I wish most Orchestra Choruses would produce such consistently splendid results, starting with singing with a straight-tone — no noticeable vibrato — guaranteeing perfect intonation in all sections (SATB). And notice the young age (he’s currently 35; I thought he was in his 20s until I researched him) of the Second Concertmaster, Florin Silviu Iliescu. Perhaps he was a child prodigy. Well, he did start studying the violin at the age of 5. (I started playing the piano at the age of 5 but didn’t start formal piano instruction until the age of 8). In one performance I watched, Florin was First Concertmaster and Maximilian Junghanns had been moved to Second Concertmaster. He usually plays in either third or fifth chair in the performances we’ve watch, if I’m remembering correctly. They have at least two principal flautists: Clara Andrada de la Calle and Sebastian Wittiber. They alternate as principals. Although in this performance, the principal flautist is a woman I’ve not seen before. When she stood to take her bow with the wind section, she looked very humble and modest with a nice smile, like the other splendid musicians of this Orchestra.

Mi amigo/My friend and I have watched this performance a few times so far. One of our favourite parts of this work is the last movement especially at the gallops. The violas (they’re over on the right side of the stage when you’re facing the stage) play the galloping figure initially. The violas ultimately accompany the oboist who plays one of those lovely melodies of the last movement. That whole section we found most interesting to watch with the bowing action from the violas, basses and violins especially when they play the groups of 4 octaves in a row. Also, there for a couple of measures it took some rather super-human arm/hand movements to play that part on the viola that the camera showed up. I suspect they drilled that rather well to play it so flawlessly.

I think the competition is rather fierce to be in this Orchestra. The first year is a trial year and one does not become a regular member of the Orchestra until one’s second year. I read that they’re particularly known for their wind section (which is superb), but as far as I’m concerned they should be known for the perfection of every section, including their absolutely gorgeous string section. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Final movement begins: after 41.17 in the video
Quite showy Bowing: at 52.00 with the violas, then the double basses, then the violins

Sometimes after listening to a hr-Sinfonieorchester performance, I’ll be curious to hear how another Orchestra plays the same work, so I’ll check out another Orchestra, usually in the EU. Even though I will enjoy other performances by other orchestras, we always end up coming back to the first performance we heard which was with the hr-Sinfonieorchester. There’s just something about them. It’s hard to put into words, other than to say their sound, consistently high quality level and also I’m very familiar with many of their musicians from seeing them so many times. It’s also interesting to see how their musicians move around within the Orchestra, particularly in the string section.

And as usual, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the conductor, whom I like very much remains as humble and modest as always, the sign of a true artist not stuck on oneself — not even a hint of arrogance despite all of his accomplishments — giving the credit for this superb performance not to himself but to these outstanding musicians who played the work. These are among the finest musicians on the planet. Perfection. I really can’t say enough superlatives about them. It’s almost as if Andrés is thinking, “I’m just the conductor; I didn’t play a note,” which is true. Conductors don’t play a note unless they’re conducting from a keyboard, something that the Classical Music Snots (those self-appointed, know-it-all, nit-picking armchair critics often with no musical training at all probably) seem to have never considered as they engage in their conductor worshipping routine with their silly and juvenile arguing over who is the best. (Related: Dudamel does it best! No, Bernstein! No, Solti! No, Karajan!). In some pieces, the conductor is rather critical to the overall interpretation of the performance one just heard. In other pieces, conductors really don’t make that much difference. Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem (one of my favourite symphonic choral works and that’s a superb performance at that link) is an example of that. That pretty much sounds the same no matter who conducts it, assuming the Symphony Chorus is superb, well-trained and singing with a lovely straight tone. It really depends upon what it is. And unlike some of the Classical Music Snots, I’m not into conductor-worshipping and dropping the names of internationally-known/celebrity conductors.

Andrés seems to have a very special rapport with the hr-Sinfonieorchester and they all seem to like him, as I do. Like some of the finest orchestras, I think this Orchestra could easily play perfectly without a conductor. I’ve seen several performances like that with other orchestras. By the way, Andrés is originally from Colombia but trained in Vienna and lives there. And for those who don’t know, his last name (Orozco-Estrada) is a combination of his father’s last name (Orozco) hyphenated with his mother’s last name (Estrada) which is common in Latin culture. Unlike other cultures where only the father’s name is used. Andrés is also conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. That’s quite a commute from Vienna/Frankfurt to Houston. Enjoy this absolutely splendid performance. It doesn’t get any better than this. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Washington National Cathedral Organist Thomas Sheehan

The organ playing from Cathedral Organist Thomas Sheehan in the recessional hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angel’s Sing” was glorious, especially his High Anglican organ improvisation interludes. Very moving, close to tear-inducing (at least for me) while watching the recessional complete with thurifer/incense and the well-trained acolytes and vergers in the procession. His superb playing made me smile because this is the way the music in an Anglican cathedral is supposed to sound. It reminded me of the brilliant former Cathedral Organist, Benjamin Straley, when he first arrived at WNC.

