Tuned in

Published: January 20, 2009

I caught part of the inauguration of Barack Obama. All very impressive – even the new President’s bumbling of the oath-of-office, which finally showed, in a much needed way, that he’s human.

I liked the stellar and politically correct quartet of cellist  Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese-American), Itzhak Perlman (Israeli-American), clarinetist Anthony McGill (African-American) and the half-finger-gloved pianist Gabriela Montero (female-American), who all are at the top of their tree when it comes to their instruments. Of course they played an arrangement by the Hollywood classicist, John Williams, since there’s nothing more Hollywood than Washington, DC, these days.

Watching them, I couldn’t help thinking that all of us pipers and drummers have been there: sitting around in the freezing cold awaiting our turn to play. (Sometimes this happens in August in Scotland.) Pipers harp on about keeping four reeds in tune, but I am sure that sustaining the intonation of four cat-gut strings or 88 pieces of piano wire is at least as challenging.

And then playing together and (roughly) in-tune before an audience of a gazillion or so. Terrific.

I have a lot of time for Ireland (before the Euro, anyway) and other countries that put their greatest artists, and not always their politicians, on their bank notes. I like that the inauguration included great music and poetry. It bodes well for people like us.

45 thoughts on “Tuned in

  1. Apparently, the chief justice said the phrase incorrectly and O’bama got caught expecting the right version. That’s why he appeared to have stumbled part way through the oath. The major networks didn’t say much about the Irish ancestory of O’Bama. Google “Obama Irsh” and listen to a humerous (silly??) ditty.

  2. There is no contest as to which instrument is by far THE most difficult to keep in tune in any conditions. The Bagpipe wins with an astronomically huge margin.
    Admittedly cold weather will affect brass, guitars, stringed instruments and keyboards to a degree as the wood and metal will contract somewhat, but not enough to cause the instruments to need retuning. I cannot even envision the pitch dropping 1/4 cycle.
    Strings (guitar, piano, violin, etc) have a built in vibrato effect which helps cover up some pitch variations, particularly as there is chordal effects occuring within the music almost constantly helping to mask any slightly “off” notes.
    When it comes to the classical strings, there are no frets on the fingerboards allowing for minute adjustments to the sound by repositioniing the fingers slightly. In addition, the vibrato hides any sound imperfections (watch the vibrating wrist…..).
    The piano has more than one string (there are more than 88) for the majority of the keys and unlike the bagpipe, matching strings are deliberatly set slightly out of tune with each other to provide vibrato and a better blending sound.
    Bagpipes on the other hand……well, I’m sure no explanation is needed for this forum’s audience.

  3. The piano part didn’t come out right……
    Here goes..
    The piano has more than one string (there are more than 88 in total) for the majority of the 88 keys and. unlike the bagpipe, matching strings are deliberatly set slightly out of tune with each other to provide vibrato and a better blending sound. EG middle C has 2 or 3 strings tuned slightly off with each other to cause a vibration in the sound produced. It adds a sort of fullness to the note being played.

  4. Of course the art and music bode well for people like us. He is a modern democrat. He stays up past 10pm, he wears shorts and a baseball cap (backwards even), he’s been displaying his human side for a long time. He is very in touch with the every day man and woman and totally understands the role “the arts” play in our daily lives. He had U2 play at his inaugural concert for cryin’ out loud. He gets it. And like the Clinton era, let the good times roll. Take a deep breath, relax and enjoy your life. All the rest will fall into place when this happens. Politics and Economic s are both “social sciences.” What’s more social than music?

  5. He’s a politician – they’re all the same. You’ll see.

    So far its been a lot of preaching and a big show or two. Nothing new here.

    Looked like a concert, rudely crashed by a bunch of politicians. Rock bands at political ceremonies is something only America could cook up. Tacky and cringeworthy, especially when the pollies clap along and pretend they know the words. Music should not take sides, or be manipulated in such a way. To meld entertainment and politics like that is cynical, not fun and ‘easy going’.

    Politicians spend all their time telling us they are just like we are. They trot out rock starts and celebreties in America for populist reasons, nothing else. They’ve all been in the party system and sing from the same hymn sheet/. i wish him well, but expect more of the same – some bad, some good and lot of fluff and spin in between.

