Category: Personal

In Memoriam

Please leave your comments in memory of Joe at the bottom of the page.

Joe’s Obituary

From Catherine Steele:

Joe became my music teacher in high school.

Like many girls that age, I was devastatingly shy. I was uncomfortable in my body, overwhelmed by the boys, and plagued by feelings of intellectual inadequacy. And although I didn’t know it at the time, meeting Joe would forever change my life.

Joe became my music teacher in high school, and so much more.

Music may have been his medium, but his true gift was empowering others. Joe saw me—me—that profoundly unconfident high school girl who just wanted to hide—for exactly who I was, and who I could be. He nurtured the musical part of me that had begun to express itself through the double bass. He also validated my mind, taking with utmost seriousness the naïve ponderings of a young girl about the inner-workings of the universe. He made me feel like Einstein. He also validated my creativity by time and again welcoming me into spaces that were, I thought, reserved only for “serious” musicians and artists. Joe cultivated in me a sense of self-worth by believing in me before I believed in myself.

Joe became my music teacher in high school. But for me and many of you, he was so much more. This is the part of him that I will most greatly miss.

Joe sought a space where he could nurture beauty without distraction. Those of us that knew Joe artistically have experienced the exuberant magic that that pursuit produced. Part of Joe’s legacy, I believe, is having helped others become receptive to the aesthetics of everyday life—those nuances of time and space that tend to be flattened through the mundane rhythms and visual fields of everyday life. Joe teaches us that nothing is mundane, if you look deep enough, and listen long enough.

The worst part about Joe’s death for me, so far, is that I can ask questions of him, but I can’t get answers. The irony is that this is not too different from talking to Joe when he was alive! Joe was a stubborn man, and to his credit, he was aware of this. Often he would proclaim himself difficult, picky, provocative, finicky, and disorganized.

Many saw a side of him that tolerated only intermittent closeness. Joe was in this sense kind of like a cat: he asked to be treated gently and would bristle if he felt unsafe or unseen. He was cynical when something required him to trust—whether this be trusting in a friendship, a process, or in his own strength. But I believe this came from his exquisite sensitivity.

At his core, Joe, like all of us, wanted to be loved, appreciated and admired. Like all of us, he had a deep, visceral desire to be seen, accepted and understood as “ok”. Living in the shadow of his father, the great Julius Bloom, appeared to be, most often, a devastating experience for him for many reasons, most of which involve unattainable precedents set by growing up near musical greatness. What I wouldn’t give to see Joe recognize himself as a transcendent musician, and a transformative teacher.

As his friends, I think one of the most precious gifts we’ve given to Joe was to offer him a space to feel safe just as he was—even when he felt callous, testy, and particular as heck! And his most exquisite gift, in return, was his vulnerability. It takes courage to be vulnerable. And for this, I will remember him as one of the most courageous people I have ever met. I was able to remind him of this courage in our last conversation before he died.

In no small way, Joe has helped me become a better being. To me, despite his being a curmudgeon about so many things, he was the embodiment of compassion.

May we all take a lesson in Joe’s life: You may never know the effect you have on others. So, my request to all of you, on behalf of the memory of Joe as I knew him is to invest in “seeing” someone else. Today, tomorrow, the day after that. Really see someone. What are they going through in their own life? Can you accept them just as they are? Can you appreciate what it has taken for them to arrive in this moment with you? This, I believe, is the definition of love. This is what Joe did for me.

Joe became my music teacher in high school. And he was the greatest teacher of my life.


From Barbara Wilson:

Dear Joe,

I miss you so much. In a way I’m furious that you left us. Now when I hear especially piano music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Debussy or Chopin, I cannot get you out of my mind. I’m kidding of course for it is your warmth, profound empathy, commitment to me for just who I am, as if you were the best parent, indeed the best friend, that I was able to break through important barriers in piano and self-acceptance. Playing duets with you on your 2 concert grands was like being in the sandbox with my best friend, completely enraptured. Speaking of silliness who knew that you could be with a concert pianist/teacher, laughing through the lessons with with the wittiest, most spontaneous puns and metaphors. How about that “pick up and drop off” while transporting your whole hand to the lower keyboard register. Best of all you enriched and deepened my passion for classical music.

