Sunday, January 31, 2010


I just realized after tomorrow's lesson, if we continue at the rather breakneck pace at which we've been going, we'll have worked just past thirty pages of my Alfred's Lesson Book Volume One. That's almost a third of the way through. If we continue at this pace, we'll finish it by the end of March!

I've become a collector of The Alfred series of supplementary material. I now have the Finger Aerobics book (which has a slew of exercises you play on the keyboard, not strengthening exercises for the hands as the title might lead you to imagine) and the Adult Sight-Reading Book. In anticipation of the following weeks, I've ordered a couple of the recommended songbooks, the Ear-Training Guide and the Theory and Tecnic training books. The good news is you can get these jewels used on Amazon extraordinarily cheap.

My cat loves it when I play. She stretches sensuously and rolls around like a femme fatale. I think in a past life she was a hot Nightclub singer at the Cotton Club. I think she wants me to obtain a jet-black grand piano for her to lounge on seductively, sip cocktails and wink at high-rollers.

Not everyone is so supportive. I've been informed my practice sessions are so discordant they've caused the neighbor's hamster to devour her own young. Ah alas--everyone's a critic.

A Fop Amongst Football Fans

In Knoxville Tennessee, the love of University of Tennessee football approaches near-religious fervor. "Go Big Orange" is intoned with the intensity of "Give us Barrabas" which a similar mob chanted back in antiquity. Car dealers peddle orange and white automobiles, including Winebagos, the riverside has special rental docks for people to bring their cabin cruisers to games, and one store specializes in selling Orange and White coffins. On game days, nine out of ten vehicles careening down the street are plastered with orange-and-white UT logos while flapping orange-and-white streamers in the wind like the tassels of some color-clueless stripper. Vol Fever is both epidemic and expected of Tennesseans.

I confess here I have never once attended a UT game. I've never worn Orange-and White. My indifference borders on ignorance. In my home town of Knoxville, this indifference separated me from the majority of my fellow man. When I was bold enough to express my indifference, the most common reaction was shock, followed by the question "Where are you from?" When I answered I was a born and inbred Knoxvillian, I was usually met with skepticism. No TRUE Knoxvillian could remain aloof from the allure of Vol Fever. I must be a clandestine Clemson or Florida agent sent in to disrupt the harmonious clan. I was not Of the Body. I was Alien. By not buying wholeheartedly into Vol fever and "supporting my team," I was supporting The Enemy.

The truth was, I wasn't supporting anyone. I truly didn't care about sports. I still don't. As an opera-loving, literature-devouring, sports-indifferent fop, I could care less about the Vols, the tribulations of their coaches, the monosyllabic mumblings of their quarterback, and the close runner-up in Vol Fever, the Lady Vols and their scary mannish Coach. This indifference almost endangered my very life on more than one occasion. I'm serious. In the eyes of the most extreme Vols fan, I was worse than a traitor, I was supporting "the enemy"--which was usually embodied in Clemson or worse, Florida. You see, the Civil War mentality easily transferred to College football. The South did indeed rise again, Not in Confederate Gray this time but in garish Orange-and White.

These New Rebels take this stuff seriously, and none more than those whom could never have passed the academic requirements to even go to the University to begin with. I mean the pickup truck driving, gunrack-toting "Go Vols" bellowing, whiskey drinking wife-beating thin-skinned hot-tempered East Tennessean I hope stays within the borders of Knoxville, or at least never ventures any further north than Lexington KY.

One thing though--I did net a hefty profit from my activities card each semester when I was a UT student by selling it to a friend of mine so he could purchase football tickets at a discount.

So I moved to Indiana thinking I got away from it all, and here all they talk about it Bobby Knight. Alas. But at least there isn't a death penalty for not caring about it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Composers with Cool Names

When I first started buying Classical albums I didn't possess a great deal of information concerning music. At one point I got my sweaty little hands on a compilation called One Hundred and Fifty Golden Classics which assembled (obviously) 150 short excerpts from the most popular pieces of music from the Classical, Romantic and Baroque eras. At last I could match names, titles and music.

Before this acquisition, I was a sucker for cool names. Charles-Camille Saint-Saens, who composed a familiar item entitled Danse Macabre, pulled off a double-whammy with a cool-sounding name and a cool-sounding piece of music. Ludwig Von Beethoven--you know this guy was cool. Rachmaninoff: you imagined a monocle-wearing Count. Another composer who packed a one-two punch was Janacek, who composed an opera entitled From the House of the Dead. Wow.

