Defying Manners

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

To this day I have trouble holding a fork the “proper way.” Believe it or not, a long time ago, I was actually thrown out of a dinner party because of the irregular way I use utensils. Ditto with the way I write with a pen and the way I type. For some reason, the standard methods of doing mundane things have always been lost on me.

When I was in junior high school and demonstrated some affinity for the piano, my family sent me to Greenwich House Music School to take lessons. I never made it past the first session, however, since my teacher demanded I unlearn the way I had been playing triads (thumb, index, middle) and conform to the standard practice (thumb, middle, pinky). I shudder to think of what she would have thought of Henry Cowell playing inside the piano which occurred long before either she or I were born. The only instrument I ever really studied, and hence paradoxically feel I cannot play, is the guitar. I basically learned how to strum chords, which I can still do rather poorly. When I first got the instrument, however, I remember having a fascination with playing underneath the bridge (those high pitched, out-of-tune shrieks were really cool) and wondering why it never came up in my lessons.

There’s something about doing something the “wrong” way that allows for a whole new set of possibilities. We thought it would be exciting to take a look at what some of these possibilities have been in new music. Stephen Scott, who has created a whole musical identity from exploring the insides of a grand piano with bows, hand-held mallets, and now magnets, explains how this approach has fueled his creative muse for nearly three decades. Matthew Burtner, who himself delves into alternate ways of playing the saxophone, outlines a history of uncommon approaches to common instruments and a group of composers from all over the country share the uncommon performing practices they have incorporated into their music. Janice Giteck asks you to move beyond extended techniques as a “bag of tricks” and consider how thinking unconventionally can be musically liberating.

Once you accept that there’s nothing you can’t do, you can ultimately do anything you want. Of course, working without limits can be extremely intimidating (where to begin?). And then, you also risk getting into trouble at certain dinner parties!