top of page

The Back of the Book:

Where it All Begins


James Noyes

© 2003


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

- - Lao Tzu


Recently, as a student performed from his method book, he came across a note he thought he didn’t know: F-sharp.  He stopped.  “F-sharp?” Mike asked.  “You’ve known that note for quite a while!” I assured him.  In fact, there were at least a dozen pieces he’d already mastered that had included the note.  And, we backtracked through the book to prove that he had played F-sharp many times before.  Still, Mike was stumped.  It just wasn’t coming to him, as these things happen. “Where can you find the correct fingering?”  I asked. He looked at me as if to say: you’re the teacher, let’s get this over with—just tell me!  “There’s a place where you can find the correct fingering for F-sharp, or any other note on the saxophone for that matter,” I hinted.  After a brief pause, Mike said in a deflated tone, “The back of the book.”  So inconvenient it seemed, to spend precious seconds turning to the last page, where one customarily finds a fingering chart.  When he found F-sharp, he exclaimed, “Oh yeah, I do know that note!”

Curiously, this scenario repeated itself on three more occasions during this particular lesson.  Next, it was C-sharp, which while less familiar, had been introduced into his repertoire a few weeks earlier.  Mike looked at me as before, but I didn’t give in.  “Where can you find the fingering for C-sharp?”  “The back of the book,” he replied with an irritated sigh, but sure enough, despite the undue manual and mental labor involved, he got the answer he was looking for.  Now, when G-sharp and D-sharp appeared on some new pieces I asked him to try, he flipped immediately to the fingering chart without asking for my help.  Mike was learning to fish!

I changed the subject, “Now, what if you come across a word you don’t understand?”  “Well, you can look it up in the dictionary, but...that’s like a whole other book!” he said, emphasizing how much extra work this would entail.  I got out Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which actually does take some strength (it weighs nearly fifteen pounds), and said, “Let’s look up saxophone.”  As we approached, we came across the picture of a “sarrusophone,” a saxophone-like instrument played with a double reed invented by Sarrus, a 19th-century bandmaster.  Going no further, I asked, “So, who do you suppose invented the saxophone?”  “Mr. Sax...?” 

The role of teacher is to challenge students how to find answers on their own.  We must guide them toward self-sufficiency.  Ultimately, if I do my job well, my students need not return.  For everyone is his or her own best teacher whether or not they know it just yet.  I attempt to instill awareness of this fact, so that others may enjoy a lifetime of mindful nourishment. 

Note: Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher [6th cent. B.C.], reputedly the founder of Taoism. It is uncertain that Lao Tzu [name translates as “old person” or “old philosopher”] is historical.  His teachings were compiled in Tao-te ching [Classic of the Way and Virtue].  Its parables and verse, written in incantatory language, advocate passive and intuitive behavior in natural harmony with the Tao, a cosmic unity underlying all phenomena.

Teaching Music:

Creating a Civilized Society

James Noyes

© 2003

Being a musician is not a profession and it’s not just a job, and it’s not something occasional—

it’s the totality of your life and your devotion to something in which you believe profoundly.

And, you have to believe in order to make other people believe.

Music is not important for creating musicians; it’s [important for] creating a civilized society.

The sooner we realize that strength, the better we will be for the future.

- - Isaac Stern

Recently, a friend living in Central America sent me an email: “Jim, remember this is Honduras - the most undeveloped country in the Western Hemisphere. People are poor and want to see the value in something. Often I am asked, ‘What is the value of music? Why do we need to understand, appreciate, and know about Mozart, Ellington, Bach, Puccini?’” Curiously, here in the United States of America, the wealthiest country on earth, we are confronted with the same questions. The absurdity reaches a grand scale when music teachers have to justify their worth to administrators and patrons of our conservatories and schools of music.

In music, as with arts in general, children are encouraged at an early age. We want them to sing or take up an instrument, and we hope they do both! Every hour practicing is an hour spent engaged in a skilled activity, away from television and idle mischief. Every hour preparing is an hour spent in thoughtful contemplation and in acquisition of self-knowledge, away from the not-so-subtle world of consumerism and shock value. Every hour spent in lessons is a rare one- on-one interaction between pupil and teacher, nurturing intergenerational trust and respect, away from overcrowded classrooms and “teaching to the test.” Every hour of performance is sharing time, talents, thoughts, and ideas—a community experience fostering peace and understanding.