Not every composer entered posterity with sonorous tags. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed many great symphonies, ballets and other pieces of music. But in my opinion, he did not have a cool name. His name is hard to pronounce, and even harder to read. I'm still not sure of the correct pronunciation. Don't get me wrong--I love his music; just not a fan of the name. Nor did Vivaldi have a cool name. For that matter, his music was kinda bland.

I could go on and on about the relative coolness of lack thereof of various composer's names. Why? you ask. I'll you you, I respond. Because when I was a kid, this was one of the few determining factors I had when selecting albums from the bargain rack at the bookstore. The coolest names and most attractive album covers were more likely to catch my teenage eye.

Most of the Italian composers had great names: Leoncavallo. Monteverdi. Puccini. Verde. But my all-time favorite composer’s name, quite apart from the truly terrific music he composed has to be:

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Now that is a cool name.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Last night I had a breakthrough. While practicing I became aware of my left hand.

This may seem like no big deal to you, but it was for me. For the past three weeks, I've been attempting to play two lines of music simultaneously. This is what you do on a piano. I think Teacher (or Alfred) likes to throw you in to sink or swim early on. The left hand plays the Bass clef. While I've been attempting to play the--admittedly simple-- Bass clef directions along with the melodies, my awareness has drifted back and forth in a kind of semi-controlled confusion between one hand and the next. My right hand has been aware of its position in space. If I played each hand separately there was no problem. But when attempting to combine the hands, the left hand sort of floated over there and it's taken a lot of concentration to get it to properly play the C, G7 and B Chords to accompany the exercises in my lesson book.

Of course, as soon as my concentration drifted to my left hand, my right hand went off on its own journey of exploration, like a cat left to its own devices. After much repetition, my performance improved, but my left hand simply wasn't aware of itself. I had to keep an eye on it or it misbehaved, like my cats when they think I'm not watching. Actually my cats don't care if I'm watching or not.

Last night I realized at a certain point I was simultaneously aware of both hands. It happened while I wasn't paying attention, naturally. Connections finally took place in my brain and my left hand caught up with my right hand.

Now the funny thing about this is that last summer while in physical therapy over a shoulder problem, I found out I was probably born left-handed. The reason I say this is funny is because all my life I've been right-handed. You see, back in the early Sixties when I went to school, if you were left-handed, the teachers re-trained you to be right-handed. I had a friend who had his left hand taped shut so he wouldn't use it. I remember he cried a lot. I know my left hand is smarter than my right. I also know my left eye is dominant because of archery and my optometrist says so.

My leftiness was verified in physical therapy after some tests revealed my shoulder problem came from a lifetime adjusting to using the wrong hand. Researching this condition, I found entire web fora devoted to people who had similar experiences. Thanks, Society, for your unreasoning prejudice against the Bar Sinister! If Leonardo and Michelangelo, two of history's most talented lefties, had had their left hands taped shut, the Renaissance would have been a bleak period indeed.

The period before my hands coordinated was frustrating. I wonder how many people give up before reaching the point where their brains begin creating the necessary connections? Considering the number of keyboards for sale on Craigslist, I would say quite a few, which is too bad. It's kinda neat to discover you can do something today you couldn't do yesterday. Especially when you're an old geezer.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Opera and More Opera

In case you don't know, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts an opera series, in High Definition, to movie theaters in select cities across the world. Information can be found HERE:

Last night I saw Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, a marvelous piece of work about love lost and found. The plot, which is delightfully convoluted, begins with a thirty-two year old temptress the Marschallin, in bed with a seventeen-year old lad, Count Rofano Octavian. If this raises your eyebrow, check this out: Octavian is played by a woman. This is because the role is sung in the Mezzo-soprano range, befitting the voice of young boy. So the opening scene has a woman dressed as a guy rolling around in the sack with another woman, singing about the hot sex they just had the night before. In the opera community, this is considered quite comical. If you're not familiar with operatic protocol and just happened to wander in, you think "Hoo-boy--what's all this then?"

In opera when a woman plays the role of a man, it's called a "trouser role." There are several of these, probably the other famous ones are Hansel in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Nickolaus in Offenbach's wondrously bizarre Tales of Hoffman. But back to Der Rosenkavalier, and the two women, one of whom we're pretending is a guy, wink wink nudge nudge.

The lover's tryst is interrupted by a commotion in the antechamber. The Marschallin, afraid her husband has returned (yes, it's THAT kind of story) makes the young rake hide behind the bed and orders him to get dressed. However, it's not her husband, but her cousin, the loud, obnoxious, fat, drunken, and moronic Baron Ochs. That's pronounced Ox, and the play on words is deliberate, because this guy is like a bull in a china shop. Ochs, bellowing, storms in and havoc ensues.

