Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Holiday Story: The Cat and The Carpenter

At a holiday party in 1987 where I was performing, a lady removed a cat hair from my tuxedo jacket (by such subtle signs do cat people recognize each other) and asked me how many cats did I have? I told her I had two, and we exchanged anecdotes about these remarkable and enigmatic creatures.

Among a group loitering nearby was a chap who could only be described as a giant. He was closer to seven feet tall than six, around sixty years old, hugely muscled, sporting a grizzled mountain-man beard, and looked liked Paul Bunyan's Great-Uncle. He ambled over, one huge, scarred hand cupping a plastic cup of beer as though it were a shot glass, and looked down at us with clear blue eyes beneath bushy eyebrows. He rumbled, "Cats. I never really cared for 'em. Now, I wouldn't go out of my way to run over one if I saw it in the road, but never was a cat person.

"But one day I found a kitten in a box behind my shop. I'm a cabinet maker. I have a shop in South Knoxville. I brought it in and figured I'd give it to my niece or somethin. Her mom wouldn't have it though, so I was stuck with it. Thought I'd give 'im to a customer, but kept puttin it off.

"You know, that cat was purty good company. I made him a bed next to my chair. My wife got the cancer and passed about twenty years gone. I like to read, and that cat sat in his bed. Over time I got used to him bein around.

"About five years ago I made him a little water bed; I figured it would be more comfor'ble for him to lie on. He started to get limpy in the hips, so I built a heater in it. Later I made some steps so he could get up and down on it easier. He seems to like it. He’s gettin pretty old, I reckon."

He looked at his cup, held between his gigantic, scarred hands—blinked several times, looked away. "Think I'm goin to go get another beer. It was good meetin the two of you."

Sometimes cat people recognize each other easily, and sometimes you wouldn’t spot them in a million years. But cats always find someone who needs them, and this is how I heard about a simple act of spontaneous kindness that lead to a lifelong friendship between a grizzled giant and a scruffy little alley cat.

Sometimes, the world is kind. Happy Holidays.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Health and Time Challenges Aside, Music Progresses

My goal with Cristofori's Dream was to reach the halfway point--the point where the first crescendo occurs, by the holidays, and by cracky I did it. There's a tough sequence just before the crescendo I need to buff a bit, and the crescendo itself will take a bit of polish, but I can rest here for a bit and do the necessary refinements before going into the second half, which has a couple of technically-challenging points at which I've already looked and for which I've prepared.

My health has taken a hit though, between the recurrence of asthma and a series of respiratory infections I'm in rough shape. But the Doc has me on an aggressive course of treatment and I think I'm feeling better; just very tired a lot and my breathing is still way below par. However, my last few practice sessions went much better and I could actually remember what it was I was supposed to be playing, and my playing actually improved with practice rather than deteriorating.

At the last practice session, my teacher pushed past the line of demarcation--past the dreaded HALFWAY POINT I had set as the limit--and went into the next session, and we discussed the compositional theory of the composer, David Lanz. At one point, David apparently decided to walk his Bassline down the Circle of Fifths, as the broken chords went from C to G to D to A, then to F. Furthermore, the harmonic line consisted of the complimentary Minor keys. Why this was a delightful discovery is because once you realized this, there's no need to memorize the entire sequence--all you have to do is play your way down the scale! This is why it's useful to learn and know music theory. So basically a page and a half of the remaining four pages of this nine-page score is already out of the way before I've even tackled it. Can I get a Hallelujah?

Am tired so I think a nap is calling, but it feels good to feel better. i didn't realize how sick I was until I began feeling a little bit better. I think I was in pretty bad shape. I look forward to an even better recovery.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ten Things White Guys Should NEVER Do

After five decades of observing humanity, I've made what I consider an important series of observations. Here they are.

Ten Things White Guys of Any Age Shouldn't Do

(1) The High Five (I've boycotted this for decades).

(2)Use the word "Bling."

(3) Say "Mah Man."
--Or any variant of "Waz Zup."
--Or "In the House."
--Or "Bro."

(5) Wear a sports jersey with saggy pants and a backwards cap.

(6) Listen to Rap, especially at booming high volumes while driving down the street thinking it makes you look like anything other than an utter asshole.

(7) Say "I have many African-American friends," thinking this will prevent you from getting your ass kicked.

(8) Do that handshake thing where you throw your elbow higher than your shoulder. Especially when accompanied by any variation of Number (3).

(9) Attempt to dance anything other than the Box Step.

(9-A) Oscillate your head when listening to rhythmic music, and for God's sake stop biting your lip.

(10) Drink Malt Liquor; Caucasian metabolism can't metabolize it--we lack the proper enzymes and it will turn us to stone.

I have more, but these are the Top Ten. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

She'll be Comin Around the Mountain...

Actually I will be. Or I did. I performed shows in Virginia and North Carolina, and the Wint'ry snows closed in to make the driving quite memorable, as I tooled my trusty Honda CR-V through those winding mountain roads to scatter entertainment amongst the Holiday party-goers like a demented Jonny Appleseed of Hypnosis and Mind-reading. Wytheville Virginia is nestled amongst the upper elevations and up, up, up I drove, then after the show, down, down down I drove, through some blizzard micro-bursts at 2 AM or so which were quite spectacular and bedazzling.

But the crowning adventure of my Snowy Odyssey was winding my way from Concord, North Carolina to Knoxville Tennessee, to hole up with my son and his SO until the severe weather passes. Newscasters have been predicting this severe weather front which somehow erupted from its prison at the North Pole. Extravagant hyperbole from the news media has been the norm in describing this stormfront. In fact, the normally pensive journalists have waxed downright Biblical in their descriptors of this Apocalyptic Maelstrom from the Northern Clime. The Arctic Door has burst open, we've been told, unleashing this hellish, frigid wall of devastatingly powerful storms onto the country, storms which have ravaged the lives of everyone unfortunate enough to have cowered in the paths of these ravening waves of destruction.

And they're heading your way! No man, woman, child nor beast will be spared a painful freezing death. Witness, ye mortals, the final days. All that we've known and cherished is coming to an end. Freezing rain, sleet, snow, basket-ball sized flaming hail, and winds of gozillion-miles per hour are speeding your way and you're advised to cancel any and all travel plans. Don't even look out of your window! Pan cut to Anderson Cooper, who always finds the crappiest spot in the country for his outpost, in this case a wind-swept snowdrift with a frozen, skeletal hand sticking out as though in supplication to a heedless God, and gale-force winds whooshing into the microphone (from which the sound tech removed the windscreen for added texture). Anderson Cooper lurks at the very bottom of the News media's bag of tricks. When the producers feel the audience's interest is slacking, they pull him out and put him mis en scene in some area of utter catastrophe and you think, "My God--if Anderson Cooper is on the air it must be the end of the damn world!" He's the Weather Channel's answer to Saint John the Divine.

Yes, don't look out your window, because it's an immense exaggeration. Five snowflakes equals a Village-grinding glacier in newspeak. The media whips everyone into a terrified frenzy every time some weather condition percolates. Now, I fully realize there have been some very bad weather incidents. Katrina was a nightmare from which we're still reeling. But EVERY stormfront isn't a nation-wide disaster. Let me give you an eye-witness account of THE STORM. After my show last night I drove across the Gorge, as it's known--the section of Interstate I-40 which crosses the mountains from Asheville NC into Tennessee, around 2 AM, and THE STORM caught me about halfway down. It consisted of some drizzly rain and a few snow flurries-- enough to add an element of unease to that scary drive, especially at night, but not the soul-withering meteorological holocaust we were led to expect.

This is what I experienced. But what were we led to expect? Let's look back a few hours toward good old Concord, North Carolina. A waitress at the event I worked that evening asked to leave early so she could pick up her little boy before THE STORM hit. And even earlier, a frightened ex-trucker advised me to drive to Atlanta and come up to Tennessee to avoid the BAD WEATHER. This insane detour would have added four additional hours or more to my five hour drive. For nothing. For media-generated fear. When I left Concord at the end of this event--around 10 PM-- the temperature was in the low forties and there was a sprinkle of rain. So much for THE STORM the howling newsmedia warned was coming to kill us, eviscerate our dogs, and rape our women.

The storm is coming, yes indeed. The next time I hear the phrase "severe weather warning" I'm going to storm to the local newsroom and kick somebody's ass.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I came to the Internet relatively late in life; I was almost thirty when I got my first desktop computer, and actually in my thirties when the embryonic Internet came into being. Internet discussion Fora were a long way off.

So for me, the people I've "met" online aren't really fully fleshed-out human beings. I don't mean this in a derogatory sense at all. It's just that, to me, it's almost impossible to connect words appearing on a screen to actual warm bodies. When I communicate with people, I do so face-to-face, or over the telephone, where I can see and hear emotional expression. Therefore, I don't become emotionally engaged with Internet discussions, arguments, dramas or community rules of engagement. Nor do I understand why other people do so. If someone online upsets you, just walk away from the computer--it isn't as if they can follow you around your house or workplace.