But, when the time comes to pick a career, these same young adults are often told a choice for music is foolhardy, since there are few secure opportunities for employment. These music students ask, “How can something be so worthy of studying, yet so unworthy of performing and teaching?” “How can a process possess integrity, but at the same time lack integrity?” “Why were we told music was important?” Denial of such inconsistencies has been routine and thoughtful discussion replaced by platitudes. If conservatories and schools of music refuse to believe in the security of their teachers, how are we to expect others to believe in our values? It is time to put an end to the hypocrisy and wishful thinking.

When music teachers guide their students to a successful concert appearance, we prepare those individuals to succeed in life. We are not teaching to create more musicians. We are teaching a creative and fulfilling process. We are enhancing the bonds of friendship. We are offering hope for the future. The words of Paul Hindemith continue to ring true: “It is not impossible that out of a tremendous movement of amateur community music a peace movement could spread over the world...People who make music together cannot be enemies, at least not while the music lasts.” What can we do to ensure that music will endure?

“Reality” Audio:

Challenging Our Perceptions


James Noyes

© 2003


 I avoid and fear electronic music and even electronic amplification

because of the irreversible damage they may inflict on the nervous system. 

- - Henry Brant


Asked about his fear of electronics in music, Henry Brant was matter-of-fact: “An acoustic source never sounds better through a loudspeaker.”  The final word, deliberate and unabbreviated, encapsulates the issue.  Loudspeakers are today ubiquitous.  In addition to stereo and public address systems, they are found in our cars and elevators, attached to our televisions and computers, and even inserted into our ears.  Easily 99% of the music we hear today is by way of electronically amplified digital audio recordings.  “Live” performances at an increasing number of clubs and concert halls are “enhanced” through sound reinforcement and in the not-too-distant future it may be all electronic music on Broadway—a staggering reality.  Indeed, the co-dependant relationship of music and electronics is unhealthy and worsening.

Prior to commercial recordings (c.1889), all music was live and acoustically amplified.  Even music boxes and player pianos were acoustic sources of sound.  To have music alone or in groups, in the home or at a restaurant, at a social gathering or religious ceremony, indoors or out, it had to be created on location using acoustic instruments and voices.  Musicians were amply employed, professional and amateur alike.  Imagine—all acoustic sounds!  In our modern era of electronic smoke and mirrors, we must continually remind ourselves that for tens of thousands of years, music was performed and enjoyed in “real time” by real people.  In little more than a century, music unaffected by electronics is a species nearly extinct.

Electronically created music and amplification as aural reality is widely accepted without suspicion or skepticism.  While TV and movie “realities” are routinely scrutinized and discredited, the music and digitally sampled sounds that accompany them are not.  The reason: electronic media (loudspeakers) are how modern listeners experience music.  One hardly ever considers unauthentic the sounds coming from a television, a ceiling grate, or bookshelf unit.  Thus, our perception of tone color and dynamics, of phrasing and nuance, not to mention basic musicianship, have become inextricably linked to electronic amplification—how strange it is to hear a real person performing on an acoustic instrument!

Our shortcomings as live musicians are masked with the twist of a knob or the touch of a button, not to mention when our strengths go unnoticed due to buzzing and feedback.  Of course, as recording musicians, “air brushing” is all but universally and enthusiastically embraced.  Stories of “improvised” solos, recorded a few bars and a few choice licks at a time, come to mind.  Miles Davis didn’t favor this method.  Recordings where the “wrong” notes are “fixed,” come to mind.  Vladimir Horowitz didn’t favor this method.  “Live” recordings, where the bassist goes back and re-records his part in the studio, come to mind.  Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys didn’t favor this method.  Singers who lip-sync certainly come to mind...  Perhaps the real damage to our nervous system stems from such dishonesty. 

Cosmetic surgery, “cooked” books, padded resumés, anabolic steroids, forced smiles and propaganda are all attempts at skewing reality.  The truth remains hidden.  Isaac Stern once said, “Music is not about creating musicians, it’s [about] creating a civilized society.”  This is because music is fundamentally honest.  One cannot cheat Mily Balakirev’s Islamey or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps; one cannot hide in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 or fake Otis Redding’s Respect; one cannot disguise an audition or pretend to compose.   Unfortunately, technology has encroached on such basic truths.  We must strive to limit the “dishonest” use of electronics and reclaim the integrity inherent in music making.  In this way only will there be a chance to slow the eroding humanity of our art.  This kind of damage is reversible.

