Alvin Ailey Dance Company, American Ballet Theater, ballet, ballet accompanist, Boston Ballet, California, Chapman University, choreography, color guard, dance accompanist, dance musician, Fresno, Fresno California, Hong Kong, Hubbard Street, Mark Morris Dance Group, Orange County High School of the Arts, Riverside Community College, Segerstom in Southern California, University of California Irvine, Vladimir Malakhov, word press,, you tube, you tube video

A former piano student carves out a unique life as a dance accompanist or is it “Freeway Gypsy?”

For Becca Wong, her career path seemed predestined. Having had a firmly rooted music and dance background in her native Hong Kong prior to her arrival in California, she was at least predisposed to a future vocation celebrating the arts.

Her enrollment in the Royal Academy of Dance, allied to the British school system, added to piano studies at the Royal School of Music created a solid foundation. But subsequent private lessons taken here in Fresno from 1989 – 1993 (age 11-15), followed by college level classes, bolstered the ingredients of her life’s work.

Ultimately, Becca received a B.A. in Music with a piano emphasis at the California Baptist University and continued to graduate school at Claremont University. There, she earned her Master’s in Piano Performance with an Interdisciplinary in Dance Music.


I was privileged to have been Becca’s piano teacher during her adolescent years before she wound her way to Southern California for advanced musical studies interspersed with dance classes. The dualism of her artistic pursuits accompanied a journey that brought her to the shining ambiance of the ballet studio.

You might say that her career peaked when she found herself in a universe of renowned dancers at the University of California, Irvine where the National Choreographer’s Initiative rented a yearly space.

Becca provided details:

“NCI handpicks 16 dancers, 8 female, 8 male from companies all over the country and they come together for 3 weeks, coordinating with 4 well-known choreographers. There’s one showing at the end of the 3 weeks.

“We have dancers from Richmond Ballet, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street, Ballet Met, Boston Ballet…just to name a few, and they’re all exceptional! It’s one of the many events out of the year that I look forward to playing for.”

Becca’s pianistic skills were on display at a NCI rehearsal, though she was not seen in the footage.

She described her creative process:

“Notice the Brahms waltzes where there was some ‘altering’ involved to make it work for ballet. Ex: Brahms Ab Waltz, the B section only has 6 measures in the phrase, I had to magically add 2 measures to make it 8 counts.”

This is where Becca stands out from a crowd of casual dance accompanists who might improvise their way through a class without giving it a second thought.


Her background alone steeped in music and dance led naturally to the limelight of ballet accompanying.

“When I studied piano with you,” she said, “I recall that we played through a few Kuhlau Sonatinas, Clementi Sonatinas, Mozart Sonata C Major; a Burgmuller Book (I use a few for ballet), some Chopin Waltzes, and the Schubert Impromptus. (All 4 of them)

“And yes, I always had a particular sensitivity to Classical music. My mom claimed it was her doing. I would kick her belly in rhythm to the beat when she went to concerts. And when I lived in Hong Kong (up to age 9), I grew up going to recitals, musicals, ballets, etc.”

And what about her specific dance training that followed upon arrival in California?

“In Fresno, most of my dance exposure was through Color Guard. I was very fortunate to have had well-rounded teachers who were knowledgeable in all genres of dance. We had regular training in Ballet, Modern, and Jazz and there was always ‘live’ music since we were dancing to the marching band with its pit percussion and drum line. Hearing a tempo and poly-rhythms while dancing became second nature. In the process we all developed great sensitivity to meter, rhythm, and phrasing.”

Becca eventually took dance classes at Riverside Community College, (RCC) where she bonded with the program and faculty. She described her teachers as a part of a “second family”

I was curious about when she sought a position as a dance musician?

“I didn’t become interested in the profession until I was actually in it,” she insisted. Originally, I wanted to play the piano in musical productions because I loved Broadway. I could sing and dance, but I couldn’t act to save my life. In every audition, I would choke during the reading portion, so I knew the only way I would be able to be a part of any production was to play the piano in the pit.