Now I have formed friendships with people I've met online. But in these cases we spoke on the telephone and usually met in person. In one case I married someone I initially met online, so it is possible to make an initial connection, but these Internet communities are simply random people typing words on a screen, and in my opinion the cyber-identities are almost entirely fictional, or at least partially fictional,. You may disagree, but I can prove you wrong if I care to, but I really don't care to. Nor should you care what I think; I'm just a cyber-fiction typing words on a screen which you're reading for God only knows what reason.

I have been members of several on-line communities or Forums, or Fora, or whatever the hell you're supposed to call them. I've also quit going to most of them. I've quit going to every one of them for exactly the same reason: They had stopped being fun. Invariably, the threads deteriorated to nit-picking, arguing, discussions about discussions (and by God, there is now a term for this in Internet jargon; a discussion about a discussion is called a meta-discussion); academical discussions about the meaning of terms, and arguments about what the meanings of meanings actually meant--it's absurd. Usually there will three of four posts about the topic of the thread, then the thread will deteriorate into hyper-anal nitpicking, tangents, and arguing. Even the well-Moderated Forums do this, because the Moderators are usually great fans of this kind of debate and discussion. There is an early, rather cynical article that still floats around that refers to "Godwin's Law." Godwin's Law describes the minimum amount of time it takes for an Internet discussion to go on before one of the participants accuses the other of being more evil than Hitler. Unfortunately, there is more truth than fiction in this, like most satire.

I love convivial companionship. There's few things I enjoy more than siting with a friend or two on a back porch on a nice evening, sipping a drink and having a pleasant conversation about interesting topics. But this is not what the Internet has become. I think the reason is Internet junkies are socially isolated people who for one reason or another, either through shyness, social awkwardness, or a general inability to relate to their fellow Homo-Sapiens, flock to these chatrooms and Fora for a way to interact with people--sort of--without actually having to DEAL with people.

Let me tell you of what had to be the most eye-opening experience of my Internet adventures. You would think if anyone could make an Internet Community work, it would be Buddhists. Well....

I was a member of a couple of Buddhist Fora which, one would think, would provide a safe haven for someone looking for convivial companionship to discuss the teachings of the Buddha. I will tell you this is a mistake. Cyber-Buddhists are no different than any other Cyber-dwellers, except they layer their nastiness with a thin veneer of quotations from the Pali Canon. Snide one-upsmanship on the level of 17th-century Rapier duels take place on these forums interleaved with extensive passages from Buddhist literature intended to prove the other guy is a total schlemiel. And these threads go on for hundreds of pages. Some of the participants post dozens of replies a day. And what of the famous Buddhist open-minded tolerance? Please. It is to laugh. The Vegetarians on a Buddhist Forum are enough to make me, a Vegetarian myself, crave raw meat. In fact, once every six weeks or so, I eat a hamburger, because I have this superstitious belief that every time I eat meat, a self-righteous Vegan dies.

When I once made some mild objections to a series of threads ridiculing other people's religious belief's, and suggested the principle of Right Speech indicated we should be more tolerant toward those who held different beliefs than ours, I was told my opinions were "rubbish." That is a direct quote. The ideological bigotry was so offensive and rampant, you would think you were on a Fundamentalist Islamic Forum instead of a "compassionate" Buddhist community. If you posted humorous stories, these were dissected by the hyper-analytical members for syntactic errors and logical inconsistencies--I'm serious--and the same arguments spewed on endlessly because--well-nobody seemed to have anything better to do. No volunteer efforts seemed to need their attention, no humanitarian association or animal shelters nearby, apparently. It was somehow much more important to make twenty to thirty posting a day arguing over points that mattered to nobody. Somebody on the Internet was WRONG, and must be corrected. After all, this was what the Buddha really intended 3,000 years ag0--correcting those who make piddly errors, not seeking escape from suffering.

So after attempting to participate in friendly discussions, and having my head bitten off once too many times, I posted, "The more I read this Forum, the better Scientology looks to me." and signed off forever.

There are two Forums I look in on these days, both related to my profession, and I post on them a little bit, but man, am I careful. I try to stay off the Internet as much as possible. Here There be Monsters. I remember when my son and I first heard of the Internet we were both happy, because we thought with all the world's information online and available at our fingertips, no one would ever be miserable or ignorant again.

Chalk it up to Life's Disappointment #1,287, 563.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Busy Season Commences

I'm going to be on the ROAD a lot this week so I'm trying to practice as much as possible these couple of days. I'm making steady progress I think on Cristofori and am on the verge of an epiphany with The Entertainer. I love the Christmas season--or Chrimbhus as I call it since I'm a Buddhist--and I have most of my shopping done so the stress if off. I wrapped presents nd brought in the boxes of decorations from the storage unit, so when I get back Wife will probably have the house in Yulemode. She's very good at that.

My brayne is finally accepting the changes and alterations inflicted recently and it's coming together nicely. I'm trying to get the dynamics down and have experimented with adding pedal to the melodic line. It's starting to sound haunting.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Stubborn Brain

Today I'm breathing better and feeling much more myself overall. I had a good night's sleep; or I did until wife came in from night shift and woke me up to take care of our needy cat Gregory who was preventing her from going to sleep. You see, if Gregory wants attention he claws very loudly against his scratching toy in the bedroom. It seems his food bowl was low, which made him anxious and he wanted someone to see to it immediately. So Gregory was working his scratching post for all he was worth. I arose, groggy and mumbling, to see to this feline emergency, and soon all was well. I noticed I was much less wheezy and more energetic, and a large cup of coffee later ready to tackle the day. I went to the post office to mail some stuff and the line was out into the lobby. Oy. Not a good way to stumble into a day. I was ready for the comfort of a little piano practice.

I moved to the next section (marked section "6" in my breakdown) of Christofori and began practicing the Hands-Together parts and they came together a bit nicely. This is the section just before the first crescendo, which I'm greatly anticipating. When I make it to that point, I've passed the halfway point--and the most difficult parts, from what I can see. The rest is just repetition of earlier themes building to a second crescendo, then a wind-down to the ending.

I'm having some trouble incorporating the new fingering into section "5" however. My middle-aged brain, stubborn to accept changes, is resisting the new fingering we worked out last Friday. I've practiced it over and over and I usually play it--if I'm diligent and focused, but if I look away or am distracted for an instant, my fingers return to the old pattern. Furthermore, the new pattern seems to have nudged out memory of the latter part of the melody. I've stumbled over once-familiar phrases and passages. I've just started from ground zero and play the passages very slowly until my brain catches up. Over time habituation should kick in and everything will sort itself out.

The Entertainer is coming along too, also slowly, but it is a much more difficult piece. I have the entire first passage committed to memory and can play it very slowly Hands-Together, but I can play it. The secret really does seem to play very slowly, get the rhythms down, then allow speed to come naturally. I've learned finger patterns already that, as I recall, seemed awkward and alien when I first attempted them, and now my hands play them almost by themselves.

It just takes time for my stubborn brain to give in and become comfortable with new ideas. I sometimes see my brain as an old man sitting on a porch polishing a shotgun shaking his fist yelling "You kids get off my lawn!"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Breathing is Fun

SO I 've had this fairly serious cold which has plagued me for a couple of weeks or more, and I performed a show or two with it, with the aid of Tylenol Severe Cold and Flu tablets--which is very good, but you cna only buy so many of them per annum because if you buy too much of it the Feds think you're cooking up meth--and when this cold left me, it left behind a relic: exacerbated asthma. Which really sucks. To make matters worse, my doctor closed his office Wednesday for the Holiday, so I couldn't obtain either a consultation or a refill on my inhaler. So my breathing became worse and worse. Of course, all the stress of driving and performing didn't help. One of the problems living in Bloomington is it's hard to find good medical help when you need it. Or any other time, for that matter.

Today I went to the walk-in clinic and received a breathing treatment and a prescription for various meds including predispose. Hooray-- I immediately felt better. I could breathe again.

The point of all this whinging is I kept up with my piano practice with dogged diligence, even though I felt like CRAP. But alas, my concentration was also CRAP. But some of it stuck. Now that I'm feeling better, I'm actually getting a handle on THE ENTERTAINER, and the new fingering for CRISTOFORI is working quite nicely.

I have shows December 4th and 5thth, so I'll be hitting the road again. Hopefully I'll be 100% by then.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Undercover Practice

When I'm out of town I have a couple of strategies for keeping up with my practice. My son has a small keyboard at his place generously supplied by his S.O. It's kinda funny because this keyboard has coins rattling around inside. Son & I, both consummate smart-asses of the first water, speculated his Girlfriend's family saw the list of sample tunes and, thinking the gaudy machine was a jukebox, inserted coins in an attempt to solicit purty music from it's innards. It doesn't take much to stimulate the fertile, if misanthropic, imagination of my family. You should hear the biographies my brother extemporizes about other drivers on the road who piss him off. These tales of debauchery rival those of de Sade's basest and most licentious characters.

