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Posts from — March 2011

On requests for donations and discounts, II

dollar bill

Just a brief update to yesterday’s post.

First, a question: Can you deduct donated services as a charitable contribution on your taxes?

Basically, no. See here and here.

Some people have suggested work-arounds; but those sound complicated and sketchy, if not illegal.

You can, however, deduct expenses incurred doing pro bono work. For musicians, mileage is probably the main expense. (For more musician tax tips, see this post.)

Second, Jonathan reminded me of the brilliant Jessica Hische flowchart, “Should I work for free?”

Enjoy. And don’t charge your mom.


March 31, 2011   No Comments

On requests for donations and discounts

“Hi, we’d like to have live music at our event, but we have a limited budget…”

If you’ve ever tried to make money as a musician, you’re all too familiar with this scenario. On average, I get asked to discount my services or play for free about once a month. When I first started freelancing I’d always feel awkward handling these requests. But over time, I’ve developed a philosophy for how to respond in these situations.

For requests for donated services

I plan in advance how many services I will donate to non-profits per year — i.e. 4x a year, once a month. When a request comes in from an organization think I’d like to help, I ask them to email me more information about themselves and the event. I don’t make a decision over the phone.

My personal criteria are pretty simple: The organization needs to be I’d be willing to support with money, and the request must be well-defined. In all the situations I’ve encountered where the client doesn’t really know what they want (paid or not), I usually regret taking the job because it ends up creating more work than I expected.

When responding to requests that come in after I’ve maxed my donated services out, I say, “I do a number of charity events but have already made my commitments for this year.” Depending on the organization, I may offer a discount and/or ask them to contact me when they have another event. Usually I refer them to local college/university music schools as often students are required to do community service for scholarship purposes.

For non-charity requests for cheaper services


Maybe this sounds harsh, but I’ve put a lot of effort into pricing my services according to going rates. I believe that it’s better to work for free or full price, but not cheap. Designer Paul Scriven wrote a post about this that I think applies to all freelancers, including musicians. His main point is that if you undercharge,

You begin to despise design because it feels like cheap labor. Your creativity suffers along with your work performance. Instead of focusing on the job at hand all you do is worry about the guy down the street making more money than you.

It’s true. If the client has a limited budget, I’ll tell them what I can do for the money they can offer; or simply say that I’m unable to do the job.

If I can offer one more piece of advice — don’t get offended when people try to bargain with you. It’s not worth it. Some people will try to bargain anything, from musical services to groceries. Others simply aren’t aware of what reasonable musician rates are and will find out soon enough. Just be polite, offer your price firmly, and strive for excellence when you’re hired.


March 30, 2011   4 Comments

Are you a classical music nerd?

My teenage brother spent this past Saturday listening to thirty cellists play through all the Bach cello suites, and not because of a girl. He announced that engaging in such an activity was a sign of his classical music nerdiness.

Probably true. But it got me thinking, we can’t base our classical music nerdiness on one super-nerdy event. We need a system to quantify classical music nerd levels. Like Trekkies. Like Computer Geeks. Like Metrosexual Worship Leaders.

So, think you qualify as a classical music nerd? Use this handy point system to see how you rank.