“At my Senior Recital in college, the dance faculty from Riverside Community College (RCC) came to support me. As they were walking out, one of them said, ‘We want you to be our dance accompanist. Think about it and come talk to us when our winter concert is over.’

“I probably only thought about it for 5 seconds. Sure, why not? It’s a job, in music! That beats working at a bank from 9-5.”

Becca would wind her way to Southern California in pursuit of further job opportunities.

“I realized most of the dance ‘happenings’ were in Los Angeles and Orange County. In some ways I was heading for a life as a ‘Freeway gypsy.'”

Traveling between studios would pose a challenge, with gas prices and all.

“Los Angeles was more commercial dance, where Orange County had more ballet training schools and Universities.

“After RCC, I got a job playing at Pomona College, which was a part of the Claremont Colleges where I was attending grad school. With RCC’s recommendation, I contacted Orange Coast College, and explained that I was pursuing a career in dance accompaniment. As luck would have it, there was one class available. One class turned to two, three, and substitute teachers took down my name, and word got out that I could play for ballet. Within a year of being in Orange County, I went from playing at one school to four schools!”

2012 happened to be very special! It marked Becca Wong’s 10-year anniversary as a Dance Musician!”

When I asked Becca about the the precise title of her dream profession, she curiously replied that there was no official term. “It ranges from simply ‘Accompanist’ to ‘Dance Musician,’ ‘Dance Accompanist,’ or just ‘Musician.'”

Recently, however, she adopted a new label that she loves. It’s “repetiteur” (In opera, répétiteur is the name given to the person responsible for coaching singers and playing the piano for music and production rehearsals. In dance, the responsibilities involve teaching steps and more)

Becca’s freelance travels have taken her to many sterling venues, though budget cuts have taken a toll.

Still her roster of encounters with the cream of the ballet universe continues to grow.

“I’ve had amazing opportunities working with the American Ballet Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Mark Morris Dance Group, Hubbard Street Dance, and have played for master classes of some current big names in the ballet world like Desmond Richardson (Alvin Ailey, Complexions), Sascha Radetsky (ABT, Film: Center Stage), and Amanda McKerrow (ABT) to name a few. Twelve years ago, watching PBS in Fresno, I’d never have guessed I would be HERE right now!”

Currently, she’s working at Chapman University and Orange County High School of the Arts, while also taking assignments at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“I play for a lot of master classes and company classes when these pull into town. And while I have a ‘staff’ position, I look at my scheduling and bookings like a freelancer.”

Freeway gypsy again comes to mind as an ample description of Becca’s life that’s often on the road.


I wondered about the ill-maintained pianos that sometimes turn up in the rough and tumble turf of dance venues. About these, Becca waxed philosophical:

“Most of the instruments are hand-me-downs. Because of fluctuations in temperature and moisture (being close to the ocean), and the fact that the piano is on a sprung floor in a dance studio, the pianos NEVER stay tuned. EVER. But you work with what you’re given.”

In the spirit of a true repetiteur she has to make snap accommodations as necessary. That’s the nature of her profession.


Finally, how on earth does a dance musician manage a diverse repertoire of pieces that might need alteration and trimming to conform with a choreographer’s requirements?

Becca rises to the occasion with her remarkable organizing skills:

“I have about 230 pieces of music for ballet technique class on top of the musical theater collection I’ve stored in my iPad.

“A spread sheet lists all the classes I play for with pieces sorted as -Plié-Duple Slow-Duple Moderate-Duple Fast-Frappe-Triple Slow-Triple Mod-Triple Fast-Ronds de Jambe…the list goes on and includes Mazurka/Polonaise, plus even more….

“Every time I play a piece, I mark it for that day so I don’t play it again until all the pieces in the section have been played. Therefore, a specific piece will finally repeat itself in 4-6 weeks. In this way, I don’t bore the dancers and teachers by rehashing the same compositions over and over again.”