But back to my surreptitious practice practices. Sometimes I yearn for the touch of an actual piano, so I cruise the various music stores in town and pretend to be an interested consumer--which in a way I am, just not at the moment. So I'll "test-drive" sundry pianos at one store, walk around a bit, leave, then perform my acts of musical espionage at another store. It usually only takes two or three of these sessions to satisfy my piano-jones. The salespeople usually ignore me; I suppose they're too busy playing guitar-hero for the benefit of giggling pubescent girls. More to my advantage; one of the few times shoddy service works in my favor.

So as I move like a phantom through the underbelly of music stores across the country honing my skills on floor-samples of every make and model, I'm amused at the thought of these throngs of keyboards eventually ending their careers in different households. After I played them. I left my mark on them. A little bit of me; my essence, infiltrating the musical conglomerate of America.

Ah crap--I just saw a salesgirl come in and scrub the keyboards down with a antibacterial wipe. There goes my legacy. Dammit.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Me, Joplin and the Haunted Piano

My new teacher told me to scrap my intermediate version of The Entertainer and we hit the realio version, the one actually penned by Joplin himself, in earnest. I can play the first page of it very slowly. When I say very slowly, this is exactly what I mean. The chords are complex and far apart, and your left hand moves all over the place. I've tried to develop little memory tricks and visual roadsigns for my hands to find to help my fingers find the places they need to go faster and with greater assurance.

After gnawing way at Joplin for a goodly spell, we returned to Christofori's Dream and I played the first two pages of it. When I navigated my way toward the last few notes, the piano began emitting a low, groaning sound when I hit the keys. Christofi is played at the upper registers of the piano, a section seldom used by her other students apparently, and it was only the upper keys that evoked this demonic rumbling from the belly of the machine. The visceral growling disturbed my teacher, so we tried to isolate the cause of the rumbling. Her S.O. appeared and we began an investigation.

Several minutes later the piano had exhibited a foul temper by dropping its lid twice on my teacher's head. Understand that all three of us had stuck our hands, head, torso and other appendages into the creature's maw unhindered, attempting to extract a pencil which found its way onto the harp as we conducted our investigation (a long story there in itself) but only my teacher was assaulted by the ill-tempered beast. I opined the piano, for reasons of its own, harbored some resentment toward her and recommended an exorcist. This ebony Steinway, previously a friendly and cooperative apparatus, had now become a dark Mephistopheles. I inquired into its history; if she had bought it from the estate of a reclusive, shunned old party. She said her father had bought and refurbished it. This revelation added to my formerly-pleasant music lessons a new degree of terror. I suspect a Ghost in the Machine, perhaps that of the previous owner.

However, ghosts are nothing new to me. I intend to befriend the specter and enlist his or her aid in my musical endeavors. Maybe we'll go on the road together.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I love It

I love my piano.

That pretty much says it for now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wishes for Year Two

At the end of January I'll begin my second year of piano playing and I'll have a firmer command of my Maslovian Hierarchy of needs, wants and desires concerning where I want to take this lovely obsession. I know one item I've been itching to address: an upgrade of my keyboard.

If you're not familiar with Abe Maslow's Hierarchical Pyramid, Here it is to the right. My own Pyramid is a little different. At the bottom level are the usual items like shelter and food. Just above that are coffee, Oreos, ice cream, and peanut butter. Above that, opera and other cultural delights. Then on the higher levels, friendship, watching the world slide precipitously into Hell, and at the very top, the Glorious Clavinova. (You'll notice sex slid off my agenda years ago; I just don't even try anymore. Too much trouble, and with opera and piano playing I can go to sleep immediately afterward without having to shower.)

But enough about the dysfunctions of my Id and Superego, back to the Clavinova. I thought my Casio Privia would see me through many years of happy practice, but now I want a Yamaha Clavinova or one of the upscale Roland smart pianos. I don't even really want one with the bells-and-whistles, although the ones with the on-board Symphony Orchestra that plays along with you--complete with a miniature animatronic figure of James Levine that pops out and conducts--are kinda spiffy; I just want a model that exactly imitates a Grand Piano in feel and sound.

So what's yer beef? you ask. Go ahead and get one. Well, the price tags on one of these spiffy devices begin round $2500-$3000, and go upward from there to amounts I don't even want to commit to print for the real beauties that resemble Baby Grands.

The further problem is that even with a price tag of three large, living in this day and age in America--God Bless Her--with financing and Easy Payment Plans--I could do this. If I financed one of these Machines of Terrible Beauty for a year, let's say, payments of a hundred or so a month wouldn't be much of anything. I spend that on frivolities. My lessons, in fact, cost about that--not that lessons are a frivolity. But I could cut out a few indulgences and easily free up a hundred a month.

I hate financing, though; if I'm going to have anything to do with compound interest, I want it to work in my favor. Believe it or not, I don't have any credit cards. Not a one. I have a bank card which is a credit/debit card and that's it. If I can't afford something, I save money until I can buy it.

However, there's layaway, which doesn't have a finance charge.

The Imp of Temptation which rests on my shoulder and constantly rubs his tiny hands, twitches his tiny tail and whispers sweet nothings in my ear tells me if I put one of these sweet things in layaway, I can pay as I go and then sell my Casio at the very end for the last big payment. No finance charge. No painful pressure to meet the payments since layaway has small requirements and I can make bigger payments as I enjoy windfalls. There's nothing to lose, says this Imp.

No I am a man of iron. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything. Anything, that is, except temptation. I found out Starbucks makes ice cream and joined the ranks of the damned. Good God, what evil genius thought of combining espresso with ice cream? You might as well combine cocaine and Tequila, freeze it and package it as Mexican Bomb Pops.

Most people have a balancing factor, a little angel which sits on their other shoulder and acts as the Voice of Reason. Alas, in my case I have no angel. He was disposed sometime in my infancy by another Imp. This second Imp is a wheezing, debauched, wizened, one-eyed satyr, more wicked than his brother. He's older and more worldly, so his arguments are even more compelling. He says to just dip into savings and buy the son-of-a-bitch outright and quit fretting. You only live once. And if you stuck with these lessons for a year, he says, you know you're in in for the long haul--not like the time you tried Ballroom dancing, fencing, archery and ballet (and the least said about the latter, the better).

So as I stand literally balanced on the horns of this dilemma, I'll be whittling away the last remnants of 2010 listening to these two little devils urging me toward artistic gratification and financial ruin. Better than watching Fox News I guess.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Metronome.

The metronome is an ancient tool which counts beats as you practice. It goes TICK..... TICK...... TICK.... or BEEEP ....BEEEEP .... BEEEEEP... depending on what kind you have. You can set it for various speeds, rhythms and tempos. When I first began practicing on my cheaper ($150) Yamaha keyboard, it had a built-in metronome and I used it sometimes to help my counting when I was learning the difference between whole, half, and quarter notes. By the time I got to eighth and sixteenth notes, I'd dropped the metronome because I more or less began counting by tapping my foot or counting in my head. My upscale Casio didn't have a metronome built-in because it was a piano and nothing more--no bells and whistles.

My teacher at the time asked if I had a metronome, so I bought one, not one of the cool wooden ones, but a small electronic ones. I used it a couple of times but found it so distracting at first I only used it a few times. After I became more confident, I used it to measure my tempo.

My current teacher keeps telling me to slow down when I'm practicing and learning a new piece. I thought I had, but I discovered what considered "slow" isn't the same thing as what she meant--not by a factor of about three. But the very useful metronome straightened me out.

She set the tempo at 84 beats per minute. This may sound fast, but not when you're playing a piece with six beats per measure, like Cristofori's Dream. In fact, it's almost maddeningly restrained. My problem is that I hear the piece of music in my head and try to play along. then my mind can't understand why my fingers keep producing this cacophonous horror. The metronome makes me play the notes slowly enough for my mind to think about where to place my fingers next. Soon, all my mistakes dissipated. Furthermore, my learning curve went from cosine to sine (for those of you familiar with Cartesian dynamics, this is a good thing).

I think the steady BEEEP..... BEEEEEP.... has a hypnotic effect. It focuses my concentration more intensely on the passage I'm practicing. It also overloads the brain with input and stops extraneous thought. If I knew this a few months ago I would have used my metronome for something other than to hold the pages of my music books open. I'm a believer in this technique now. I think I may have to upgrade my little electronic beeper to something bigger and more professional soon.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Progress Report II

After the first lesson with New Teacher my spirits have lifted. We made a plan. We decided on three pieces on which to concentrate and narrowed our focus on learning the first phrases of Cristofori and The Entertainer. The third piece, Bumble Boogie, is lurking in the background. I also want to sneak Over the Rainbow in there, as I have it practically learned already. She also gave me tips on fingering and technique which helped me with tough parts of the pieces.

We concentrated on my weaknesses and how to strengthen them, something I've been concerned about for a while.

So what of Alfred? He' lurking in the background too. We're not depending on him any longer apparently, as she says we can develop all the techniques I need to learn from the pieces we're working. She says we can consult Alfred now and then, but I get the feeling she's weaning me from my old friend. Ah well. I picked up the F Major scale, so I'm only one away--B Major--from completing the entire Major Scale.

