Boxing Day Drollery

Happy Boxing Day! Here is the report from Reginald, a creation of the satirist Saki (H.H. Munro) whose perspective on life rival’s Maggie Smith’s on Downtown.


They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying. I shall never forget putting in a Christmas at the Babwolds’. Mrs. Babwold is some relation of my father’s–a sort of to-be-left-till-called-for cousin–and that was considered sufficient reason for my having to accept her invitation at about the sixth time of asking; though why the sins of the father should be visited by the children–you won’t find any notepaper in that drawer; that’s where I keep old menus and first-night programmes.

Mrs. Babwold wears a rather solemn personality, and has never been known to smile, even when saying disagreeable things to her friends or making out the Stores list. She takes her pleasures sadly. A state elephant at a Durbar gives one a very similar impression. Her husband gardens in all weathers. When a man goes out in the pouring rain to brush caterpillars off rose-trees, I generally imagine his life indoors leaves something to be desired; anyway, it must be very unsettling for the caterpillars.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fens. The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me. Mrs. Babwold put on a first-aid-to-the-injured expression, and asked him why he didn’t publish a book of his sporting reminiscences; it would be SO interesting. She didn’t remember till afterwards that he had given her two fat volumes on the subject, with his portrait and autograph as a frontispiece and an appendix on the habits of the Arctic mussel.

It was in the evening that we cast aside the cares and distractions of the day and really lived. Cards were thought to be too frivolous and empty a way of passing the time, so most of them played what they called a book game. You went out into the hall–to get an inspiration, I

Wee MacGreegor was a creation of John Joy Bell, a concoction too sweet for Saki.
Wee MacGreegor was a creation of John Joy Bell, and no doubt a concoction too sweet for Saki.

suppose–then you came in again with a muffler tied round your neck and looked silly, and the others were supposed to guess that you were “Wee MacGreegor.” I held out against the inanity as long as I decently could, but at last, in a lapse of good-nature, I consented to masquerade as a book, only I warned them that it would take some time to carry out. They waited for the best part of forty minutes, while I went and played wineglass skittles with the page-boy in the pantry; you play it with a champagne cork, you know, and the one who knocks down the most glasses without breaking them wins. I won, with four unbroken out of seven; I think William suffered from over-anxiousness. They were rather mad in the drawing-room at my not having come back, and they weren’t a bit pacified when I told them afterwards that I was “At the end of the passage.”

“I never did like Kipling,” was Mrs. Babwold’s comment, when the situation dawned upon her. “I couldn’t see anything clever in Earthworms out of Tuscany–or is that by Darwin?”

Of course these games are very educational, but, personally, I prefer bridge.

On Christmas evening we were supposed to be specially festive in the Old English fashion. The hall was horribly draughty, but it seemed to be the proper place to revel in, and it was decorated with Japanese fans and Chinese lanterns, which gave it a very Old English effect. A young lady with a confidential voice favoured us with a long recitation about a little girl who died or did something equally hackneyed, and then the Major gave us a graphic account of a struggle he had with a wounded bear. I privately wished that the bears would win sometimes on these occasions; at least they wouldn’t go vapouring about it afterwards. Before we had time to recover our spirits, we were indulged with some thought-reading by a young man whom one knew instinctively had a good mother and an indifferent tailor–the sort of young man who talks unflaggingly through the thickest soup, and smooths his hair dubiously as though he thought it might hit back. The thought-reading was rather a success; he announced that the hostess was thinking about poetry, and she admitted that her mind was dwelling on one of Austin’s odes. Which was near enough. I fancy she had been really wondering whether a scrag-end of mutton and some cold plum-pudding would do for the kitchen dinner next day. As a crowning dissipation, they all sat down to play progressive halma, with milk-chocolate for prizes. I’ve been carefully brought up, and I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air- filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

I hate travelling on Boxing Day, but one must occasionally do things that one dislikes.

You can find more Reginald stories on project Gutenberg.

Christmas Music: Percy Grainger


Happy holidays to everyone! Here is a bit of Christmas piano music that keeps haunting me. I first heard it on Naxos in a piano CD by Jeffrey Biegel, then QXR was playing it, and then it was pervading a shopping center. Odd musical message from the universe or just the availability heuristic?

Anyway, here it is: eccentric composer-pianist Percy Grainger’s setting of the Mummers’ Carol.

Holiday Words: Henry James, Christmas in Paris

In the 1870’s, Henry James agreed (apparently somewhat unwillingly) to write sketches of Paris for the New York Herald Tribune. Here is his Christmas portrait of the city of light, as it was in 1875.