Being resourceful, Becca has digitized all her music to keep pace with it.

“I decided early on that it would be best to transcribe my ballet music into the Finale program. In this way I can cut measures and edit them to make them ‘kosher’ for ballet. I also eliminated page turns if possible, since most pieces were 16-32 measures long. If there were page turns, I made sure the last bar in the page had a free hand to turn. I did this to all my ballet music in the course of 3 years, saving every piece of music on Finale, as PDF files. I had hoped that Apple would eventually come up with a way to store all my music, and thankfully, that’s where the miraculous iPad came in.”

With her peak devotion to dance accompanying, brought by fate to be her life’s passion, Becca sings its praises.

“I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

About ballet, she avows a cherished place in her heart.

“It’s a discipline that other genres don’t have. All pettiness and drama are left at the door. In ballet, you’re there to dance, to respect the art, and the people who are in it. Above all, there’s a reverence for the teacher, the pianist, and the dancers.”


Becca Wong is pictured with Vladimir Malakhov

From Wikipedia:

“Vladimir Malakhov (born 1968 in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine), was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. In 2004 he became the artistic director and first soloist of the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Ballet) which was newly formed from the ballets of the three public opera houses.

“He began his dance training at the age of four at a small ballet school in that region and remained there until continuing his training at the school of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. From age ten on, he was under the tutelage of Peter Pestov and upon graduation in 1986 joined the Moscow Classical Ballet as that company’s youngest principal dancer.

“In 1992, Malakhov joined the Vienna State Opera Ballet as a principal artist and the National Ballet of Canada in 1994. In the spring of 1995 he had his debut with the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since that time, he has remained a principal dancer with ABT and has continued to dance principal roles in Vienna as well as the renowned Stuttgart Ballet. Malakhov also appeared quite often as a guest in Berlin where he has recently become Artistic director. His repertory encompasses a wide range of styles from classical ballets to the works of today’s contemporary choreographers.

“Critically acclaimed globally for his artistic lyricism, he has won prestigious awards in his field from competitions in Varna, Moscow and Paris.”


"Did Somebody Say Fresno?! " Part V, Fresno, Fresno CA, Fresno in the movies, Hollywood movies that mention Fresno, poor piano maintenance in Fresno, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Uncategorized, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Fresno isn’t such a bad place, after all (“Did Somebody Say Fresno?! Part V” on You Tube)

Not to be a stage mom, but my daughter, Aviva is having a good time doing her thing archiving Hollywood movies that more than mention Fresno. (She’s just released, “Did Somebody Say Fresno?!” Part V.) Producer/video editor all in one, Ms. Kirsten makes a blockbuster cameo appearance in the opening, evoking Alfred Hitchcock’s movie-making days.

In some of the featured clips, Fresno’s bashed outright. More often, the city is casually dismissed as a train stop on the way to Bakersfield. (“not a place to take a vacation,” snatched from The Pentagon Wars.)

Our Mayor, Ashley Swearengin, has a recorded announcement at our “International airport” known as the “dullest” (double entendre for Dulles – excavated Smothers Brothers footage from Speed Zone, included in my daughter’s series, Part II)

Tourists and other visitors are informed that our city is the “Gateway to Yosemite.”

“Pardon me, but I have to take the next train, bus, or plane to my real destination.”

Here again, one has to be going somewhere else to enjoy a passing moment in Fresno.

(By the way, Bakersfield, absorbs its fair share of ditching, when Fresnans need relief.)

But honestly, Fresnans are usually their own worst enemies. They’ll complain about the weather. (100 degree plus temps for 6 to 7 months per year) and about the bad air. Yet if you ask them why they’re still living here after 50 years, they become outright defensive.

Watch out for a broom battering if you happen to be in a dusty driveway, complaining.