  1. Own an item of clothing with a music conservatory logo (+1)
  2. Own an item of clothing with a classical composer’s picture (+2)
  3. Attended a party specifically for . . .
    • Celebrating a composer’s birthday (+2)
    • Sightreading chamber music (+3)
    • Sightreading madrigals (+4)
    • Listening straight through all the Mahler symphonies (+5)
  4. Play “guess that composer” while listening to classical radio (+2)
  5. And are usually right (+4)
  6. Debated whether Brahms or Wagner was right (+3)
  7. Think of tone rows before Keanu Reeves when someone says the word “matrix” (+3)
  8. Currently subscribed to 3+ classical music magazines or blogs (+2)
  9. Currently subscribed to Grove Music Online (+3)
  10. Played or sung a 12-tone piece (+3)
  11. Written a 12-tone piece (+5)
  12. Attended a conference for a specific instrument or voice type (+2)
  13. And performed at one (+5)
  14. Frequently analyze the chord structure of whatever’s on the radio (+3)
  15. Named a pet or child after a famous musician or musical term (+4)
  16. Own an Andre Rieu CD or DVD (-5 points)
  17. Post in an online classical music forum (+2)
  18. Administrate an online classical music forum (+5)
  19. Like the movie Amadeus but feel the need to point out historical inaccuracies (+3)
  20. Had or plan to have Pachelbel’s Canon in D played at your wedding (-5 points)
  21. Know all the instrumental abbreviations in an orchestral score (+1 for each language)
  22. Have any of the following items in your car:
    • Music stand (+1)
    • Tuner (+1)
    • Music stand light (+2)
    • Metronome (+2)
    • Dr. Beat metronome (+5)
  23. Been banned by family members from playing historical recordings at the dinner table (+3)
  24. Voluntarily attended a classical music summer camp (+2)
  25. Display a poster of a classical musician on one of your walls (+2)
  26. Can name more than two composers born in 1685 (+2)
  27. Can identify all the historical musical instruments in period dramas (+3)
  28. Know a joke for most orchestral instrument stereotypes (+2)
  29. Feel like blasting a Rite of Spring recording when someone says they think classical music is soothing (+2)
  30. Excitedly point out classical music quotes in other compositions (+4)
  31. Over 75% of Amazon.com’s recommendations for you relate to classical music (+3)
  32. Had an email address / Facebook or Twitter username referencing a musical term (+2)
  33. Used the terms “deceptive cadence,” “harmonic tension,” or “melismatic” in a non-school conversation (+3)
  34. In a single sentence (+5)
  35. Purchased a book on music theory or history “just for fun” (+3)


March 29, 2011   5 Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Harpo Marx

harpo marx

When someone first learns that I play the harp, the typical reaction is, “Wow, I’ve never met a real live harp player before!” People don’t often have an image or person in their mind to associate with the word “harpist.” Once in awhile, I’ll get the “Like King David?” response, or “Oh, my aunt’s neighbor’s cousin’s niece played the harp…I think.”

And every so often, someone will exclaim, “OH! Like Harpo Marx? I love Harpo Marx!”


“Was Harpo Marx really a good harpist?”

I tell them that Harpo was a genius — an unconventional one, for sure. But a genius. Last year, I did some research on Harpo as part of my master’s degree, and the more I learned about him the more my admiration for this zany comedian/musician grew.

harp on the wrong sideHarpo was largely self-taught and spent his first two years as a harpist playing with the harp on the wrong shoulder. He realized his mistake after seeing a picture of an angel in a department store window. He played his harp tuned much lower than the normal pedal harp because his first instrument (purchased for $45 by his mother, who thought her family needed to add “class” to their act) was so terrible that the strings would have broken if tuned any higher. He could never get used to “conventional” tuning, even when he had a decent instrument.

Harpo couldn’t read music and learned all his repertoire by ear. Extremely dedicated, he typically spent two to three hours a day practicing. After 8 years of soloing onstage, Harpo attempted to get formal training from (according to his autobiography Harpo Speaks) a harpist with the Metropolitan Opera. The harpist was evidently too fascinated with Harpo’s technique to teach him anything. Harpo did take some lessons with well-known harpist Mildred Dilling, whom he met by chance in a music shop. She introduced him to Bach, Mozart, Ravel, and Debussy but never tried to change his way of playing.

By all accounts, Harpo was as affable offstage as he appeared onstage. Extremely good-natured, he was well-liked by all and the “favorite uncle” amongst his many nieces and nephews. He married actress Susan Fleming in 1936, a happy union that last until Harpo’s death in 1964.

Comedian George Burns said of Harpo’s family life, “One thing [Harpo] said to me that was so, so nice… He adopted four children, you know. So I said to him, ‘When are you gonna quit? How many children are you going to adopt?’ He says, ‘I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows. So when I leave, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.’… I think that was about the greatest marriage that I know of, Susan Marx and Harpo.”

Harpo was extremely generous, giving many benefit concerts for orchestras around the US (under the name Arturo Harponini). His two harps were also donated, per his will, to the nation of Israel after his death. He was also a talented painter and played the piano and clarinet (also self-taught skills).

