The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Leon Fleisher, the inspirational pianist and teacher who died a week ago, had ties to Madison

August 9, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Famed American pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher (below, in a photo by Chris Hartlove), who also conducted, died of cancer at 92 last Sunday, Aug. 2.

Wisconsin Public Radio, like many other media outlets including National Public Radio (NPR) and most major newspapers and television stations, devoted a lot of time to tributes to and remembrances of Fleisher.

That is as it should be. If any musician deserved it, Fleisher did.

Fleisher (1928-2020) was a titan who became, over many years and despite major personal setbacks — stemming from an almost paralyzed right hand — a lot more than a keyboard virtuoso.

But despite lots of air time, less well covered has been his relationship to Madison audiences, who had the pleasure of seeing and hearing him several times in person.

In 2003 and then again in 2016 (below top) — at age 88 — Fleisher performed with the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet (below bottom).

Both times he played the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a masterpiece of chamber music. He and his wife, Katherine Jacobson, also performed a joint recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2009.

Fleisher felt at home in Baroque, Classical, Romantic and even modern music. He was renowned as an interpreter of Brahms. Indeed, his early and widely acclaimed recordings of both Brahms piano concertos as well as of the Waltzes and Handel Variations remain landmarks.

Once he was again playing with both hands, Fleisher also recorded the piano quintet for Deutsche Grammophon with the Emerson String Quartet, another frequent and favorite performer in Madison. (You can hear the finale in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is a this blog’s review of his last Madison appearance: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=Leon+Fleisher

Fleisher liked performing with the Pro Arte, and therein lies another historical tale.

His most influential teacher — the famed pianist Artur Schnabel, with whom the San Francisco-born Fleisher went to study in Europe when he was just 9 — also played often with the earlier members of Pro Arte Quartet. Together they recorded Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, and that recording is still in the catalogue and available on Amazon.

Fleisher discusses studying with Schnabel in his entertaining and informative 2010 autobiography “My Nine Lives” (below).

Fleisher was a child prodigy who made his name while still young. Famed French conductor Pierre Monteux – who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris — called Fleisher the “musical find of the century.” Fleisher made his concerto debut at 16 with the New York Philharmonic under Monteux.

Fleisher was just 36 and preparing for a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell – a perfect pairing and a conductor with whom he recorded all the Beethoven and Brahms concertos among may others – when he found he could not uncurl the last three fingers of his right hand.

Various diagnoses and causes were offered, and many cures were tried. In the end, it seems like that it was a case of focal dystonia that was caused by over-practicing, especially octaves. “I pounded ivory six or seven hours a day,” Fleisher later said.

After a period of depression and soul-searching, Fleisher then focused on performing music for the left hand; on conducting; and especially on teaching for more than 60 years at the Peabody Institute, located in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University.

There he helped shaped the career of many other famous pianists, including André Watts, Yefim Bronfman and Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Julian Edelstein), who played when Fleisher received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007. (All three have performed with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Here is an inspiring overview of Fleisher’s life and career from the Peabody Institute: https://peabody.jhu.edu/faculty/leon-fleisher/

And here is another short biography from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Fleisher

Here are three especially noteworthy obituaries:

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2020/08/02/702978476/leon-fleisher-the-pianist-who-reinvented-himself-dies-at-92

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/02/arts/music/leon-fleisher-dead.html

The Washington Post, written by critic Anne Midgette who worked with Fleisher on his memoir: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/leon-fleisher-sublime-pianist-with-one-hand-or-two-dies-at-92/2020/08/02/c7c98f90-527d-11e6-b7de-dfe509430c39_story.html

The Ear has always found Fleisher’s playing remarkable for its technical fluency combined with the utmost clarity and exacting but flexible sense of rhythm. He always managed to make a piece of music sound just right, as it was intended to sound. His musicality always seemed innate and perfectly natural.

Sample it for yourself. The Ear thinks the performance of all five Beethoven concertos with George Szell still sets a high standard with its exciting, upbeat tempi, its exemplary balance between piano and orchestra, and its exceptional engineering.

The affable Fleisher will long remain an inspiration not only for his playing and teaching, but also for his determination to overcome personal obstacles and go on to serve music — not just the piano.

Did you ever hear Leon Fleisher play live or in recordings? What did you think?

Do you have a comment to leave about the legacy of Fleisher?