I finish my first year at the end of January. I hope to have one or two pieces I can competently play by then. That would be cool.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Progress Report

I've just passed the halfway point of Christoforo's Dream. The halfway point of committing it to memory, that is. This is the point of the first Crescendo, a very lovely point to pause and polish the learned material.

Sometimes I can be in a slump, or feel bad, and not know it until I come out of the other end. I think I fell into a funk due to various stuff I had to deal with and also had a cold, but didn't realize how much it affected my concentration until I looked at my music and saw all the pencil notes I had to make for memory jogs. Last month my short-term memory was non-existent. I've erased most of them now that my oomph has returned.

The main thing that worried me was that I couldn't remember how to play Minuet in G without shredding it to pieces. Today I played it as well as I ever did. Which means I only made one or two mistakes.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Teacher Found!

I signed up today for three months of lessons at A- Chord Music Studio, which is a piano teacher and a piano in her living room. Just the sort of informality I like. Being a tattered wreck from lack of sleep and this cold I'm fighting, I butchered my Bach Minuet in G but did a passable rendition of what I have so far of Christoforo's Dream. So shll 'e gave me a bag full of stuff and a bag to pit it in. I think she was delighted to receive a check for three month's tuition. I was delighted to get back in training and find a teacher who could give me direction. First session is Monday. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Quest for a Teacher

So far I've had too answers to my inquiry for a teacher. I feel good about both of them. This is, alas, the fruits of living in a town with one of the finest music schools in the country. One teacher has a school nearby where I would go for lessons once a week in the afternoon. The other is a doctoral candidate who would come to my place and teach me at home. So which do I chose? Or both?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Alas, Am searching for a New Teacher.

No answer to my phone calls, so I have to assume my teacher is out of touch or otherwise not communicating. So i'm in search of a new piano teacher, which makes me sad. I've sent inquiries to a few places. The good news is that Bloomington is a good place for music instruction. Indiana University is a music mecca. Vince Guaraldi (the fellow who composed and played all the cool piano music for those myriad Charlie Brown specials) was from IU as well as Joshua Bell and many other great musicians.

My work on Christoforo's Dream is progressing, so I'm at a point where a teacher's feedback will be essential. Plus, I'm feeling like I'm drifting. With ten month's training, I definitely need a teacher's guiding hand.

Life's twists and turns.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Teacher Vanished

At the beginning of October my piano teacher told me she was going in for a surgery and I would hear from her in two weeks. Alas, Tomorrow is November 1st and so far, no word and no answer to emails. I'll try calling tomorrow and find out how things stand. Hope she's all right and just recovering from surgery, and that nothing bad happened. She's a very good teacher and started me on the road to achieving a dream I've had for many years.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Hypnosis is Cool (In Piano Technique)

Sometimes (quite often actually) when you play an actual piano as opposed to a synthesizer or whatever those things are you hear as electronic backbeat in modern music, you have to vary the weight of your hand. I mean that literally. To play pp (very softly) or ff (very loudly) depends on how much force is applied to the key. There are two ways to transmit force: by how hard your finger strikes the key and by how much arm weight you allow. In other words, you can play either heavy-handed for loud tones or light-handed for softer tones. This technique prevents finger fatigue during passages with extended ff for one thing and provides more control over long passages where you might be playing a left-handed bass clef line and a right handed treble-clef line in the upper octaves, where you really need to make them sing out. The right hand will have to be heavier in order to transmit more force to the higher keys.

So I've read various suggestions on this. One was to think of one hand as a 500-pound wrestler and the other as an 80-pound ballerina tinkling lightly along the keys. The image of Stone Cold Steve Austin straddling one arm while a lithe Lithuanian Prima Donna clung to the the other was simultaneously appalling and arousing, so I had to abandon that notion because I was getting nothing accomplished but fits of unconstrained giggling.

However, there is an effective visualization performed by stage hypnotists--including me--which is known as "the light-and-heavy-hand." Now if this isn't beautifully synchronistic then I'm not known in certain circles as the Ron Jeremy of the American Midwest. I tried it. I visualized a huge bouquet of helium balloons tied to the light hand and an enormous, leather-clad (not ballerina) but dictionary balanced on the other. For good measure, I placed two large, blue bowling balls on the dictionary. For this to work, by the way, you have to really SEE these images, and feel the weight of the heavy objects and feel the pull of the helium balloons. If you close your eyes, hold your arms out in front of you and do it correctly, one arm will begin to drop while the other will begin to rise as the "balloons" pull it into the air.

I did this visualization until I could summon the sensation effortlessly. Then I practiced my troublesome passage. I could immediately tell a difference in the hand's independence. I could easily make the left hand lighter and the right hand heavier. It takes a little practice but man does it add another valuable tool to your kit, and much faster then trying to learn it by muscle-memory, without the aid of visualization and auto-suggestion.

I think the reason this works is because the body already knows how to react to light and heavy stimuli, so there's no need to re-learn an entirely new skillset when all you have to do is apply what you already know to a different situation. I wish I could do this with scales and arpeggios; I would accelerate my learning curve immensely.

I don't know how many people actually read this blog. I mainly do it to keep my thoughts in order, and because I don't have anyone to discuss piano with, and I love it so much sometimes it sort of bursts out of me and I have to put it somewhere or I can't concentrate. Sort of like mental binge/purging. But if you do read it, do you enjoy how it starts out as one thing and then ends up as something else; like how fish evolved into reptiles, then apes, then into men; and then in the Southeastern United States back into apes?

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Broke My Brain

Is it possible to overdo? I think it is. As a textbook obsessive-compulsive, I sometimes lose sight of the idea of "moderation." In fact, I literally don't know the meaning of the word. I just tried to write down the definition and couldn't do it. The part of my brain where the definition would normally be stored apparently kicked the entire concept out as rubbish. It wouldn't have it. My brain evicted it. I'm surprised the very word "moderation" is tolerated in my OCD brain. I suppose as long as my brain doesn't know what the word means it's safe--unrecognized, like the name Shostakovitch is to Rap music fans.

I've used terms like OCD and obsessive-compulsive without really believing in them. These convenient psychological titles don't really mean anything except some people are more driven than others. And some people overdo things. I'm not sure I buy into the notion of mental "illness" any more. I've lived both with and without the idea and it doesn't seem to mean anything except as a therapeutic tool. Centuries ago, a club to the head was considered a therapeutic tool too. I'm not sure, spiritually speaking, these psychiatric titles are much better.

I used to overtax myself when I was thirty. Now I'm fifty, and the mind is still pretty sharp, but the engine which powers it sometimes sputters. I just finished a new book for the specialized performing market in which I work. I released a similar book last month. This should be enough for anyone, but I also performed a number of shows this week and I'm trying to perfect the couple of pieces of music I already committed to memory and learn this new one. Yesterday I felt like I was trying to crawl out of my skin. Everything I tried to play I tore to pieces. I took a break and visited with family; engaged in "guy talk" with my father-in-law and a couple of other chaps. I got away from the pressures of work and my own person demands. I got a good night's sleep and today I feel as bright as a ten-dollar hooker.

I know what's happening. Every autumn I take stock of my life to see what I've accomplished. And it always seems to me very little, and each year my shadow grows longer. I feel I'm running out of time and I don't know what to do about it.

Fifty is a number which seems graven in stone. I see people in deep denial about middle age, saying inane things like "Fifty is the new thirty" and other slogans advertising people came up with in order to sell us vacation packages, but when you actually look at it, and realize you have another fifty years or more to go before you punch the clock (and I know full full I could drop dead of an aneurysm or drunk driver, or my wife could smother me with a pillow tonight)--it's a big thing.

My fiftieth birthday was a pleasant affair and I marked it with my family and a few close friends. I didn't have the mid-life crash-and-burn associated with it. By nature, I tend to be a happy fellow overall. Yet I felt there should have been something spectacular about turning fifty; that some Magickal Being should have appeared to me in a vision saying, "Now that you're an adult, I've come to reveal to you your Life's Purpose." But the only Magickal Being I know is me, and as far as Omniscience goes, I have far more questions than answers.

Back to the original question: Can you overdo it? Yes, probably, but in most cases you get over it. I had a reaction yesterday to trying to learn too much too soon, in my thirst to make up for all those years I missed, but I slept it off and today here I am writing obsessively about obsession. I freed up more of my time by dropping off of some of my Internet Forums. I reluctantly bade goodbye to my Buddhist Forum because, believe it or not, many of the people there were too hostile and cynical. Can you dig that? It was popular to start long threads ridiculing other people's religious and spiritual beliefs and promote scientific rationality as though this were a belief system in itself. It seemed to me that many people follow Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins more than Buddha.

This turned out to be a good thing for me because it increased both my peace of mind and the amount of available time. It's been my observation if you practice Buddhism you may be better advised to keep your practice between yourself and your teacher and not try to be part of a Buddhist "community," unless you have a lot of time to squabble and scratch your head wondering what's wrong with people.