To experience a live performance sans electronic amplification can be an epiphany.  Some memorable opportunities include the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Leon Parker at Bradley’s, the Riverside Chorale at Alice Tully Hall, Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg at the Knitting Factory, and the Assad Brothers at the 92nd Street Y. Just thinking about these possibilities primes the senses for goose bumps!  Acoustic performances broaden one’s perspective immeasurably and bond each of us to the shared human experience throughout the ages.  Subtle nuances lost to technology are revealed in utter splendor and a deeper understanding of music is indelibly stamped on our aural memory, never to be erased. This is also an opportunity to experience the delicate intimacy of pianissimo and the warmth of sharing.  Our ears will thank us for it (with no ringing afterwards) and our spirits will be uplifted!

James Browne, who ran Manhattan’s Sweet Basil sums up our current situation:

“You know, I really love Duke [Ellington] and Louis [Armstrong] and Miles [Davis] and Ben Webster and all those guys, but I like jazz best when I can hear it live—it is supposed to be spontaneous music.  They’ve been saying jazz is America’s classical music, and it deserves respect.  Well, now it’s America’s classical music.  Thanks a lot.  What do we do now?”

We must budget time and resources to seek out meaningful acoustic live performances both near and far.  Plan vacations around hearing acoustic artists.  Start a concert series at your church.  Organize an acoustic world music festival at the community center.  Approach the owner of a local coffee shop about adding live jazz or folk music on Wednesday nights.  Make some acoustic music at home.  It can be done!  We often demand of our politicians, business leaders, clergy, and sports figures to be role models for a civilized society.  We must demand the same of musicians.  Acoustic live music contributes an unparalleled model of integrity and honesty to our world community.  It’s time we promote it as such.


Henry Brant, Henry Brant, liner notes to CRI CD 827, Composers Recordings, Inc., New York, 1999.

From a phone conversation with the author.

Including the venerable Village Vanguard and Metropolitan Opera House.

Horowitz said that his greatest performances were never note perfect.  However, the original release of his “1965 Carnegie Hall Return Concert,” while keeping mistakes in the Bach/Busconi, included unacknowledged edits in the Schumann.  Harold C. Schonberg, Horowitz: His Life and Music, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Isaac Stern, Musical Encounters, Educational Broadcasting Corporation and the Hopewell Foundation, Inc., 2000.

David Hajdu, “Wynton’s Blues,” Atlantic Monthly (March 2003), 54.

The Need to Share


James Noyes

© 2003


It is not enough to share our surpluses,

for to share surpluses is not really to share at all.

- - Harry S. Truman


In the winter of 2002, I gave my New York recital debut as a soloist at Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church in Washington Heights.  Here I was, performing not for a degree, not for a percentage of the door, not for any reason other than to play for others.  The first half of the concert featured two classical works written for me by my friends Rich Shemaria and Steve Cohen, both of whom were in attendance.  The second half of the concert featured two of my own jazz compositions written for my friends Don and Peggy Lu Zimmerman (former landlords!), and my current upstairs neighbor Gary Morgan, who played bass on the occasion.  Toward the end of the performance I spoke briefly about this process of relationships and dedications.  Summarizing my thoughts, I revealed a philosophy: “Music is about sharing.” 

A few weeks later, Orly Shiv, a parent of a student, shared an experience with me.  “Jim, I am so excited to tell you about something that happened to me at your recital.  Toward the end, as you began talking, I got a sudden feeling...I came to the realization that music is about sharing.”  I recalled, “Yes, that’s what I said.”  “No, no—I suddenly understood what the concert was about...and then you said it.  Your message about sharing came into my mind first and then you said it—it was amazing!”  Somehow, as the concert had unfolded, I had conveyed my philosophy to her ahead of time!  Sharing is a powerful force.