In the meantime, Octavian can't find his clothes, and emerges dressed as a chambermaid. Baron Ochs, a confirmed lecher, pinches, pokes and prods the bogus young lady while informing the Marschallin he has recently become engaged. Octavian becomes more and more flustered as Ochs molests him--as you can imagine. Baron Ochs says he needs a nobleman to deliver the Silver Rose to his intended, who is the fifteen-year old daughter of a recently promoted nobleman. Yes, these Austrian Nobles are big on cradle-robbing.

The Marschallin promises to find a person to act as the Knight of the Rose, and volunteers our hapless but cheerful Octavian to act as the Rosenkavalier. I think this her idea of humor. Octavian is less than pleased but he'll do anything to accommodate his lover. He's a young man in love, after all. Here is a clip of the moment when Octavian delivers the rose to Sophie. There is no subtitle, but I think you can recognize something happens between these two young people the moment the Rose changes hands. And enjoy that beautiful music while you're at it. Strauss wrote these floating, mesmerizing arias for his sopranos, that can take you somewhere else for awhile, somewhere much nicer than where you're currently residing, I don't care where that may be.

I won't spoil the rest of the story for you, but I will say this: Baron Ochs is one of the funniest characters in operatic theater. The ending is bittersweet. I am reminded of the Simpsons episode where Homer said to Marge: "I'm confused. Is this a happy ending or a sad ending? Marge answered, "It's an ending. That's enough.' Der Rosenkavalier has an ending that's both happy and sad, or either, depending on your age.

Der Rosenkavalier has been highly regarded since its premier in 1910. Here's a bit of trivia for you: In April 1945, Strauss was apprehended by American soldiers at his Garmisch estate. As he descended the staircase he announced to Lieutenant Milton Weiss of the US Army, "I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome." Lt. Weiss, who, as it happened, was also a musician, nodded in recognition. Another musically knowledgeable American officer placed an 'Off limits' sign on the lawn to protect Strauss. I think Army officers were a little more cultured in the time of the Second War War. If someone announced they were a composer of operas today, they would probably get shot.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mid Life Adventures

There are pros and cons of tooling through mid-life. Last week I had my approaching middle-age exam and had my usual prostate exam (yes, the one you hear all the jokes about) as well as a PSA test. This is the blood test which is the first-line defense against prostate cancer and every male approaching age fifty should get them annually. It is a FACT that evey male, if he dies of old age, will die with prostate cancer--not from it, but with it, so getting checked for it is important.

The next milestone was my first colonoscopy. This panoramic tour of one's South Forty is done under a "waking anesthesia," which I think in my youth was known as a "goofball shot." Other than taking three attempts to set the IV, which caused me to turn green, white, pale cyan, and speckled orange, all went well. Anyway, I've heard you're not supposed to recall anything about the procedure. If so, It didn't work. I do recall the procedure. I also recall they waited until I was as high as Lindsey Lohan at one of Joachim Phoenix's rap concerts to ask me if I minded some med student "observers" (who turned out to be a trio of young ladies) to watch the procedure. At that point, I would have agreed to allow the procedure to take place on the Evening News. Those are some good drugs. So three attractive young ladies stared at my aging ass while I babbled on about all kinds of nonsense. I hope they got their money's worth.

I also recall for some reason the Doctor and I having a spirited conversation about Letters of Marque. These were documents issued to Privateers during the Revolutionary War which allowed them to raid British ships for supplies. Ron Paul wanted to issue Letters of Marque to modern Privateers against Bin Laden to ensure his capture. Like I said, those were some good drugs. They open the closet doors of your mind and all kinds of junk you didn't even know you had in there tumbles out.

So the Doc, for some reason, gave me a postcard-sized composite with eight shots of various twists and turns of my colonic catacombs. And I must say--from my layman's perspective--it appears a most attractive and vigorous specimen indeed. I'm sure both the Doctor and the three female observers were all impressed by my colon's wholesomeness, rosy-cheeked innocence, and hearty moral uprightness. I attribute this to my high-fiber vegetarian diet, clean, pure thoughts and high standard of living I demand of all my appendages, both external and inward.

I'm told my next colonoscopy won't be for another five years, so with that behind me I think the future looks pretty bright.

I got the estimate on my car (the grill and bumper were cracked during yesterday's fender-bender) and it's so low I've been told it won't affect my insurance rates. Plus I'll get new headlights. My ability to read music has returned, so it was a temporary freak-out and not a stroke or something, which is a relief, because I would hate to have to retrain myself after only three weeks of hard work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Not a Good Night

Though I've made a lot of progress in my note-and-interval recognition, and looked forward to impressing Teacher with my progress, my well-laid plans were knocked askew on the way to class tonight when I had a minor fender-bender a couple of blocks from my home.