Harpo loved being onstage and was clearly a natural performer. The Marx Brothers’ career spanned more than 40 years in vaudeville, movies, and TV. They made 14 movies as a team. In addition to his movie solos, Harpo also made numerous concert appearances around the world. He also guested on TV shows of Red Skelton, Donald O’Connor, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball:

Despite his extensive performance experience, he often suffered from stage fright. So he developed an onstage thought process to calm down, which went something like this:

“Oh, my God! I have to play for all these people. Hey, wait a minute! I’m up here and they’re down there. If there’s someone out there who should be up here, let him come up and play the harp. But if someone were out there who should be here, he would be here. But he’s not! I am. I guess I’ll play the harp.”

And so he did.

March 27, 2011   3 Comments

Drawing the line

drawing the line

“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”

-G.K. Chesterton, as quoted in Arts magazine: Vol. 1 (1926)


March 27, 2011   No Comments

Music for Lent: On Mercy

music for lent

This post is part of a series on music appropriate for the season of Lent. Read part one.

“Mercy” is music, and “tender mercy” is the most exquisite form of it, especially to a broken heart. To one who is despondent and despairing, this word is life from the dead. A great sinner, much bruised by the lashes of conscience, will bend his ear this way, and cry, “Let me hear again the dulcet sound of these words, tender mercy.” If you think of this tenderness in connection with God, it will strike you with wonder, for an instant, that one so great should be so tender; for we are apt to impute to Omnipotence a crushing energy, which can scarcely take account of little, and feeble, and suffering things. Yet if we think again, the surprise will disappear, and we shall see, with a new wonder of admiration, that it must be so.

– Charles Spurgeon, The Tender Mercy of Our God

Here are some musical selections that express and reflect on our need for God’s mercy:

“Erbarme Dich” from St. Matthew’s Passion, J.S. Bach

This haunting, gorgeous aria expresses Peter’s lament after his triple betrayal of Christ (Matthew 26:69-75):

Erbarme dich,
Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen!
Schaue hier,
Herz und Auge weint vor dir

Have mercy Lord,
My God, because of this my weeping!
Look thou here,
Heart and eyes now weep for thee

Approach My Soul, The Mercy Seat

John Newton’s hymn set to music by Jamie Barnes:

Approach my soul, the mercy seat
Where Holy One and helpless meet
There fall before my Judges’ feet
Thy promise is my only plea, O God

Send wings to lift the clutch of sin
You who dwell between the cherubim
From war without and fear within
Relieve the grief from the shoulders of crumbling men

O God—Pour out your mercy to me
My God, Oh what striking love to bleed.

Fashion my heart in your alchemy
With the brass to front the devil’s perjury
And surefire grace my Jesus speaks
I must. I will. I do believe. O Lord.

“Kyrie” from Mass in b minor, J.S. Bach

“Kyrie eleison,” the Greek transliteration for “Lord have mercy,” is a common liturgical prayer often set to music. Bach originally wrote this “Kyrie” for a Lutheran mass (which includes just the Kyrie and Gloria). He later reused it in his Mass in b minor, a huge work that was likely never performed entirely in his lifetime.


Thy Mercy, My God

More old hymn lyrics (these by John Stocker) set by Sandra McCracken:


Thy mercy my God is the theme of my song,
The joy of my heart, and the boast of my tongue.
Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last,
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast.

Without Thy sweet mercy, I could not live here.
Sin would reduce me to utter despair,
But through Thy free goodness, my spirit’s revived
And He that first made me still keeps me alive.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart.
Dissolved by Thy goodness, I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found.

(Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah)
(Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah)

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
In the covenant love of Thy crucified Son.
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine.
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine.

Well, Hallelujah
Hallelujah (Hallelujah)
Well, Hallelujah

March 26, 2011   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (3/25)

origami coffee mug

Weekly roundup of (mostly) arts-related chatter around the web:


March 25, 2011   No Comments

On transcriptions and translations


The other day I was part of a brief online discussion regarding a particular note in one of the Bach cello suites. Natural or flat? Yo Yo Ma plays it one way, Rostropovich plays it the other.

The whole exchange got me thinking about transcriptions and editions, and why notes matter. Questions over correct notes (or articulation markings, or dynamics) come up often in my line of work, especially when dealing with transcriptions or music where the original manuscript is lost or incomplete. Classical musicians often hold strong opinions on which editions are superior for various composers. (I’ve witnessed some heated arguments. And I wouldn’t want my students learning from certain editions.)