In the spring, time for basketball had arrived and I was on many occasions down at the local courts with my friend Liam Wood, testing my mettle against youngsters one-half to one-third my age.  A rare outing found myself heading to the blacktop on my own.  Today, unlike most, had a specific purpose. “I really need to work on my left-handed lay-up,” I thought.  Too often in games, I would dribble to the left side and cross the ball back to my right hand for an awkward shot attempt.  It was time to refine my limited skills.     

I arrived to find the courts all but empty.  The one man there was an unfamiliar face and without a ball, so we began to shoot around.  Soon, I tried some left-handed lay-ups.  The feeble attempts caught my partner’s attention, “You need to gather yourself before you shoot,” he said, and proceeded to demonstrate.  I tried again. “You’re loosing control as you move to the basket.  When you drive, be sure to come to a complete stop, gather yourself, and then put it up.  You have time.”  I had said nothing about the purpose for my visit that day, but here he was sharing his knowledge and expertise on that very subject—he knew!  Upon leaving, I had a strong urge to give this man my basketball, for the day or forever; it didn’t seem to matter.  I had the feeling that this wasn’t even my ball to begin with.  While in the end I retained “possession,” I was left with an unmistakable impression: the impulse to share was beginning to guide my life.

In August, I took my mostly annual trip to the Midwest, and on this occasion I visited family and friends in both Iowa City and the Twin Cities.  On my return flight, my connection out of Chicago found me in a window seat.  The man to my left kept looking over.  Clearly, he had something to say, so I broke the ice, commenting on the delicious and nutritious snacks being offered.  Our conversation turned quickly to music and then specifically to the album The Wall by Pink Floyd, perhaps the most influential album of my childhood.  Toward the end of the flight, Dave gave me a CD player and headphones and said, “Check this out.”  Steel guitar and violin—this was excellent country music.  But, then I heard familiar lyrics, “So ya, thought ya, might like to go to the show...”  This was the first song from The Wall—this was The Wall —played by a country band!  Shivers tingled up and down my spine to hear such a beautiful reworking of material I knew intimately.  Such an unexpected and generous gift this was to hear Luther Wright and the Wrongs performing on our descent to La Guardia! 

Four days later, I stopped in at Tower Records and purchased Rebuilding The Wall, anxiously awaiting my chance to hear this newly conceptualized concept album. After a brief subway ride, on account of weekend trackwork, I was left standing at the 96th Street station, leaning over the tracks for evidence of an uptown train.  Another man was leaning, too. Disheveled in appearance, he wore a sweatshirt, soon pulled off to reveal a T-shirted message: Pink Floyd...The Wall!  Presented with such a blatant opportunity for reaching out, I took immediate action: “I noticed your shirt and thought you might be interested,” I said, showing him the CD.  “It’s The Wall as country music, and it’s not some sort of joke, either,” I explained.  He was instantly receptive, “Wow, really?  My mom likes country music.  Maybe she’d like this version,” he replied with a gap-toothed smile.  Soon he was telling me all about concerts he’d attended.  As we boarded the train, I removed the cellophane wrapper and we viewed the band photos and liner notes...

The universe spoke so clearly to me that week.  A stranger on a plane days earlier had done essentially what I was about to do.  At the 125th Street station, my acquaintance stepped out and said goodbye.  As he did, I handed him the compact disc.  “Here.  I want you to have it.”  “But it’s will you get another one?”  “Don’t worry about that.  Consider it a gift.”  The doors closed.  As the train pulled away, I watched as he stared intently at the CD, clutching it with both hands.  Indeed, music is about sharing; and, in that moment, I learned that sharing is about letting go of our walls. 


NOTE: Harry S. Truman, “Address in Chicago on Army Day,” Soldiers' Field, 6 April 1946 [3 p.m. national broadcast].

Music Education:

Music Comes First

James Noyes

© 2004

Try to imagine the very first musician. He was not playing for an audience,
or a market, or working on his next recordin
g, touring with his show, or working on his image.

He was playing out of his need, out of his need for the music.

Every year the number of musicians who remember why they play music in the first place grows smaller...

- - Keith Jarrett

Last summer I became acquainted with Bob, a music teacher from New Jersey who had recently enrolled in the Master’s degree program at William Paterson University. As is customary, I sat down with him and discussed his reasons for returning to school and what specific needs he wanted to address in our weekly sessions. A familiar theme emerged: Bob’s reasons for pursuing an advanced degree favored performance while his public school administrators favored pedagogy. Considering Bob will likely spend his whole life teaching, these few years honing his musical skills are precious and mustn’t be squandered.