You see, I decided to eschew the Bloomington Transit system and drive to class, so we rescheduled them for after-hours when on-the-street parking was a little more feasible. Unfortunately, this plunged me into the rush-hour traffic, and the weather was a bit slippery. Traffic was flowing along. A chap stopped short in front of me (he later told me the guy in front of him stopped abruptly). I had no time to stop, although I stomped my brake. Wham, I collided into his rear end. No-one was hurt, but the grill to my car cracked apart.

So I was fifteen minutes late for my class, alas, but I called Teacher on my cell-phone telephone and explained the situation and she said she'd wait. After only one circuit of the block, I found parking right outside the music building. Unfortunately, I also found the incident completely fried my poor brain. All my progress seemed to have been locked away in some closet, and I couldn't access it. The notes in my lesson book looked foreign and strange to me. Worse, my hands were frozen from standing in the bitter cold for thirty five minutes while the accident report was filled out. As circulation returned, my fingers tingled with pins-and-needles like your foot does when it awakens from having fallen asleep.

So I didn't make much of the lesson, but I think I absorbed some of it. Actually toward the end I think I did get back in the groove. I came home and called the insurance agent to make the report. Then I practiced my keyboard for an hour.

So tonight I'm a bit despondent. I'll probably feel better tomorrow when I find out more and my mind clears up.

Plus I think I have that cold that's going around. Whine moan grumble.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Harsh Taskmasters

As I attempt to shoehorn as much knowledge as I can into my calcified middle-aged brain in order to make up for decades of lost time, I've called upon a variety of learning aids. I read, and discarded, Piano for Dummies as an amusing but ultimately frivolous work. Oh there is some very good information, if you can set aside the author's attempts at humor, and the exercises are at least a half-step above the usual "Little Brown Jug" and "She'll be Comin' Around the Mountain" usually found in beginner's books, but you can tell it was written for people who probably don't intend to stick with the keyboard very tenaciously.

However, I found a suite of programs called KeyPiano (award-winning programs, no less) for $40 which promises to train you in speed sight-reading. It consists of a number of modules which train you to recognize notes, chords, intervals; to train your pitch, and all sorts of other skills. It races you against a clock to improve your time. It works. I've improved both my note-recognition and interval-recognition. It's also as addictive as a crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or video game.

It is a no-nonsense tutor. When you get a correct answer, the word RIGHT! appears in bright, friendly green letters. But get an incorrect answer,and hoo-boy. The word WRONG! flashes in angry red. When I bought this program and sent my money through PayPal, the receipt was in German. Aha. The Germans always took their music training seriously. Ask Beethoven and Mozart. Those guys got their ears boxed if they gave wrong answers or missed a note. I guess I'm lucky a leather-gloved hand doesn't come out of my CD drive and give me one upside the head.

You have 150 seconds to beat a score of 300. On the first level, you earn 5 points for every note you identify. So you have to identify 60 notes in 150 seconds, which give you about 2.5 seconds to identify the note and hit the correct key on the simulated keyboard. The selection set includes both the treble and bass clefs as well as six notes above and below each clef. The notes appear at random on either clef. The same rules apply with the intervals drill.

I haven't tried the other modules of the program yet because I'm still getting my feet wet, but so far these two training tools have been a real help.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Beginning students of music are provided (by some teachers) with handy mnemonic aids to help them navigate the Grand Staff. Since the order of notes on the bars of the Treble Clef from the bottom to the top is EGBDF, the classic--if sexist--phrase to aid in remembrance is "Every Good Boy Does Fine." For the Bass Clef, in which the order from bottom to top is GBDFA, the phrase is "Good Boys Do Fine Always." We're left in the dark concerning the fate of Bad Boys, or speculations concerning the perambulations of Bad Girls, whose escapades always intrigued me more anyway.

By the way, the mnemonic for the spaces on the Treble clef is "FACE" (pretty self-explanatory) and for the bass clef it's "All Cows Eat Grass." There. Now you're a musician.

But Alfred, my mentor, from whose course my teacher is grooming me, apparently doesn't place much stock in mnemonics. There isn't a single memory aid to be found in his entire training manual. I think I've discovered why. These handy tricks are nifty when you first start out, but when you sit at the keyboard, looking at the printed music, there's just too much to do. You're trying to match the note to the key, count from the bottom line of the Clef as you recite your mantra about how Good Boys are doing, wondering if they're all right, have warm socks, why they never write home, if they fell under the evil influence of Bad Girls, and all this combined mental activity--especially if you're middle-aged and your poor brain isn't as soft and moist as a twelve-year-old's--your mind WILL go into vapor lock.

