Beverly Sills: Made in America

I watched this documentary on PBS last night. I enjoyed it a
lot. Some thoughts I had while watching it:

  • I was surprised how old-fashioned the staging looked, not
    only in the clips from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, but even from
    the 70’s, which is when I started going to the theater.
  • The best thing about it was that there was a lot of singing;
    not just short clips but enough of an aria that you could really
    get into the characterization.
  • I’m surprised at how few of those performances are on
    Netflix, with only a couple more of the operas on amazon.
  • They used Roberto
    as an example of what Sills thought wasn’t
    completely bel canto singing in the bel canto
    repertoire. Also an example of why singing opera is an athletic
    feat — the makeup took two hours to put on, and the costume
    weighed 50 pounds. I’m not sure I could sit around watching TV
    in something like that, let alone stand and sing over an
    orchestra for 3 hours.
  • The crossover appearances were interesting — not only could
    she tap-dance with Danny Kaye and Lily Tomlin, but they could
    sing with her.

It made me feel very nostalgic; I did actually see a
performance of Guilio Cesare in 1972, with a group
of people who were doing opera performances at Brown
University. We went backstage and shook Beverly Sill’s hand,
and met Muffy, the deaf daughter.

Singing opera is one of the things that’s always made me say,
“I wish I could do that.” It still does, even though of course
there’s now no chance at all, and never was much.

Following up

I’m back at home, mostly unpacked, and typing this on a real
computer, with an X-windows system that I know what it’s going
to do when I try to copy and paste, where emacs has psgml
installed, and there’s a clicky keyboard at the
right height. And it’s now past when I normally post, so I
thought for a quick post I would write some followup posts, and
save anything strenuous for tomorrow.

Pianos are out of tune

Saturday’s post
on tuning drew an official comment with a book
recommendation. It also drew an email from my friend Ishmael,
who works in a lab at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear
. A colleague of his has written an article
claiming that there’s a neurophysical basis for the stretched
octave. His research subjects for this article are cats, who
tend in my experience to have rather wierd musical tastes, so I
don’t know that this is relevant to why equal temperament was
adopted as the standard tuning by humans, but you can read it
and decide for yourself.

Ishmael also reminded me in the same email that we both play in
lots of contexts where the official tuning system is completely
irrelevant because enough of the performers or instruments
aren’t capable to keeping to a system. This is probably
historically true of an awful lot of music. Which is why many
tuning discussions seem pretty off-the-wall to most practicing

Concert construction

Last Wednesday’s
about the concert program drew an email from one of the
participants. He agreed that more instrumental music would have
been good, and also said that a wider variety of instruments
(more serpent, some crumhorns) might have helped.

I’ve loved you so long

I said in my
post about this movie
that I’d had A la claire
running through my head a little bit wrong since I
saw it. I eventually got out my book of French folk songs and
learned it.

Nokia 810

In my post on my
new Nokia 810
, I may have forgotten to mention that it
works much better than the Nokia 770 did as an MP3

I also found a new application for it — because of the foldout
stand, I was able to set it up on my bedside table in Fall River
as a traveling clock.

Blogging in my 59th year

This post
drew a couple of comments, including one from Mike Cane, whom I had
cited as part of my inspiration for doing this.

He remarks that he’s sure the energy he put into it has
shortened his life, and he doesn’t know how people do it on a
longer term basis.

I think my one post a day isn’t quite as energetic as Mike was
doing — it doesn’t seem any harder than practicing a musical
instrument every day, which I’ve done for several decades. Of
course there is a limit to how many things you can do every day,
and this is cutting into some of the others.

Why pianos are out of tune

I recommended How
Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)

by <a href="Ross

last week
without having read it, so this week I decided to read it.

The description of “how” equal temperament took over is a bit
vague, but the “when” is extremely detailed without being dry
and scholarly, largely thanks to the entertaining biographies of
the major players.

Where I would have really liked more detail is in where to go
to listen to non-equal temperaments. He does recommend 6
degrees of tonality
and Beethoven
in the temperaments
by Enid Katahn as CD’s for hearing a
piano tuned in non-equal temperaments. But his
arguments about “why you should care” seem to be the standard
“early music” ones: Beethoven did it on this kind of piano and
so should we. I’d be surprised if they convinced any of the
people who believe that Beethoven really wanted his sonatas
played on a modern Steinway, and was just stuck with those silly
fortepianos that were always breaking strings.

