Miles Hoffman

Host, Writer

Violist Miles Hoffman is founder and artistic director of The American Chamber  Players.  He made his New York recital debut in 1979 at the 92nd Street Y and has since appeared frequently around the country in recital, as chamber musician, and as soloist with many orchestras.  In 1982 he founded the Library of Congress Summer Chamber Festival, which he directed for nine years, and which led to the formation of the American Chamber Players. His musical commentary, “Coming to Terms,” was heard weekly throughout the United States for thirteen years – from 1989 to 2002 – on NPR’s Performance Today, and now, as Music Commentator for National Public Radio’s flagship news program, Morning Edition, he is regularly heard by a national audience of nearly 14 million people.  Mr. Hoffman is the author of The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z, now in its tenth printing from the Houghton Mifflin Company.  He is a graduate of Yale University and the Juilliard School, and in 2003 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Centenary College of Louisiana in recognition of his achievements as a performer and educator. Violist Miles Hoffman is founder and artistic director of The American Chamber  Players and artistic director of the Peace Chamber Program at the Peace Center, in Greenville, SC. He is the host of two of South Carolina Public Radio's national productions, The Spoleto Chamber Series, and A Minute with Miles.

Ways to Connect

Debussy on Bach

20 hours ago
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Here are a few words that one great composer wrote about another—and I wonder if you can guess who was writing about whom. Ready? “Once again one finds almost the entire piece is pure musical arabesque…In reworking the arabesque he made it more flexible, more fluid, and despite the fact that [he] always imposed a rigorous discipline on beauty, he imbued it with a wealth of free fantasy so limitless that it still astonishes us…” “We can be sure that [he] scorned harmonic formulas. He preferred the free play of sonorities whose curves…would result in an undreamed of flowering, so that the least of his manuscripts bears an indelible stamp of beauty.”


Timpani 2

Nov 21, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The timpani, or kettledrums were the original percussion instrument of the orchestra. The “kettle” of a kettledrum is called the “bowl,” and is made of copper or brass. The “head” of the drum, the surface that the player strikes, is a piece of Mylar plastic stretched over the rim of the bowl.


Timpani 1

Nov 20, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The timpani, also called kettledrums, have been regular members of the orchestra since about 1700. Their history can be traced back to ancient times in the Middle East, but they first appeared in Europe in the 1400's—they were originally imported from Turkey for use in cavalry bands. Timpani are tuned drums—they play notes, not just booms.  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Claude Debussy in 1903 wrote about the importance of giving his imagination free rein. Five years later Debussy expanded on the theme in a published interview. “You know,” he said, “People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night..."


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Robert Schumann called taking the titles of musical compositions too literally “clumsy.” Schumann’s friend Franz Liszt, on the other hand, coined the term “program music,” and said that when a piece has a program, or story, the musical ideas should clearly reflect the unfolding of the story—although that’s the same Franz Liszt who attached a “program” to his symphonic poem Les Préludes long after he had actually written the music.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Like many 19th-century composers, Robert Schumann often gave his works picturesque titles. Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example, a set of pieces for solo piano, includes pieces with titles such as “Pleading Child,” and “Frightening.”  How literally should we take these titles – and perhaps the picturesque titles of other composers’ works? 

Scherzo 2

Nov 14, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Beethoven replaced the minuet in his four-movement pieces with the scherzo. Scherzo means “joke,” in Italian, but in Beethoven’s scherzos you won’t usually find anything that qualifies as out-‘n-out funny. What you usually will find is a certain playfulness, with lots of fast notes, abrupt accents, surprises, and quick changes of musical direction. 


Scherzo 1

Nov 13, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

During the time of Haydn and Mozart, the third movement of a four-movement piece such as a symphony or string quartet was invariably a stylized dance movement called a minuet. By the end of the 1700's, though, Beethoven, in one of his many innovations, had largely replaced the minuet with a movement he called a “scherzo.” 


Syncopation 2

Nov 10, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Syncopation disturbs the regular flow of rhythm and it shifts the emphasis in music from strong beats to weak beats, or to in-between beats. I’d like to stress, though, that syncopation is a general term: there’s no limit to the number or variety of possible syncopated rhythms or syncopated patterns, and no limit to the ways they may be used. 


Syncopation 1

Nov 9, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There’s an old joke about the husband who’s been out late drinking, and when his wife asks him where he’s been, he latches onto a word he saw on the cover of a book in the window of a music store, and he says that unfortunately he had come down with a case of… syncopation. 


