Tag Archives: music

Storytelling: Haves vs Have-Nots

Years ago, I read an article about the now-defunct soap opera Another World. I was a fan at the time. I’m unashamed to admit I enjoy serial storytelling, and soap operas rule in that genre, keeping plot lines and characters alive (sometimes even after they’re supposedly dead!) for years, even decades. I’ve even written a book, a romantic comedy, about a soap head writer (My Own Personal Soap Opera).


Rachel and Mac get married on “Another World”

In the article, an Another World head writer or producer talked about the core of the soap’s storytelling. Haves vs. have-nots provided the foundation for most if not all their tales. One of the soap’s biggest stories involved the character of Rachel Davis (played by Victoria Wyndham), daughter of single-mother Ada, who villainously connives to seduce and try to marry one rich fellow after another, ultimately landing on wealthy Mac Cory (played by Douglass Watson), with whom she finds happiness (and, of course, sadness as they break up, make up and…on and on).

That story thread, haves vs. have-nots, provides a foundation for some of my own tales in one way or another. My stories aren’t always about rich vs. poor, but they almost always carry an element of upper-class vs. middle or working class, maybe because I felt those distinctions myself over the years as the daughter of two wonderful parents who worked hard all their lives (in white collar jobs) but made sure their two children went to college. I even went to a music conservatory.

Talk about class tensions. In that highly competitive atmosphere, the “haves” were those with musical pedigrees, maybe parents who played in orchestras or maybe just a lifetime immersion in classical music. Everything I knew about classical music came from those conservatory teachers at the time. In that sense, I was a “have not,” acutely aware of my lack of standing, afraid I’d trip up and mispronounce a composer’s name or, as I did one day, bring into a class a ridiculously sentimentalized arrangement of an art song, not realizing how this selection might reveal what a cultural neanderthal I really was. Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 11.10.27 AM

The conservatory was in Baltimore, my home town, which for many years was very socially stratified, with various groups living in specific regions of the town–old money in Roland Park and Guilford, ethnic whites in Highlandtown, Jewish people on the west side, steel workers in the suburbs of Dundalk, and African-Americans in the inner city.

This experience of class lines, of feeling like a “have not,” even if my family wasn’t poor, undergirds the first adult mystery I ever wrote, Death Is the Cool Night. In this novel, a troubled young conductor, Gregory, can’t remember his actions on the night his nemesis is murdered. As police investigate the crime, he wonders if he did it…or if the real killer is a charming young woman, Laura, from an upper class family, he’s falling in love with.

Throughout the story, Gregory feels his sense of being a “have not” as acutely as I did as a student at Peabody Conservatory, where the book is set.

For a few years, I tried, through literary agents, to sell this book to traditional publishers. It received rejection letters that could have read as back-cover blurbs, but no one wanted to buy. World War II-era books were not popular back then, and its time period worked against me.

So I self-published it, and even managed to snag a wonderful review from a a major trade journal that said, in part:

“Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations…” Publishers Weekly

If you’re reading this on or around the post’s publication date, check it out here for a free read. If you miss the free days, you can still give it a try!

Libby Sternberg



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Ridding the world of bad holiday songs, one fa-la-la at a time

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a seasonal hit from 1944, was recently banned from a Cleveland radio station because its lyrics tell the tale of a woman who keeps saying no, while a man just doesn’t listen, overriding her objections, even pouring her a drink with questionable contents. To be honest, this song always creeped me out as I imagined a slick player using any excuse to entice an attractive woman into staying the night. There never seemed to be a doubt in my mind he’d dump her in the morning.

animated-christmas-wallpaper-27But, speaking of dumping, maybe the reevaluation of that holiday song’s appropriateness could lead to a discussion of other odd seasonal hits that should take a trip to the “No Play” zone.

For example, surely PETA can be nudged into declaring “Dominick the Donkey” an offensive paean to the abuse of animals. Forcing Dominick to show an obese old man in a silly red suit up through the treacherous mountain trails of Italy must cause animal lovers everywhere to shudder in horror. Get that donkey back in the crèche where he belongs.

Animals play a role in another seasonal tune that perhaps should be discarded, the one about bullying. Yes, I’m talking “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” (Note, I’m focusing on the song here, not the film, which has received its own critiques lately.) Why should poor bullied Rudolph have to prove his worth by leading the rest of Santa’s hoof-footed, antler-wearing dunderheads through the night? He should have dumped them all and let them see how they fared on their own, if they’re so sure of their navigational and game-playing skills. They only loved poor Rudolph once he could be of use to them. But he had value from the beginning, without heroic acts. I’d like to hear this verse tacked on at least: “Then one snowy Christmas night, Rudolph went away. He thought that with his nose so bright, he’d find another sleigh.” That would be a sweet piece of anti-bullying karma.