I actually think you can make a case that it isn’t equal
temperament that makes modern pianos out of tune, but rather the
other way around — there’s no possible way to make a modern piano
in tune, so that’s why equal temperament, which is “easier” in
ways that Duffin explains in detail, became accepted.

Piano tuning

I think Ross Duffin doesn’t really realize how out of tune any
modern piano is, even when just tuned by a good tuner to exactly
the frequencies that are theoretically accepted as the best


There’s one issue that he does explain in detail, and that is
that the octaves are in fact wider than the doubled frequency
Pythagoras and Helmholz and all tuners before the metal framed
piano believed in.

Many people’s eyes glaze over when I try to explain this, even
though I think it’s one of the most elegantly complicated
explanations in the history of musical acoustics. So if your
eyes glaze over on complicated explanations, feel free to skip
to the next section.

The short answer for why a note on a piano is more than twice
the frequency of the note an octave below it is that with a
string as stiff as a piano string the
overtones are sharper than the harmonics.

That is, with a light string like a harpsichord or guitar has,
when the string vibrates in two sections to produce the first
overtone, the lengh is in fact almost exactly half the length of the
string, making the frequency twice the frequency of the string’s
fundamental tone.

On a piano, however, the string is so stiff that when it
vibrates in two sections, the actual vibrating length is
noticeably less that half the length of the string. And the
difference is even more pronounced with the higher

So if you tuned a piano so that the fundamental of a string
was precisely twice the fundamental of the string an octave below
it, you would have horrible beats between the first overtone of
the lower string and the fundamental of the higher string, and
even more horrible beats between other pairs of overtones.

So one of the things piano tuners do is figure out how much
they have to “stretch” each octave to minimize these beats
formed by the out-of-tune harmonics.


If you’ve looked at piano pieces, you can see that pianists
play octaves all the time — there are whole genres of piano
music where the left hand is doing nothing but play a walking
bass line in octaves. So if you have to tune octaves out of
tune, there’s no way anyone is going to ever hear a piano as in
tune no matter what theoretical temperament the tuner uses.

But it gets worse than that — not only are the octaves all
sharp — all the unisons are deliberately tuned out of tune.

Only the bottom notes of the piano are played by one string —
the others are have two or three strings (usually) hit by the
hammer. (The soft pedal works by shifting the hammers over so
that only one string is played instead of all two or three.)

Most piano tuners believe that the piano sound is richer if the
two or three strings that play one note are tuned a little bit
differently from each other, to produce something like one beat
per second.

And of course, if you think about the description above of why
the octaves have to be out of tune, you can see that even one
string played all by itself is producing overtones that are “out
of tune” by any theoretical tuning system based on simple

Alternate history

So I think the history of the acceptance of equal temperament
as the dominant tuning system may be something like this:

During the late Renaissance and Baroque eras, people played
music that became more chromatic and more based on harmonies and
played in a wider variety of keys. So tuning systems wer invented with
more compromises in order to play
the wider variety of notes and intervals. This is much better described in Ross Duffin’s 150 page
book than I can do here.

During the nineteenth century, pianos became larger and louder,
and therefore needed to use stiffer strings, so tuning them to any
system based on single frequencies and their ratios became

Pianos also became the dominant instrument, so that most
singers and other instrumentalists were most likely to perform
with a piano as accompaniment rather than with an organ or a cello.

It became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between
the non-equal temperaments favored by the nineteenth century piano
tuners (even when they said they were tuning equal temperaments)
and an equal temperament. And the equal temperament is easier to
train people to tune. So starting in 1917, all piano tuning
manuals advocated equal temperament, and most instrumental
instruction included at least methods for dealing with playing
with an equal tempered instrument, even if they believed some
other kind of tuning was preferable for solo playing.

However, piano tuners (and pianists) do in fact believe that
piano tuning is an art, not a science, so when they’ve finished
tempering all their fifths and stretching all their octaves and
detuning all their unisons the way the manual or their tuning
course told them to, then they play the piano and fix
anything that doesn’t sound right to them. I haven’t looked up
the literature, but I’m pretty sure that this often results in a
tuning where a very large fraction of the strings are vibrating a
a frequency very different from what a computer program will tell
you is an equal tempered scale.


None of which is to imply that I didn’t enjoy Ross Duffin’s book a lot, or that you shouldn’t read it if you’re interested in its subject matter.