Musical discovery is not accompanied with the immediate intent to instruct but an inherent desire it to share—there’s a big difference! Bob already had an undergraduate degree in music education as well as a few years of public school teaching under his belt. And, from what I could gather, he really cared about his students and about doing a good job nurturing their creative aspirations. However, Bob had creative aspirations of his own, as yet unrealized. His training as saxophonist, pianist, composer and arranger had brought him within the grasp of an elusive goal: while Bob had been performing professionally for some time, he knew he didn’t always sound professional. To focus on classroom management and developmental child psychology at this stage in Bob’s own maturation and self-realization of professionalism in music performance would mean his dreams would remain elusive. How does a life without fulfillment affect those we are supposedly teaching?

Prior to recorded music, synthesizers and digital sampling, opportunities to perform were abundant. All activities requiring music tapped into the pool of live musicians, ensuring a lifetime of performing opportunities for professionals and amateurs alike. If you taught music, chances were you were one of the first to be contacted for a local playing engagement—but, not anymore. Except for those with a rare ability and a single-minded passion for the pursuit of performance, our opportunities to join together with others for the purpose of music-making enter a period of steep decline after college. This is why college is where an education in performance (no matter what the degree) must remain the top priority.

To become good at anything takes practice. Bob will practice teaching on a near daily basis for the rest of his life. At age 35 he will be an excellent teacher, dare I say a professional. At age 45 he will be a seasoned veteran. But, the window of opportunity for intensive study, practice and direct engagement of performing skills is for many limited to a mere four to eight years of post-secondary education, hardly enough time for most to become bona fide music-men and -women. We mustn’t limit it any further. Every music educator learns from their years of experience how best to teach their students; those who have enjoyed the satisfaction of creative fulfillment through music performance will, just by this fact alone, learn to share these values. Remember? That’s why we play music in the first place!

Patterns to Live By


James Noyes

© 2004


...the fact of my invariable miscalculation,

set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble,

and my heart beat heavily once more. 

It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope

This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation.

- - from “A Descent into the Maelström” by E. A. Poe


A common question among young students of music – eager only to sing, or to play their instruments – is: “What’s the point of learning music theory?  It’s so boring.”  In the past, theory teachers may have assumed the role of a doctor prescribing bitter medicine, stating, “Music theory is good for you, even if you don’t like the taste.”  A more inspired insight into this realm of rhythms, scales, key signatures, chords progressions and song forms would speak to the myriad patterns found within music and how it is our ability to identify patterns that will guide us to lives of success and fulfillment.  And, as Edgar Allen Poe makes clear, pattern identification may also mean the difference between life and death. 

Sublime patterns and elegant designs are what shape the world of music: plain-note rhythms dividing by twos; dotted-note rhythms dividing by threes; white keys with alternating groups of two and three black keys on the piano keyboard; major scales constructed of whole-steps and half-steps (WWHWWWH); an order for flats in key signatures (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb), which, when reversed, gives the order of sharps in key signatures (F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#); key signatures arranged in a “Circle of Fifths”; and so on par infinitum.  Eventually, through some effort, one comes to see the naturally harmonious beauty of the connections. 

Sadly, too often when we talk of the patterns of real life, the focus is on the negative: a government’s pattern of fear-mongering and deception; an individual’s pattern of destructive behavior (i.e. violence, alcoholism); a corporation’s pattern of discrimination; a pattern of reporting only bad news and gossip; a pattern to the “daily grind” of existence.  Clearly, it is important to discern such activities, but to concentrate only on uninspiring routines, these patterns can grow ever stronger and more ominous, threatening to pull us down, just as the vessels, debris and living beings were absorbed into Poe’s Maelström.  Of course, Poe’s main character survived his descent, by experiencing a sudden “dawn of a more exciting hope” – an epiphany!  By noticing the size and shape of certain objects caught within the whirlpool and the speed with which they descended into oblivion, he was able to make a split-second decision that spared his life.  His brother, failing to recognize such patterns, suffered the consequences. 