In classical training methods--and as friend Alfred seems to prefer-- you build up your recognition note by note. Which really seems to burn them in. So I think the "Good Boys" system may be counterproductive to quick and intuitive sight-reading. I think the classical training methods may have a great deal of merit to them. However, these mnemonics are handy tools if you find yourself lost amid the terra incognito of the Grand Staff and need a quick reference point as long as you don't come to rely on them. They slow you down. Ideally, you should see a note and immediately know what it is and your fingers should play it even before your brain says, for example, "C" or "B-Flat." Just as when you read words you don't spell out each individual letter, unless you're my cousin Lumpy from East Tennessee, and the less said about him the better.

When you move from the comfort zone of the neatly-delineated five bars and four spaces into the stratosphere and underground areas, these mnemonics need augmentation anyway, so they're merely starting points. Many helpful authors have added additional memory aids, which in my experience only serve to confuse the issue. There are PATTERNS, though, and patterns are a different story altogether. Once you learn to spot the patterns and everything begins to fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle, lights begin firing and the learning curve accelerates.

This is how it is with mathematics, too. At first it's gobbledegook, a few pieces fall into place, then the whole thing comes together, and before you know it you're calculating the area of a nebula. But there are no real shortcuts to deep and enduring understanding of a thing. Understanding takes time, and unfortunately we live in a society that's fast forgetting how to slow down and listen. We want everything now.

Fortunately the nice thing about studying music is that you're rewarded with instant gratification. You get to make noise. If you get it right, it sounds sweet. If not, you try again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Being a Fop

I'm not talking about that noble society of law enforcement officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, but of a much older meaning of this word: One that dates back to the 1700s. Within this context, there are various unflattering definitions of the word "Fop:"

  • A man who is preoccupied with and often vain about his clothes and manners; a dandy.
  • A conceited dandy who is overly impressed by his own accomplishments.
  • A British dandy in the 18th century who affected Continental mannerisms; "Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni."
  • A vain, affected man who pays too much attention to his clothes, appearance, etc.; dandy.

The common denominator here seems to be the word "Dandy." My first exposure to Fopdom was the Star Trek episode The Squire Of Gothos. I loved that guy. So I guess I was doomed to Foppishness from the tender age of six, when Star Trek originally aired, and Squire Trelaney intoned, "Greetings and Felicitations!"

It must have been hilarious to see a six-year old southern kid drawling, "Greetins' n' feelicitashuns, y'all." I'm sure both my parents and teachers worried about me. The other kids probably just ran away screaming, thinking I was casting voudou hexes at them.

Looking back though, there were previous examples:

Basil Rathbone in various movies was the very essence of Fopisshness, and let's not forget the elegant Fops in such classics as Errol Flynn's Captain Blood. As a young, sensitive redneck I loved those elegant dandies. Most of these Fops, despite their apparent prissiness, were real men--they could handle a sword, ride a horse, and seduce women with the aplomb of Genghis Khan--they just had better fashion sense, smelled extremely nice, and walked with a swagger.

Let me make one thing clear--I'm not a homosexual. But I am metro; I love nice clothes, and the names Hugo Boss and Armani can make my pulse quicken like a teenage girl at a Jonas Brothers concert. I have more skin-and-hair care products than my wife. I attend at least two spa and manicure sessions a month. I apply a medley of scented creams and lotions to my rosy skin. My sensitivities are delicate; I love art, literature, fine music. I relish clever use of language. I cannot abide ill manners; I have low tolerance for the electronic noise that passes for modern music, especially the hideous electronic noise usually accompanied by grunting and profanity euphemistically called "rap."

I think I am a Fop.


The instruction manual we're using (at my teacher's suggestion) is Alfred's Basic Piano Instruction. I found this amusing, as Alfred is the name of my son's iguana. My son named his iguana--obviously--after Batman's butler. So we were both amused by the image of Batman's butler Alfred authoring a piano instruction course in his spare time, in between patching Batman back together from getting sliced, bullet-riddled, and bludgeoned from Gotham City's criminal elements.

You see, my brother, my son and I are among the geekiest creatures alive, and when the three of us come together in cosmic geek congruence we communicate in a dense, secret code comprised of obscure subcultural references derived from comics, old horror and sci-fi-movies, Shakespeare, Camus, Harlan Ellison, William Shatner quotes, and other obscurata which to onlookers must sound like a foreign language.