Funny, that Fresnans are more friendly than most people I’ve bumped into in the Bay area, or elsewhere. (And that’s coming from me, an ex-New Yorker who arrived in the promised land about 30 years ago)

Walgreens, for example, on Palm and Bullard, is a popular social hub. The employee in suspenders, who saunters between the photo counter and the front cashier area, is a throwback to the 50s. He’ll dispense all kinds of free, long-winded advice as if time were suspended.

To the contrary, if you want to meet up with a friend for lunch, she’ll usually be on call waiting, planning a trip “down south.” Where’s “down south? Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Palm Springs is down south.

There’s no way anyone in my circle of friends would bump me for lunch to a catch a southbound Amtrak train to Hanford or Bakersfield.

The Mayor, as mentioned, is convinced that most visitors to our city are headed for Yosemite so she politely asks them on the public address system, to spend a few bucks at our airport. (It’s added “International” to its name?) On what basis? Is everyone going to Greece, Armenia, or just to LA on the way to Palm Springs? Actually flights to Las Vegas have spiraled out of control. That’s another sanctuary where what’s brought from Fresno, stays there, no questions asked.

While waiting to board the next plane, a tourist can always snag a Fresno Bee, that’s shrunk to the size of a Whole Foods flyer.

The newspaper can also double as a place mat on a Southbound train.. Free-Bees, anyone?

I’ve scribbled blogs on Amtrak dispensed napkins while doing the Bee puzzle. Time flies that way and I get to the Richmond station without a hassle, letting out a big sigh of relief once there. It’s because I’ve been holding my breath here in the Central Valley to keep airborne poisons at a safe distance. In reality, you have to live with the toxins, allergens, etc. and make friends with them. Otherwise you can go insane thinking of the disease consequences in the short and long run. That alone, will kill you.

The allergists love it here because they’re financially secure for life.

When it comes right down to it, I stay here in Fresno because it’s home to my students and pianos (though ill-maintained) And we have the prized Philip Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concerts series that features pianists who stop off in our city, between performances in L.A. and San Francisco. Here again, we seem to attract the vagabonds who really don’t want to make any long-term commitment to us.


As intimated, this is definitely a great place to be if you happen to be a piano. Low, stable humidity promotes a very long life span, that’s if you add in decent maintenance.

OOPS.. did I say piano maintenance? piano tuners, piano techs? and anything walking around with a Verituner, machine job that tunes while the tech goes off and grabs a snack out of a metal lunch box. He probably retrieved it at a yard sale or flea market.

You can always find these homespun sales, a dime-a-dozen any day of the week in Fresno.

My neighbor had one just the other day. But he had NO garage to spread his wares. Basically, he put a variety of 50’s army posters out on the front lawn in front of his townhouse.

Add in fatigues–and some old posters of Uncle Sam saying “I Want You!”

He also rigged up some kind of Etymology exhibit with a list of pesticides put out by the Department of Agriculture.

It’s common knowledge that Fresno is big on crop dusters, so my daughter didn’t skip a beat finding a film clip mentioning that very undertaking. I think a cuss word is bleeped out. (The movie source was Air America starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.)


Fresno has an anachronistic character. Whatever is innovative in these parts, has been long abandoned in the bigger cities.

Re-invention is the word over there. Status quo lingers here..

Yet California Magazine published a spread on Fresno some years back, that described a city where “construction had gone wild.”

For God sakes, why not build a pretty park and play area on the corner of Palm and Shaw instead of another mega- Walgreens that looks like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I’m not really complaining about Fresno, because it provides an easy ride to anywhere of importance in this town.

For me its’ Bally’s Total Fitness, the AT and T Store, and the old Walgreens where I socialize at the photo counter.

Otherwise, if I’m home, I’ll tune into my daughter’s latest video offering that bashes Fresno, and chuckle while downing a container of carrot juice bought at Whole Foods.