    Just leave the music alone so it can snipe and fight the good fight from the sidelines by questioning the establishment…..not get in bed with it!

  6. ps – re instruments holding in tune etc.

    As with any instrument, a lot depends on who’s on the end of it and what their knowledge and experience is like. That will determine a great many things…..as we have all witnessed, I’m sure.

  7. Very true, but i don’t know many pianists who tune their own pianos. And while we’re on the topic of being multicultural, where WERE the bagpipes? Just kidding!

  8. Speaking as someone that actually plays a stringed instrument, I can assure you that pulling a steel stringed instrument out of a case into cold winter air will sharpen you up by a semitone at least, if not more. Not to mention potentially cracking a top. At least with bagppes you bathe the reeds in a continuous stream of warm, moist air, ensuring relatively benign conditions.

    As for setting piano strings slightly differently: that’s to do with the way strings interact, not to alter the sound of the individual note. Sorry.

  9. Slightly off topic but on Andrew’s point about pop stars and singers at political bashes…the UK has had it’s fair share of looking foolish in this area. Reminds me of the hilarious attempts by John Redwood, the former Secretary of State for Wales, trying to sing the Welsh National Anthem when he clearly didn’t know the words… http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=RIwBvjoLyZc and the rather idiot, then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott dancing at various points in his career… http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=tJGRF8kjzQc

  10. Actually, there were bagpipes in the inaugural parade. There was a firefighters pipe band from Cleveland, and the U.S. Border Patro Pipe Band (playing the U.S. Border Patrol March by Jimmy Bell as they passed the reviewing stand), and the VMI pipe band marched with the cadet corp.

    Lyon College Pipe Band was in the running for the parade, but lost out to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff marching band. Personally, I was kind of glad to be at home watching it on TV.

    K

  11. I didn’t waste time watching that $150,000,000 dollar Dog & Pony show. Who wants to hear these muppets spount off nice words written by professional speech writers from Disney.

    They spent $750 million dollars getting this guy a $200,000 a year job, Whut’s Up with that?

    BTW, everybody knows the bagpipes are the Devil’s instrument, it needs a lot of heat to operate properly.

  12. I found the inaugural ceremony very moving. Particularly Yo Yo Ma’s brilliant reminder to us all, to look at our fellow musicians, communicate with them, listen to them, lean in to them and away from them, move with the music, feel the music, and enjoy it. His face was a picture of expression, and gave away his love of the music and his desire to communicate with and through it both to his fellow performers and to the worldwide audience. Sometimes when you look round a circle of pipers, you see eyes looking at the ground, the cieling, staring blankly into space and so on. I know that in a circle pipers have to keep a close eye on the PM, but a bit of YoYo Ma’s approach would perhaps loosen up the communicative possibilities in the music, aid expression, and help players to relax more with the music and let it flow in a natural less constrained way.

    BTW at the level those players are at, they would never be using vibrato to cover up blemishes of any kind. That isn’t what vibrato is anyway. And the piano facts are for the most part, way off.

  13. Let’s not get carried away here, one way or the other. Politics is politics – whether they’re playiing Mozart, Megadeth, Midlothian or Montgomery Gentry at the inaugural is indicative of….nothing. Except which music/groups the new prez may like, and which groups are supporters of the new prez and ask to be there.

    For us pipe band types, I really think the sage words of Craig Colquhoun circa – must have been 1988 or ’89 – are most appropriate: “All Music, No Politics”. Aye, Hoss, right you still are!

    PS I’d have been up for a little Megadeth myself – Peace Sells, But Who’s Buyin’….:)

  14. Alright smart guys/girls, here is a link on piano tuning.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_tuning

    Read this. Understand it. And note that unllike the bagpipe, which requires constant unwaivering attention, it only really needs to be done periodically. And thst is the real poiint here…..

    Note the three srings per hammer, tempering, beating, etc………..

    Anybody want to discuss violin tuning, playing next? How about guitars?