Here’s another one to put on the off-air roster: “Jingle Bells.” Any old version of this chestnut includes a verse about a Miss Fanny Bright getting in the sleigh, things going pear-shaped, and the riders getting “upsot.” After that, I think the lyricist might have had a tot too many because a subsequent verse has the rider lying in the snow, discovered by a neighbor who ignores him, but, what ho, he still sings the praises of the one-horse open sleigh. There even seems to be a reference to using a whip on the horse. (“Crack, you’ll take the lead.”) C’mon, PETA. Where are you when we need you? I could do without that ear worm every day of the season.

Speaking of ear worms, maybe we should reevaluate Wham’s “Last Christmas,” a story of re-gifting gone awry. First, the singer gives his heart to his love, then she gives it away, so he retaliates by giving it to “someone special” this year, even as he confesses to being tempted by the old love who’d re-gifted his heart in the first place. If he does that, though, won’t his new “someone special” be singing “Last Christmas” next year and we’ll all be trapped in a kind of Groundhog Day of holiday love song loops? Even though this song’s peppy tune has a lot to offer, its message confuses with so many plot points between “Last Christmas” and this year’s.

Finally, one I think we can all agree must be preserved for the ages: “Momma got run over by a reindeer.” This is an epic tale of great faith and deep family feeling summed up in its refrain’s last line: “You might say there is no such thing as Santa, but as for me and grandpa, we believe.”

We can certainly all rally around that heartwarming message.

Whatever your holiday song likes and dislikes…I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

 Libby Malin Sternberg is a novelist whose novel Fire Me (by Libby Malin) was recently hailed by Publishers Weekly as an amusing tale of a woman who finds herself and love while trying to get fired.”







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A Mini-Rant on the overmarking of music… or the paint-by-numbers approach to making music

by Libby Sternberg

In addition to being a novelist, I’m a musician. I sing. (Yes, anyone who makes music is a musician–the word doesn’t just refer to instrumentalists.) I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice from a music conservatory. (That and a few bucks will get you a…well, you know.)

I have a pet peeve. It is: composers and arrangers who overmark their music, with every page cluttered with dynamic and tempo markings. I don’t know if this happens in instrumental music so much or if composers/arrangers of vocal music have decided that singers are just so danged dumb that they have to tell them in virtually every bar how soft, how loud, how fast, how slow they need to be singing.

Last night at choir rehearsal, I saw a marking on a choral piece that, to me, illustrated the depths to which this overmarking lunacy has descended. We were practicing an anthem, a piece by a still-living Very Well-Known Church Composer. Every choir in the country has probably sung something by this excellent composer at some point in their choral lives. One of our basses, a volunteer with a wonderful voice, who is not a trained musician, asked our choir director at one point what a marking meant. The word above a particular section read: cantabile.

Deep breath. Cantabile. In a choral piece.

Let’s think about this. Cantabile means songlike. So the composer is telling us to sing…as if we’re singing.

Good thing he put that in there because I think all of us had it in our minds to sing that passage as if we were, oh, I don’t know...drumming?

As you can imagine, if a composer feels the need to tell singers to sing as if they’re singing a song, he’s not bashful about telling them other things. Such as crescendos and decrescendos to mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, lots of  dolce markings (sweetly, as opposed to, oh, I guess “sourly,” our preferred method of singing).

The irony is that in this particular piece, all of these markings are redundant. This composer is so skillful at writing sweet songlike lines where tension in the underlying harmonies pulls and pushes you toward natural crescendos and decrescendos that he could have left the entire manuscript as unmarked as an unedited sixteenth century motet, and even the stupidest choir on earth would have been able to get the dolce lines right, the swelling sounds, the diminuendo and rallentando molto at the very end. (“Molto?” Is that really necessary when it’s as clear as day that the piece is slowing down naturally at the end, Mr…..?)

The problem with this overmarking isn’t just how it insults the performer’s intelligence. It sets up a situation where the fastidious directors and singers are constantly trying to honor the composer’s intentions, trying to find that perfect mezzo forte at the end of a crescendo, trying mightily to delineate it from that mezzo piano marked at the end of some other decrescendo.

To me, the effect ends up being like a paint-by-numbers canvas. Instead of really listening to each other, we’re all focused on whether we’ve gotten loud enough on the forte to pull back to the mf at the precise moment it’s marked above the bar.

Painting by numbers is fun. I remember doing it as a kid. But in the end, you have a painting with no soul and no meaning except blotches of color. The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

Let singers sing, composers and arrangers. We might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, but we’re not complete idiots.

End of ranty-rant.

Carry on.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist, freelance writer and editor. www.LibbySternberg.com

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Sophisticate or snob?

by Libby Sternberg

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, I was a student at a music conservatory. I stayed long enough for the administration to give me two degrees. But don’t worry–that doesn’t make me particularly musically informed. I was a singer.


A long time ago, a galaxy far away…me as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro

One of my favorite professors was a young composer who attempted to demystify music for us. I vividly recall how he gently mocked those who walked the halls, clasping their Mozart, Beethoven, Bach scores to their bosoms as if these were sacred texts.  What he was saying, and attempted to illustrate through rigorous analysis of musical scores, was that great composers are great craftsmen first. And you should learn that craft in order to appreciate it, not taking your cues from what musical “elders” tell you is worthy of your time and appreciation. His point electrified me, a girl from the ‘burbs with little formal training in music outside of piano and vocal lessons through childhood and beyond.