But why should I talk of pictures when Paris itself, for the last few days, has formed an immense and brilliant picture. French babies, I believe, hang up their stocking or put a shoe into the stove on New Year’s Eve; but Christmas, nevertheless, has been very good-humoredly kept. I have never seen Paris so charming as on this last Christmas Day. The weather put in a claim to a share in the fun, the sky was radiant and the air as soft and pure as a southern spring. It was a day to spend in the streets and all the world did so. I passed it strolling half over the city and wherever I turned I found the entertainment that a pedestrian relishes.

parisWhat people love Paris for became almost absurdly obvious: charm, beguilement, diversion were stamped upon everything. I confess that, privately, I kept thinking of Prince Bismarck and wishing he might take a turn upon the boulevards. Not that they would have flustered him much, I suppose, for, after all, the boulevards are not human; but the whole spectacle seemed a supreme reminder of the fact so constantly present at this time to the reflective mind the amazing elasticity of France. Beaten and humiliated on a scale without precedent, despoiled, dishonored, bled to death financially, all this but yesterday, Paris is today in outward aspect as radiant, as prosperous, as instinct with her own peculiar genius as if her sky had never known a cloud. The friendly stranger cannot refuse an admiring glance to this mystery of wealth and thrift and energy and good spirits. I don’t know how Berlin looked on Christmas Day, though Christmas-keeping is a German specialty, but I greatly doubt whether its aspect would have appealed so irresistibly to the sympathies of the impartial observer. With the approach of Christmas here the whole line of the boulevards is bordered on each side with a row of little booths for the sale for the sale of everything conceivable. The width of the classic asphalt is so ample that they form no serious obstruction, and the scene, in the evening especially, presents a picturesque combination of the rustic fair and the highest Parisian civilization. You may buy anything in the line of trifles in the world, from a cotton nightcap to an orange neatly pricked in blue letters with the name of the young lady Adele or Ernestine to whom you may gallantly desire to present it. On the other side of the crowded channel the regular shops present their glittering portals, decorated for the occasion with the latest refinements of the trade. The confectioners in particular are amazing; the rows of marvelous bonbonnieres look like precious sixteenth-century caskets and reliquaries, chiseled by Florentine artists, in the glass cases of great museums. The boribonniere, in its elaborate and impertinent uselessness, is certainly the consummate flower of material luxury; it seems to bloom, with its petals of satin and its pistils of gold, upon the very apex of the tree of civilization.

I walked over to Notre Dame along the quays, and was more than ever struck with the brilliant picturesqueness of Paris as, from any point opposite to the Louvre, you look up and down the Seine. The huge towers of Notre Dame, rising with their blue-gray tone from the midst of the great mass round which the river divides, the great Arc de Triomphe answering them with equal majesty in the opposite distance, the splendid continuous line of the Louvre between, and over it all the charming coloring of Paris on certain days the brightness, the pearly grays, the flicker of light, the good taste, as it were, of the atmosphere all this is an entertainment which even custom does not stale. In the midst of it the good people were trudging in thousands, on their various festive errands, well dressed and well disposed. Every tenth man one sees in the streets at present is a soldier, and though this fact has doubtless a melancholy meaning in the moral scale, it has a high value in the picturesque. The cuirassiers especially are numerous, and their glittering helmets light up the crowd.

The mass of buildings in front of Notre Dame has been removed within the last couple of years, and the open space across which you approach the church is of immense extent. It is quite the ideal “chance” for a great cathedral. Notre Dame profits by it, and her noble facade looks more impressive than ever. I went in and listened to vespers, and watched the sounding nave grow dusky and the yellow light turn pale on the eastern clerestory, and then I wandered away and crossed the river farther, and climbed that imperceptible eminence known as the “mountain” of St. Genevieve, and bent my steps to the curious Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the church that hides its florid little Renaissance facade behind the huge neo-classic drum of the Pantheon. Here I was only in time for the sermon, but, with all respect to French pulpit eloquence, which often has a most persuasive grace, it was time enough. I turned, before long, a deaf ear to the categories of virtue and vice it was like the dreadful nomenclature of chemistry and wandered apart to the shrine of St. Genevieve. The bones of this holy woman repose in a great brazen tomb in one of the chapels, surrounded with votive tapers. The scene was very picturesque. A number of women were on their knees around it, in the illumined dusk, presenting various objects to be blessed. A young priest opened a sort of circular lid in the sepulcher, held the object down into the hole, murmured something over it, and restored it. Some of the articles exposed to the influence of the beatific ashes were singularly prosaic. One, for instance, was a clean shirt, rigidly plaited and starched.

The motive of this application puzzled me; was the applicant a laundress? She was probably the pious relative of a sick man who was contemplating a change of linen. In either case, I seemed to have walked far away from the boulevards, and from the Christmas Day of 1875.

HENRY JAMES, JR. January 22, 1876

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.

%d bloggers like this: