Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just Something You Have to See

While I plug away at honing my skills at legato and hand synchronization, I would ask you to watch this video. I go on and on about the power of opera, and here is something that can't help but uplift anyone.

This event occurred on November 13th, 2009; an ordinary day at the Central Market of Valencia. Suddenly, various merchants (who are really professional opera singers operating incognito) begin to sing excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata. This is a moment of pure magic for a group of people fortunate to have been present at this remarkable publicity event designed to promote an upcoming opera performance.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Real Struggle

Wow, so up to now I haven't truly wrestled with anything that's taxed my abilities to master fairly quickly. Now I'm beginning to hit the wall, I think. I've begun to learn actual technique; moving quickly from chord to chord, working low and deftly around the keyboard, among the sharps and flats. Building speed seems like a matter of time and practice. Nothing too strenuous.

So I jumped just a little bit ahead and began working on a simple song with a 3/4 back-beat. Actually Teacher played it for me and opined that I could begin working on it. So I did. Well...

It's a lot harder than it looks. I can play each hand individually without much effort. But coordinating the two is wrecking me. I look like the Scarecrow from Batman.

I'll get some advice and tutoring tonight at my lesson. If I master it, I'll try to record it and post it here for your enjoyment and edification.

Friday, February 19, 2010

On the Prowl

I'm out of town on business for a few days, in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. I think I'll prowl around some of the shops here looking for a used keyboard with hammered keys. It's quite possible I'll find one at a reasonable price if I'm diligent. I really like the feel of a "real " piano and I need the practice to build my finger strength and technique. My music is also calling more and more for both piano and forte --soft and loud--playing, and alas, my simple electronic keyboard has only one tone. When I bought it, I was unsophisticated in the ways of electric pianos, and assumed it would be a while before I would require a more sophisticated instrument.

Playing on a real piano once a week during my lessons is a bit disadvantageous because I find I like the feel of real keys. In comparison, the keys of my cheaper keyboard are spongy and unsatisfying. Yes, I think it's time for an upgrade. But buying a new 88 key, hammered, touch-sensitive electric piano, well, we're talking some serious money. I guess the real question, which I'm simultaneously circumventing, elucidating and entertaining, is: am I in this for the long haul?

Five weeks may be too soon to tell, but there is no denying I have a lifetime passion for music.

I'm looking for a sign.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Midway for the Midlife Guy

After last night's practice session, I noticed I attained the halfway mark in Book One of my Alfred's Lesson Course. On this momentous occasion, we finished up the "G" position and moved on to the "C" Position. This rather cramped location on the keyboard relocates you with both thumbs on Middle C. A bit awkward, but the fingering for some of the sample pieces are rather elegant, especially for the Sharps and Flats. I began practicing from an actual songbook.

The used copy of the Pop Hits Songbook I purchased from Amazon for the bargain price of $3,95 has stickers next to some of the songs. Now come on--this is the ADULT course. The arrangements are supposedly a bit more challenging than the children's course.

But the HALF-WAY point. Hoorah, I think I'll celebrate somehow. Open to suggestions. Maybe I'll buy some stickers.

At various points in the Lesson book--on the bottom of the page--are encouraging footnotes: "You are now ready to begin (various suggested supplementary publication)." Of course, I went through the Lesson book, logged onto Amazon, and got them all. I lugged my huge haul of Alfred publications to my lesson to consult with Teacher to see what tunes I could tackle. She was really impressed with the twenty pounds of literature I had amassed. She told me she never had a student who actually bought all the recommended literature. I guess I'm what you call a motivated student. Either that or obsessive/compulsive. What's the difference?

Monday, February 15, 2010


February is a low time in my mood cycles. Winter, and February in particular, saps all the energy from me. My entire psychosomatic being wants to go into hibernation until the sun comes out again. I once wrote a poem describing February:

February is the unshaven month:
It lies around in a tattered gray undershirt

Too dispirited

To even finish out a full thirty days.

Not exactly a firework in the literary firmament, but I liked it.

And yet life goes on. Responsibilities don't hide under rocks even when we wish we could. I've found great solace in studying music. Music has always been the one solid comfort in my life. I remember when I had to work for a living (before my liberation into self-employment), jobs I despised, yet on my lunch break I could go out to my car, listen to Bach, Wagner, Beethoven for an hour, and survive another day. When I'm sad, music uplifts me. When I'm scattered, it grounds me. When the world breaks me, it puts me back together.

If it's a good day, music can only make it better.

Fortunately, February is a very good month for opera lovers. Three transmission this month in the Metropolitan Opera HD season. Not to mention all the great radio broadcasts.

Valentine's Day was good. Wife and I ate chocolate and watched movies. February isn't all bad. I just wish I had more energy. Yet the month is halfway over, and March just around the corner. In the meantime:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Moving out of Kindergarten

Up to now we've been working amongst the ivory expanse of the white keys only. Recently, we've moved to the black keys, the Sharps and Flats. Chords incorporating Sharps and Flats are very interesting as sometimes you must straddle those black keys, and I wonder how people with blunt, sausage-shaped fingers manage that. As a Fop, I have long tapered fingers, so it isn't a problem for me, but I've seen Bluesmen with fingers that look like those balloons from which clowns twist rubber animals. I wonder how they wedge those hamhocks in that half-inch space. They must have worked out their own methods.

I feel as if I've reached a crossroads. To me, this represents the first real step from kindergarten into actual piano playing. It's the difference, to me, between thinking about learning the piano, and being serious about learning to play the piano.

That's all I have to write about. I was looking at songs in some of the songbooks I bought and I thought "I could play some of these."

Happy Valentine's Day. I've spent some very nice time with Lady Wife and it's been a good day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Still Here

Been on the road for the past few days doing shows in the Chicago area. I drove through snowy desolation on 65 North where the monolithic carcasses of overturned tractor-trailer rigs littered the medians like relics from the Jurassic age. I should have brought a dog sled. My show went very well, but in the obligatory after-show schmoozing with the company bigwigs, I was sure we were all going to wind up in a Chicago prison. Prison is not a good place for a Fop. I'm too delicate and pretty to survive there long. Martha Stewart barely survived the food; I know I would wither in the cultural wasteland; I don't think the other prisoners would accept a tattoo of Monet's Camille Doncieux as a suitable sign of machismo, plus I'm not sure scented creams and oils are allowed in the shower room.

These rakes, many of whom hailed from the wilds of Canada and Wisconsin, assaulted the quiet streets of Arlington Heights propelled by alcohol-fueled exuberance and seeking more of the same. When they found out all the bars closed at 11 PM, I thought violence would be the citizenry's portion and mayhem their lot. I don't consume alcohol, so my judgment was intact, my mind pure, and my wholesome moral qualities untainted by the bellowing profanity and lewd suggestions which issued in an unceasing froth from my business associates. They intimidated the bartender at one club which was in the process of closing into serving them cocktails, and as my companions sunk lower and lower into savagery, I felt as a sweet Lilly flowering on the bottommost floor of Hell. Bystanders were accosted, taxi drivers insulted and made the hapless target of the most vile suggestions. It's said Man is suspended between the heights of heaven and the pits of depravity, and that night I witnessed his utter Fall.

I yearned for the peace and quiet of my piano.

It was an evening of horrors and wonders. I also booked four shows from it. Behold the glamorous world of show business, my readers. Upon my return home, I scrubbed myself in the shower until I was raw, intoning, "It WILL come off--it WILL come off..." Thank goodness for Nivea for Men.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why Opera is the Greatest Thing in the World

If you're not familiar with the erratic behavior displayed by some of opera's central characters, you might jump to the conclusion the genre is populated by dysfunctional hysterics. First of all, the structure itself is artificial: People don't walk around on the street singing to each other. Well, they do in my world, but I live in a very special place which Eli Lilly has yet to develop an effective psychiatric medicine for.

Yes, sometimes the dramatic, behavior of operatic characters may seem a bit over-the top, but over time you develop an understanding of the literary conventions of the art form. People fall in love at first sight with other people they barely met, have never seen; they will throw away their lives over what seems--to us--practically nothing; and seemingly baffling conundrums appear childishly simple. There are reasons for these larger-than-life melodramas: You see, opera is an intense, multi-disciplined means of expression which reduces the human condition to psychologically elemental archetypes, sets these situations to music, then plays them out, if skillfully constructed, in ways that not only entertain us, but strike familiar chords on very deep and personal levels. But the behavior of the characters, in order to convey these archetypal passions, must be over the top. Those people live large, love with everything they have, and when they die, they go out singing, which when you think about it, isn't a bad way to leave this world. You cannot judge an archetype by ordinary human standards. Like unicorns, centaurs and chimerae, they live within their own self-contained world of internal logic.

Not everyone sees this at first. It's easy to try to impose reality onto our fiction, but fruitless and unrewarding. We look at the behavior of King Lear and say, "No one in real life would behave that way." Well, at least we hope not. And yet the real world gave us Geoffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gayce, Oprah, Survivor, and Vanilla Ice. This is why we escape into fiction in an attempt to purge our minds, at least for a while, from the blight of the Real World. The worst are the amateur psychologists. I've heard Carmen described as bipolar and self-destructive, Calaf's behavior in Turandot diagnosed as Peter Pan Syndrome, and anyone who claims to know what the hell is going on in The Magic Flute is simply suffering from Munchhausen syndrome. It's ridiculous. These are not real people. These are fictional archetypes; psychological aches, pains and emotional yearnings given voice and set to music. Play the game correctly and you emerge cleansed, uplifted, embettered. Over-analyze and psychoanalyze and you may emerge humming an earful of pretty tunes, but you lose the big picture. But you have taken the first steps toward a career as a theater critic.

Opera sometimes condenses the actions of several years in the space of a few hours, and it does the same with people. The composer shows us, in words, music and action, our own humanity--our best, most noble heights of exaltation and our lowest depths of depravity--sometimes embodied within the same character.

I recently enjoyed seeing once again hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, the story of an old man who sells his soul to Satan in return for his youth, so he can seduce an innocent young woman named Marguerite. In contrast to Faust's worldly lust, Marguerite is a naive, romantic young girl. Blinded by her love, she has no idea she has been used as a lure by Satan to ensnare Faust's soul.

Rather than come out and tell us Marguerite is a young innocent, or have her proclaim "I'm a young naive girl who believes in romantic love, Sir--what would you have of me?" Berlioz performs a remarkable piece of literary character development: In Act Two, Marguerite stands on the balcony of her bedroom, looks out in the moonlight, and sings an achingly lovely and wistful ballad about a King who pines for his dead love. This tells us all we need to know about this girl and her attitudes toward love, and how we regret what's about to become of her in the hands of Faust and the Devil!

Of course, opera being what it is, after Faust has his way with Marguerite and abandons her, the devil collects his fee, Faust winds up in Hell, and Marguerite--who dies in prison--ascends to heaven. Yes, it's another one of those endings where you wonder if it's happy or sad. That's why opera is so great. You see, there is within all of us a dark streak to which we yearn to surrender, as Faust did--and yet--at least this is what I tell myself--counterbalancing that meanness is a greater, nobler impulse: a spiritual urge which delights when we witness the ennoblement and uplifting of the human being exhibiting the finest and best qualities, surpassing and overcoming his or her dark impulses, and coming out on top when the final curtain comes down.

Friday, February 5, 2010


After right at a month of formal music instruction I decided to attempt to learn the bass-line to one of my target pieces, a smoking-hot number called Bumble Boogie. Believe it or not, if you've never heard this, it's Rimsky-Korsakov's (he of the cool name) Flight of the Bumble Bee set against a boogie-Woogie backbeat. I found this clip of Liberace playing it, killing two birds with one stone, as he fits both the theme of this blog and makes a nice callback to my running obsession with Great Fops in History:

As you can see, it is a very cool piece of music, and somehow Liberace also somehow managed to conjure up a string quartet from thin air while his hands never leaves our sight.

So I worked out the bass line, as I said, but I play it very slowly. In fact, it sounds like a slow waltz more than a boogie-woogie. But I was very pleased I could interpret the music in the first place, much less convert it into finger-to-key movements. Speed will come with time. This is just something I intend to work on now and then anyway as my lessons progress. It's far more advanced than my current skill level. Do I imagine I'll be able to play it someday? Sure. I'm shooting for a year from now.


I was trying to remember my first live concerts today. As I grow older, I find my memories more and more precious. Friends with whom I grew up seem to be dying off at an accelerated rate, and it occurred to me these friends are guardians of entire periods of my life. When they die, they take part of me with them. These friends remember things about me I've forgotten. I know I've recalled incidents they've forgotten. Maybe this isn't important. The past is the past for a reason. Maybe we should leave it alone.

Yet I do remember my first live Classical concerts. My first real girlfriend in High School played trombone in the Knoxville Youth Symphony. How cool was that? So I got to sit in on many rehearsals and got comped to all the concerts. She played the trombone solo in Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture, which happens to be the longest trombone solo in the genre of Classical music. Not only that, but the band director of our High School played in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. My girlfriend was in the band, so I got to be a hanger-on by way of her. I went to the Knoxville Symphony Concert the night of my prom. I recall the program included The Swan from Saint- Saen's Carnival of the Animals and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

The first live opera I attended was Verdi's Aida, presented by the Knoxville Opera company. This was followed in years to come by The Magic Flute, Turandot, and Gounod's Damnation of Faust. In the early 1980's, I saw Luciano Pavarotti live at Thompson-Bowling Arena (which is the basketball arena in Knoxville). They sold popcorn. At the end of this magnificent performance, Maestro Pavarotti said, "Never have I performed before such a wonderful audience, in such a wonderful place, and with such a wonderful smell of popcorn." An audience member handed him a bag, and he waved his handkerchief at us.

I will tell you I don't understand critics. I attend opera events and sometime read very negative reviews of what I thought were--to me--transcendental performances. Now granted, I am a layman. But I've been listening to music since I was a kid. I can tell the difference between Andrea Bocelli--a decent but not operatic quality singer, which seems to baffle people who, upon hearing I love opera, seem to assume I must like Bocelli ( I don't)--and Pavarotti.

Well dang it, let me digress: I'm not criticizing Mr. Bocelli, who has carved out an excellent career for himself, and who has a very sweet, warm voice. But his voice is not operatic quality. There are videos of him singing with Pavarotti and you can clearly hear the difference. Although there are people (not opera fans) who tell me they can't tell the difference in the two singer's "style." Fair enough--not everyone is a born fop, and it takes time to cultivate an ear for opera. and let's face it--modern popular music is just so bad, many people can't distinguish between a good singer and the sound a rusty pipe makes in the middle of the night.

Recently there has been a phenomenon of the public embracing singers such as Susan Boyle and Paul Potts, two admittedly talented singers discovered on Britian's Got Talent. Susan is a good singer, and Paul Potts a slightly better singer, but there are much better singers out there dying for a break. What intrigues us about Susan and Paul isn't their voices, but their stories. These are two, plain, ordinary, working -class people who rose above their ordinary lives and boring jobs and with a little talent and by following their dreams, became stars. You see, they could be us. Through them, those of us who sing to our loofahs in the shower imagine that with a little nudge in the right direction, we too, could land a major record deal.

But one-in-a-million-voices? No way. I personally know people who sing much better than either one of them. It was the Story that grabbed us. Emotional content over Star Quality.

Back to the critics though. I would go to these operas, often featuring very famous performers, return home enraptured, then read the critic's reviews (or now, thanks to Youtube, people I never heard of bloviating that the Met has once again eviscerated Verdi). And I have to wonder to what stellar performance these pundits are comparing the performance I just attended.

I think it might be something like this: I'm a professional entertainer myself. There are in my business a plethora of resentful non-professionals who, for some reason, consider themselves better than every hard-working professional who ever lived. You see them posting on various on-line fora after every David Blaine or Copperfield special: "Oh my double-fingered muckety-move is so much better than his--I should be on television," or "He has no personality--I'm so much more entertaining. How did that guy get on television?" I suspect a lot of these opera critics may be frustrated musicians or failed singers venting their ire that the world likewise never recognized their genius.

I made a rule long ago. Don't listen to critics--listen to the music. Let your ear and your heart tell you what's good.

On another note, used bookstores can be a goldmine of used music DVDs. I picked up a couple of great ones on my last trip to Knoxville at Edward Mckay's. One was a concert tape of Roberto Alagna, who recently played a sensational Don Jose opposite in the Met's production of Bizet's Carmen. I found a clip from this concert and Robert has no problem flaunting his unabashed foppishness, as you can see:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Car & I Both Out of Sorts

My car is in the shop and I have some kind of flu or cold virus. Hopefully when my car is out of the tank, so will I be. I feel like crap. I'm trying to take care of business but it's slow.

I did practice playing and recognizing intervals and switching between my repertoire of chords. I have a bevy of exercises for doing this very thing in my lesson books. I also received my piano bench today via UPS so now Cat will quit clawing my leg for possession of the chair and my undivided attention while I practice. She can sit next to me and add her own accompaniment to my playing.

I'm off to drink some hot tea and eat aspirin. More later when I feel better. In the meantime, remember this:

Monday, February 1, 2010

The "G" Position

Not an exotic back-breaking erotic sexual technique from the Kama Sutra, but a new position on the piano keyboard--new for me at least. Up to now, we've been playing and practicing from the C Major position. Now, we've made our way to the G position. Which means we climb higher on the Grand Staff and learn new notes.

I also learned a new Chord: The F Chord. This brings my repertoire up to three: C, G7 and F. I even learned to play a song utilizing all three chords: the venerable When the Saints Go Marching In. In time, mind you, for the Superbowl Smackdown between the Saints and the Colts. If the Saints win, I'll play this triumphantly for my wife, a die-hard Saints fan.

So tonight completed my third official lesson. It would have been my fourth, but Teacher was sick on our scheduled second session and I taught myself from Alfred. So I have been practicing the keyboard for somewhere between three and four weeks. Let's say a month for easy reference.

Tonight we passed Page 30 in Book One of Alfred. I had asked to pause there for a while and reinforce what we've covered so far with supplementary material. So we practiced from a book Teacher brought with her that had pictures of rainbows, unicorns, teddy bears, and each exercise had a sticker on the page. I commented, "This was yours when you were like, in the First Grade, right?" She said, "Music is music, and this one is tricky." I muttered that I didn't get stickers. But she was right. We found almost exactly the same exercise in my Alfred's Sight Reading book. Minus the teddy bears, alas.

I become impatient with myself. There comes a point near the end of each lesson where I reach a saturation point where I can't absorb any more. I apologized for being a slow learner. She said she had some students who had been studying the same amount of time who were on page three. Apparently they aren't practicing. Tsk tsk. So I don't feel as bad as I did.