Music theory impresses upon those who learn it the importance of recognizing patterns of beauty and natural wonder: for reasons that we might pattern our lives on those who inspire us; for reasons that we might surround ourselves with loving and supportive friends; for reasons that we might treat others with dignity and respect; for reasons of good health and security; and for reasons both remembered and observed.  The choice is clear: recognize the patterns of experience that lead to a rewarding and meaningful life, or ignore them at your own risk!

Getting By:
It’s About Having Friends

James Noyes

© 2005

What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.
- - from “With a Little Help from My Friends” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

from Sgt. Pepper’ s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles

Late last year, I asked my students at Manhattan School of Music if any had seen Ray, a movie portraying the life of Ray Charles. Not a single hand went up. I sensed a deeper issue and continued my query. “How many of you have time to go to a movie with friends?” As scant half the students raised their hands, one said with self-deprecation, “What friends?” Young people today are programmed to believe they must spend every waking hour on the “what you know,” for this, they are told, is the key to a successful life. However, with precious little time spent on the “who you know,” an entire generation has emerged unequipped even for just getting by.

Don’t be fooled by reality-TV melodramas entitled “Survivor.” If the attention-starved backbiters begging to wallow in their low self-esteem on network television were actually stranded on some desert island, they would realize the recklessness of kicking crewmembers off. Indeed, the greedy two-faced and cutthroat methods popularized by these shows greatly reduce one’s actual chances for survival in the real world. Since when did the idea of friendship become nothing more than entering into an agreement of quid pro quo: you do something for me and I’ll do something for you? This most shallow of alliances is based largely on control, where one party “owes” the other something in return, without any sense of mutual respect or admiration.

Today, as always, the critical survival skill is listening.


Let’s face it: few people are good listeners. The reasons for this are many, including the self-absorbed desire to always be right, the hierarchical view that makes one disregard the thoughts and opinions of others (often the very young and very old or those less “educated”), as well as the myriad distractions of our overworked gadget-oriented society. By really listening to what Lennon and McCartney are saying (and Starr is singing), one discerns a common concern: I’m afraid that if my faults are revealed, you won’t be my friend; Risking rejection, I hope you’ll accept me for who I am..... please, give me a chance! This begs the question: Who is listening you your song? And, better yet: Are you listening to the songs those around you are singing, no matter how “out of tune” they may be?

Remember: to have friends, you must be a friend, and much of the time all anyone is asking for is someone who will listen with acceptance.

I get by with a little help from my friends,
I get high with a little help from my friends.

Going to try with a little help from my friends.

Do not be deceived by the apparent modesty of these rewards, for those with good friends enjoy a lifetime of fulfillment. Lend me your ears!

Musical Apartheid:

Time To Divest

James R. Noyes

© 2007


“To write great music, the musician must make his life a great song.”

- - J. S. Bach

“Make a list of the music you love, then learn it by heart.”

- - Nadia Boulanger1


As the walls crumble between East and West, black and white, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, there remains a disturbingly unhealthy “separate and unequal” mentality in the minds of many musicians. These attitudes are rampant: separate schools at colleges and conservatories for “classical” and “jazz” musicians; drinking fountains labeled “acoustic instruments only”; and, while so-called “popular” musicians sit in the back of the bus, ever-widening rifts exist between pre-WWI loyalists and post-WWII separatists; even professional musicians won’t sit at the same lunch counter with amateurs. All the while we engage in such musical apartheid, our society loses its collective soul.


When Bach relates life to song, he doesn’t specify whether to sing in Italian or German, secular or sacred, but that singing is the essence of life itself: to hone a personal identity, to breathe deeply, to be unafraid to reveal vulnerabilities, to share with those around you, to resonate with the universe. These days, however, with our iPods shuffling deep into our brains, we avoid our song, preferring instead to ask, “Can’t someone else do the singing for me?” According to Sidney Bechet, “That's what's holding back the music...It’s still worried. It’s still not sure of itself.”2 Indeed, as a reflection of arbitrary boundaries, today’s music and musicians are too worried about conditional acceptance and whether the songs are “legit”, living in constant fear of judgment.