  15. I’d agree with that. As a child, I played piano for 10+ years (never had to tune one, though!), viola for 11 years (everyone tunes their own), dabbled with guitars on and off, and have played bagpipes for 27 years before going on sabbatical a few years back.
    I just google guiter tuning (see link) and it seems much more complex than I realized. Take a look if you dare…….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar_tuning

    That being said, I’ve never seen anyone stopping to tune a piano mid recital, or carving the f holes on a violin like “Jack The Ripper” to finely adjust the violin, or shaving some wood out of a guitar, or shortening the strings, etc………

    Anyway, in my experience, I still say that bagpipes are definitely the biggest pain in the rump to keep in tune. Why else would we spend 1/2-2 hours tuning up to play for 6 minutes and yet still praying that the pipes hold to the end? No other musical endeavor that I’m aware of has to do that.

  16. I’d agree with that. As a child, I played piano for 10+ years (never had to tune one, though!), viola for 11 years (everyone tunes their own), dabbled with guitars on and off, and have played bagpipes for 27 years before going on sabbatical a few years back.
    I just google guiter tuning (see link) and it seems much more complex than I realized. Take a look if you dare…….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar_tuning

    That being said, I’ve never seen anyone stopping to tune a piano mid recital, or carving the f holes on a violin like “Jack The Ripper” to finely adjust the violin, or shaving some wood out of a guitar, or shortening the strings, etc………

    Anyway, in my experience, I still say that bagpipes are definitely the biggest pain in the rump to keep in tune. Why else would we spend 1/2-2 hours tuning up to play for 6 minutes and yet still praying that the pipes hold to the end? No other musical endeavor that I’m aware of has to do that.

  17. I’d agree with that. As a child, I played piano for 10+ years (never had to tune one, though!), viola for 11 years (everyone tunes their own), dabbled with guitars on and off, and have played bagpipes for 27 years before going on sabbatical a few years back.
    I just google guiter tuning (see link) and it seems much more complex than I realized. Take a look if you dare…….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar_tuning

    That being said, I’ve never seen anyone stopping to tune a piano mid recital, or carving the f holes on a violin like “Jack The Ripper” to finely adjust the violin, or shaving some wood out of a guitar, or shortening the strings, etc………

    Anyway, in my experience, I still say that bagpipes are definitely the biggest pain in the rump to keep in tune. Why else would we spend 1/2-2 hours tuning up to play for 6 minutes and yet still praying that the pipes hold to the end? No other musical endeavor that I’m aware of has to do that.

  18. There’s a Pat Metheny quote that he warmed up for two hours just to play guitar at his friend’s kid’s birthday party!!
    A piano tuner told me it took him 7 years to train to tune pianos. Someone I know (a pianist) decided to tune their own. Half an hour into the job, they were looking up the Phone Directory for Call-out Piano Tuners. It’s a highly skilled art which takes years of training.

    I think at the end of the day it depends as much on the performer as the instrument. Of course you can find guitarists who’ll turn up at a birthday party and give a couple of stums by way of tuning. But Pat Metheny allocates 2 hours. It’s the same in piping is it not? Some will play any old mess, and true professionals will devote perhaps hours to warming up and tuning and fine tuning, and then I guess we all slot in somewhere in between.

  19. If piano tuning only needs to be done periodically, then why do top flight pianists work with their own piano tuner, who goes with them everywhere they do? That said, any competent piper who’s ever struck a major third on a piano will probably question what being “in tune” means anyway, but that’s a debate for another day. And I’m not surprised it’s come out that the performance in question was prerecorded: asking three different kinds of instruments to blend in perfect unison in hugely adverse conditions is risky at best.

  20. I love this quote from the story: “This isn’t Milli Vanilli.” Makes me think the quartet was like Fab and (the late, great) Rob. Yo-Yo’s histrionics, knowing he was faking it probably on some local-music-store instrument, are laughable.

  21. Yikes! This whole thread just became redundant. MSN reports that Yo-Yo and the others played to a pre-recorded version of the music that was staped 2 days prior, as “the weather was too cold for the instruments to stay in tune”. Still, bloody great music, but our agonzing seems all for naught.