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Classical music: Here are many of the major figures that classical music lost in 2017

January 2, 2018
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the traditional ways to start a new year is to take stock of the past year.

That often means compiling lists of the best performances, the best recordings, the best books, and so forth.

It also means listing the major figures who died in the past year.

Two of the more prominent classical music performers who died in 2017 were the renowned Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below top), who died of a brain tumor at 55, and the conductor Georges Prêtre (below bottom in a photo by Dieter Hagli for Getty Images).

There were many more, but they seem harder to find or to remember.

It seems to The Ear that such lists used to be more common.

It also seems to The Ear that many more of such lists for classical music are being incorporated into a overall lists of entertainers and celebrities in pop, rock, country, jazz, folk and even film stars who died. That is what National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times did this year.

Does that trend suggest that classical music is gradually and increasingly being marginalized or ignored? It is a reasonable question with, The Ear fears, a sad answer.

Does anyone else see it the same way?

But at least one reliable source – famed radio station WQXR-FM in New York City – has provided a list of performers, presenters and scholars of classical music who died in 2017.

Moreover, the list comes with generous sound and video samples that often make the loss more poignant.

Here is the link:

https://www.wqxr.org/story/music-made-classical-artists-lost-2017

Has someone been overlooked, especially among local figures?

If so, please use the COMMENT section to leave a name or even your reaction to the other deaths.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Live radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera start their 87th season with the Verdi Requiem at NOON this Saturday on Wisconsin Public Radio.

December 1, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

What is the longest-running classical music broadcast on American radio?

If you said the live Saturday matinee broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (below) in New York City, you got it right.

So, does that qualify the Met, and opera in general, as pop culture?

Does it do anything to reassure those who worry about the future of opera and classical music?

Anyway, the 87th broadcast season starts again on Wisconsin Public Radio this Saturday morning and runs through May 5.

Of course, not there are also the popular and more cinematic broadcasts of “Live From the Met in HD.” But many listeners still prefer the radio — which is FREE — to help them focus on the music, not the visual and theatrical aspects, and to use their imagination more.

On Saturday at the usual time of NOON — not 11:05 a.m. as was mistakenly first published here — the Met features a performance of the dramatic Requiem by opera great Giuseppe Verdi (below). (You can hear the operatic Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath, section in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Requiem will be conducted by James Levine (below), the now retired longtime artistic director of the Met.

The 90-minute performance will dedicated to the famed Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below bottom), who died two weeks ago from a brain tumor at age 55. For more information about the late singer, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/11/24/classical-music-charismatic-russian-baritone-dmitri-horostovsky-is-dead-at-55/

For as complete schedule of the works to be performed, which include well-known standards by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss as well as a contemporary work by Thomas Adès, go to the WPR website:

https://www.wpr.org/metropolitan-opera-begins-its-87th-broadcast-season


Classical music: Charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is dead at 55

November 24, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The charismatic Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (below, in a 2006 photo by Richard Termine of The New York Times) had it all.

Most importantly, the great opera singer, concert singer and recitalist possessed a superb voice with wonderful tone and breath control that allowed him to even beat out Bryn Terfel to win Singer of the World at a competition in Cardiff, Wales.

But he also had handsome face and fit beefcake body that made him a believable actor in so many roles and proved a pleasure to watch on stage.

And what about that fabulous mane of prematurely white hair that became his signature?

But on Wednesday, the acclaimed Siberian singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky — who was well on his way to becoming a superstar — lost a two-year bout with brain cancer.

He died at 55 – but not after winning plaudits for unexpected appearances at the Metropolitan Opera (below) and Carnegie Hall even while he was ill.

Here are two obituaries.

The first comes from the Deceptive Cadence blog of National Public Radio (NPR) and features three samples of his singing as well as some memorable interview quotes, including the renowned singer’s unapologetic take on his own sex appeal (below) that landed him in People magazine:

https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/11/22/565450465/dmitri-hvorostovsky-renowned-baritone-dies-at-55

And here is a longer obituary, also with samples, from The New York Times. It includes a lot of background about the singer’s early life and career:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/arts/music/dmitri-hvorostovsky-dead.html

Did you ever see or hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky in person or perhaps in “Live From the Met in HD” broadcasts? (He sings two folk songs in the YouTube memorial video at the bottom.)