Hola a todos. Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia has a new organist, Thomas Sheehan, although he doesn’t officially start until Summer of 2019, but he played for the 2018 Christmas Eve Mass at WNC. His playing was excellent. I found him most enjoyable. Rather High Church and I’m a High Church person, so muchas gracias for that, Thomas, should he ever read this. Hopefully he will be allowed to keep his playing High Church and not be asked to “tone it down” to boring and dull Low Church with the excuse being “because we’re not High Church here at WNC. We like to cater to the tourists who are only here once and who are more accustomed to the podunk/redneck(?) ‘praise bands’ genre.” Groan. Who wants to hear Low Church playing in an Anglican cathedral? I suppose someone does; somebody with no taste in music!

A little bit about Thomas’s background: He’s currently the Associate University Organist and Choirmaster at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He’s a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music where he earned diplomas in organ and harpsichord. He also trained at Westminster Choir College where he earned his Master of Music and Bachelor of Music (BM) degrees. (The BM degree is a performance degree, for those who don’t know). “Clearly the boy is well trained” as they would say. He is indeed well trained and very talented. And it takes talent to improvise as expertly as Thomas does.

When I saw Thomas at the organ console, I thought that perhaps he was auditioning to replace Benjamin Straley who left WNC earlier in 2018 to pursue his ultimate goal — despite his superb organ skills — of being an Anglican priest (which he is now) at a small parish in Essex, Connecticut. I would think Benjamin would have access to the parish organ for keeping up his skills. It would be a shame for them to become “rusty” from lack of use. Of course his skills are always there, he would just have to retrieve them and depending upon how long it’s been since he last played, the “retrieving” time would vary.

About Benjamin and his move to the US state of CT (Connecticut): When I heard about that I was thinking that it would be quite a culture shock for him in a couple of ways. Having lived in the District of Columbia which is a major US city, it’s not part of any state because it’s the Federal District and the capital of the US, I can tell you that fortunately living in the District is much different than living in a small town. And a large cathedral is much different than a small parish. Personally, I’m a cathedral person and a city person. Benjamin lived in DC for about 6 years, which is quite awhile to then up and move to a small town. I couldn’t do that being a city person. Although one can get burned out on the political atmosphere in the District. I know I did, and I wasn’t even paying that close attention to politics at that time. DC is a very transient political City and when I lived there it was said that the average stay was about 2 years. But perhaps Benjamin felt he needed a major change, as this most assuredly would be. But anyway, Thomas was hired shortly after or around the same time that Our Benjamin left WNC. I was wondering if Thomas was run through three auditions like Benjamin said he had at WNC? Can you imagine anyone giving Benjamin three auditions with his talent, skills and musical abilities? Oh good lawd. I know one needs to be careful and very selective about the musicians one hires especially for the position of organist in a cathedral church, but really, I should think two auditions would have been sufficient for Benjamin, don’t you? Despite his maturity, maybe it was his “youthful” appearance and young age at the time that led to three auditions.

Some people who feel that Our Benjamin was the finest organist WNC ever had are asking: Is Thomas the next “Benjamin Straley?” Well, he very well may be. But in my opinion, it’s much too early to tell and it really may not have anything to do with Thomas and his organ skills, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Personally, I wouldn’t go by just one Liturgy that Thomas played and especially a Liturgy that is usually or supposed to be more High Church anyway (Christmas Eve Mass) to make any determinations about him. I would have to hear Thomas over months to determine if he’s another Benjamin, or better. Is that possible? I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Thomas, but it would be hard to top the original very High Church Benjamin Straley who first showed up at WNC in his early days after being hired in 2012? I remember saying about him: He’s one of the finest organists I’ve ever heard. And I may have said he’s the best organist they’ve ever hired, although I don’t know that I would have said that not having heard most of all the previous organists at WNC. But anyway, Benjamin was superb/brilliant in his early days at WNC. The reader may be asking, “What do you mean by in his early days?” Well I’ll get to that in a moment. And Benjamin always seemed to be a most humble and modest guy despite his extraordinary talents and skills from what I could tell from the videos. He had not let his success go to his head which is one of the signs of a true artist and mature human being, to not be stuck on himself. Very down-to-Earth. He was certainly better than his predecessor who for my taste was too Low Church.

Thomas has excellent improvisational skills which are critical in an Anglican Liturgy. I’m thinking of High Church now. Upon reflection, does one need any improvisational skills in Low Church? lol. I. Don’t. Think. So. Or not too many. Podunk Low Church congregations seem to be just fine with hearing what amounts to Southern Baptist hymns such as “Bringing in the Sheaves” or “Revive Us Again” (roll eyes) played “by the book” where one would otherwise be improvising. In fact, I’ve occasionally wondered by Low Church people don’t just come out of the closet and be Southern Baptists since they pretty much act just like them in their worship manner and style. I can hear them now: “Genuflect to the reserved sacrament before entering the pew? What’s that? We don’t do that in Low Church. Bow to the processional crosses? Oh good gracious no, wouldn’t dream of it! We don’t do that in Low Church. That’s for those High Church people whom we avoid.” I see. And I avoid Low Church people. They annoy me. I mean, would it really put you out to bow to the processional cross, or genuflect at the side of the pew? Consider it a little bit of exercise. Or are you opposed to that too?