  22. A lot of sports leagues require that national anthem singers lip-sync. I’ve assumed that American Idol competition stuff is taped, but the desperate performers’ contracts are so buttoned-down that no one has spilled the beans yet. Sadly, we’ve become accustomed to things being a sham. I mean, the US military apparently doesn’t have enough real buglers to perform at veterans’ funerals, since so many are dying. So, in order to fulfill the obligation (which also includes a flag-draped coffin and free burial) the non-musical uniformed member of the armed forces “plays” Taps on a bugle to a boom-box tape.

  23. I heard it as Lord of the Dance too, but apparently Lord of the Dance is actually a Shaker song from the mid 1800’s called Simple Gifts, hence John Williams title ‘Air and Simple Gifts’. BTW Yo-Yo Ma is a fan of Celtic music and bagpipes. I didn’t hear any pipes at the Inaugural ceremony though.

  24. Well, you really can’t blame them for the miming. After all, who really wants to play in the cold or the rain/snow anyway? Oh wait…we do!

  25. Well, you really can’t blame them for the miming. After all, who really wants to play in the cold or the rain/snow anyway? Oh wait…we do!

  26. Well, you really can’t blame them for the miming. After all, who really wants to play in the cold or the rain/snow anyway? Oh wait…we do!

  27. I was told that the music was prerecorded but they did in fact play it live as well. what came over the television was the recorded music but those in attendance apparently heard them live. Be interested to hear from people that were right there to hear if was close to…….or as good…..or even better than the recorded version due to the emotion of the moment. Yo-Yo Ma selling out totally just seems a bit much for me to believe. But maybe my head is in the sand. That’s just what I heard all the same.

  28. I read a story posted on the Yahoo News site that confirmed what Bruce was told.
    One interesting thing that was included iwas a blurb on what the Marines Marching Band usually does during these ceremonies to keep their instruments functional. Apparently they use heated air and antifreeze to keep everything going. They aslo have a prerecorded tape on standby in case things go awry.

  29. One thing that interests me (it did at the time as well, although I had no idea it was faked) is why would Yo Yo Ma have his millions-of-pounds/dollars-Stradivarius out there in sub zero conditions? I mean, Bill, Bruce, Andrew, would you have the Henderson/Lawrie/MacDougall sticks out there in similar circumstances, (a set of musical instruments incidentally the equal of Yo Yo’s cello, although probably moneterally and collectively not worth the same as his fret board).

    Must have been his “beater” cello, is my guess……..

  30. I’d be happy to use Bill’s pipes in those conditions . . . 😉 I think Yo-Yo has a carbon-fibre cello, so maybe he was miming on that. Perlman’s on a Strad, too, I believe; perhaps he was bow-syncing on his grand-daughter’s school instrument. When I was watching that, I thought that old Itzhak was doing well to move his hands. The root of shame is sham.

  31. Exactly. What kind of a madman would take a valuable instrument (with the exception of metal or plastic ones) out into the snow or rain or scorching sun? (fill in your name here).
    I’m sure that Yo Ma-Ma was not playing a $M+ instrument at the inauguration.

  32. Anyone else remember when Yo-Yo Ma accidently left his cello in a New York taxi?
    And it wasn’t the “beater” cello either! At least a cello doesnt have ivory, so he doesn’t have to fight with the wildlife/CITES people.

    Cheers,
    Doc

  33. Unless there was some ivory on the tuning pegs! Or the bridge was mage of ivory.
    But when it comes to ivory on older instruments, what good does it do to confiscate the item? It won’t help the animal that it came from. Too late for that now.

  34. I was reading this article and the part about your chanter being sat on caught my attention. My brother has had a terrible time with chanters in the decade he’s been playing them. I think he’s been through about 5 or six chanters. 3 of them where definitely wood, the rest those “indestructible” plastic ones. One particular break comes to mind, my brother and I where fooling around in the living room one day, he was playing his chanter, I had a blanket for some reason. Well I twisted up the blanket and “pretended” to give him a rat-tail. But… I guess I whipping a little to close to him, because the goof used his wood chanter as a shield, and I whipped it in half! Oh my parents where so mad at me! My brother then jumped on his next chanter as it innocent lay on his bed. Oh the memories…

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