Alfred the iguana is a huge creature my son and his cheerful S.O. raised from a hatchling. He has his own sunroom, complete with luxury controlled environment, sauna, and foliage. he is a handsome, friendly creature unafraid of people. Alfred loves cake, especially pound cake. He struts majestically across the living room on his way to the bathroom to do his business (yes, he's housetrained) and likes to wallow in a shallow bathtub of warm water. For all I know, these hedonistic habits were also shared by Alfred the butler and Alfred the composer of the piano course.

I find these synchronicities, the synergistic smack of significance of the name Alfred, to lend a sense of rightness to my decision to take up the piano at this time. The universe itself approves. Alfred approves. All of them. Let's all have a piece of cake.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Belly of the Beast

My music lessons take place in the Practice Building at Indiana University. I thought it would be dysfunctional to try to find parking on campus so I decided to ride the public transportation to campus instead of driving. I don't live very far from campus so I thought not only would this prevent my car from being ticketed, towed, and bludgeoned by claymores by the grunting state employees who can destroy your car with no accountability because they are, after all, state employees--but it would also be a fun adventure.

The last time I rode buses anywhere was in Knoxville, Tennessee, when I was a much younger fellow, and the bus drivers were fairly courteous and reasonably skillful drivers. So far, I've ridden the Indiana public transportation four times. I've literally entered the belly of the beast four times, and, like Ishmael, I alone have emerged alive to tell the tale of rude, obnoxious, unhelpful, and in a couple of cases, dangerous drivers.

The first incident occurred on the way to my first lesson. I boarded the bus, paid my fare, said "hello." The driver glared at me, grunted, slammed the door shut and stomped the accelerator before I could sit down. I was nearly flung through the back window. What followed was a careening velocity through the streets of Bloomington, terrorizing drivers and pedestrians alike. Cars stopped at traffic lights risked having their entire front ends sheered off. I could clearly see the pale, shocked faces of the drivers. Our driver, in the meantime, emitted savage, growling noises that were just barely human. I got off two stops before my destination, savoring the sweet joys of being alive.

The second incident occurred after my lesson, on the ride home. While attempting to decipher the series of squiggles that served as a bus schedule, I asked the driver when the next bus arrived. He looked at me as though I had asked for the answer to life's most baffling enigma: "I don't know Buddy," he wailed. Then loudly, as though I didn't understand his predicament, "I DON'T KNOW, Buddy." I nodded, not willing to pursue the matter, since apparently knowing the schedule of his own bus route was too much for his overtaxed nervous system, and I had seen what happen to these bus drivers when they were pushed too far.

My story doesn't end here. I rode the bus to my second lesson and apparently broke some sacred rule. After a certain point, I was the only passenger on the bus. The driver stopped the vehicle and glared at me. "Where are you going?"

"This bus doesn't go there."
"It did last week."
"Well, it does in the other direction. This is a different number bus. I just changed it."
"But it's the same bus."
"No, I changed the number. It's a different bus. You have to get on at Third Street to go to Campus."
"So do you drive the bus to Campus?"
"Yes, in the other direction."
"So if I stay on this bus, it will go to Campus?"
"Yes, but you can't stay on this bus, it's the wrong bus."

If your mind is boggling, I don't blame you. So was mine. I'll give you the synopsis. The Number Four bus goes from my part of town to a certain point, changes to the Number Five bus, goes further out, turns around, changes by magic back to Number Four and goes to Campus, then back to my end of town. And here's the rub: You cannot stay on the bus past the point where Number Four becomes Number Five, or Vice-Versa. Why? Because they are two different buses. Wow. Why doesn't it describe a big, continuous loop while maintaining continuity of identity? Is it trying to confuse its enemies? If it's still a mystery to you, here's the secret: With a simple flick of a switch, you get twice the cash for a six-mile bus ride. I would like to say this is a stroke of genius, but it isn't. It's idiotic. Just a bureaucratic way to make a little more money and create more confusion in the bargain.

Extracting this information was like pulling teeth from a Siberian Tiger. The driver became more and more irate, as though I were born knowing this information and was deliberately being dense just to irritate him. By the time the entire situation was clear to me, he was shouting. He kept repeating all this was explained in the schedule. I can tell you it is not. The schedule is a list of times and a squiggle of lines labeled "Route" that doesn't even have the streets named!

I asked him what he wanted me to do--get off the bus, reboard, pay another buck? He generously offered to "bail me out--this time" by allowing me to ride the bus back to Campus. Apparently The Magic Mystery Bus DID go back to Campus. Okay.