Mi amigo/My friend said Thomas’s playing style particularly in the recessional hymn is what one expects to hear for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England — and expects in an Anglican cathedral. “It doesn’t get any better than this!” mi amigo said. It was deeply moving, close to tear-inducing (at least for me) while watching the recessional with the thurifer/incense and the well-trained acolytes and vergers, all of whom looked like they completely ignored the fake-Christian orange despot parked on the front pew. Thomas’s superb playing made me smile because this is the way the music in an Anglican cathedral is supposed to sound in my opinion. It reminded me of the brilliant former Cathedral Organist, Benjamin Straley, when he first arrived at WNC. Mi amigo asked: How long will Thomas be allowed to play like this at WNC? Exactamente. That’s my point too. They at WNC seem to try to stifle High Anglican superb playing like this. It seems that they think that High Anglican organ playing will “scare away the tourists” rather than realising that’s what they came to hear and expect to hear in a grand cathedral church. I forget where I read it, but I read online that some of the resident congregation at WNC who are referred to as “the liberals in Upper Northwest” — meaning the Upper NW quadrant of the District where the cathedral is located — resent the cathedral catering to the tourists because each tourist is only there once, or at the most twice, so why cater to them? That’s the same thing I’ve asked. Grace Cathedral (Anglican Communion) in San Francisco has tourists as well since San Francisco is a tourist City, and from my experience at Grace they don’t cater to the tourists. Grace tries to be as “British” as possible. I’ve heard locals say about Grace, “They put on a good show up there” (the cathedral is on Nob Hill).

Back to what I said earlier: Our Benjamin was High Church when he arrived at WNC, and it was surprising to me that they had hired someone like him. I wrote about it at the time. I asked, “Does WNC plan to become more High Church?” Then I was surprised when they started implementing some High Church features into their Sunday morning Liturgy. I had wondered whether they had been suggestions from Benjamin. If they were his suggestions, they didn’t last long. I remember complaining about the priests nearly jogging around the free-standing altar in the Sanctuary area with the incense where virtually no smoke was coming out of the thurible. The thurible hadn’t been properly prepared. Either that, or they just wanted to give the appearance that they were using incense without actually using any, or very little to show faint smoke. It was if the more Low Church priests — especially that Dean at the time (was he asked to leave WNC abruptly by the Bishop?) — were not comfortable using incense. Just before he left WNC, during the Sequence Hymn/Gospel Hymn one saw him carrying The Gospel under his arm as if it were a library book. (roll eyes) They also started chanting the responses before and after The Gospel. I didn’t like the chants they were using — who chose those boring things? — because they were rather dull, but at least they were chanting the responses. You have to take what you can get, I guess. By comparison, the chants used before and after The Gospel at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan were/are far superior. Why didn’t they use those, or are they not familiar with them? Just listen to their Sunday morning Liturgies and one will hear them. I think they’re still using them. Especially the chant after The Gospel where the superb trebles at St Thomas soar on “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” That sounds glorious depending upon the key used by the organist — the higher the better for soaring boys’ voices — and the key used was based on the key of the Sequence Hymn before the chant. But unfortunately, none of these High Church changes stuck at WNC. They were only temporary. I suspect that disappointed Benjamin if these suggestions to make the Liturgy more High Church had come from him. Not that they ever read it, but I had suggested in an article that they chant The Nicene Creed with Our Benjamin quietly playing improvised chords underneath the congregation (scratch that because they don’t sing) and choristers who would be chanting the Creed on a single tone. They did this at Grace Cathedral at one time and it was beautiful and far better than reciting it and gives a Higher Church feel to the Liturgy. But that suggestion never took off at WNC. Chanting the Nicene Creed with the Cathedral Organ playing quietly underneath the Chant and with appropriate crescendi at places in the Creed, such as in this section:

“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

That section on the organ would be played more gloriously creating a uniquely more medieval, High Church feel to the Liturgy.

But anyway, Thomas’s improvisational skills do somewhat remind me of Benjamin’s. At one point — I think it was during the recessional hymn (“Hark, the Herald…”) — it looked like Thomas was playing too fast flying up one of the manuals improvising for the action of the organ to keep up with him. And didn’t I hear him using the 64′ in the processional hymn (“Adeste Fideles”)? “Let ‘er rip, Thomas!” I’m all for using the full resources of the organ when appropriate.