Beyond piano, you taught me how to have grace navigating life with multiple physical infirmities. One of them would have stopped me in my tracks. You kept searching for and finding new ways to express and support yourself. You never gave up on yourself or your students, giving your all to each one of us regardless of age. You leave in your wide wake a community of those you loved and befriended.

May you have peace, much exquisite music— you are intolerant of mediocrity—and laughter. May you dine on anything you want with your musical heroes. Oh and one more thing, Joseph, may you not have to always insert orange foam plugs in your ears when you go out of the house. The silence will be heavenly. We on earth assembled today will all be better people for having encountered you on your earthly journey.

I love you and will miss you forever.


From Odessa Goldberg:

Hello everyone, my name is Odessa Goldberg and I spent time with Joe last summer.

When I saw Joe’s inquiry on NextDoor, I immediately wrote to him.

“Dear Mr. Bloom,” I said, “I know this response is a bit late to the ad you posted on NextDoor, but I think we are kindred spirits. Deep philosophical discussions, good books, and nice walks are right up my alley.” And my statement still stands.

Joe and I were immediate kindred spirits. His home, a sanctuary where he introduced me to the NYT crossword, opera, Ulysses. Where we read Hamlet, philosophy, and history. Where we ruminated on Judaism, guilt and duty. Where he taught me music and I taught him technology.

I like to think that Joe and I were the perfect complementary pair for the New York Times crossword. I knew all the current pop culture references and Joe knew everything else. I was schooled in his delicate and expansive knowledge of French cuisine, composers, and historical events. While I introduced Joe to Mamma Mia 1 and 2.

But for the small sum of our differences, there were many ways we were incredibly similar. We both adored books. The first thing I did upon arriving at Joe’s house, when he was finishing a piano lesson, was acquaint myself with the many many books on his shelves. Books are the best way to get to know a person; and what a great first impression Joe made. I was immediately besotted with his philosophy section.

We took long drives together, planting ourselves in scenic locations to read together and discuss. We challenged each other, perhaps at times I regret my impatience. Joe and I felt so close intellectually that sometimes I forgot our difference in age. See, I like to say that at heart I’m 75.

Joe was incredibly curious, thoughtful, and generous with his stories and knowledge.

I wrote to him after leaving for school, saying that I was having crossword withdrawals. And he wrote me back the same. Doing the crossword is not the same without Joe at my side. I tried to complete the crossword on Friday, while ruminating about Joe, but I found myself unable. I yearned for our back and forth about each hint, squabbling about our methods for tackling the crossword. I want to skip ahead when we were stuck on a word, but he preferred to sit with it. I learned and blocked up the gaps in my own knowledge with his. I wanted to hear him give me little hints, guiding me to the answer. The click-clack of the keyboard. I wanted another afternoon on that piano bench, turned 90 degrees so we could sit side by side at the computer.

Joe was a mensch. A philosopher. An incredible musician. And my kindred spirit.

May his memory be a blessing.


From Ian Gray:

Excuse me, I’m late—this is Ian Gray. The consciousness of Joe Bloom is, was and will be ringing between my ears forever I am quite sure. We battled. I was young and arrogant and irascible and he countered me with the composure of a monk. Dickinson, Schopenhauer and the Haiku were our stock and trade. And then there was Beethoven, with whom Joe had the golden braid threaded through time and space, as pure and sure as the plainest white of the picketest fence. The clear and present dimensionality of his thought is and will continue to be that which buoys the boat of my brain. We commiserated over the articulation of Glenn Gould without saying a word, which would have been too much. A mere glance would do, as often it did; we communicated sometimes as bats or whales do, as through echolocation—I remember playing Scarlatti for him once and seeing along the edge of my periphery a downward shift of beard implicating the sustain (which I was overly indulging in) and instantly I threw my foot off the pedal as if it were on fire. We both laughed as I kept on playing. He told me once that when he was a boy he took the score of the Brahms D minor concerto into the woods, sat on a stump and read the heavenly Adagio, bringing himself to tears. He demonstrated to me, time and again, with unbelievable patience, this precious truth: that the music we make is real and actual—that through the agency of consciousness we manifest being each time we take up the keys—if we’re doing it right—and this being is as incontrovertible as a chair or pear or nun. Some twenty years ago I thought I was tough, adopting the habit of smoking a cigarette before a lesson in an inane swing-and-a-miss attempt at cutting a romantic figure. He braved it for the entire hour without a word as I putrified the air with the cigarette smoke he was allergic to, all the while meticulously sculpting my phrasing of the opening of Beethoven’s opus 110, before finally asking me apologetically if I would kindly refrain from smoking before the lesson. What a lesson that was—and there were hundreds more. The cosmos known commonly as John Keats said that this life is, “a Vale of Soul-Making,” and Joe was a maker born, a poet, from the Greek poiein, “to make,” and I believe he courageously seared himself into the atoms of this our universe.


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A personal confession (though not quite like St. Augustine or Rousseau)

Is there a “Joe’s System” to playing the piano?

I am perpetually looking to crystallize the main points about piano practicing and performing that are strewn among my many years as a musician and teacher.  I would like to be able to put them all “in one place” so I can state them all at one and the same time.

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting closer this goal, but then a few days later I seem to go back into a holding pattern, as over an airport, and continually circle around. I visit one principle or insight for while, thinking it has  lasting, basic value. But then, in as little as a few days, I am attracted to something else of as much importance.  I’m seventy-four, so I would like to be able to corral them and get them all in the same place. Like the game where you try  to get all the balls into holes, without dislodging any ball that is already in a  hole by the motions you take to put the next one in its hole.

I’m not sure what I want to ‘corral‘ them into: a “system?”; a briefest possible “list?”. Do I know yet where each part of my insights fits into the whole of them? I don’t want to be a perpetual wanderer in search of truth,, without every saying: ah, good, I’m at the without final destination. It is the process though that keeps me alive, that keeps my creative fires alight (“…consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” – Emerson).

Over weeks, months and years I realize that what arose as separate categories of teaching principles, often joined with other such principles, into a more basic category. I am pleased to be getting to a more fundamental expression of my practicing and playing ideas. But in the background I have a chronic, nagging fear that all that I am capable of saying, and which I have said over the decades, deflates into a single trite statement when revealed in its ‘final’, distilled form. Like what happens to a shining pebble at the beach, which when taken home now shows itself to be dry, plain, like all other pebbles without the gleam of water on their surface.

So I am envious, especially of the great philosophers whose total work  forms a synthetic whole. And of great teachers in general who have put things into a coherent system and written books and have many followers. I don’t know if I can do this. Yet I do exhibit my own valuable personal habits and ways of going about things (which I have been stuck with all my life).

Permit me a one paragraph summary of my life:

While growing up and into my twenties, I was told that everything I felt or articulated was “wrong” in some way or another. If I was lucky it was only wrong by a little, but often it was alleged to be by a lot. The common thread to all the criticism was that what I was thinking was not the norm among thinkers.  I had not done enough research into the field,  not thoroughly compared my thoughts with those my  contemporaries, and should have  not uttered a word until I had studied the great minds of the past and what they had said about the same matter. At the time this struck me as very valid criticism.  Then something interesting happened. People started seeking me out to work with, and they were specifically seeking my “wrong” theories and my “wrong” teaching techniques, and my “wrong” ways of doing and expressing things- all things which over the years had mysteriously turned into the “right” ways.

My closest friends tell me I’m uniquely creative and should always remain as I am. That I come very close to the truth, something which often gets lost and snowed under in a more traditional approach. That I find what is unique in my piano students and give help give them the voice to express it (musically and otherwise).  I don’t know if all of that is true. It is a big question in my life. Sometimes I still wish it would enough just to be different.

In spite of doubts, I soldier on, and continue to make notes about my
lessons and my practicing, and feel driven to publish them in my
blogs.