Boulanger3 might have added, “When making your list, include only compositions of classically trained European men prior to 1909.” But, this is ridiculous, for it is common knowledge these esteemed masters of “high art” drew frequent inspiration from folk sources. Antonín Dvořák’s states, “It is a sign of barrenness, indeed, when such characteristic bits of [folk] music exist and are not heeded by the learned musicians of the age.” 4 And, of course, his revelations on the potency of Native- and African-American music generated great controversy. However, Rahsaan Roland Kirk5 settles the dispute in a brief exchange at the Village Vanguard:

“They [black people] say that Dvořák was a black man.

White people say he’s a white man.”

 ~ [Audience member] What do you say? ~
“I say...I don’t give a damn!”

Kirk then performs a medley, where he first introduces the pop standard “Sentimental Journey” followed by “Going Home” (from Dvořák’s New World Symphony) and then plays them on two reed instruments simultaneously. 7 Could there ever be a clearer message that people are people and music is music?

Judging the music a person listens to or performs is no different than judging a man by the color of his skin, or a woman by her gender. It is judging truth by the “rightness” of one’s religion, or so-called “winners” by their nationality. It is also judging “intelligence” by identifying a creature’s place on the food chain. Musicians must take the lead in fostering a humane culture of coexistence and acceptance, without judgment, so that our world can sing together in wonderful harmony – the walls of musical apartheid must come down!


1 Widely attributed to Bach (1685-1750) and Boulanger (1887-1979), but of unknown origin.
2 Sidney Bechet,
Treat It Gentle, (New York, 1960), 205.
3 Composition teacher, whose students included Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Glass, Quincy Jones, Piazzolla, and hundreds more.

4 Antonín Dvořák with Edwin Emerson, Jr., “Music in America”, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (February 1895), 429-34.
5 Multi-instrumentalist philosopher.
6 Someone from the audience asks this question.
7 “Introduction to Medley”, Rahsaan Roland Kirk -
Rahsaan Rahsaan (Atlantic SD 1575), recorded 12 May 1970.

Music at Our Saviour’s Atonement:

Its Mission and Meaning

James Noyes

© 2008


Being a musician is not a profession and it’s not just a job, and it’s not something occasional—

it’s the totality of your life and your devotion to something in which you believe profoundly.

And, you have to believe in order to make other people believe.

Music is not important for creating musicians; it’s creating a civilized society.

The sooner we realize that strength, the better we will be for the future.

- - Isaac Stern

The first time I heard these words I stood up and shouted, ‘Yes!...Yes!!’ Deep in my heart it seems I had always held a feeling for why I was a musician, but until that moment, never in my life had I heard such a concise and thoughtfully articulated explanation. And, to rescue a recent phrase from its more sinister connotations, it was an epiphanal ‘shock’ rendering me in ‘awe’ of the man who possessed such insight. Thus, when the opportunity arose in 2002 to become the Artistic Director of a concert series in Washington Heights, now called MOSA, I knew right away that the mission for the events would be a direct outgrowth of these uplifting sentiments.


While the number of skilled musicians graduating from colleges and conservatories is growing ever larger, the number of meaningful opportunities for these artists to perform and be reasonably compensated (in both money and appreciation) is ever dwindling. So, here was Our Saviour’s Atonement, with its warm and inviting acoustics and well-maintained concert grand piano (bought in part with money donated by Alice Tully herself), surrounded by a community filled with world-classmusicians:a perfect match!


In the first few years and with unwavering support from our Series Administrator, Nancy Lustenring, an emphasis was placed on chamber music presented by neighborhood artists, featuring local composers. Now, with the tireless efforts and enthusiasm of our General Director, Brent Ness, our season is now more fully supported with grant money, and includes joint presentations with the Juilliard School and Carnegie Hall. Collaborations with visual artists have often been part of the mix, and as always, there is a complimentary reception to follow.

But, where is the meaning in all of this? It is in the concert pianist who is grateful for his first-ever New York recital – an unforgettable experience! It is in the artist whose mother stayed home for his Carnegie Hall debut due to her anxieties about terrorism after 9/11, but then came to his MOSA concert scheduled on Mothers’ Day – a joyful reunion! It is in the composer who later told me that his MOSA concert was a life-changing event – a spiritual awakening! It is in the woman who unexpectedly ran into friends after not seeing them for over twenty years – a renewal of friendships! It is the audience members who comment on the healing effects of these concerts – such soulful nourishment! It is in a luthier having the only concert in her career dedicated to and played on the instruments she made – an inspirational gathering! It is in a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer featured on the series – such communal talent! Imagine what more can and does happen!