A brief detour to another topic but somewhat related: That’s one of my problems with one or more of the three Organist Titulaire at La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, whose Liturgies I no longer watch out of frustration. They have probably the finest grande orgue in the world up there in the back of the Nave (roughly up on what would be the third story of the building, I think) and yet too often their organists “doddle” on it, rarely using the full resources during the Liturgy. They might use close to the full resources in the improvisation leading into the processional hymn and maybe for the improvisation organ voluntary during the recessional which viewers never hear in its entirety because KTO-TV which records the Messe/Mass consistently shuts the camera off in the middle of the organ improvisation! These are world-renowned concert organists (such as Olivier Latry) and that’s the level of disrespect they receive from KTO-TV. I had sensed this for years from having some experience in Catholic churches on the odd occasion, but I learned from watching Notre-Dame de Paris that it seems that most Catholics have very little respect for their own music. To them, it’s all about “the spoken word.” As far as they are concerned with their utter disrespect for the music, the Messe ended with the priest’s Blessing. At Notre-Dame, during the Offertory/censing of the altar, one mostly hears (what I call) “doodling.” One does not hear an anthem sung by a choral ensemble as one hears in Anglican Liturgies. One does not hear anything resembling “grand and glorious” during the Offertory as one often does in Anglican Liturgies. I’ve often thought to myself: Here you have this grande orgue, probably the finest in the world, and that’s all you’re doing with it?! Incredible. What a waste. And they have a Choir School at Notre-Dame but you wouldn’t know it because they rarely feature any Choir. I gave up trying to figure that out. Every church or cathedral church with a Choir School that I’m aware of in the Anglican Communion, the Choir School serves the parish (St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, for example), or the cathedral church (Washington National Cathedral, for example) and prepares a choral ensemble for the Liturgies in the Cathedral. Not at Notre-Dame. Oddly, that’s not the way it works at Notre-Dame de Paris. When they do have a Choir on the odd occasion, the Children’s Choir is the best. They sing with perfect intonation. No noticeable vibrato. But it’s usually a quartet (four voices) leading the service music with one or more of them too often singing with annoying vibrato — even in Renaissance music, which is unheard of! — so their voices don’t blend. They don’t sing with perfect intonation. It’s almost as if they’ve never heard the term, “perfect intonation” at Notre-Dame de Paris. I found this surprising for such a world-renowned cathedral church. In the comments under KTO-TV’s videos, one of the choristers responded. He was a bit thick. He said that the choristers have different vocal priorities and how they are trained in the Choir School. Some are there to focus on operatic training, for example. Well fine, but that’s not what we’re talking about, Mr Chorister. In the cathedral setting, we’re talking about ensemble singing in a choral ensemble. We’re not talking about vocal soloist singing in this context. So it doesn’t matter how one is trained as a soloist in the Choir School. When one sings in an ensemble in the cathedral, one needs to turn off their fluttering and wobbling operatic vibrato and sing with a straight tone so that the choral ensemble one is singing with sings with perfect intonation or the perfect blending of voices, which noticeable vibrato prevents. It was also pointed out to him that they sing with noticeable vibrato in Renaissance music. He admitted that they should not be doing that. Then, what did we hear the next Sunday? We heard singing with vibrato in Renaissance music, and they continued to do so thereafter until I stopped listening, having become fed up with the inconsistent quality and caliber of the music programme at Notre-Dame de Paris. One gets the impression that it’s almost as if nobody there cares about top-notch choral excellence even in a Choir School. An example of the way things should be done: I saw a performance by the Orchestra and Chorus of Les Arts Florissants (Paris). William Christie had all the musicians perform an encore. So, the vocal soloist who had sung with a bit of noticeable vibrato, although not offensive joined the Chorus for the encore. It was a choral-orchestral encore. The vocal soloists astutely knew to turn off their vibrato and sing with a straight tone. Therefore, one heard no noticeable vibrato from the Chorus even with the vocal soloists from the performance singing with them. That’s what I’m talking about here. All of the esteemed vocal soloists for Les Arts Florissants knew to use their “choral voice” (ensemble voice) and not their “soloist voice” when singing with the straight-tone Chorus. This is something that some don’t seem to grasp at Notre-Dame de Paris.

But back to Benjamin for a moment: When Benjamin was Organist, I sensed that he had been told by someone to “tone it down.” I wrote about my suspicions about this. Because when Benjamin first arrived at WNC, he was a very High Church organist. I was delighted they had hired him. He was a perfect choice. But at one point something changed in his playing style in his service music. It was as if he had been reprimanded, as if someone said to him, “Benjamin we need to talk with you for a moment. We enjoy your playing — yeah right, that’s why we want you to change it! — but we are not High Church here, so maybe you could tone things down a bit?” I don’t know that anyone said that to him but that’s the impression I and others got because his playing style rather abruptly changed to a more Low Church style. After that, I no longer found his playing that interesting to hear to be honest. And I kept watching the Liturgies waiting to hear the original Benjamin play again. Some of his occasional organ improvisations he played for the Organ Voluntary at the end of the Liturgy reminded me of the original Benjamin, but that was it. I remember asking, “What’s happened to our High Church Benjamin? Is he bored with the job and no longer has the enthusiasm he originally had?” Even his improvisations during the Liturgy changed. They were no longer the grand and glorious High Church improvisations he came there with. I remember that his improvisations especially after the reading of The Gospel consistently became more subdued, quiet organ playing and what I called “meditative,” and then he seemed to be stuck in that style. Week after week, I kept waiting for grand and glorious High Church Benjamin to return. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t hear it. Well, the same thing could happen to Thomas, and it won’t surprise me if it does. So I feel a certain reserve is necessary in coming to any conclusions too early about Thomas. And again, this would have nothing to do with Thomas, but rather who he is responsible to at the cathedral (the Choirmaster Michael, the Dean or even the Bishop) telling him what playing style they want to hear in WNC, “to cater to the tourist.” Ugh.

For the Christmas Eve Mass, the descant on the recessional hymn was excellent and that was sung from the back of the Nave. I enjoyed that. One could hear it soaring above the hymn as it should and Thomas’s High Church interludes were very moving for me. High Church, Yes! The way it should be. Not that one can’t have High Church in a parish as they do all the time at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Even though many people think St Thomas is a cathedral because of its exterior appearance, it’s a parish church. It’s not the seat of the Bishop. That’s the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Manhattan.

I would also like to praise the acolytes and thurifer. They were very well trained and with Thomas’s superb playing it gave the Liturgy a rather High Church feel. I very much appreciated it. Muchas gracias.