Some people don't get over overdoing it I suppose. Morbidly obese people who try to play touch-football during the Thanksgiving Day family get-together, and who drop stone-cold dead from a massive heart attack, come to mind as a prime example. Nor do those idiots who think they can drink five bottles of vodka at a party with impunity. But to my recollection no-one ever died from too much piano-playing, though I did once get a callous, so lemme alone, dammit.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

As Hannibal Smith would say, I love it when a plan comes together. I'm on page four (of nine) of the epic Christofori's Dream which I've been working on now for several days (with a few days taken off for shows) and it's coming together. Of course I'm not into the truly difficult parts, with octaves and sixths, but hey--Joplin has prepared me for those, and compared to The Entertainer, this should be a piece of cake. But nine pages of memorization will take some time. I've divided this rather large, multi-phase piece into nine sections and am tackling them one at a time. The first four sections came together today, somewhat clunky and I make some errors unless I pay attention, but nonetheless--the plan is coming together.

Take that, fool.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Go Newage

Scott Joplin is driving me crazy--although I am making slow but steady progress, so I decided I needed something easy to work on in tandem, so I'm working on a David Lanz piece called Christoforo's Dream. This piece also has an added advantage of incorporating techniques from some of my current lessons, which should please my Instructor. If you want to hear this sappy piece of music, you may go here:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Okay, Maybe Just One

I played for a friend the other day and he enjoyed it. So I suppose sometimes I will play for other people. But I don't intend to make a habit of it. I have a long way to g before I'm worth hearing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

SOLO Piano

It's quite possible I may be the only musician in my knowledge who never intends to play with any other musician, or for anyone else. I do this for an audience of one: myself. I have no interest, intention or desire to perform music for other people. I don't crave the applause of other people. I've had plenty of that in my life, and it ain't all it's cracked up to be. There's a price you pay for it, believe me.

I've loved music all my life and always wanted to study it, to take it apart piece by piece and understand it better. That's what this is about; taking a piece of music I love and looking at it from the inside out. To get inside the composer's mind and feel what he or she felt when they wrote it.

My teacher asked me if I've played anything for anyone yet and I said "No." She said I had a couple of pieces I could play, but I said I couldn't perform them well enough yet, and besides, I had no interest in playing for anyone else.

People have expressed curiosity about my progress and suggested I record my playing and post it. I even bought a midi cord to do this very thing. Then I struggled with midi programs and realized, "Why bother--I know where I'm heading with this. And do I need to hear the comments and (I'm sure) well-meaning critiques of others?"

No. Not really. This is something I'm doing for me. It's mine.

If I let other people into it, it would spoil it. I'll write about the process, because I find it fascinating, but the music itself--that's all mine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lovely Obsession

There's something beautiful about being in the grip of an obsession which normal, even-keeled people may never experience. I don't mean addictive-compulsive obsession--the type that destroys lives; I mean the kind of obsession that drives you to seek out a perfect ideal in whatever it is you do.

I was always a perfectionist in my performance of magic and related arts. In my youth I practiced for weeks and months to perfect the subtle nuances of moves that most people would never even see. That is, they would never see these moves if the moves were performed correctly. And I practiced these moves to the point that nobody saw them, even other magicians.


I've been told some musicians in the classical field search all their lives to play ONE perfect note. Apparently Isaac Stern was one of these musicians.

My current obsession is learning one or two piano pieces well enough to play them through from beginning to end. Being me, I picked pieces well beyond my current skill level. Of course this makes my lessons pieces easier by comparison, but I'm really wrestling with these pieces. I know someone with two or three years of piano experience could sit down and learn these pieces much easier, but for a chap like me, with little over nine months of lessons, it's a bit of a burn. But much fun. I'm never happier than when possessed by obsession.

A couple of months go, I began learning an Intermediate-level version of Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. I can play it fairly well now so decided to move to the much-more-difficult original piece. I've learned the first phrase of it to the point where I know both hand's parts, very clunkiliy, now I'm smoothing it out. Obsessively. The most difficult part, and the most important I think, is the swinging, syncopated rhythm between the left hand and right hand parts. I have that pretty much hammered in my skull at this point and I'm transposing bits and pieces of the original composition over my simpler transcription.

I recall, not that long ago, when I looked at the sheet music for this masterpiece and thought "Oh no." Now I think, "I can play this, in time."

Friday, October 1, 2010


Pianophobia; probably not the correct word for this experience, but it's annoying. This is a freak-out my brain experiences when confronted with a piano other than my own. I can learn a lesson proficiently on my own piano and then when my hands touch an unfamilair piano the keys look completely alien to me, or feel wrong, and my brain circuitry misfires. I can't remember the piece. It doesn't last forever, it isn't as though dementia is creeping in on me. After several minutes, I become habituated to the keyboard and can play the piece, but not as well as I could at home. It's as if I have to relearn it. About half-way through my lesson, I become used to the piano and my brain relaxes.

I'm convinced this is a psychological quirk, so for the past couple of weeks I've been going to the Music School, (where my lessons are held) and practicing on pianos of various stature and nobility: rickety wooden uprights, wheezy Baldwins, and regal Steinways. Like a baseball batter swinging two bats before stepping up to the plate, this exercise accelerates my home efforts considerably.

Left to my own devices, without my teacher present, I've also been able to analyze the mechanics of this phenomenon. My piano is an electric piano, with semi-weighted keys, which approximates the feel of a real keyboard, but the feel isn't quite the same. The keys on a Steinway Grand Piano are heavier and the coefficient of friction is greater. There is more "drag" between finger and key. So the amount of effort to work the keys is marginally greater, and I think one of the factors leading to my brain's "freak-out" is it didn't receive the result it anticipated from its calculations. Hand, brain and ear fell out of synch. When my brain couldn't make sense from this new set of data it went into melt-down. My timing was thrown completely off.

Once I saw what was going on it seemed like all I had to do was concentrate on the finger-key interaction. I had to keep my eye on what's going on there and try to ignore what my ear was telling me--at least for the time being, until my hands could sort everything out. Otherwise, my brain was trying to accommodate too much new data and compare it to the old, familiar template. And after all, I'm fifty years old and while the gray machinery has its strengths, multi-tasking can overwhelm it. One of the strenghts of the middle-aged mind is tenacity and stubborness. It can sometimes work against you though; once you learn a habit it's danged hard to break, so if you learn something you'd better make sure you learn it correctly the first time.

But the point of this circumlocution is I seem to have gotten a leg up on this problem that's plagued me since my early lessons (not that nine months of lessons makes me an early settler); the problem of the strange piano. For a while I hoped my once-a-week lesson would habituate me to a strange piano, but it wasn't enough. The solution, of course, the obvious one, practicing on lots of different pianos outside of my lessons, was slow in coming because it entailed more effort on my part. Like anything worthwhile, you have to decide if the end result is worth going the extra mile.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Finger Peeled

My middle one to be precise. I've been training individual fingers, by God, to do my bidding. I'm training them to shift from chord to chord without me looking. or to be perfectly honest, looking from the edge of my peripheral vision. The fingers enduring the most wear-and-tear are my two middle fingers (what we call in piano parlance the third finger) and my right middle finger developed a callous and is now peeling. It's a little annoying.

The culprit is this jazz piece I've been working on with great fervor from Alfred Year Two which has an FF notation in several places. FF means you hit the keys quite hard. There are also accent marks, which look like this (>) over some of the notes, which mean the same thing: hit those suckers. I think all this drama gave me a callous.

I've also been working on the realio dealio Joplin Entertainer fingering for the first measure. It has octaves with an added third voice in eighth notes. Yes, that's as insane as it sounds. You play these pretty fast, even thought the composer notated his piece was to be played "not fast." This requires a finger-spread like King-Kong's left foot. Here is the passage in question. it looks innocuous, but as you can see from the bass line, all that activity occurs in the space of four beats. It's the melody part of The Entertainer that goes (and I'll try to convey this in print) La- de-dah Dah-dah Ta-ta Ta-ta Tah.

I can only practice it for ten minutes at a time before my tendons ache. So between the peeling callous and aching tendons, I'm a festering dungheap. I'm ruined. Well not really but it goes boo-boo.

Autumn has dribbled in so my moods are phasing in and out like Lady Ophelia's from Hamlet, so I'm given to crying jags followed by laughing fits, depending on which aisle I'm walking down at Wal-mart. This has added a poignant tone to my playing however, so even my upbeat jazz piece has a cynical edge to it, like Rock-a-Bye-Baby played by The Ramones.

I have a week off from lessons so I'm practicing independently. I'm having a lot of fun dabbling around with my independent study pieces and stretching my skills. I still sound like butt, but maybe one day I'll have a breakthrough and be able to play one piece all the way through without making a mistake.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Head is Made of What?

