Publishing Words: Platforms and Publications Round-Up

This will be old news to many, but in the light of The New Republic’s meltdown, I have been nosing around new digital approaches to what is (loosely speaking) journalism, or maybe publishing, or at least, typing.  Herewith, a brief list. is a news service (currently only for mobile, but coming to the browser). Nicely presented stories, gives you a simple way to follow any particular beat you are interested in, as well as sharing of course. Not sure if this will become part of my regular news diet, but in the emerging world of “journalism apps” seems like one that solves a problem.


Medium is platform rather than a publication as nearly as I can tell, and certainly handsome. It seems to be open to any kind of long form material, by professionals or duffers. Like, has a very striking design (although some will not be a fan of the wide horizontal one-page scroll approach–something that is all over current web design). Medium comes from the people who created Twitter, and presumably they aimed for the same kind of pick up. Upstart Biz Journal’s Alex Dalenberg was asking good questions a year ago about it–how their business model will work? and just what kind of tool it is? He also mentions something that a writer friend also pointed out, the license appears to let Medium sell your content, presumably in search of “sustainability”. (Like “platform” and “content,” another drab word.)

As far as I know, those questions are still out, and he also links to some weirdly fascinating info about Medium’s business structure, called Holacracy. It boasts “no managers” and seems to be a distributed  system. (Classic Google goose chase, I just learned about Holacracy researching Medium, and now I discover that it’s already contested: fad versus brilliant management approach? Zappo’s is finding out.)


Finally, there is Ghost, which is a blogging platform from some of the same people who worked on WordPress. It’s intuitively appealing and also beautifully designed–pared down for clean presentation and ease of posting. WordPress, of course, has a lot to offer, but its development as a powerful publishing platform means that for me, at least, its sort of blown past plain old blogging. I’m tempted to move everything to Ghost, but, of course, it’s a little like moving house if you have hundreds of posts to fool with, and since part of my living is made with WordPress, is nice to stay close to the platform, even if I use 1% of its power. Ghost, like, has a more writer-friendly license than Medium (although, like anything online, they reserve the right to change it any time.) But you own your stuff, and their only right is to post snippets for promotional purposes.

I don't think they used Twitter!

I don’t think they used Ghost, Medium, WordPress or even  Twitter!

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Practicing (and an aside on TNR).

Still have a few more things to vapor on about for my “30 Days” music series, didn’t get to my November quota. Tempted to delay that yet again, given that it’s so hard to resist parsing the sad comedy at The New Republic. Then again I couldn’t possibly be funnier than embattled owner Chris Hughes and CEO Guy Vidra‘s own vouchsafing their steadfast stewardship of the TNR in these parlous times. I doubt they will manage, based on the ineptitude of these self-inflicted injuries and the wobbly ideas they have for advancing the paper. But they’ve become the most talked about and loathed leadership team in journalism, and that’s saying something. It ain’t much, but maybe it’s a strategy?

Anyway, </snark> and on to music.

Over the years, I have mused a good bit about practicing, and herewith put together part I of some thoughts on the topic. In addition to my own puzzle over my piano and voice practice (and more often lack thereof). This also responds to the fact that I get the occasional question from parents or adults who are thinking about taking up or reviving music lessons. These are along the lines of how to help your kids keep at it, how to do it yourself? Any tips and tricks?

To start with, I am hardly any model of a great practicer and have never been. Through luck of the draw, I found I was reasonably fluent at sight-reading music from my earliest lessons (I started piano rather late, 5th grade, and this may have had something to do with it). I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t sight read music of intermediate complexity adequately–we’re not talking about reading a Strauss orchestral score at sight at the piano the way a music brain like Renee Fleming’s can–but poking through Rodgers and Hart selections, or even a Mozart sonata–this I can manage.

Tunnel Vision

keyboard_sizedI bring up sight-reading because it has worked against my first advice about practicing. Namely, that it is all about small scale  focusing in (Nancy O’Neill Breth uses the term “tunnel vision” in her useful pamphlet on practicing techniques). Lots of aspects of music and the pleasures therein are the opposite of this: taking in how a whole piece comes together emotionally, layers of melody and harmony, etc. But to get these watch parts to move, you have to take them apart and put them back again. That means breaking things down to ever smaller units, a section, a measure, or the shift of one hand from one position to the other, until you can find a successful approach.