During the ride back we picked up a full contingent of college kids and other strays. The stress of the situation triggered my oral compulsion, so I pulled an oatmeal cookie from my pocket and took a bite. The driver must have been watching me like a vulture, because he screamed, "Hey--no G-dammed food on the bus!"

Well, I had had enough. It occurred to me that I had my cell phone on me, and not that I was any better than anyone else on the bus, but the only reason I was riding in the belly of this Beast was not because I had to, but because I didn't want to try to find parking on campus. I figured if this psycho ejected me from his bus, I could call a Limo service, make a point to drive alongside his sacred bus, moon him, teabag him, and flip him off all at the same time.

So screw him. I took my time eating my cookie.

The Grand Staff

I mentioned in my last post I couldn't read a single note of sheet music. This is no longer true.

My piano teacher says I learn really fast. Since I have no median against which to measure, I don't know if this is true or just nice encouragement. But in about a week, I have learned to read music, albeit in a clunky manner.

The piano in the practice room at the University practice room, where we meet for lessons, is an exact replica of the one my First Grade teacher had in our classroom. She used to pound out such militant songs as "Marching to Pretoria," and Ach du Lieber Augustine," etc. since it was assumed in the early Sixties all we youngsters would be shipped off to war, so they taught us military songs to sing at an early age to bolster our spirits and prepare us to accept whatever fate awaited us, whether it be maiming, death, venereal disease, or post traumatic stress syndrome. Music, you see, is unlimited in its healing and restorative powers.

My goal is to learn to sight-read. If you don't know what sight-reading is, this is what you're doing now. When we read text, we don't read a letter at a time. Although this is how we first learned. We learned the alphabet, then put them together in simple words, then simple sentences, then we learned to read phrases, thoughts, books. Most of us don't even stop to recognize individual letters anymore--we grasp whole blocks of texts as our eyes scan ahead.

Sight-reading music is the same way. You learn to read those little dots and squiggles so intuitively your eyes, brain and fingers work together to translate them into sweet music. Hopefully. Sometimes it doesn't quite work out that way at the beginning. As my untrained fingers stumble across the keys, the resulting cacophony apparently drove the neighbor's hamsters into eating their own young.

Reading is all about pattern recognition. If we stopped to identify each individual letter, it would take us days to read a page in a book. Likewise with music. My first attempts to memorize the notes of the Grand Staff were painful. Then I began to recognize patterns. Fortunately, there are only seven notes: ABCDEFG-- so the memorization doesn't seem that hard--but since they can climb off the five-bar staff into the air, sink below the staff into the deep blue sea, and with the piano there is a separate staff for each hand, each with a different set of rules, it can be a bit daunting. Then you have sharps and flats and key signatures. Oy.

But this week, it all began to come together.

Yes, there are people who've made entire musical careers without ever learning to read a note of music. When I was searching for a piano teacher, I saw all kinds of ads on Craig's List from people who were retired from Rock, Blues and Jazz bands who promised to teach you to play guitar and piano without you having to learn music theory or having to learn to read music at all. Fine, if you want to be the next Ozzy Osbourne or Stevie Ray Vaughn. But what if you want to play Chopin or Brahams? I guarantee you you're not going to play that stuff by ear unless you're a hydrocephalic prodigy.

So if you can sight-read music, you can place a completely unknown piece of sheet music in front of you, place your virgin fingers on the piano keys, and as you read the music, your fingers will--with practice--hit the right keys and you will play that piece of music. Maybe not perfectly the first time, but you'll get the idea of it. If you're really good, and have a good ear, you can read the music and hum it out. Wow. What power!

So I've been studying not only how to recognize the notes, but how to recognize the intervals, which is the distance between two notes on the staff. This is essential in developing speed, apparently. There are seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths. These are the intervals I've learned to recognize quickly so far. Beyond that, there are sixths, sevenths and octaves. Having an academic background in engineering, with lots of emphasis on calculus, I saw a fast way to spot these various entities. There is a binary, odd/even code that makes it very easy to spot them. So reading intervals was very easy for me. I'll start on the 6-8 intervals next week.

Learning the notes took some serious practice though. There are repetitive relationships, but they're offset from the treble staff to the bass staff, and just cockeyed enough to confuse you just when you think you have them down pat. Not on the Grand Staff itself, but when you start getting into those notes that float off into the air or drop below it. These things drove me crazy until I worked out a system to help me "tie" them together.

But my first lesson went very well. I'm playing with both hands, very crudely but am playing harmonic intervals and starting on chords. My second lesson is coming up today so I'm very curious to see how I do.

I'm very happy.

Do Re AH ME....