If someone is especially recalcitrant, some people would call him a fathead. Or bonehead, or, after the manner of Archie Bunker, a meathead. In short, all the components of a steak--except gristle. No, the epithet gristle-head just isn't esthetically pleasing. In fact, next on the descending rung of degrading substances which your brainless skull can be filled is a bulky matter involving the digestive function; indeed, the very end result of what happens to steak once you masticate, ruminate, extricate, intestinate and finally excrete it. If you don't know what I mean, drop me an e-mail and I'll explain it to you--you dunderhead. And exactly what cut of meat is dunder? I asked my local butcher. He shook his fist at me and said, "Get away from me, airhead." Which is another story--bridging the animal kingdom to the elemental. An entirely new literary genre. You have your airhead, gashead, rockhead, crackhead, knothead--but I digress.

Why do I worry about things like this? You see, I used to be a gearhead. That's a term meaning "engineer." So when I see a pattern in something I wonder how the pattern evolved. or if the pattern was part of a design. And design is a beautiful thing, especially in matters involving story and language.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Interesting Piano Technique

This is a technique for playing up and down the Keyboard which was preferred by piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. Where this differs from "standard" technique is you're usually taught to tuck your thumb under your hand, and allow the rest of your hand to follow. Liszt believed it was better to treat the thumb like the rest of the fingers, an limit it to an up-and down motion. A group of modern teachers have recently become advocates of this "Thumb-Over" technique. I've tried it, and it's a bit difficult to make the transition.

Why Speilberg Sucks, and Why it Pays to Be Literate

Spielberg (along with George Lucas) made his rep on Star Wars of course--a rehashing of Campbell's work Hero with a Thousand Faces--and everyone who had never read mythology lapped it up. I sat in the theater in 1978 and thought "This piece of crap will never make it." The next day, I went to school and everyone was going on about "The Force." I haven't had a moment's rest from this corruption of Asian philosophy in thirty years.

But I guess the main reason I get tired of hearing about his creativity is that he isn't creative: he's a thief. Let me give you just two examples. If you read Science Fiction, and sat in the audience of the movie Gremlins, you experienced a twinge of pity for author H. Beam Piper, creator of an endearing chracter known as Little Fuzzy, who never received a dime. Why should he receive a dime, you ask? Check out Piper's Little Fuzzy:

Yes. That's a Gremlin, eh?

Another example. You recall the Ewoks, the baddass Alien Teddy Bears. Behold:

What is that--a badass Alien teddy Bear. Oh gosh.

So basically Spielberg just walked along the bookshelf of the fantasy and Sci-Fi section and thought "Hmm--There's a good character for a movie." But this is the way Hollywood does things. Ideas are stolen, retreaded, and then peddled as a "tribute" to the original. But in the meantime, the original author rarely receives any credit, or any money.

So why do we give them our money? Our we that desperate for entertainment? How about reading the works of the artists from whom Hollywood hacks steal.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Moving along in Alfred Year Two

I plugged along with the Cuban love song Guatanamara and have moved to the Theme from the Overture to the Opera Raymond by Ambroise Thomas. I haven't seen Raymond, but have seen his other opera Hamlet (yes adapted from the drama by Shakespeare by the same name) and loved it. It has terrific music and wonderfully dramatic scenes.

The Raymond theme is in A Minor, a key for which I have great fondness due to its melancholy tone. You could play Happy Birthday in A Minor and it would sound like a dirge. My preliminary tinklings sound dark and moody, befitting a transition into Autumn, when I'm sure my seasonal mood swing will kick in and my postings will take on a sombre and Gothic flavor.

This Year Two book has a lot of theory exercises in it and not as many pieces of music. Perhaps it's assumed you teach will roll up his or her sleeves and assign you extra work. Or, maybe, the pieces are longer and more difficult. However, the joke's on Alfred: the independent studies I'm doing on my own--Joplin and others--are much more difficult even than the pieces in the Year Two book. So far.

However, I'm sure Alfred has some surprises for me. He's a tricky old fellow.

I'm working on my scales diligently, and have pretty well learned C, D, G, and A Major. I've begun playing them in opposition; that is to say, left and right hands in different directions. These are the scales we've covered so far. If we continue to follow the Circle of Fifths (insert dramatic music here) the next scale will be E Major. Then B Major, which as I recall consists of mostly black keys. After that, F Major and that's it for the Major League. I get to start all over with the Minors, and the Flat-Majors, etc. You see, the study of the piano is infinite.

In other news I've added pedal to The Entertainer and polished it some more. It's starting to come together more and more. I may be ready to play it for someone in a couple more months. I took the beginning phrase from the original (advanced) version and tacked it onto the intemediate version I'm playing now. I also interjected segments from the original version, which is every bit as complicated as some piece by Chopin, into my intermediate transscription. My teacher pronounced this project very "ambitious." My idea is that over time, I'll transplant the original Joplin fingering into my simpler intermediate version until one day my Frankenstein version will be supplanted by the beautiful original in all its glory.

The "Conscience of the King" scene from Thomas' Hamlet:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crash & Burn

I pushed myself too hard too long. Body and mind said "enough." Today I'm a festering heap. Been infusing soup & water. Resting with great intensity. No piano today. Just recharging body mind and spirit.

More later after I recharge my batteries. Sure could use a vacation.

In the meantime, watch this master of a weird and very cool little keyboard instrument called a Harmonium. I must have one of these:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Men Eviscerated by CNN Feminists

Since I'll be running in circles for a while working on my independent Joplin / Rainbow studies and current Alfred lessons, I thought it might be time for another rant. This morning wife was watching CNN. Some woman was on explaining how a man's income was a clue to his likelihood to cheat. I was tinkling on my piano, one ear listening to this to pick up some clues to men's aberrant behavior.

So what did I learn? well, guys: Basically, we;re screwed. Not since the days of Sally Jessy Raphael have men been so broadly indicted. Actuality, not since the immortal eagle gnawed out Prometheus' liver has man been so thoroughly eviscerated. First, she said men who relied on their wife's or girlfriend's income were most likely to cheat because men have such fragile egos they have to assert their male power somehow, and if they can't do it with money, they do it with sexual conquest. After rhapsodizing on this theme for a while, it turns out even men who make a lot of money--successful men, CEOs and corporate giants--cheat too--because behind that strong, confident exterior cowers a frightened insecure child. You see, even though they have power, money,and success, they nonetheless have to comfort their fragile male egos through--you guessed it: sexual conquest.

What about ordinary Joes, guys in the midrange? well, they're liable to cheat too because they need to assert...I can't go on. Just suffice it to say we're all emotional cripples who have no inner core and have to assert our weak male egos through sexual conquest. Because guys, you see without women, we're nothing. We have nothing to live for.

Here's the thing: In the history of male/female relationships, you would think no woman has ever cheated on a man to bolster HER fragile female self-esteem. And what about the diet / cosmetic / fashion industries? Exactly what female propensities are they exploiting? EH? Hah?

I always speak here on this blog with total self-honesty. I have been married well, more than once and have had several serious relationships. And I have been cheated on. More than once, actually. But I have never cheated on any of my partners. Not once. Not even in the Bill Clinton sense. Apparently, managing even one relationship seems to tax my feeble organizational skills. Two or more? Fuggeddabouddit.

Back in the bad old days of daytime talk shows (do those days still exist?) It was a weekly topic: TEN SIGNS YOUR MAN IS CHEATING ON YOU. I swear, one of these was "If he takes a shower more often than usual." Another was "If he starts an exercise program." So if a guy starts having chest pains and his doc says, "Hey fatso--you'd better start exercising or you'll be pushing up daisies before you're fifty," and he starts hitting the gym, his wife thinks he has a chippie stashed somewhere on the East Side. Nor does the poor fellow even have a clue why he's in hot water, since women never tell what's really on their minds. We;re just supposed to know through some magical blend of telepathy and Holmesian deduction. He just comes home, his woman scans him like an airport security device, detects SIGNS Number 2, 4 and 9, and renders The Verdict: CHEAT.

Thanks Oprah.

Man I hate TV. Read more comic books people.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jumping Into Alfred, Part Two

I finished Alfred, Year One last night and began on the first two pieces in the Year Two book forthwith. I'm still polishing my mojos on The Entertainer and probably will be for some time. I found some insider tips online from some hardcore boogie-woogie boys on how to spiff up your Ragtime playing and I'm trying to integrate them into the pachydermal lumbering I call keyboard playing.

I feel as if I should celebrate. But nobody in my household really cares, so it would be a party of one. Wife's response was that it was about time i finished--it actually isn't real years, whatever that means. My research on line is that it sometimes takes people with no prior musical experience who do this as a hobby at least a year and often eighteen months to work through this book. Of course wife works in Critical Care at the hospital and deals with more important things than piano playing. My cat says, "carry on." I think my cat just likes to lay under the piano and listen, no matter what I play. She's an uncritical audience. My betta--Siamese Fighting Fish-- who is going on two years old and is apparently immortal, prefers the Russian composers such as Borodin and Mussorgsky. They appeal to his martial spirit.

So my transition to the symbolic Second Year occurs silently and without fanfare. However, I think I'll hold my own ruckus right here in the shadowy corridors of my own secret thoughs:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Someone Die and Leave me a Steinway Please

While I love my Casio Privia--a very awe inspiring electronic keyboard--the keys are what keyboard snobbists call semi-weighted. They sort-of provide the feel and action of playing a real piano. Here's the rub: If you train on a real piano, like the mighty Steinway, and then move down to the semi-weighted keys of an electronic keyboard, then it's okay. But if you do most of your training (as I do) on an electronic keyboard and then are suddenly confronted with the heavier keys of a Grand Piano, well, that's another story.