I truly hate this kind of work, but it seems to me a question of cognitive style as much as anything else. Working at really intense level of detail, and being able to turn down the gain on everything except the matter at hand is a probably as much a native talent as any other aspect of musical ability. Oddly, it’s the complete opposite of what a music critic–something I used to be–needs, namely an intuition for the big picture. Still, that piece work is key to practicing–not its entirety–and finding a functional approach to achieving that focus is good. Interestingly, if, like me, this isn’t how you work, then you probably need to practice that kind focus in itself. It’s exhausting for those of us who don’t think that way.

Divergent Thinking

I’m indebted to a great book called “The Musician’s Way” by Gerald Klickstein, for the next insight. Namely, his observation that musical problems are “divergent” in nature, rather than fixed. By this he means that there will be many responses–theoretically infinitely many–to a particular musical problem, be it technical, rhythmic, expressive, whatever. This has helped me in particular because I always assumed two things about my piano playing until recently. 1) There was a correct fingering–some kind of platonic ideal, and 2) Whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it. This stems from a belief the problems in practicing were kind of like math exercises, 2+2=4, or learning your times tables. Sad to say, a view that my earliest piano teachers certainly seemed to endorse. But musical problems really aren’t fixed like that–even things as seemingly cut and dried as rhythms–and thinking about them that way is unproductive. Instead, trying to figure out what is going on, and going wrong, in the section–to see practicing as problem solving, is really helpful. (Klickstein’s book is loaded with other good advice, some other tidbits of which are related here.)

But It Sounds Terrible!

Accept that you don’t  always (or even often) sound good or interesting when you are learning and practicing. This may be a problem that is unique to me, but I have always hated that when you are practicing it sounds to you–and to anybody who is unfortunate enough to be listening–like you can’t even play the piano while you are doing the work. You may be repeating things over and over, with no changes that are audible. It’s not uncommon for things to sound like they are getting worse rather than better as you pick apart and then resolve problems. Tolerating the emotional frustration that comes with that is hard for me, particularly since I can play a lot of other music fluently, and why not just play that?

No less a keyboard wizard than Shura Cherkassky talked about very slow practice in which he concentrated solely on whether he was putting his fingers exactly in the center of each key and that his hand motion was perfect. This was painstaking (see tunnel vision above) and required a level of ‘zooming in’ that no bystander else would understand. Yet, his results speak for themselves.  (He’s 86 in this video, by the way!)

Oddly enough, I’m guessing this kind of issue comes up in anything that requires breaking down things into these ever tinier pieces. Is watching somebody practice 1000 chip shots interesting? Revising thirty, forty or a hundred drafts of a sonnet? I revise writing to the point of ludicrous obsession, sadly, without literary results equivalent to Shura’s musical ones!, and that is sort of fun. Still not there with the piano.

In part II, such things as dailiness, setting goals, and whether demanding that a kid practice ever helps.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 29, The “seance” of music history

A TLS review of a new music book caught my eye, as it began, “Everything you know about the history of popular music is, in the view of Greil Marcus, most likely wrong.”

Paul Genders follows with a nice precis of Marcus’ argument:

[The] official, non-secret history referred to is the strictly chronological one: of jazz, blues and country giving rise to Elvis Presley, who gave rise to The Beatles, who changed everything – and the evolution has continued, with next year’s sounds emerging out of this year’s, in neat linear fashion. The problem is, of course, that the music itself doesn’t work nearly as prosaically as that narrative suggests. A great piece of popular music is less a “progression of the form” from an earlier work than a “rediscovery of a certain spirit”, or even a “step out of time”; this is an artistic medium best understood not as a sequence of forward manoeuvres but as “a drama of direct and spectral connections” between performers at different moments in history. We have “no reason to be responsible to chronology”, says Marcus, when considering something that moves as mysteriously as rock ’n’ roll.

I love this, and would only add that it’s as true of “classical” music as it is of rock ‘n’ roll. Although the time span goes on a little longer, the official history is still peddling a similar progression: baroque, to classical, to romantic schools, with Beethoven, who gave rise to Wagner, who “changed everything” serving as Elvis and the Beatles.

In fact, progression in music– maybe in any art form?–isn’t ‘forward’ –it’s multidimensional, and performers and composers are always waging restoration and revolution on their predecessors and successors. Does Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” sound old or new? Is it still new primitive or is it old primitive now? Or consider his once derided opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which converses spectrally with Hogarth, Auden, Kalman, classical and bel canto musical forms, mid-20th century harmony, and, among others, via the medium of Dawn Upshaw, one of the great singers of yet another era.