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Is forgetting a part of learning? A very personal blog.

“I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” (T.S. Eliot).  On occasion, I loose my place in the music, I even loose my thoughts in general, and specifically the train of those thoughts. With advancing age I’m feeling sometimes like I’m travelling on a long train ride, but at any given moment I am mostly aware of the station just left and the next station which is about to come up .  I am prone to forget the stations that had come earlier along the ride, and the stations still to come up later.  This is an odd way to be ‘trapped’ in the present of time.   It gives me a jaded view of the popular advice to “be in the present”.
But, you know this is all OK. Forgetting is a big part of everyone’s day, not just mine. Moreover why shouldn’t forgetting be as valuable and useful a path to learning as remembering is? Why can’t it be part of the process of attaining to the inner truths for which I am always seeking. For if I asked “who” is this who, who is doing the forgetting, the answer might be that it is my abiding inner self (the one that I’ve been searching for my entire life in my  philosophical speculations and deepest self enquiries). Is then there not a door through forgetting to reaching that deeper self?  I certainly feel closer to the heart of the music I’m playing than I’ve ever felt before.
So when I forget I will  ask  who is getting lost? I would like to get to know that who.  I do not think that I shall loose that self even when I get lost or forget things.
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Finding the underlying meaning below the surface of the notes.

Some of the things that have come to me as the deepest discoveries about playing the piano are the hardest to put into words and the hardest to recreate when I would will to recreate them.

One of these has to do with the idea that the notes are symbols of deeper meanings, and that we must transcend the notes into those deeper meetings.

#1

I got the first inkling of this idea when I worked for the first time on the Goldberg Variations when I was a teenager. I was using the Ralph Kirpatrick edition. In the introductory notes, he said something which I interpreted as “one rhythm can contain within it other rhythms”. It was as if, were one to orchestrate a passage from the Goldberg, several instruments, playing different rhythms, could combine to just one of the voice lines.

A trivial example would be to think of a whole note as consisting internally of different contemporary threads: a dotted half note followed by a quarter; four quarter notes; a breve that would swallow two whole notes in a row; and so on without any limitation to the number of these threads. There were certain such inside rhythms that, rather than occluding the musical purpose and flow of the originally written music, would actually help bring out and make more alive the voice in its originally written form.

Discovering which these were and then somehow feeling certain of these rhythms inside the written rhythm was a key to ‘unlocking’, ‘bringing to life’, ‘animating’, ‘adding to the purpose and flow of’, the written rhythm.

The klangfarbenmelodie of Schoenberg was another example. Something kept evolving and changing through time though the voice in the piece remained intact and that voice and not another.

As I grew older I had other more personal insights that revolved around the same theme that more was going on than meets the eye (or ear) when we  play what is on the page.

#2

Lines were driven through time by pulses, systoles of a heart pumping system. One pulse could go a long way to bring organization and meaning to a group of separate notes. I noticed that this was a secret of the way many great conductors communicated with their bodies and batons to the orchestra.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, if there was a strong enough electrical pulse, the inert matter of the piece would would suddenly come alive. A qualitative change which could not be foreseen. The pulse sends the blood through the arteries and carries with it all the proteins that upon deliver create the syntheses of the thousands of molecules that the body must produce to remain alive.

#3

A simple change of chords in a harmonic progression can often be banal. But if they are turned into the esoteric meaning of a more complicated array of notes, where the written notes provide just the exoteric (immediately obvious) meaning of the passage. Which makes of these notes symbols for, manifestations by way of accessible ‘shadows’, of the transcendent Platonic ideas of the piece that remain hidden to the eyes and ears as long as we sense only what is on the surface and not what the surface is hiding. The exoteric message is understood by all, the esoteric* meaning is known only to the few, and communicated more widely by the artists that in real time are working to reveal the esoteric meaning.

The more esoteric meaning let the notes convey a hidden harmonic message.  It’s like the esoteric meaning (known by only a few) versus the exoteric meaning (easily known by many). In this case the esoteric meaning is the imprint of the harmonic rhythm* on the individual notes.