Drumsticks

Nov 8, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Percussion players can vary the sounds of their instruments by using different kinds of drumsticks, or drumsticks with different kinds of heads. Timpani players, for example, use  sticks that range from very soft to very hard. The heads of “normal,” or “regular” timpani sticks are made of felt—hard felt covered with soft felt—but the softest timpani stick heads are made of sponge, and the hardest are made of solid wood. Just imagine the difference in sound between a drum struck with sponge and a drum struck with wood! 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Already during their lifetimes, Antonin Dvorák and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky were among the most famous composers in the world. Their music is extremely sophisticated, the product of highly skilled composers, and their beautiful melodies have always been especially beloved.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is November 6th, and it’s the birthday of two important figures in the history of music, one an American composer and bandleader, and the other a Belgian instrument maker.

What Will Last?

Nov 3, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Perhaps you’ve thought about this: Bach and Mozart died over two hundred years ago – – Is there anybody alive today whose music will be played two hundred years from now? It’s a tricky question. 


Bel Canto - Rossini

Nov 2, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I wonder what today’s voice teachers would think of the composer Gioacchino Rossini’s ideas for a vocal training curriculum. According to Rossini, learning the art of bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” should begin with many months of soundless exercises, starting no later than the age of twelve. 


Practicing

Nov 1, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When I was a little boy just starting violin lessons, my teacher’s instructions were that I should practice a half hour every day. For a six-year-old this seemed an enormous load. I liked the violin… but a whole half hour, every day? 


Indispensible Three

Oct 31, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s always fun to propose lists of the “ten best” of something – or the ten worst of something, for that matter. But when it comes to thinking about composers of classical music, there’s a word I like better than “best,” and that word is indispensable. And the number I have in mind isn’t ten, but rather three. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve spoken about this before, but the subject seems to come up a lot, so why not go over it again: in America, 99.97 per cent of the people who play the flute for a living call themselves flutists, not flautists. That’s not a scientific number, but I think it’s pretty accurate.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is October 27 – and it was on October 27, 1917, that the great violinist Jascha Heifetz made his American debut in Carnegie Hall. I say great – many people would call Heifetz the greatest, a violinist who dazzled audiences with his stupendous technical ability, melted hearts with his gorgeous tone, and inspired thousands of young musicians to play more beautifully than they ever thought they could. 


Modern Stuff

Oct 26, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There are many people who say they love classical music, but not “that modern stuff.” What’s interesting is that some of “that modern stuff” is well over a hundred years old. Sometimes the term “modern” is just a stand-in for “unfamiliar,” and it’s true that some listeners have no appetite or patience for music that’s unfamiliar, and aren’t even willing to give it a try. That may be their loss… but then again we’re all entitled to stick to what we know and love. 


Mesmer

Oct 25, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you explore the history of psychotherapy, you’ll come upon the name Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734, and it was Mesmer who invented the term “animal magnetism,” which is what he called the mysterious force, or fluid, that flowed through his own body and that he could redirect for therapeutic purposes. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The most common tempo markings in music are words like allegro, adagio, and andante. But often composers indicate expression along with tempo, and this is when foreign-language dictionaries can come in handy. I could make a long list of interesting tempo and expression markings, but here are two of my favorites: 


Glass Armonica

Oct 23, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In May of 1761, Benjamin Franklin was in Cambridge, England, and he heard a man play a performance on musical glasses. They were crystal wine glasses filled with different levels of water, and when the performer rubbed the edges of the glasses, they produced different notes. 


Galilei

Oct 20, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Galileo, whose full name was Galileo Galilei, was one of the great figures in the history of science. What may surprise you is that Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, was one of the great figures in the history of Western music. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Musicians tend to tell lots of stories about funny things that have happened on stage during concerts. Often the stories are about disasters or near-disasters, and to be honest, they usually seem much funnier later on than the events themselves felt when they were actually happening. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In chamber music from the Baroque period, the written parts for keyboard instruments -- the harpsichord and the organ, for example – often consisted of merely a bass line, with numbers written under the notes. Such a bass line was called a “figured bass,” and the numbers, or figures, indicated which chords the keyboard player was expected to fill in above the bass, while at the same time improvising melodies [or countermelodies] to go along with what the other instruments were playing. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In some ways composers are like chefs – they’re always looking for interesting or even exotic flavors.  Or like painters, experimenting with compelling colors and color combinations.  And percussion instruments, whether alone or in combination, have always been very useful ingredients for adding flavor and color to orchestral compositions. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

By the late 1700's, the piano had replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument for solo compositions, concertos, and chamber music. Lovers of Baroque music may not like to hear this, but for most musicians of the time—of the late 1700's, that is—this replacement represented progress. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The harpsichord, the keyboard workhorse of the Baroque period, is an instrument with a problem:  varying the touch on the keys has absolutely no effect on volume or tone quality.  Depress a key gently or pound on it, it doesn’t matter — the note will sound the same. 

Atonal Music

Oct 12, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Atonal music is music that isn’t written in a key, music that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of harmony. But although the term “atonal” tells us what a piece isn’t, it doesn’t tell us what it is. Many different styles and musical languages, whether harsh or lush, cool or intense, simple or complex can be described as atonal.

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