I've loved classical music since age twelve, when in 1972 the music teacher at Tyson Junior High School played a scratchy vinyl record of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto for my class. My classmates were unimpressed, most of my peers calling out, "Play summa that good rock n' roll!" but I, young fop in the making, was enchanted. I had never heard such excellent and uplifting sounds in my life. Something in me, which for a long time had been isolated and angry--smiled.

Tyson Junior High School, a massive, brooding structure squatting at the intersection of Hades and Nightmare Ally, was a hideous institution where--believe it or not--the refuse from the juvenile detention centers were disgorged into the general student populace. Most of these Geoffrey-Dahmer's-in-training were several years older than the rest of us and some (it was rumored) had illegitimate children attending the same classes. The educational philosophy at Tyson was Survival of the Fittest. We learned to either fight, hide, pray, or join the criminal element. The teachers were helpless in the face of this melting pot of savagery; in the early to mid Seventies social recognition of violence in schools hadn't reached the sensitivity it has now. Students carried weapons quite openly. I had a friend who sported a razor, two knives, a small gun that ejected gas grenades, numchucks, a sword cane and various tools the use of which to this day I'm still puzzled. This Hellmouth was eventually closed, exorcised, cleansed by Holy men of various religions, and reborn as office suites--none of which flourished. No surprise, as some negative forces refuse to be banished. As Lovecraft said, some evil lives eternally.

Though born a redneck, in the redneck city of Knoxville Tennessee, when the cultural gamut is pretty much UT Football and Opera is spelled "Opry" and is preceded by "Grand Ol," I somehow inherited from some past life a sensitive soul. The literary bug had already bit me, and for years I had been reading far more than was good for me. I had attracted the attention of illiterate thugs more than once for harboring books and other dangerous intellectual contraband. So when I heard Bach's happy music played on that old record player, scratchy and tinny though it was, my soul responded in recognition. It sounded like home. I raised my hand. I was full of questions. Who was this guy? Did he write any more music? Did he have a band? I soon found out he had been dead for several hundred years, and my friends, amazed that I could give a crap about this crappy music, immediately thought I had lost my mind.

Perhaps I had, but I preferred happy delusion to the bleak reality I faced every day. I willingly plunged into this new-found madness, consequences be damned. There was a bookstore in the downtown area which sold "Budget Classics," classical music albums for $1 each. Every Friday, when I got my allowance of $3, I rode the bus downtown and bought three albums. I didn't know what I was buying, but if it had an interesting cover, or if the composer had a cool name, I bought it. While many of my contemporaries were eagerly and clandestinely making their first forays into drug and alcohol addiction, I was just as intently focused on my own new obsession. My first purchases, I recall were all six Brandenburg Concertos. A milestone for me was when I found a boxed set--on sale--of a La Scala performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold, featuring the magnificent Kirsten Flagstad, to this day one of my favorite performers. If Bach had lured me in, Wagner set the hook.

I remember bringing some friends home, telling them, "Man--you HAVE to hear this!" and their horrified expressions when they did. These twelve year old boys, reared on East Tennessee rock-and-roll and country music stations since conception, suddenly having WAGNER sprung on them--well, I had crossed over from having lost my mind into full-blown insanity.

Hey, did you know they play Classical music on the radio? Of course you do, but this was a revelation to my young unrefined self. My good music teacher, whose name by the way was Mrs. Lovelace (I'm not making this up) informed me of this and when one of my friends decided to lay a logical tour-de-force on me by riposting, "If this Bach guy is so great, why don't they play him on the radio?" I whipped out my transistor radio, turned it on, and lo and behold some symphony was playing! Not Bach, but he didn't know it.

I've learned over the long years you either love Classical music--Opera especially--or you don't. You can't proselytize to your friends, or try to convert them. I'm fifty years old, and I've had a great and enduring love for great music for most of my life. Yet I've never studied music. Not one hour of musical training. This seems to amaze people, considering how much I know about musical pieces, composers and musical works. People just assume I'm an accomplished musician. Yet I know nothing whatsoever about musical theory, or how to play music.

I wanted to take music in school, but my parents thought music class was a scam from the school to extort more money from you. They thought the same thing about field trips. You know, you had to bring in a couple of dollars to pay for expenses. My Mom would snarl, "That's how they get your money," and refuse to pay, so I'd sit in the library reading, which was okay with me. I was usually happier with a book anyway than socializing. She harbored similar suspicions about music classes. But I truly regret not getting a head start on studying music. I could have been a band geek. As it was, I was a geek without a clique. In the words of the old Monkee's song, I can't swim a single note.

However...last week, I began taking piano lessons.