So much of the classical music world seemed like an exclusive club to me at that time. He seemed to be saying that folks like me could get into that club. We just needed to study and study and perform and learn. I still have the marked-up editions of Chopin’s Ballades that we went through during one semester. It was like doing a difficult puzzle. Oh, my skill level still falls far short of most instrumentalists, and certainly of that teacher — he could sit at a piano transcribing to the keyboard an orchestral version of The Rite of Spring…while lecturing.

The deeper lesson he imparted, however, was this one: if you merely clasp great art to your breast with whispered sighs of adoration and no understanding, you are not sophisticated. You’re just…a snob.

Understanding comes on different levels, though, and I’m not about to cast stones at those who aren’t musically trained but can still appreciate art of any kind. I have friends and family who don’t know much about the mechanics of music but genuinely love and appreciate works by various classical composers, favoring some over others, just as they like certain popular artists more than others. I’ve not asked them about their preferences, but I suspect their appreciation and affection for certain works is due to these elements within the pieces: familiarity and surprise.

We like music that offers just the right combination of familiar sound patterns and surprising twists on them. Much Asian music literally “falls on deaf ears” for Westerners, for example, as we are not familiar with those sound patterns much at all.  But familiarity can breed boredom, if not outright contempt, so composers who manage to stretch listeners’ expectations with pleasant surprises appeal, while those who go too far astray, from our own personal familiarity, don’t.   The neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains this and more in his excellent book This Is your Brain on Music.

So, even someone not schooled in music can still explain that Vivaldi bores them because it’s too repetitive, Puccini moves them because his works are so lush — even if they think La Boheme too sentimental — and Schoenberg is as dry and uninteresting to them as a desert. They have some understanding of their preferences, even if they aren’t telling you Vivaldi’s repetitive melodic patterns border on the minimalist while his harmonies are no more complicated than the latest pop song’s, and Puccini’s operas delight and move when they are complex and clever but sappy when the great composer uses his skill to exploit your emotions. As to Schoenberg, he wrote twelve-tone music. Nuff said.

As for me, I’m a sap for songs by the French composer Gabriel Fauré. This one is among my favorites, with its delicacy and subtle communication of the text (printed below the video — my French is rusty, so feel free to let me know if I’ve erred). Don’t be fooled. It’s not a simple piece. The syncopation in the left-hand part makes it difficult for some singers (cough:cough, me) to hear the downbeat, and there are clever musical “asides” where the composer winks at you (shifting to major chords under the words “sur le mode mineur“). I love that sort of thing:

Claire de Lune, poem by Paul Verlaine

Votre âme est un paysage choisi  (Your soul is a chosen landscape)
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques (Where go charming masked people)
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi (Playing the lute and dancing, and somewhat…)
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques. (…sad under their fantastic disguises.)

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur (They all sing in the minor key)
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune  (of vanquished love and the opportune life)
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur (They have an air that doesn’t believe in their happiness)
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune, (And their song rises in the moonlight.)

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, (In the calm moonlight, sad and beautiful)
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres (That makes dream the birds in the trees)
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, (And to sob with ecstasy, the fountains of water)
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres. (The great svelte fountains among the marble.)

Now, that song does make me sigh. And this version of it. Not Debussy’s so much, where I can imagine some jaded French fellow smoking a cigarette while reciting the words to the woman he’s trying to woo (or managed to seduce).

By the way, speaking of musical asides, I get a big kick out of the fact that Leonard Bernstein begins the song “Maria,” whose first line is “Maria, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard,” with the vocalist singing the ugliest sound in music — the raised fourth. It’s considered so abominable that it’s referred to as the diabolus in musica — the devil in music — and if you want to hear it, just imagine in your mind’s ear the klaxon calls of police cars in Europe. Yup. That’s it.

And I smile whenever I sing Handel choruses because he was such a showman, writing just enough of a fugue pattern to make listeners think he’s going down Bach’s road, but then marching off in a different direction, abandoning that theme, until he brings it back later to wrap up his deception. I think of Handel as the Andrew LLoyd Weber of his time, composing works of complexity and even nuance, but always with his eye on the public.

The point of my long ramble today is that I began my music education feeling inferior and unsophisticated, but I learned, especially with the help of that music theory professor, that sophistication is understanding — whether it’s understanding of a classical piece or a popular one, knowing why you like it and being able to articulate it. Merely saying something’s great because a) it’s not popular music; and b) lots of other experts say it’s great isn’t sophistication. It’s snobbery.

To round things out, here’s another favorite of mine. It speaks to me, especially the line, “Tell me, are you a Christian child. Ma’am, I am tonight.” That’s how I feel when I find music that moves me: converted to the composer’s point of view.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Please buy her books so she can buy more music.

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