But there is more to be done. For those on the all-volunteer staff (which also includes Katherine Ness, Sarah Krasnow, Matt Mitchell, and Serapha Reed), MOSA is something to which we are devoted and in which we believe profoundly. This is why for our seventh season we will work to make each and every concert free and open to the public. Let us ensure that the message of MOSA will resonate loud and clear. For those who can hear, lend me your ears!

Music School:

Artistry, Factory, or Pharmacy?

James Noyes

© 2012

Good is a product of the ethical and spiritual artistry of individuals;

it cannot be mass-produced.

- - Aldous Huxley1

Recently, it has come to my attention that a number of institutions are now designated as “All-Steinway Schools,”1 a distinction proudly put forth as a way to attract talented students and impress parents and donors. The conventional wisdom is: of course Steinway pianos are the best – nothing but the best [known] will do! Pardon me, but did I miss something here? Who suddenly determined that the concept of diversity – the major selling point at nearly every institution of higher learning – is to be a liability when entering the practice room and concert hall? Indeed, sameness is a virtue on fast food and factory production lines, the armed forces, and in many corporate office environments, but for those wondering, let there be no doubt: homogeneity and artistry are incompatible antonyms.


According to pianist Bill Evans: “[As] the trumpet player plays on his trumpet, the bassist on his bass, they reach such a knowledge of their own instrument as they are married with them. The pianist however, he discovers every night a new fiancé with whom he must come to an agreement.”2 It is a delicate process, exploring what is possible together. The relationship between performer and instrument is one of intimacy, an often mystical or even spiritual journey that takes time to nurture and develop, where individuals literally “play the field” before “settling down.” But, when the field consists of a single crop, engineered for the biggest yields under certain conditions, such an experiment is doomed to failure when those conditions aren’t met, which begs the question: do all pianists thrive in an arranged marriage to All-Steinway?3

Bragging about the uniformity of our equipment is a fallacious distraction,4 something to medicate the senses, keeping us drowsy in the face of the painful truth: as educators are pushing this dope of denial to an eager student body willing to believe audiences are dying to hear them, it would be more accurate to say, especially in the case of most musical styles more than sixty years old, (yes – you, too, Bebop) that audiences are doing just that – dying. Time to wake up!

Where has the soul of music gone? It’s almost as if in an effort to mirror the civic separation of church and state, schools have succeeded in separating ethical and spiritual artistry from music-making. Is it artistically ethical to promote same-ness? Sure, we’re churning out a phalanx of musicians with amazing chops and impeccable intonation, all at the ready to man the canon, where there’s always a replacement when a soldier goes down. However, at the heart of spiritual artistry, whether visual, literary, or musical, lies the vitality of its variety, not to mention innovation and originality, which are an outgrowth of unique experience. We must acknowledge that because of this mass-produced mentality, promoted at music schools and corporations, and readily bought by our consumerist society, our individual product is no longer good.


2 (in an interview with François Postif of Jazz Hot)
3 Evans preferred “old Steinways,” but practiced on a Chickering at home, and Glenn Gould considered an 1895 Chickering his “ideal piano” while Sviatoslav Richter, Andre Watts, and Martha Argerich have performed on Yamaha. Garrick Ohlsson (winner of the 1970 Chopin Competition) is a Bösendorfer man. Debussy is attributed to saying, “Piano music should only be written for the Bechstein.” Oscar Peterson preferred his personal instrument, a Baldwin, and played with “much more ease” and “greater “rapport” on it than on other pianos (notes to Oscar Peterson Trio + One Clark Terry). As a “singer’s piano,” Knabe was the preferred instrument of the Metropolitan opera. Great piano makers, including those mentioned above, are: Altenburg (made in NJ!), Blüthner, Bohemia, Brodmann, Estonia, Fazioli, Förster, Kawai, Kimball, Mason & Hamlin, Petrof, Steingraeber, Walter, Wurlitzer, etc. 4 According to pianist Adam Kent, both Robert Levin and Andrew Appel have spoken about the need for diversity in keyboard instruments at classes and lectures at The Juilliard School.

bottom of page