Someone (Owen) sent me a nice email you might enjoy reading:

“I recently began reading your series of articles on Washington National Cathedral, especially with respect to Our Benjamin. I know that you haven’t been following them for a while, but I just wanted to say that I totally agree with most of what you say about his playing.

The purpose of this email is to inform you that music at WNC seems to have gotten better this year, especially at the Christmas Eve Holy Eucharist. Descants on every song that had one, and much better hymn playing(though still choppy). However, I mainly wanted share with you some very high church organ playing from someone not named Benjamin Straley.

As you may or may not be aware, Our Benjamin left the Cathedral in July of 2018 to become an Episcopal priest. His replacement, Thomas Sheehan of Harvard University, was announced that month as well. Christmas Eve saw his first service at the Cathedral, although he will not begin his full-time work until July of 2019.

I was initially very skeptical that anyone would be able to replace Benjamin. Any concerns I had, however, were instantly gone when I heard Sheehan’s playing. Sheehan’s organ skills are incredible, especial with respect to his improvisational abilities. I would even argue that he may be more High Church than Our Benjamin.

Even though you don’t follow WNC anymore, I want you to view this year’s Christmas Eve Service. What do you think of Sheehan’s playing? Do you think he is a worthy successor to Our Benjamin?

Here are the timings:

25:08 – O Come, All Ye Faithful
51:45 – Improvisation when Gospel is brought back to Altar
1:48:45 – Long communion improvisation into Silent Night; no stained glass!
1:57:00 – Hark the Herald Angels Sing with two VERY High Church interludes

Here is the video of the entire service:

On a side note, I may have some input on why hymns are played in a staccato manner at WNC. In an article you wrote, you mentioned how St. Paul’s Cathedral has a longer echo than WNC, yet they play hymns with full value notes. This is certainly true.

However, you have to understand the organ at WNC. They suffer from a problem known as “organ placement.” While the organ sounds like it fills the space completely, it in fact has great trouble doing so. If you are sitting out in the nave, it is very difficult to follow along with the organ. This is due to the fact that much of the organ’s mechanical components pipes are poorly placed in the building. The direction that the mechanical components and pipes faces determines the determines the direction that the sound made by the pipes travel. At WNC, many of the pipes face in a direction where they speak cause the majority of the sound to hit wall before Nave. This makes it difficult for the organ to lead hymns properly because the congregation out in the Nave is hearing an echo and not the organ itself. If the organist plays all the notes full value, the sound becomes very muddy and difficult to follow.

If you are in the front half of the Nave when the organ plays hymns in a staccato manner, you get about one or two beats behind the organ itself. If you are in the back of the nave, this delay increases to about three beats. If the organist plays the hymns full value, you can expect to get three beats behind in the front half of the Nave, and worse if you are in the rear half. You get farther and farther behind when the hymns are played fully because the sound is muddy and difficult to follow along if you are not used to doing so. In order to overcome the problem, the organist plays the hymns in a staccato manner so that you can sing the hymns and not get really far behind.

BTW, they were playing hymns in a staccato manner before Michael McCarthy got there, so don’t blame this on him.”

My response: Muchas gracias for your nice email, Owen. I appreciate it. I’m not disputing anything you wrote about the placement of the organ, and I wasn’t aware of all that.

Regarding the hymn playing, when Our Benjamin was hired he played the hymns legato with full note values, as he had been trained. I distinctly remember that. And that seemed to work just fine, in part, because the congregation at WNC is not a singing congregation. (An update to this paragraph: After I published this article, I went back to hear Benjamin play Jehan Alain’s Litanies, see link at bottom of page. For the recessional hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer” before that he played the hymn with full note values, in other words legato and that was in 2016 and as usual the congregation was not singing). As I remember writing, they are a “stand and mumble” congregation, as one observed on the very familiar Christian hymn “Silent Night” in this Liturgy. I only heard the choristers, clergy and Cathedral Organ. The congregation was standing, the Nave was packed with 4,000+ people staring down at their service leaflets or staring straight ahead as some people were doing in the Quire area, and not singing at all or at a whisper-level mumble-singing. Just moving their lips to the words. Considering that, it really doesn’t matter how the hymns are played. So, in my opinion, the organist should play the hymns legato, as the organist was trained. If WNC had a singing congregation, then I would agree that because of the problems with the organ placement, then yes, play the hymns in a more detached manner. But why should the organist cater to a non-singing congregation by playing staccato — which is not how well-trained organists at respected Conservatories and Schools of Music are trained to play hymns — when they’re not going to sing no matter how the organist plays? Has Michael not noticed despite all his head turns backwards towards the congregation that the congregation does not sing no matter how the hymn are played? By the way, I had suggested that Michael install a mirror on his music stand so he could look behind him more easily as he frequently does for some unknown reason, even though he doesn’t need to see behind him. Benjamin didn’t do that when he served as Choirmaster on occasion. He wasn’t looking all around, and the Organist controls the necessary music improvisations during the processions from his monitor above the organ console music rack. I should also point out that congregations are notorious for dragging hymns whether they can hear the organ well or not, which is in part, why organists are trained to “lead the hymns with the organ” otherwise the hymn will come to a stand-still. In other words, the organ for hymn playing should be played loudly and dominant the way Thomas (and Benjamin before him) played it, with registration variations on each verse of course, usually. That’s what one expects to hear in a grand cathedral church as well as a parish. Staccato playing is helpful when the congregation is dragging. That’s the only time I ever used it when I was Organist/Choirmaster in Anglican parishes. It helps to pick them back up to the original tempo of the hymn, assuming they were singing to begin with. But at WNC, most people are just not big on singing. There’s the small resident congregation. They don’t sing either or at least loud enough to be heard. Then there’s the tourists which some members of the resident congregation resent the cathedral catering to. The tourists don’t sing. When the cameras show them they’re staring straight ahead with arms folded not following any Anglican worship protocol (such as bowing to the processional crosses), or they’re looking around as if they think they’re in a museum. Not to be repetitive, but in the Nave on Christmas Eve, I saw people just staring down at their service leaflets and others standing and staring straight ahead. These people were not singing even the most familiar of well-known hymns that, I think, all Christian churches use in the US during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