And for those of you can judge singers better than The Ear can, what was your opinion of the Russian baritone?

Did you have a favorite role or aria you liked him in?

The Ear wants to know.


Classical music: Read about American composer Steven Stucky, who recently died. The Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform his Symphony No. 1 this weekend.

April 1, 2016
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A musician in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, whom The Ear holds in very high regard, says that the four-section, continuous movement Symphony No. 1 by contemporary American composer Steven Stuckey (below) is “beautiful.”

This is a discerning man and musician, and The Ear – who has never heard works by Stucky — trusts his judgment.

Steve Stucky

Even so, the work will be The Big Unknown on the MSO program this weekend. It also features pianist Garrick Ohlsson in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Johannes Brahms and the tone poem “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss. Both works are major standards of the Romantic and Late Romantic repertoire.

Here is a link with more information about the performances, which will be held tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/classical-music-pianist-garrick-ohlsson-will-solo-in-the-piano-concerto-no-1-by-johannes-brahms-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-this-weekend/

John DeMain, the longtime music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently told The Ear about how he had wanted to program a work by a living composer. After all, DeMain has championed other new music, including the world premiere of John Adams’ famous opera “Nixon in China.”

But a very aggressive form of brain cancer took away that chance when Stucky, who composed chamber music and choral music as well as symphonic music, taught at Cornell University and the Juilliard School, died just two months ago at 66.

Steven Stucky

So The Ear thought that it might be good to have more background about Stucky.

Here is Stucky himself talking about his 2012 Symphony that will be performed by the MSO and its emotional journey. It includes a performance by superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the work:

Here is a terrific background piece on Stucky that appeared on the Deceptive Cadence blog hosted by NPR or National Public Radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/02/16/466942466/remembering-composer-steven-stucky

And here is a lengthy and detailed obituary about Stucky that appeared in The New York Times. It also includes excerpts of reviews of his works and gives readers a context by which to judge Stucky’s achievement.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/16/arts/music/steven-stucky-composer-who-won-a-pulitzer-dies-at-66.html

The Ear is looking forward to hearing the work. (Another sample, in a YouTube video at the bottom, is his 2011 work “Silent Spring,” composed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book about DDT and pollution in the environment and nature.

He is also looking forward to hearing from others about the work.

So if you go to the MSO concert and hear Steven Stucky’s Symphony No. 1, why not leave your opinion or assessment in the COMMENTS section?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A FREE CD and a dedicated concert are perfect memorial tributes for flutist Robin Fellows — or for any musician

March 24, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

There was so much to like about last Friday night’s concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), including a fantastic performance of the sublimely beautiful Violin Concerto by the American composer Samuel Barber.

WCO lobby

The concerto, with its soaring melodies, poignant harmonies and spiky perpetual motion finale, was played superbly by Russian-born, London-based virtuoso Alexander Sitkovetsky (below), who received a masterful accompaniment from longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell and the WCO. (As an encore and change of pace, Sitkovetsky played the soulful Sarabande from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here are two very positive reviews, written by John W. Barker for Isthmus and Greg Hettmansbeger for Madison Magazine, with which The Ear agrees:

http://isthmus.com/music/dashing-brilliance-wisconsin-chamber-orchestra/

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/sewell-and-sitkovetsky-bring-out-the-best-of-a-couple-of-bs/

alexander-sitkovetsky

But The Ear notes this: Perhaps the most touching moment came off-stage.

As you may have heard, last October Robin Fellows died of cancer at 66. For 26 years, he had been the principal flutist of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He also played and taught at many other places.

If you went to the indoor classical Masterworks concerts by the WCO, you heard him.

And if you went to the popular summertime Concerts on the Square, you heard him.

So it was right and fitting, as they say, for the WCO to dedicate the concert to Fellows (below). Indeed, the program seemed perfect in its homage.

We heard a new principal flutist and heard lots of prominent flute playing in works by Irish composer Joan Trumble, Swedish composer Lars-Eric Larsson and especially the Symphony No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven.

robin fellows with flute

But the most stirring tribute happened off-stage.

That is because the family gave out a FREE memorial tribute CD of 20th-century flute music – with singers, bassoonists, clarinet, harp and piano — that was played by Fellows, recorded and released in 2002.

It includes music by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Albert Roussel, Ernst Toch, Daren Hagen (a UW-Madison alumnus) and Vincent Persichetti.