Here is her performance of the soliloquy, “No Word From Tom,” at once an old-fashion scene and aria, and music that could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 28, In Praise of One Own’s Time (2)


Rosa Ponselle, considered the greatest soprano of the 20th century. She was no Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient,

Longing for the “good ole days” is particularly prevalent in opera. I’ve come to see such nostalgia as silly, even corrosive in large amounts. After all, “the end [of opera] has always been nigh,” as Rupert Christiansen put it in a recent issue of Opera, going on to point out that “in 1834, Richard Mount Edgcumbe was unmoved by Pasta or Malibran and complained that he ‘never expected to hear again…any new music, or new singers, that will make me amends for those which are gone'; in 1906 (considered the heart of one of opera’s many golden ages), W.J. Henderson was lamenting ‘that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.” Guess that included Ponselle, who was 6 in 1905, Caruso, who was at the height of his powers, Claudio Muzio, Farrar, Journet, McCormack, et al and many more. Now of course these singers are dubbed the best who ever lived, and used to spank the current crop as, “tuneless unmusical shouters” or worse.

Well, there are spectacular talents in our midst; here is one I heard just recently at the Kennedy Center, the young South African soprano Pretty Yende, getting her coloratura on in a Rossini scena.

She is a natural on stage, totally communicative, and it’s also remarkable that her voice is not only fluent and supple, but huge. (Coloratura sopranos often trade agility for tonal richness and full sound, Yende, like many of the greats she is compared with and may well take a place beside, has both). She also communicates things via singing that you don’t get any other way, and believes every moment.

Oh, and she’s 29.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 25, In Praise of One’s Own Time

So much classical musical blather is about how “it used to be better.” I have done my bit in this department, and to atone will wrap up this month with wonderful performers who are active now. Today, for example, I encountered this delight, by pianist I didn’t know, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, from a tribute album to Poulenc and Piaf.

Here’s the album, talk about music with a subtle smile, and charm and style for days.


Beautiful Picture: Diagram of A Newspaper Office, 1922

Check out this fascinating 1922 diagram of the long gone Washington Star‘s building on Penn. Ave in DC. Linked from “Ghosts of DC” where you can find the full file with amazing detail. Quite a sizable library! But the noise from the linotype room, just above the writers, must have been intense–and I assume the whole building shook when the presses were running. Not something that happens with a blog, alas.


30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 23, Magda Olivero

The cult of the operatic diva is one of the things that makes outsiders to opera a little curious (or put off, even). Although smitten in my past with certain singers, I am mostly past that stage, for better or worse. By midlife, you sort of find yourself saying, “they don’t make divae like they used to.” Even if this is perhaps not an entirely bad thing, when one of the genuine articles departs, it’s something to note.

The soprano Magda Olivero was one of these inimitable ones. She died this September at age 104, and Ira Siff captures what she was all about in his Opera News appreciation, well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from his tribute, describing her Met debut at an age when many opera singers are long since out to pasture in Bloomington or some such place.


But it was not until 1975, at the instigation of her great admirer Marilyn Horne, that the Met finally invited Magda Olivero for three performances as Tosca. She made her debut soon after her sixty-fifth birthday. Although the audience was wildly demonstrative, this was no mere nostalgia event. After a few minutes to warm up and conquer nerves, Olivero’s voice was astonishingly fresh, shedding decades by Act II. At the second performance, this listener was treated to the most touching, spectacularly sung “Vissi d’arte” of his experience. During Act III, Olivero’s ascent to a spectacular, lengthy high C and plunge down two octaves into chest voice on the line “Io quella lama” earned her a spontaneous ovation. This old-school audience response was inspired by the artist’s old-school stage deportment; it was an evening that, in the best sense, turned back the clock whenever she was onstage. Olivero’s total belief in the reality of the drama prevented her performances from ever being reduced to shtick. And her prodigious technique and breath control spoke of a bygone era, but one in which she was unique among veristas, none of whom matched her vocal capabilities.

You can find a pirate of the Vissi d’arte in question online, as well as the NYTimes notice.

Oddly, I found this bit of “The Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz from some Italian TV show more touching, not least for the smile in her voice that her sweet toned tenor evokes.

It’s all a bit odd, and not voices that you’d cast today; (nor would you hear an opera duet on a general interest TV show for that matter.) But you feel with her, and with him too, that you know a bit about them through their singing, and that bit you know is authentic.