Concert Program Construction

This is also something I need to think about. We’re planning
the Walk for Hunger
program. Also, I’ve been mulling some of the comments I got
about the Loring-Greenough house program.

Last program

Apparently everyone found the first half of the
Loring-Greenough program a bit heavy and hard to take:

  • A friend who’s not a very experienced concertgoer said,
    “It’s all about dying, it’s so depressing.”
  • A very experienced performer told me that I should have made
    more comments, which would have paced it better.
  • A fairly experienced musician said, “There was an awful lot
    of stuff in minor keys.” I think this one isn’t even true, for
    instance, The silver swan is in a major key.
  • Another experienced performer said she thought there should
    have been more instrumental music on the first half. The
    original version of the program did have some, but it was part
    of what got cut to get the length right.

These might all really be the same reaction. I’m sure having
some instrumentals breaking up the vocals would have been a good
idea. Also, there were really two sections, both fairly dark.
The material flowed pretty smoothly between the section about
tears and frustration and the section about death, but maybe
having one of those sections on the second half, and some of the
stuff from the second half about dancing and singing and having
fun on the first half would have made a better balance.

Of course, it’s also possible that it came out so dark and
frustrating because we weren’t doing it well enough. Things
like Flow my tears and The silver swan
should be uplifting, not depressing, and maybe we just aren’t
quite good enough to do that.

Next program

Every year, the Cantabile Band plays for the Walk for Hunger. This
happens on the first Sunday in May at a beautiful spot on the
banks of the Charles River. This is one of the more reliable
times for good weather in this part of the world, and The Walk
for Hunger is one of the popular charities where it’s possible
to tell the people you work with that you’re doing it and get
them to contribute money. So this is our opportunity to play
for tens of thousands of people, although not many of them
stay to listen for vary long, even when the weather is warm
enough to sit and listen.

So you want fairly upbeat, walking tempo music; there’s no
chance of too long a section about death and dying. It will
be most of the same people who played the last concert (Stuart
the cellist is going to be out of town, but the rest of us are
all playing). I haven’t heard from anyone else who wants to
do it, but I’ve given people another couple of weeks to

At rehearsal yesterday we came up with one set that goes

  • Weelkes, Pipe it up tabor, which is about the
    frustrations of a Morris team dance leader who has people with
    aching joints who can’t dance very well.
  • Weelkes, Come, Sirrah Jack, ho, which is about
    using tobacco to fix the aching joints.
  • Morley, Arise, get up my dear, which has morris
    dancing in it.

We might also include some real morris dances, and preface it
with the Dowland It was a time when silly bees could
, where an exasperated king gets the last word about
the complaining silly bees.

Another feature of that spot is that it’s where I chose to
scatter the ashes of our group member who died last May, so we
do have to sing something for Bonnie, but I’m sure we’ll find a
cheerful thing she liked to sing in May, rather than insisting
on all the stuff that helped us while she was dying.

Following up

I expect on a more or less weekly basis to post a short series
of paragraphs that update previous posts.


Last Friday, I wrote about my new tuner. I
said that I was having trouble even getting it to slow down when
playing a recorder. I took it to my lesson that evening, to see
what a professional recorder player (John Tyson) could do with
it. As you would expect, he did much better than I did, with no
trouble getting the spinning lights to slow down, but it was a
great deal of effort for him to make them stop. (When you watch
a professional recorder player play with one of the needle ones,
it really looks like the needle doesn’t move at all.) At my next
lesson, he asked me if I’d been working with the tuner (not much,
because of the concert), and recommended doing so, because it
would be good feedback on getting an even tone.

Pruning Roses

On Saturday, I wrote about finally being able to get to the
rosebush in my
garden plot

. Unfortunately, we had an unusual cold snap this
week, with temperatures in the teens (fahrenheit) for several
days, and maybe in the single digits at night. So while last
week I worried that I was leaving it too late, if having the raw
cuts exposed to cold is a bad thing, maybe I should have waited
another week. And now I’m worried about how the poor little buds
did with the cold, too.

to my pruning shears.


I said yesterday that the
pharmacy had the authorization, and was claiming that they would
fill the prescription for the insulin syringes in a small number
of hours. I called them several times, and they still hadn’t done
it as of 4 PM. So I called this morning, and they finally had them. But
this morning my fasting blood sugar was 201, which is much higher
than it ever is when I’m taking insulin. I’m going to try to get
time to write to the hospital ombudsman or whatever it’s called
these days. There should definitely be a system for getting
people medication in less than a week, and for expediting
medications that people are out of.