When I first began this odyssey seven months ago, the difference wasn't that apparent to me. Now I play faster and with greater sensitivity and I'm running into real difficulty. When I go to my lessons it takes ten minutes or more before I can adapt to the Steinway. It was hilarious when I began, with great confidence, to play Joplin's The Entertainer, and my hands were completely out of synch. I'll bet the look on my face was priceless when insead of that strutting cocky melody, disastrous cacophony staggered forth. Because you see, my fingers were performing the correct movements and I expected the end result to be somewhat more successful. But the keys were heavier and required a more forceful attack and quicker release. My teacher timidly asked, "Did you practice the rhythm?" I slowed to about half speed and everything worked. Then I played again and it came together. But that is a difficult piece and it required great vigilance to make it work on the unfamiliar piano after learning it on the lighter, springier keys.

You may ask why I just don't travel to campus and practice there. Well, you'll recall from earlier episodes there is the parking issue. I can fight the campus atrocities one day a week but more than that and I may plunge into the darkest pits of despair. Plus I have several time constraints. I keep meaning to set aside a few hours per week to go to campus but responsibilities get in the way.

So you see, the answer is obvious I, a real man, need a real piano.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

At Last...

While I continue to make incremental progress on good old Rainbow, I have begun work on the last lesson in Alfred, Year One, which is a very jazzy arrangement of Amazing Grace, written almost entirely in triplets. Nothing other than that to report. I did an okay job with Joplin at my lesson once I got past the usual transitory adjustment from my keyboard to the Steinway we use at lessons. The keys on the Steinway are heavier than those on my keyboard so there is an adjustment period where I have to get used to them. The keys on my keyboard are weighted, but they're still not quite like the keys on a grand piano.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Over the Rainbow and Under the Bar

Flushed with success at stumbling through Joplin's labyrinthine syncopation (if a bit like an inebriated yak, nonetheless recognizably), I decided to pick up Over the Rainbow again, which I had set aside a couple of months ago because I didn't feel I had the skills to play it with the proper speed. It really moves you around the keyboard. Now that my skills have improved I decided to take another whack at it. Will these aforementioned skills pay the bills? No, but they may get me through Harold Arlen's ballad about someone dreaming of a better place beyond a dreary little town where nothing happens.

I produced the coffee-stained pages at my last lesson, since teacher was thumbing through my Classics to Moderns book looking for some other knuckle-buster to keep me going (and I haven't properly learned the lovely Schumann piece The Wild Horseman yet--it's played entirely staccato and so far I play it as you might a bawdy lay at an Irish Wake. And when I say "Lay" I use the term in both the musical and physical sense of the word; in other words I do to poor Schumann what Wagner did to Dresden. So rather than commit a ten-fingered assault upon another composer's work and disturb his eternal rest in the afterlife, I made a preemptive strike and asked about Rainbow. We discussed efficient fingering to help enhance the velocity of my playing.

It's taken me about three days to decide I have reasons for optimism. I had learned most of the piece before; this wasn't the problem. It was playing it at speed. At this point it's much smoother and melodious than it was before. My familiarity with the keyboard has increased and I can find the positions almost instinctively. It's very cool. My calcified brain still has a few neurons firing.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Scott Joplin Kicks my Ass

My left hand actually cramped as I attempted to learn the left hand part of The Entertainer. I realized I had lost track of time and had been practicing for several hours. I took time off and watched Jonny Quest cartoons (I know, I'm a geek.) and gave it a rest. When I returned to my practice the next day, my brain had integrated the practice and I could play the part pretty well, It's the rapid finger changes that's getting me.

But it's coming together. Just a matter of time. I think I'll have it in decent shape by Monday. Then onto my last piece for Year One. Then I think I'll take a break.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

One More to Go

I started work on Scott Joplin's The Entertainer, a jaunty piece that's challenged me to master it so I can begin work on the very last piece in the Year One Alfred Book, which will be Amazing Grace. For some reason, I've also developed a renewed interest in difficult card flourishes, and picked up a couple of crazy items I set aside a year or so ago. One of these insane finger busters involves constructing a three-tiered pyramid between your hands in a series of one-handed cuts. You'd have to see it to believe it; it's insane.

The only problem is I've only seen this performed once, by a friend of mine, and that was over a year and a half ago. So I only know the end result. I don't know how to get into it. So for the past several days I have literally been reinventing the pyramid--the card pyramid. Last night, I accomplished it twice. For people who do not understand why magicians sit for hours, days and months mastering these ridiculous maneuvers, it's really the same thrill of accomplishment you get when you successfully finish a crossword puzzle--another thing many people don't understand.

I get the same sense of satisfaction when an elusive piece of piano music comes together. I wrote some months ago when my brain "discovered" my left hand and all of a sudden it could play independently. What a day that was! I noticed this morning I can easily move my awareness back and forth between hands without losing concentration. This is very cool.

I was speaking with a very old friend (we go back to my childhood) and he expressed joy that I was finally studying music. He said his parents forced him to study music and he hated to practice. Therefore, he told me, he never became a "music person." Perhaps it was fortunate I came to it late in life, but I don't know. I've always loved music and sometimes I wish I had started this ten years ago. I just feel I don't have enough time to do everything I want to do. will I have time to develop the skills to play Chopin or Rachmaninoff before it's time for me to bow from the stage forever?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Going Around the Bend

By my calculations, I've just past my six month point and entered my seventh month of piano discipline. I began sometime in mid-January and it is now mid-July. Six months ago I could neither read music nor play anything on a piano except cacophany. For those of you who don't know what that is, it isn't a jazz tune, it means irritating unstructured noise, like cats and bagpipes attempting to communicate with each other while a million slinkies tumble down brass stairwells. I have no idea where that last set of images came from, but it gives you some inkling of what it's like to live in my skull.

Life gets in the way of totally surrendering to obsession. Recently I had a spate of hardware collapse. It was as if an evil spirit had possessed my house and began killing all my machinery. Within a two-week period, my monitor, computer power-supply, motherboard, printer, and scanner had all died. Then the filter pump on the aquarium, and the VW bus belonging to my houseguest wheezed and died like an oil-poisoned walrus in my driveway. This gadget-slaying dybbuk was insatiable.

In the meantime, I had to keep up with my piano practice. I prepay my lessons each month, and be damned if I'll fall behind. Plus, for some reason, this seems extremely important. I can't explain it. It's more than a hobby; this is something I must do. So I ordered replacements for everything and waited. Every day, boxes came via UPS, USPS and FED-EX. I rebuilt the mechanical infrastructure of my life and business. Some of the computer components arrived dead, and had to be returned. More waiting. In the meantime, I made progress on the Schumann piece The Wild Horseman and began work on Raisins and Almonds.

Interestingly enough, the more my external world falls apart, the calmer I get. I think it reminds me of my childhood, which was the utter picture of chaos. Nothing was ever at peace or predictable, so when things fall apart I just stand perfectly still and look for something to fix. This is the starting point. Once you make one thing right, then you move onto the next thing. Iknew fixing the aquarium was a priority so I took care of that first. My Betta Firebolt is a year and a half old--pretty old for a Siamese Fighting Fish--and I coddle the old boy. He eats raw tilapia and a high-vitamin fish food. His six-gallon tank is a palace, with real tropical plants and a small colony of janitor snails to keep it tidy of waste. So his pump was fixed, and he was pleased.

Then the printer and scanner parts arrived, and some computer components--but the motherboard was dead. Unfortunately, I spent four hours rebuliding the beast and when I booted the machine up--nothing. I checked everything out and I had done it correctly. My son and I have built our own computers ever since you could build your own computers, so I knew it was right, but I called tech support. What followed was an exercise in patience, international diplomacy and translingual malapropisms. Diagnosis: Your motherboard is dead, Sahib. I am ravished with the throbbing sorrow. I am terribly terribly terribly unable to help you. So I sent it back. Replacement will be sent any day now.

But the machine eating ghoul hasn't dared touch my piano, and I play on, la-dah-da-dee-dee-dee... Six months now. I have three more lessons, three more songs to learn and I will be on to Book Two.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

D Minor--Hoorah!

Hoorah because D-Minor is a very cool scale (both natural and Harmonic) and because it's the last section before I move on to Alfred, Year Two. The current pieces I'm scrutinizing are Scarborough Fair and Raisins and Almonds. D-Minor Scale has a B-flat in it, which gives it a melancholy sound. The Harmonic version has both B-flat and C-Sharp, which sounds exotic, like Egyptian music.

I would provide a sound file of the scale if I could find one. Alas, a fairly diligent search of the internet failed to yield results. I'm still experiencing difficulty capturing MIDI files from my keyboard to my computer or I would do it that way. I think I need a driver or some other piece of interpretive software to make it work. It's always something. I just installed Windows 7 so I should try again perhaps.