A congregational rehearsal might be useful for them:

My personal experience: One of the Anglican parishes (it was Anglo-Catholic/High Church) I was Organist-Choirmaster for would occasionally rehearse the congregation before the Mass began. We rehearsed the service music as well as the hymns. I remember the Rector asking the congregation to “Sing out, sing loudly. Don’t be afraid, make a joyful sound. I want to hear you, the congregation, and not just the Choir up in the back Gallery at the organ console.”

The rehearsals did help, at least for that Mass because it was fresh in people’s minds. A congregational rehearsal; however, can intrude on the organist’s time s/he has for their organ voluntary/prelude at the beginning of the Mass. So, having a rehearsal every Sunday wouldn’t be a good idea although that’s really what’s needed here for consistency.

Contrast the congregational “singing” or rather mumble-singing at WNC with a real-singing congregation that can be heard at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They sing rather loudly and almost sound rehearsed, although they’re not. Perhaps they sing so well because some members of the congregation — and it’s usually women’s voices I hear — think, “We’re supposed to sing well here at St Thomas because, 1) I have a boy in the renowned Choir of Men and Boys, 2) we have this superb Choir of Men and Boys with its residential Choir School (the only one in the US) and 3) we’re here among many of the finest music schools and musicians with The Juilliard School in Lincoln Center, the Manhattan School of Music, the Mannes School of Music and others.”

Here’s a scenario: As I mentioned earlier, WNC seats about 4,000-plus. When at capacity as it was for this Liturgy, think of it as a “Chorus of 4,000 voices” in other words. Of course I don’t at all expect the congregation for this Liturgy of 4,000 voices to sound like a polished Symphony Chorus such as the Choral Arts Society of Washington or the now-retired University of Maryland Chorus, each having 150-200 voices. But my point is that if either of those two Orchestra Choruses were performing in WNC, their sound would fill the Nave and there would be no doubt that they were singing. And that’s just with 150-200 voices. Yet here for this Liturgy, you have a “Chorus of 4,000 voices,” and you can barely hear them because, again, they’re not singing. If they were truly singing as they should be regardless of their vocal quality, they would likely be heard out on Wisconsin Avenue outside the cathedral. I saw the faces of the people there in the congregation on Christmas Eve and many of them looked as if they were thinking that “Singing is corny or old-fashioned.” Might this be because there’s little to no music in the US public schools anymore? There’s no money for it, they claim. There’s only billions for the bottomless pit known as the Military Industrial Complex Killing Machine: On March 16, 2017 the current White House resident submitted his request to the US Congress for $639 billion in military spending ($54 billion) which represents a 10% increase, for FY 2018 as well as $30 billion for FY2017, which ends in September. Insanity.

For example, below is the video of when the Choral Arts Society of Washington (CASW) performed for Norman Scribner’s memorial at WNC. Norman was the Founder and former Music Director of the Choral Arts Society, one of the major Orchestra Choruses in the District. They continue to have guest appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Listen to their piece from Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (at 54.45 in the video below) and later the Sergei Rachmaninov pieces with Our Benjamin accompanying the Choral Arts Society Chorus for the Brahms. Their sound would easily fill the Nave. Yet when the Cathedral has 4,000-plus people/voices in it, the volume level is the opposite of the sound level of only 150-200 voices of the Choral Arts Society who were seated in the Quire area.

Another brief detour from the topic: During “Silent Night” the WNC camera crew showed us a shot of the international bully/orange despot — Mr Fake-Christian who has lived his life the exact opposite of that of Jesus and whose despicable policies are also the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and how he lived his life — who was parked on the front pew with that wife of his. You know, it must be written somewhere in the White House that if one is going to be a resident there that one must pretend to be a Christian to dupe one’s gullible base — since they all do it, both D and R — because the orange despot had no interest in Christianity before he took up residency there. And any other time, his church is a golf course on Sundays. But why did WNC feel the need to show us this Christian fraud? Was it to show the hypocrisy? This Liturgy was about the birth of Jesus, not about a white supremacist, anti-gay, “pussy-grabbing,” narcissistic insane bullying man-child politician. I know this is The Establishment’s church, but this Liturgy was not about political basura.