(P.S. Not to forget that three-time Tony Award Winner, Audra McDonald, was born, raised, and groomed for greatness in Fresno: The Good Company Players- So the place can’t be as bad as depicted.)

Link to parts I, II, II, IV and V

“Did Somebody Say Fresno?!”

Aviva Kirsten on IMDB (Internet Movie database)

Cantata 78 by J.S. Bach performed at the First Moravian Church in New York City, classissima,, Elaine Comparone, emotion in music, First Moravian Church in New York City, Fresno, Fresno California, Kol Nidre, memoir, Mozart, music and heart, music in churches, music in Jewish temples, music in religious services, music in synagogues, musical inspiration, New York City High School of Performing Arts,, pianoworld,, publishers marketplace, publishersmarketplace,, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Steinway M grand piano, the Crystal Cathdral, the Crystal cathedral, W.A. Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, word press,, Yom Kippur, you tube, You Tube Cantata no. 78 performed at the First Moravian Church in New York City, you tube video

What’s happened to music in churches, temples and other religious sanctuaries? (2013 update)

On a rainy Sunday morning I was surfing You Tube in search of a spiritually poignant musical offering. One particular posting had been so inspiring that my index finger ached from so many mouse-clicked replays.

It was ? “Verum”–The one word lingered in my foggy memory, amply retrieved to reap a reward. Out popped Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” sung by the Vienna Boys Choir– a to-die-for performance.

A musician friend used the word “kill” when she described the effect of this music. I agreed that it killed in a way that seared the heart with longing for more…

According to Wiki..
“The hymn’s title means ‘Hail, true body,’ and is based on a poem derived from a 14th-century manuscript found in the Abbey of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and ties it to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.”

From Mozart’s imagination, sprang ethereal music– channeled through boys’ choirs in international venues.


What had changed about music chosen for religious services in sanctuaries around this country?

At the start of my inquiry, I had accepted invitations from a few of my Christian friends to sample worship services in varied denominational venues.

In one church, three electric guitarists ascended the stage and stood beside two saxophonists. A mobile white screen descended with verses that rolled by as congregants watched the lead instrumentalist for prompts. It was rock-style music in the main, though a few humble ballads managed to squeak through.

For me, something more was needed to cloak a powerful sermon. Certainly, this was not a Crystal Cathedral setting with a shimmering orchestra and special lighting effects. By contrast, it was a much smaller Evangelical church that could ill afford to engage high caliber vocalists to woo congregants toward the Lord.

Every year I’d always looked forward to the Christmas-time Messiah “Sing-Along” in an old established, downtown church. We’d sing “Hallelujia!” from the rafters as the culmination of a memorable musical afternoon.

This excerpt was a favorite:


A Jewish Temple located beside this well-established Protestant church had a domed ceiling; acoustically desirable plaster walls, and lots of wooden seats to enhance resonance, but congregants bowed to pressure to relocate up north. The move to a pricey suburb came with a California ranch-style construction that was no match for the previous Carnegie Hall-like space. Even the Torah that had been encased behind velvet-draped curtains, endured a painful transformation. It was enclosed behind what appeared to be plastic-coated sliders, like those seen in showers.

I ruminated about Temple Beth Israel before its relocation, having performed a few concerts right on the Bima, a narrow “stage” that barely accommodated my exported Steinway “M” model grand. (I nearly fell into the arms of my audience after playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata.)

At least the Torah beside me was an unrelenting source of comfort. It was red-velvet encased with the Hebrew Commandments above.

I recalled the good old times, when the temple imported a community of Christian singers to drape the somber Yom Kippur Day of Atonement in gorgeous music. The service was florid and penetrating, but I was puzzled why the Rabbi and Board of Directors couldn’t secure a minion of Jewish Congregants to intone the musically riveting “Kol Nidre.”

What about the Hammond organ sitting up in the balcony?

Temple Emanuel in New York City, had one of these in its sanctuary, giving it a Unitarian flavor.