I seem to be coming out of the recent slump I've been experiencing since May or so. I hope this means I'll enter a hyper phase and will make rapid progress and be productive for a while. I have a lot to do and could use an energy boost.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sunshine on my Shoulders Makes Me Glad I'm Not a Gliitery Gay Vampire

So I took Wife to see the midnight premier of Eclipse: the Twilight Saga Part Three. So there I sat in a theater full of teenage girls, middle-aged cougars (you know, older women who lust for bulging teenage boys, although Demi Moore has said she prefers the more dignified term Puma) and a smattering of middle-aged single men whose motives may best be left disinterred. My review, brief and pithy: What the hell? There is no story. Edward proposed marriage to Bella, which he did in the last two movies, and the audience cheered as though it were a long-awaited surprise. Jacob the sulky Werewolf ran around shirtless ( his one theatrical trick) and the audience of women of all ages howled like wolves themselves. Believe me, if a guy showed any interest at all in a girl that age, he would find himself summarily in handcuffs and on an internet database. Talk about double standards. I threatened to run around shirtless for a week, but I think the effect is diluted when you're a fifty-year old Native American, though my torso--especially my back--is as hairy as any werewolf's.

I long for the days of Buffy, where there was actually some very good, funny and often touching writing. Who can forget the scene where Angel decided to commit suicide-by-sunrise, and Buffy said if he were determined to do this thing, she would stand by his side as he became a crispy pile of ashy Angel. And then a miracle--it snowed. Redemption for the formerly damned in the form of a snowflake. And was there ever a more entertaining triangle than Buffy,Spike and Angel? Come on--Jacob and Edward are exactly the same character, just one of them wears a shirt, because poor Pattinson, while a fine actor, isn't very buff.

What's this to do with piano, you ask? Not much, except I could have been practicing. Oh well. I did have a good time. It's fun to get out with Wife once in a while since she works all night and sleeps all day. No wonder she has an affinity with Vampires.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Home Stretch

I'm just finishing my first six months of lessons. I'm also entering the home stretch of Volume one of Alfred's Adult Piano Course. I just finished the A Minor section and next Monday we begin the last section, D Minor. There are three pieces to learn, then I'm finished. VOlume One can go on the shelf.

After that--Volume Two. Which is Second Year. Hoorah!

I really try to keep my nose to the grindstone, but life interferes. Nevertheless, I make progress. I hope this progress sticks with me. My sight-reading continues to improve steadily (as long as I'm not too tired) and my keyboard dexterity is improving rapidly. I learned to do those nifty flourishes (called Mordants or Turns) the Baroque guys loved for the Minuet in G. So I think all is going well. I just truly wish I had begun ten years ago, or that I had more time to practice.

But I am tired. I mean deeply tired. The kind of tiredness that's in the soul. I badly need a vacation or something to delight my spirit. An Epiphany. Something which refreshes the heart and mind.

Is there any magic left in the world?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Whee, Take me Away

I have been literally assaulted by life lately. Busy with shows and other professional demands, odd allergic reactions, turning fifty, dealing with crazy people, and a run of bad luck with mechanical devices on which I depend on in my business. I'm on the thin edge of hysteria. yet I cling to sanity by a fingernail. Don't ask me how or why. I have no answer. Madness beckons with tantalizing seductiveness--just dive in, sweetie, and leave your cares behind--yet I maintain a clarity of thought in order to sweep away these petty annoyances as best I can.

One bright spot was the pilgrimage Son & I made to Cincinnati to witness firsthand the co-production of the Cincinnati Opera with the Metropolitan Opera (yes, THAT one) of Wagner's Die Meisersinger, a five-hour opera which is one of my favorites. Cincinnati is a four-hour drive from here, so our Hero's Quest involved eight hours round trip as well as the five hour operatic marathon. We arrived back at my home circa 3 AM. As it turned out, my son needed to be back home in Tennessee the next day, so I transported him there , crashed at his place, then came back to my hometown--12 more hours of driving.

So today I am wiped out. So is my computer. Apparently the motherboard is fried. I've had this happen two other times in my life so recognize the symptoms. I'm typing this from my laptop. Since I'm about three weks behind on my business, this is not a good thing. I recently updated my computer to Windows 7, so just now got all my programs reinstalled and where I liked them when this happened. You see, this is Life: something good happens, then something kicks you in the pants to remind you that you live in an awful world, so don't get your hopes up. However, I have about two hundred operas on DVD, and FUTURAMA is back in a renewed sixth season, so who cares if it's a crappy world?

Plus there's always my piano. I'm working on a new piece, called The Wild Horseman, by Schumann. My teacher assigned it to me after expressing satisfaction with my performance of Bach's Minuet in G. She also gave me advice on Pachelbel's Canon in D, the most sensible advice being it will take me some time to learn it. I also have a piece from Alfred's book to learn. So tomorrow, I'm spending at my piano, I don't care if a meteor cracks the earth in half.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Do I have Stones or What?

I've decided since I'm well on my way to mastering the Bach Minuet in G (all it needs now is more practice to gain facility) I'm going to move on to something really challenging: Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D. I figured I might as well stay in the Baroque period for a while. It may be a long while, because this is a bear of a piece.

I've begun practicing the D Major Scale, which has two sharps -- C# and F# -- in preparation for wrestling my way through the first few measures of this masterpiece. It's a daunting task for someone with six month's training under his sinews, but hey--I ain't gonna live forever. and fortune favors the bold, eh? Wish me luck.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Learning and burning

To learn a piece of music you have to memorize it (of course) but more than that you must understand it. This means you have to figure out the tempo, all those marks denoting dynamics, notations telling you to play faster or slower, louder or softer, to accent certain notes, all that stuff. It takes time. And in the meantime--unless you're a kid or rich or retired-- real life with all its attending responsibilities keeps interrupting you with annoying insistence.

It's fascinating to me that when you look at a piece of paper covered with all those dots and lines and chicken scratches that--if you're not hip to the secret code--look like some esoteric calculus formulae-- you're looking at a written description of the same piece of music the symphony or the pianist or the violinist is playing. Isn't this magical? People figured out a way to transpose the sounds they heard in their heads onto paper in a way that others could interpret and recreate them. Hoorah for human ingenuity. Now if we can only quit using it to destroy ourselves.

But more than just interpreting the written language, each player has leeway to make choices in the interpretation, which is why no two players will sound exactly alike. This is why unless you're a fan, you may not understand why I have five different DVDs of Wagner's Tannhauser, or seven of Tristan und Isoulde. Different interpretations, you see.

I discovered long ago that learning, for me, isn't a progressive process. I have what seems to be instantaneous breakthroughs--"Aha" moments. I'll plug away at something for a long time, with no discernible progress, then suddenly, I can do it. It's as if my mind absorbs the information but holds off until it completely understands it, then it allows me access to it. I think the first time I consciously became aware of this was when I took Driver's Ed in school. My teacher told me "I almost gave up trying to teach you how to drive. Then one day, you were driving." Looking back, I realized some teachers had given up on me, deciding I was either hard-headed or unteachable. Perhaps if my math teachers had stuck with me a little longer, I would have had similar breakthroughs and might have surprised them.

This could be for a variety of reasons. I have some slight brain damage from a car wreck I was in as a small child. I was unconscious for several days and the Docs weren't sure whether or not I would wake up. Apparently I did, as you're reading this via the Internet and not channeled by a Spirit Medium. I think my brain rewired, as there are some holes in it when I try to learn certain things. I'll run into walls, where I draw blanks, and I have to stop and work around these "dead spots" until I can make new connections. I think this is why my sense of humor and creativity, especially in my writings, forms non-linear connection the way it does; it's the way my mind works because it has to.

So how this relates to music follows. I'll find there are certain passages in piano pieces I find extremely difficult. I simply cannot play them. There were a couple in the Minuet in G that completely threw me. And they weren't the most difficult passages either. There was just something about the combination or arrangement of notes that my mind couldn't comprehend. I couldn't grasp the connection between them or something. I can't explain it. I learned these passages hands separate, and could play them just find--as long as I kept my hands separate. But as soon as I tried to play them hands together, my mind fell apart.

I knew from past experience that this was a temporary problem, and if I stuck with it eventually the problem would fix itself. The first few times this happened in piano practice, I could see my teacher couldn't comprehend it, as I seemed to be learning very quickly, then all of a sudden I would reach a back hole and my brain would freeze. I just asked her to be patient with me and it would work itself out. And it did. In its own time. The only problem is, I never know how much time; sometimes it can happen in a few seconds, a few minutes, or days. Or weeks. I recall it took weeks before I understood one card sleight.

In the case of the passages from the Minuet, it took four days and probably almost a hundred iterations before the blessed"Aha" occurred. And it literally happened between one playing and the next. I stumbled though the six-note passage once, then -- oh, I get it--it was so simple! I played it perfectly. And it was no longer fractured away from the rest of the piece.

So that's my story this week. The Minuet is coming along, still stubbly and unshaven but I have confidence that I'll be able to play it eventually.