On another topic and something I’ve never understood about WNC, I see that Michael McCarthy is still using that — what looks like — Southern Baptist Choir seating arrangement (that’s what I call it) rather than having the Cathedral Choir in the Quire stalls where they are supposed to be. That’s the purpose of Quire stalls. For the Cathedral Choir to sit there. So I do not understand why he seats the Cathedral Choir in the Sanctuary area. I have never seen that done in any Anglican cathedral or parish church anywhere before. Only at WNC. Where did he get that idea? It looks so “Protestant” to me, and we High Church people don’t consider ourselves “Protestant.” Does having the Cathedral Choir in the Sanctuary area right behind the priests have anything to do with the organ placement problem perhaps that Owen wrote about? I would find that a little hard to believe that it does because the Cathedral Choir has only been moved a few feet away from where they are supposed to be sitting in the Quire stalls. Does a few feet make that much difference in the sound? And isn’t he blocking the Sanctuary1 somehow, even though the Choir is split so one can sort of still see the High Altar and the acolytes can still pass through? I’m just asking because I’ve never understood why Michael does that. But for Choral Evensong (which is supposed to be a more intimate setting), the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls/Boys sits in the Quire stalls where they’re supposed to be.

Finally, looking at a recent service leaflet on WNC’s site, they’ve never fixed a mistake they have. They referred to “the Girls Cathedral Choir.” I didn’t know that the girls had a cathedral — did you? — which that implies. I think they mean the Girls of the Cathedral Choir. “The Girls Cathedral Choir” is a sloppy and strange way to write that. In a sort of twisted way after you think about it, it sort of makes sense. Damn odd. I remember writing about that when I was writing about WNC. So they’re still using that language even though it doesn’t make any sense. Just like they were writing “The Men’s Cathedral Choir” and “The Boy’s Cathedral Choir.” The way I’ve seen it written traditionally throughout the Anglican Communion is: “The Men of the Cathedral Choir” and “The Boys of the Cathedral Choir,” since the Cathedral Choir consists of Men, Boys and Girls.

They do so have it together there at WNC, don’t they! [sarcasm intended] Maybe that’s one of the reasons Benjamin left.

Again, gracias to Owen for his nice email. Chau.—el barrio rosa

1 For those who don’t know and who come from other Christian denominations, when I refer to the Sanctuary I’m not referring to the entire room as some other Christian denominations do. In Anglican cathedrals, the Sanctuary is the area around the free-standing altar and only that. It’s not the entire room where the congregation sits. That’s called the Nave.


Washington National Cathedral: Preaching peace while promoting war criminals

A Tacky Big Band Widor Toccata at Washington National Cathedral (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Benjamin Straley smoked the organ with his Improvisation-Toccata on Cwm Rhon­dda

Southern Baptist Revival Music at Washington National Cathedral ? (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Herbert Howells – Rhapsody No. 1 in D Flat Major (Cathedral Organist Benjamin Straley), and Cathedral Singers of Washington National Cathedral

Benjamin Straley Kicks Organ Ass with St Cecilia (Washington National Cathedral)

Music And Liturgical Review: Trinity Sunday At Washington National Cathedral (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Improvisation-Toccata on Hyfrydol (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Music And Liturgical Review: The Day of Pentecost At Washington National Cathedral (Choirmaster Benjamin Straley)

Arts & Liturgical Review: Jehan Alain’s Litanies (Organist Benjamin Straley)

Arts Review: Benjamin Straley’s Organ Voluntary: Improvisation-Toccata on ‘Salzburg’

Benjamin Straley Can Play the Shit Out of Organ Music

Benjamin Straley’s improvisation on Mit Freuden zart

Washington National Cathedral: Trying to appeal to US Pop Culture ?

Is it an Anglican cathedral or a Jazz Night Club? (Washington National Cathedral)

Why Didn’t They Hire A GLBTQ Dean At Washington National Cathedral?

Franck – Choral No. 3 in a minor at Washington National Cathedral

He goes to the Establishment’s church, but I thought he was anti-Establishment?

The musicians who refused to perform for Tr*mp’s inaguration

Salve Regina at La Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

Fernando Gaitán: November 9, 1960 – January 29, 2019

Hola a todos. I wanted to make mention of the unexpected death of the brilliant Fernando Gaitán, responsible for (in my opinion) the best telenovela-comedy ever created, “Yo soy, Betty la Fea (BLF).” Gaitán died suddenly of a heart attack on el 29 de enero de 2019/29 January 2019 in Bogotá, Colombia. So sorry to hear this. Rather shocking really. He was only 58. The only person connected with BLF that I know of who has died as of this writing is Doña Catalina Ángel. She was one of my favourites from BLF and she (Celmira Luzardo) in the telenovela helped and supported Betty in so many ways while some others were making fun of her. The last I had heard about Fernando Gaitán, he was head of the major television and radio network, Canal/Channel RCN de Bogotá and the network that produced “Yo Soy, Betty, la Fea.”

If you’re never seen the original Colombiano “Betty la Fea,” you missed something in your life. Other than “I Love Lucy” I can’t think of anything that continues to be praised, loved and so respected approximately 20 years after it was first shown. How el hombre/the man, Fernando Gaitán created that piece of art is beyond me. Well, he said it was in part based on his experience in offices and with the moda/fashion industry, as I recall. If I remember correctly, there are 169 capítulos/chapters for the original BLF.

And the ending of the original BLF was excellente and brought tears to the eyes, but one would have to watch the novela from the beginning to the end to fully understand the ending. And I learned a lot about Bogotá — a sprawling Los Ángeles-type megalopolis of a City (see the view from Monserrate here) — from watching Betty. From my understanding, a lot of Betty was filmed in La Candelaria, considered Bogotá’s most beautiful and historic barrio/neighbourhood as well as Chapinero. Spoiler alert: Does everyone remember when Don Armando was required to go to the gay bar with Don Hugo and all the Drag Queens? LOL. That was quite a night!