Are we being overly obsessive and cerebral? Does it really matter what that note is? Can’t you just choose what you think sounds best? Certainly many people take that approach, and in some cases we have no choice. But in general, I do care about what the correct notes should be. Notes are, for much of western music, one of the primary ways a composer communicates his or her intentions; and like good authors, good composers choose each note with care. Often the difference between a natural or a flat can completely affect the harmonic structure or mood of a passage — which will change how a performer decides to interpret it.

So the more I respect a composer, the more I care about finding out exactly what they wrote down — even if it involves hunting down old editions or putting in extra research. Part of the excitement of playing classical music is connecting with the past, and the sense that through studying a composer’s music you get to glimpse part of who that person was.

I’m not a total purist. Sometimes, especially when transcribing music originally intended for a different instrument, I have changed notes to make a passage playable. But I do owe it to composers to consider their intentions first, and to make changes that preserve as much of those intentions as possible.

To switch gears a bit, a similar concept applies to Bible translations. The church I attend just started a class in basic Biblical Greek, and currently we’re discussing differences among Bible versions. As in music, many “editions” exist — word-for-word translations (think critical editions in music), thought-for-thought translations (edited editions — more interpretation done by the editors), and paraphrases (simplified versions). I’ve owned Bibles belonging to each of these groups; each has value for what they seek to accomplish.

But I’m especially grateful that word-for-word translations exist. Meanings of passages depend on individual words. Tweak a sentence’s structure and you can tweak its message. If I truly believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that I’m supposed to live by what it says, then I have to take seriously the fact that words matter.

Notes get us closer to the heart of a composer. Words get us closer to the heart of God.

Pretty amazing, when you think about it.


March 23, 2011   2 Comments

Inspiration & Influence: Bach

j.s. bach

“Playing and studying Bach convinces us that we are all numskulls.”
– Robert Schumann

Playing Bach is one of the most humbling aspects of being a musician. Mastery is elusive; there’s always more to work on and to discover. Often I’ve had to make myself practice Bach last because otherwise I’d stay on that piece for the entire session.

But I can’t think of another composer whose music is more worthy of the hard work it requires. I agree with Glenn Gould when he says,

“I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that — its humanity.”

Reading about Bach’s life also serves as inspiration. He wasn’t a superstar, and he wasn’t perfect. But his theology informed his work, both in content and purpose. He applied his talent faithfully to the end of his life, continually growing in his mastery of form and expression, to the glory of God.

I’ve always thought my brother Steve lucky to have the same birthday as Bach (today, March 21st). (I share one with Hulk Hogan. Not quite the same.) Here’s a collection of some of my favorite instrumental Bach works. Feel free to leave your personal favorites in the comments!

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, I. Allegro

The unusual instrumentation — no violins — gives this Brandenburg a special color.

Sarabande from Suite for Lute, BWV 996

One disappointing thing about being a harpist is that our repertoire lacks original Bach works. The lute suites are probably the closest we have. I like 996 the best, particularly the opening prelude and this simple, but affecting Sarabande.

Prelude from Cello Suite No. 3 in C major

There are a number of movements I could have included, and chose this movement mainly to have more major-key works on this list.

Chaconne from Partita No. 2

I have to include this piece because I do think it’s one of the greatest pieces ever written. (I’ve played a transcription on harp, and while it’s great for personal study I doubt I’ll perform it again. The original instrumentation simply can’t be beat.)

Prelude & Fugue No. 5 in D major, from WTC I

A joyful prelude followed by a majestic fugue in the French overture style.

Sarabande from Partita No. 6

Regardless of the instrument, the emotional high point of the suites is often the sarabande — whether simple, as in the lute sarabande above, or florid, as in this example.

Toccata and Fugue in d minor, Jacques Loussier jazz trio version

I think Bach would approve.

Goldberg Variations

Again, a must-include composition because of its sheer awesomeness. Here’s just the last few variations and Aria. But go listen to the whole thing.

March 21, 2011   No Comments

Pursue excellence

“Pursuing being elite is a terrible idea. I partly say this because I worked at Harvard for 10 years, and most people who pursue being elite end up being shaped solely by that: They become nothing but elite. I’d much rather have everyone, whatever their prospects for being elite or not, pursue excellence. Excellence is often accompanied by humility, whereas being elite often is not. People who have obtained mastery of certain fields, I’ve found, are surprisingly humble, because they’ve become aware of how difficult their work is.”

Andy Crouch, World Magazine interview (via)

March 20, 2011   2 Comments