Concert yesterday

Here’s the program.
We didn’t take pictures yesterday, but here’s one from last week in Lowell, at the ALL gallery: [Cantabile band]

The Cantabile
does a fair amount of performing for a dropin group, but
it’s mostly things like The
Walk for Hunger
and background music at Boston Wort Processors picnics.

There’s a big difference between that and playing a concert for
a bunch of people who have paid money for the privilege of sitting
and listening to the music.

This difference may be particularly acute in the case of the
Renaissance polyphony that we specialize in. There’s a fairly
long distance between being able to sing it well enough that
everybody in the group enjoys it, or so that people walking by
think it’s pretty, and being able to actually stand in front of an
audience and put together each line in its precise relationship to
all the other lines so that the audience can hear it all.

Five people from the dropin group signed up for this concert.
Three of us don’t treat it as a dropin group, and come every week,
and learn the music we work on as we work on it. Two of them come
much less often, and started rehearsing this playlist in January
with very little acquaintance with any but the more commonly
performed pieces.

In addition, the soprano/harpsichord player fell and broke two
ribs and her left wrist in early February.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached this
concert. I knew it would be a stretch when I signed up to do it.
I think I can report with satisfaction that we did stretch. I can
also report that if you’d been there you could have seen a number
of places where we could have stretched harder or better. But I
think the concert yesterday was what that group can do this week,
and if we turn out to be able to do something better next month or
next year, it will be largely because of the work we did the last
two months.

Things I personally learned include:

  • Always make anything you’re playing comfortable. If it
    isn’t after a couple of weeks of practicing, either change it or
    drop it. One of the pieces I got a lot of compliments on after
    the concert was the van Eyck variations on Come Again,
    which I interspersed with the 6 verses of Dowland’s song as the
    ending number on the concert. Since it was interspersed, I had
    to play it on the G alto so that it would be in the same key we
    were singing in. On that instrument, I can’t reliably hit the
    low G, so I was getting tense about it and not hitting other
    things which should be easy. So I just rewrote the piece so
    that there weren’t any low G’s.
  • Always make sure that everybody knows where the cadence
    points are, and rehearse starting from each of them. This way,
    if someone makes a terrible mistake and gets lost, they can get
    back again at the next cadence. In the Lowell tryout, it turned
    out some people couldn’t do this on The Silver Swan.
    We worked hard on that piece on last Tuesday’s rehearsal.

New Tuner

My old Korg MT-120 tuner, which allows tuning multiple
temperaments, has gotten really flaky. Last Sunday, when we were
trying to use it to tune a harpsichord for a performance, we had
to give up and use a cheaper tuner that only does equal
temperament. So I decided it was time to buy a new tuner.

A builder on the harp list had recommended a strobe tuner, the
Sonic Research Turboo Tuner

So I ordered it Sunday night, and it arrived yesterday at lunch

I immediately tuned up both harps in equal temperament. It did
go faster watching the lights than it does with a needle, but I’m
not sure whether it’s because I’m not obsessing about getting
lights to stand still the way I was about getting the
needle on 0. In any case, it sounded like a pretty good

So far, I’ve been having trouble using the strobe for telling
whether my recorder playing is in tune, but it could be that I’ll
get used to it.

This morning, I entered quarter-comma and fifth-comma meantone
temperaments, and will go downstairs and try them on the harps and the

I was worried about whether it would be possible to enter
something as complicated as a temperament on a box with only 8 buttons,
and it was a bit slow at first, but I picked up speed as I got
used to it. And it isn’t something you’re going to do every day.
It does seem like a lot of data to enter on a device that can’t be
backed up, though.


For those who have no idea what a temperament is, try the

wikipedia article

For those who wondered why I wanted fifth-comma as well as
quarter-comma, read Why
I hate Vallotti…
by Ross Duffin.

The way I translate the name of a tuning into the numbers to
enter into the tuner is via a program called scala.
It comes with almost 4000 tunings defined, and you can load them
and look at all kinds of data about them, or export them so that
MIDI players can use them.

Of the two Ross Duffin books below, I haven’t read the one on
temperaments but based on the article pointed to above, I would
expect it to be much more readable than most of the stuff written
about such things. Shakespeare’s Songbook is an
indispensible reference if you’re going to do anything at all with
music in that period.