We can distill the underlying harmonic chorale or pattern from the rest of the notes, as long as we don’t loose the individuality of the written notes. It is like when we see eternal beauty in a particular face. The chorale, rather than seeming simplified or banal now contains all the essence of the individualities of the passage.

A “harmonic rhythm” is created out the moments when the underlying chords change. Wait, this is too simple. Rather, a synthesis is created of a nexus of pulse rhythms and harmonic rhythms. Sometimes the needs of the pulsations will require an identical chord to repeated in the harmonic rhythm before another chord appears. The harmonic rhythm doesn’t always have to rely on when a chord changes. It is the beauty of relationship between the prototype and the seemingly endless manifestations of notes that that can arise out of the that prototype. To see the universe in a grain of sand (Blake).

This combined harmonic and pulse rhythm embodies the spirit of the written notes, that which holds by higher compulsion the notes in their place. That which gives it life and meaning.

* Esoteric, by the way, does not mean in this context something that is hard to understand, but something that strikes us as so obvious that we don’t know how we missed it and was misguided by the surface reality.

#4

Somehow I’ve worked towards a personal combination and synthesis of all of these, and others that still become newly apparent to me at this stage of life.

Don’t be captive to the notes. Be captive to the underlying meaning of the notes. Don’t let the physical mechanism be captive to what the notes say to  do on the written page. Let the body create impossible things, impossible syntheses

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A Few Thoughts About Satie’s “Gnossiennes”

S.B. is in love with the Satie Gnossiennes. He is learning the first four.

#2

When he had a long string of the triplet notes, I tried to push him ahead as if I wanted him to go faster.  Notwithstanding, he successfully resisted the impulses I conveyed.  But, the combination of my push and his resistance (with the flow of the tempo) resulted in a perfect union of not speeding up on the clock but still having a feeling to the listener of moving ahead.

And the same thing for any other musical ‘feeling’ that you have about the piece.  Inject that feeling like you are injecting into the inside of a turkey with a “solution” prior to cooking.  The flavor remains on the inside, but the cooking ‘metronome’ continues to tick evenly.

The little differences.  Satie is creating a severely controlled universe, a minimalistic universe.  Satie wants to draw the listener in until they are sensitive to every slight difference amid the hypnotic flow of the notes.  For instance at one point, instead of a twelve note series of triplets, it is fifteen notes.*  Or, this time it was an A-natural and not an A-flat.  And things like this.

#3

The melody is filled with repeating notes.   First play it without repeating any of the notes, then switch to repeating them, but be very “annoyed” that something, some outside force, is making you, as it were redundantly, to have to play each note twice.  Once established at the beginning, never loose that initial feeling of annoyance as you go through a string of these note repetitions.  If it helps, say out loud or to yourself in a nagging tone of voice: “do it twice … do it twice … , or “do I have to do this note twice also … do I have to do this note twice as well … and this note … “.

Because it happens so often, your inner musician will constantly want to assert itself to make it sound ‘better’, more ‘natural’.  You will start giving a phrase or shape to the notes in order to avoid the starkness of the repetition of each note.  It is hard for you to play through the whole piece as we have described because you are so sensitive and may think that what you are hearing is in some way ugly.  At such times just consciously make it ‘uglier’.  Make each note ‘stutter’.

#4

Turning off a natural ability.

No note in the left hand ‘bears the memory’ of what preceded it, though it is natural to hear a group of notes as outlining a particular tonal chord.  If there is a D minor chord in the left hand at the beginning it’s “news to me”.  Perhaps I’ll come to realize it after it’s almost done.

This is very difficult to do: suppressing a natural conscious reaction.  It would be like advancing a film one frame at a time, looking at it for a while, and then a long pause between the end of the first frame and the beginning of the next to allow some of the short term memory to forget what the preceding frame looked like.

* Try to frustrate the listener because there is a group of notes, and then something else, and then another group of notes.  Make the listener upset as to why there were only n number of notes and then it stopped, and then, why did we have to wait before that flow notes resumed, and not being sure how for how long, for how many notes, that flow of notes will continue this time.

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