Out in the lobby of the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center was a table with not only the new season brochures for 2016-17, but also many stacks of FREE CDs. The audience was invited to take one by a current WCO flutist and oboist.

Robin Fellows CD table

And as you entered and left the theater, there was a large poster with a picture of Fellows and a paragraph about his life and accomplishments.

Robin Fellows poster

The Ear is still sampling all the pieces on the CD.

So far, it is both enjoyable and enlightening. The Ear would include a sample, but unfortunately he doesn’t see that any tracks have been uploaded to YouTube.

Still, one cannot imagine Fellows — or any musicians, for that matter — wishing for a better tribute.

The Ear says: Kudos to the Fellows family and to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra for providing such memorable memorials.


Classical music: Charitable giving should be a two-way exchange of money and information, and should be transparent. Arts and music groups should say how gifts will be spent. Plus, a string trio performs Haydn, Beethoven and Dohnanyi on Saturday night.

December 18, 2015
4 Comments

ALERT: Late word comes that on this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 1833 Regent Street, violinist Naha Greenholtz (concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra), violist Vicki Powell (a prize-winning alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music) and cellist Madeleine Kabat will perform a concert. The program features the Trio in B-flat Major by Franz Joseph Haydn; the String Trio in G Major by Ludwig van Beethoven and the Serenade by Erno von Dohnanyi. Admission at the door is $15, $7 for students.

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s that time of the year again.

The holidays.

The time for giving gifts.

The End of the Tax Year.

Giving Away Money Time.

money.3

That means all kinds of charities and non-profit organizations are filling The Ear’s snail-mail box and email basket with solicitations for gifts that can still be deducted on this tax year.

I have heard from just about every large and small music organization in the Madison area — including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top) and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below middle), the Oakwood Chamber Players (below bottom) as well as the University of Wisconsin — and some that are statewide like Wisconsin Public Radio.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

WCO lobby

Oakwood Chamber Players 2015-16

But curiously, not a single one of the pleas has included a pie chart or a bar graph or a listing of how the money that is given will be spent.

It seems to The Ear that charitable giving is a two-way street and should be completely transparent. I give you money because you give me information about why you need it and how it will be used.

That could be done with a simple pie chart (an example is below) or a listing of how many cents of every donated dollar will be spent on, say, percentage of salary increases, administrative salaries and raises, guest artists, resident musicians’ pay, venue rental, advertising and the like.

Budget pie chart

It could be and should be included in the solicitation itself or through a link to a website.

Funny, but arts groups seem especially reluctant to talk about money. They act as if the arts weren’t competitive businesses, or as if they are somehow demeaned or soiled by mentioning money – except, of course, when it comes to asking for it and getting it.

Now it is true that non-profits and charities generally file annual reports, as required by federal tax laws. But that is not enough. You have to do research to find them, and that takes time and know-how.

The public should not be asked to do that. Ethically, it should be the job of the organization asking for money to provide that information with the solicitation for funding.

It is important to avoid scams and nondisclosure.  A recent investigative study found that many of the top scams and cheaters among charities solicit money in the name of children with cancer, first responders like police officers and fight fighters, and veterans.

And in past years, even such well-known and venerable groups as the United Way and the Red Cross have been found to indulge in questionable practices and to cheat or mislead donors.

In certain cases, only two or three cents of the dollar – only two or three percent, that is — actually went to the recipients while most of the considerable sums of money went to organizers and administration. A good standard is that close to 90 percent should go to the cause and only about 10 percent to administration.

budget money in a jar

So The Ear issues a challenge to arts groups and especially music groups: If you want my money, provide me with information that I should know about how it will be spent.

Otherwise, The Ear suggests that arts consumers – and that is just what they are – start a boycott of giving until such information is made public and made widespread in its availability.

One assumes that legitimate organizations and their requests have nothing to hide. So it really shouldn’t be a problem.

But The Ear could be misguided or wrong-heded about this.

He wonders what the various organizations have to say? And whether they will provide an easy link to their financial reports?

And he wonders what other arts patrons and consumers have to say about this matter?

Leave what you think in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Can classical music cure cancer? Increase intelligence or IQ? Relieve pain? It may be worth considering at a time of New Year’s resolutions for healthy living.

January 2, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently came across a compilation of the health benefits of listening to classical music.