One of the most attractive parts of Betty for me and others was the incidental music used throughout the telenovela. It was perfectly chosen and mood-setting and even though these various melodies and arrangements repeated themselves throughout, one never got tired of them because they always set a specific mood, such as the music used for the cartel/the executive secretarial pool in Eco Moda, the moda/fashion firm and the setting for BLF. One always knew something was up when that music started playing! Oh here we with Bertha and her eating addiction or Patricia, or Sandra, or Mariana or Sophia, or someone. Spoiler Alert: Off to the bathroom which was the cartel’s conference room where they held their important meetings, and would occasionally go to pee as well. LOL.

Because so many Latin countries subsequently did their own version of the original BLF for their own country, I had the impression that Gaitán was comfortable with the original being on U-toob. (I saw part of the México version of BLF although it wasn’t called that. They changed the name but I found it to be dumbed-down and silly, unlike the original.) At one point U-toob pretty much scrubbed it all so there was no where to watch it. I tried to watch a BLF video while writing this and was not allowed to due to a “copyright” warning coming up saying that Canal RCN blocked this is my country due to copyright. BLF (produced in 2000-2001) was being shown about every-other-year or so on one Latin network or another and shown in 30 minute segments and ran for about 9 months. But too often the novela was disrespected by the networks making cuts in it — to put in more commercial$? — to the point where the story line didn’t make sense if one were watching it for the first time. And because telenovelas are dying from what I’ve heard, I read sometime ago that Televisa de México — who produces most or all of the telenovelas for Univisión, had a new rule that no telenovela could be longer than 3-months, which is quite a major change. For those who don’t know, Latin novelas don’t run for decades the way “soap operas” do on the US English networks. The Latin telenovelas have a finite number of capítulos/chapters. And even though BLF originally aired about 19 years ago — I read that activity in Colombia shut down when BLF was on; that’s how popular it was — there’s nothing in it that’s dated today. It’s still very current, as if Gaitán made sure it would not date itself too soon.

I’m not a “Rest in Peace” type person — I mean, when you’re dead how else can you rest but “in peace?” I suppose — so I’ll just wish Fernando a good trip wherever he is, which is the same wish that Jorge Enrique Abello (JEA, who played “Don Armando” in BLF) wished for Celmira Luzardo/Doña Catalina when she died. I would suspect that Jorge is rather devastated by this because Fernando Gaitán was a very special person in his life. He gave Jorge many roles in telenovelas. Gaitán’s funeral was the day following his death which was rather soon. I know that Don Armando (JEA), Doña Marcela and Sandra were at his funeral. I imagine other BLF cast members were there too but they were the three I saw interviewed.

Also, for those who don’t know, “Don” for males and “Doña” for females are terms of respect. They’re not people’s names, in case you’re wondering. So for example, many of the females regardless of their age were referred to in BLF as “Doña” as in Doña Marcela or Doña Catalina. On the male side, there was Don Armando (Betty’s boss) and Don Hermes (Betty’s father). I thought I’d throw in that little bit of Latin education for readers who may be unfamiliar with the terms. But BLF was produced in Colombia and I’ve talked with Latinas from other Latin countries where apparently Doña, for example, is only used in their country for senior women, so a younger mujer/woman can be offended by calling her Doña (name). I once did that to a younger female I know and she said, “Doña makes me feel old” even though she’s a grandmother but you’d never know it by looking at her. So I didn’t call her that again. I didn’t mean to offend her. As I recall, she was from Guatemala. So there are these regional differences in word usage and in some instances in pronunciation. And also in BLF, the executives of Ecomoda were referred to as “Doctor” (male) or “Doctora” (female) whether they had a Doctorate degree or not. Again, it was another term of respect used in Colombia. Betty referred to Don Armando as “Doctor” and to Doña Marcela as both “Doña Marcela” and “Doctora” for example. Of course our favourite Patricia Fernández and her signature hair flips was just called “Patricia.” Spoiler alert: Does everyone remember when Armando was over at her desk and, having had enough of her, grabbed her hair and pulled it? That caused Sandra over at her desk to stand in shock. I don’t remember seeing Patricia doing any hair flips immediately after that. The script was well-written and well-thought out. We all remember how Patricia — always trying to “keep up appearances of being elitist” — tried to impress others by telling everyone she knew (and people she didn’t know as well) about her, “seis/six semesters studying finances at San Marino Universidad/University.” LOL. At one point, the cartel (the executive secretarial pool along with Inés who worked for Don Hugo, the fashion designer of Eco Moda, having heard about San Marino umpteen times, recited it along with Patricia when she was telling someone else about San Marino. LOL.

Mi amigo/My friend and I watched part of BLF again as I was writing this article. He said something which we often said when watching it before: “There’s so much going on in the foreground or the background or somewhere that if one watches BLF once or twice and then watches it again, you’ll always see something new. So true. Chau.—el barrio rosa


Yo soy Betty la Fea videos

Yo soy Betty, la Fea

Disrespecting Yo Soy Betty, La Fea

Murió Celmira Luzardo, la recordada Catalina Ángel en ‘Betty, la fea’