Back in the days when I attended the NYC HS of Performing Arts, one of my close Russian friends, Olga Dolsky, a fine pianist, took me by the arm in the biting cold, and escorted me to her Russian Orthodox Church near the Bowery. There, the most awe-inspired music swirled around an acoustically divine space.

A world-renowned choir sang inspired works of Russian composers amidst icons, stained glass, and a Bishop sprinkling incense down the aisle. It was intoxicating! (The choir had produced hot-selling, internationally celebrated recordings.)

Those were the days!

From the East Coast:

A Choir Director and resident pianist/organist at the First Moravian Church in New York City directed an exalted performance of Bach’s Cantata no. 78:

Cantata no. 78 by J.S. Bach

Elaine Comparone not only conducts this ensemble and plays magnificent harpsichord, but she is the musical mainstay of this church, keeping great music alive in the sanctuary each Sunday.

Her comments about the Moravian church and its musical activity were riveting:

“Actually, I have quite a wonderful choir which I direct from the piano. I start the service upstairs in the loft with the organ, which is an advanced stage of restoration. But for more complicated pieces, like the one by Bach we did today, I can more easily direct from the piano (a nice Baldwin)..

“The organ is set into the wall so they are in effect standing behind me and facing out. So they sing the Introit up there, and I do the liturgy and a few hymns before going down to the piano for the rest of the service. This church likes lots of hymns. They range from 15th and 16th Century gems (my favorites) to 18th century chestnuts, most of which have march-like rhythmic patterns not unlike the Battle Hymn of the Republic—Christians on the march. These are not my favorites. I constantly make fun of them even though I play them with gusto. But they are more suited for the piano.

“I can lead the singing of the congregation better with the percussive power of the piano than the continuous tones of the organ. Large groups of people tend to drag
when they sing.

“Our choir members are an intelligent bunch and not averse to working hard on music. (I write out phonetically the German of the Bach cantatas.) We only do first rate pieces. It’s a lot of fun.”


Food For Thought

A reader who posted a comment to one of my blogs, spoke forthrightly about the type of music she deemed inspiring for a religious service:

“It really has nothing to do with denomination but more, I believe, to do with the philosophy within the church as to how music might enhance the worship.

“The ‘old’ hymns have their place, and many of them are quite beautiful. But if only I could hear some Bach, Handel or Haydn’s “Consolation” by Liszt or even MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose”…perhaps, Massenet’s “Elegie”…

“When I go to my Lutheran-pastor’s-wife piano teacher’s home, she has a wide variety of reverential classical (and other) music and discusses what she plays for a prelude to the service, etc. etc.

“However in my church, with its accomplished music director, the only ‘prelude’ is whatever 90’s hymn might have been selected for that day’s service. The only music is that which has words and only rarely more than 20 or 30 years old. It’s rarely reverential or even beautiful…. Maybe I need to get involved and express my feelings about this rather than the internal grumbling!”

I had to agree with her. Perhaps the voices of congregants like hers could make a world of difference.

Another poster had more to say:

“What you’re observing here is also a direct result of the pay that churches offer their musicians. I happen to be paid more than most church pianists these days, but it’s still nothing near a full salary like it was in the days of Bach, when the church job was absolutely the most respectable and well-paying job any musician could hope to have. But they also earned their full-time pay with full-time work. There wasn’t such an elaborate network and huge quantity of music already written for churches to draw upon like there is today. Consequently, today’s church musicians do not need to be composers. Requiring less skill/work of church musicians also means not having to pay as much. And some churches (Catholic, Mormon) don’t even pay their musicians at all – there are so many who want to be honored and recognized as the musicians they are that they’re willing to do it for free. This doesn’t mean there are no good church musicians out there – it just means it’s much harder to find them.