Leonardo da Vinci man

Some of it seems farfetched.

I, for one, am dubious about the claim that you can cure cancer by listening to the Fifth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below top) or that you can enhance intelligence and mental alertness to a specific section of a specific work, such as the “Spring” section of “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi (below bottom).

Beethoven big

vivaldi

And there are other claims relating to disease and intelligence, like The Mozart Effect for young children, that seem dubious or exaggerated.

But these studies seem to come from some prestigious journals and organizations as well as some careful studies and experiments or trials.

You can read the methods and results, then decide for yourself. Here is a link:

http://tribune.com.pk/story/802304/5-health-benefits-of-classical-music/

And here is a link to one of the works that is supposed to relieve pain — the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performed by Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia in a popular YouTube video:

Have a Happy New Year though listening!


Classical music education: Classical music can help students study for final exams. Plus, the WYSO Harp Ensemble and Youth Orchestra perform Saturday afternoon.

December 12, 2014
2 Comments

ALERT: Just a reminder that tomorrow, Saturday, Dec. 13, at 1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, on the UW-Madison campus in the George Mosse Humanities Building at 455 North Park Street.

The Youth Orchestra (below) and the Harp Ensemble of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) will perform.

The orchestra’s program includes The Roman Carnival Overture by the French composer Hector Berlioz; three excerpts from Act 3 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” by the German Opera composer Richard Wagner; and the first, third and fourth movements from the Symphony No. 1 in D Minor by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The Harp Ensemble will perform the traditional tune “Be Thou My Vision” as well as “Grandjany, Eleanor and Marcia”; and a medley of music by the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini.

Call the WYSO office at (608) 263-3320 for up-to-date concert and ticket information. Or visit http://wyso.music.wisc.edu

Tickets are $10 for adult, $5 for young people 18 and under; and they are available at the door 45 minutes prior to each concert.

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is officially the last day of classes for the first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The next two weeks are devoted to a study period and to final papers and exams.

That means classes are also ending at a lot of other public and private universities and colleges around the nation, The Ear suspects. And elementary schools, middle schools and high schools will not be far behind.

Final exams 2

So it is a timely time to post the results of research that shows that classical music -– not just any music, but specifically classical music, which lowers rather raises blood pressure –- can help students study and prepare for final exams.

It was published in advance of two radio stations’ scheduling of useful classical music in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California and in San Francisco.

Apparently, the secret is that it has to do with the embedded structure of the music itself.

The researchers, which range from the cancer center at Duke University and the University of San Diego to the University of Toronto, even mention some specific composers and musical genres or forms that exhibit that sense of structure in outstanding ways.

The composers cited include such Old Masters as Johann Sebastian Bach (below top), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below middle) and Johannes Brahms (below bottom). Richard Strauss and George Frideric Handel also were mentioned. Surprisingly, no mention was made of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn or Franz Schubert.

But students should avoid loud and more scattered music, the research suggests. No “1812 Overture,” complete with cannons, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky! Such music is actually disrupting and counterproductive.

Bach1

mozart big

brahms3

Hmmmm.

Maybe that same sense of structure and regularity — especially noticeable in Baroque music as well as the Classical period and early Romantic music — also explains why those composers have appealed to so many people for so long.

It may also explain why student who study music  and go through formal music education often go on to high achievement in other fields.

And the preferred forms include solo music, including the piano and the lute, and string quartets. That makes sense to me since they are more intimate and less overwhelming forms. Solo French piano by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré  and Francis Poulenc come in for special mention. (I would also add the 550 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.)

The Ear suspects that what works for final exams also works for other studying and homework in general and other intensive intellectual tasks.

studying to music CR Holly Wilder.jpeg

And maybe what is good for college students is also good for high school or even middle school or elementary school students.

final exams 1

I do have some questions: Did the researchers take the conflicting evidence about multi-taking into account? But I assume they probably gave that some thought. Still, you have to wonder.

Here is a link to the story:

http://news.usc.edu/71969/studying-for-finals-let-classical-music-help/

Do you have favorite music to study by? (One of my favorites is the Waltz in C-Sharo minor by Frederic Chopin as played with great discernible structure, repetition and variation — listen to inner voices — as well as incredible color and nuance by Yuja Wang in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Favorite composers, favorite kinds and favorite pieces?

The Ear wants to hear.


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