“Your quoted reader is correct: what musicians play in church is a direct result of what the congregation demands to hear. I’ve found it necessary to play a wide variety of music as preludes and postludes since my congregation ranges from the very traditional to the very liberal. It ranges from Bach and Beethoven to Ken Medema and Fred Bock arrangements (and sometimes my own compositions). As for offertory, at my church it lasts so little time – maybe 45-60 seconds each time – that it’s just not practical to get into anything profound, so I usually just play 2 verses of a hymn and put in various embellishments the second time (octaves, passing/neighbor tones, etc.). Sometimes I even use intermediate repertoire for preludes/postludes and for offertory once in a while since intermediate music is shorter in length – I find myself once in a while playing music of Martha Mier, Eugene Rocherolle, William Gillock, Burgmuller, and even Clementi. I am really picky about hymn arrangements that I play because so many of them are so cheap. They just slap octaves in each hand on a traditional hymn and call it an “arrangement.” That’s why I like Ken Medema’s arrangements so much – he actually goes off in his own direction in his arrangements – enough to qualify as “new music” beyond the arrangement.

“My frustration with today’s worship music is that it gives me a “lots of work for little reward” feeling. Luckily, I no longer play for the contemporary service at my church, so this is no longer an issue (once in a while we do this type of music in the traditional service, which isn’t a big deal to me). These points are not secrets to those I work with at my church – luckily we all recognize that one must really enjoy contemporary worship music to do it, and there’s nothing inherently wrong if one doesn’t connect well to this type of music. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with those who connect to it. But here is my perspective of contemporary worship music:

“You’re given 5 or 6 photocopies [licensed photocopies, I should clarify!] for one song, and some of them are a dizzying nightmare of dal segnos, bridges, 2nd/3rd/4th endings, and “repeat this ending until the leader signals to finally end” instructions.
Unlike hymns, they don’t sound good without an ensemble, and ensembles require rehearsal. (Item #1 also adds to the need to rehearse so everyone knows where to go.)
Required tempos for this music are extremely rigid – if you miss the tempo by just 1 notch on the metronome, you start getting complaints by those who have infallible karaoke recordings of these songs in their head. This is in stark contrast to hymns, which allow me to “calculate” a good tempo based on the time signature and pacing of the lyrics, even for a hymn that I’ve never seen before and play on one of those “request your favorite hymn” Sundays during August each year. There is a wide range of acceptable tempos for most hymns. I don’t listen to contemporary worship music on the radio while other church musicians listen to these songs a zillion times before they ever perform it the first time, so I have to work a lot harder to get tempos right.

“Personally, I just don’t connect at all with “happy clappy” music (or “7/11″ songs – songs that have 7 words repeated 11 times). From a purely harmonic/pianistic point of view, the length-to-complexity ratio of this music far exceeds the same ratio for a lot of hymns, especially ones such as “Now Thank We All Our God” (Crueger-Mendelssohn) or “All Creatures Of Our God And King” (Vaughan Williams). So, I have to put all this extra work into music that is difficult/complex only on levels that annoy me (dal segnos, syncopation, rigid tempos) rather than on levels that please me (harmonic and melodic interest).
I get to use artistic musical skills to lead the congregation on a hymn effectively (anticipating places to breathe, shaping phrases dynamically), but so much contemporary worship music requires the pianist to metronomically bang all the way through to be heard in the drum/vocalist/guitar ensemble and to provide rhythmic support (the piano almost takes on a percussion role, as in a lot of jazz, for this type of music). I feel more like a MIDI computer than an actual musician when I’m doing that type of music – there is almost never any place for rubato/phrasing/shaping.”

My response: AMEN!

Post Script: 2/11/2013

I’m now an official Berkeley resident, having attended my first service at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists on Bonita/Cedar.

Not knowing what to expect in the spiritual music realm, I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a magnificent Steinway grand, 1909–well- maintained, even to the touch, with a divinely beautiful voice.


To add to the feast, a wonderful pianist, Aline, played Chopin’s “Etude Op. 10, No. 3” at the Offertory, and Debussy’s “Reverie” after Meditation and Sharing. It was an inspiring setting with music-making at peak performance level.

pianist Aline Prentice

Fully sated by memorialized servings of music that complemented the LOVE theme, I left the sanctuary in karma.

side view fellowship hall

And this Update from Elaine Comparone at NYC’s First Moravian Church: “It’s Black History month so lots of spirituals. That and a Haydn ‘Sanctus’ plus a movement from Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah.’

“During Black History month I pull out arrangements of spirituals and some contemporary pieces like”Order Your Steps”. I think that particular arranger/composer(?) is Glen Burleigh. Moses Hogan is the arranger of most of the others. Some are simpler arrangements found in the hymnal–not only the Moravian hymnal but the United Methodist one. I played an Offertory yesterday from that. The title was something like “He never said a mumblin’ word”, and the choir sang “Oh Lord what a mornin'”—gorgeous piece.

“Most of the spirituals follow a standard form: chorus; verse(3 or 4); da capo after each verse to chorus. Arrangement-wise, the choruses are harmonized in four parts and the verses are monophonic, very often on a pentagonal scale (is that the right word or am I dredging up geometric terms?), which comes from the African roots of the music. The spirituals are moving and gorgeous, many of them.

“As for my own offerings: for preludes I play Bach on the piano, or on organ I favor Frescobaldi—love this stuff!—and some 17th century Spanish pieces from a collection I picked up in the now defunct Patelson’s. Since these guys were church musicians (Bach, Frescobaldi,), whatever they composed sounds good in church. That is true for most of the early guys (Sweelinck, Handel), because even when they’re composing dance music it sounds spiritual and church-appropriate. Can’t say the same for Scarlatti (altho I very occasionally play one of his for a postlude) or CPE Bach, who sounds way too much of this world. Slow movements from Haydn or Mozart would work for prelude, but they’re too long for offertory.

“These decisions are totally mine and don’t reflect any directions from anybody else. I have a sense of the flow of the service and don’t like to interrupt it with too long a piece for offertory…..”

No doubt Comparone prepares a full plate of delicious, time-honored music! And who’s to complain? The Moravian Church is lucky to have her!

Links: First Moravian Church of NYC

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists  BFUU


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The original article in the Piano Quarterly that inspired an examination of the piano tuner/technician landscape


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Piano Lesson: Refining the pedaling in Chopin’s Waltz no. 19 in A minor (Op. Posthumous)

Pedaling and its refinement were under consideration following an adult student’s initial reading of the Chopin Waltz. This piano lesson was transmitted by Skype to Sydney, Australia.

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Piano Instruction: Chopin Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28, Teacher, Shirley Kirsten

Chopin composed 24 Preludes in Op. 28 exploring 24 different keys (Major and minor) with each Prelude having its own mood and character.

In my step-by-step practicing of the E minor Prelude, I start with the Left Hand with its chordal mosaic, and listen attentively for descending chromatic movement between chords. In the foundational learning process, I want to be aware of common tones and those voice or voices within the sonorities that move. (Note that there are some progressions that are not chromatic)

I also need to use a supple wrist so I don’t enter the chords too fast, or with unnecessary impact. Listening across the chords helps to avoid a vertical rendering.

Next, I shape the right hand, which is especially challenging with its long notes in Largo tempo. The Alla breve indication of cut time, or a feeling in two helps move the melody along.

Finally, I play hands together trying to keep a nice balance between chords and melody, listening for how the passing, chromatic and other harmonies nourish the expressive line above.

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The view in my living room with an iMac, Tripod, Three Pianos, and Aiden cat

This about sums it up. Now that the iMac arrived right after Haddy Haddorff replaced a digital keyboard, Aiden cat found space for himself dwindling, yet he still managed to plop himself right in the middle of the muddle.


Aiden cat sits in on a concert…