Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tackling a Tough One

I thought I would pull this rambling narrative back on track and discuss my latest project. I'm doing very well with my lessons and absorbing the information rapidly. We've moved into deep territory in music theory and have so far put behind us Brahms' Lullaby and a Vienna Waltz or two. I don't play these perfectly, but understand I spend about a week on two to three pieces, absorb the lessons, and move on. I also play with pieces on my own which are usually a bit ahead of what we're studying. I am hungry for knowledge. I sometimes study at night until I fall asleep while still looking at sheet music. I've spent my entire life adoring music as an outsider, now I'm getting a taste of what it is to be on the inside.

I've attached the first sheet of my current "independent" project. I can actually play this entire first page--slowly, admittedly, and hands separately at this point--but this is a piece most people play after a year or so of practice. or so I'm told. Sometimes more. So I don't feel bad that it's taking me a little while to absorb it. I've just about begun my third month of practice. well, to be precise, I began taking lessons on January 18th. April 18th will be three months. It seems longer than that. Anyway, here it is:

This piece is in what is called "Split time" which means it's played twice as fast as indicated. In other words, 1/4 notes are really 1/8th notes, and 1/8th notes are played as 16/th notes. I thought this was cool.

Teacher advises me to work on things like rhythm and dynamics. These skills aren't in our lessons yet; not until Alfred Volume Two. Well the note and time signatures define rhythm but it isn't emphasized all that much. At this stage of the game the authors are happy if you can read the notes, play them for the correct length and remember the melodies. I've bought a metronome to aid my rhythm and timing.

I guess I need a challenge, something really hard to work on. The lessons in my book are good, they teach the information very well, but they don't stretch me. Since the age of 12 or so I wrestled with some of the most difficult sleight of hand in the literature of magic. I deliberately found the most difficult stuff, because I figured if I learned the difficult stuff, very few other magicians would be doing it. As it turned out, I was correct. I love struggling with difficult problems. There is a unbeatable sense of satisfaction when you finally crack it, when your brain gives in and surrenders to your will, and when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

The difference is that I'm not as young as I used to be. After I cram my brain for an hour or two, I get sleepy. I find my afternoon nap indispensable after a tough day of mindwork. It turns out there's sound reasons for this. The brain has no stored energy of its own. It relies entirely on sugar--glucose--to function. So when you work your brain intensely, it burns through fuel rapidly. When you're learning new skills, you need a period of sleep to assimilate it, just as weightlifters need a period of rest to build new muscle after a strenuous workout. This is why long periods of practice are less productive than several periods of shorter duration.

This piece I'm working on is three pages long, I think it will take me at least a month to learn it all, maybe another month to play it well. I didn't include the title of the piece because I didn't want to step on copyright. But if you want to know what it is, it's easy to find out: just learn it and play it. You'll recognize it right off.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Say What?

I never cared for the television show House, or for the actor/comedian Hugh Laurie who portrays the character. I watched a couple of episodes when it first came on and decided he was a sociopath, way too much like some of the characters I worked with back in my engineering days.

Recently a friend of mine told me House reminded him of me. So I decided to take a closer look at the show. One of the stations ran a House marathon the other day so I had a chance to study my supposed doppelganger with laser-like intensity. I scrutinized, analyzed, examined, contemplated this character. I was appalled. Dr. House is despicable. My original impression that he was a sociopath was confirmed. Okay, I am a smartass, but I'm an endearing smartass. I don't use my skills to hurt people's feelings. Dr. House is a complete narcissist. I connect with people. Don't I?

So I asked my friend why he felt I resembled this psycho in any way. He replied, "Well, you're really smart, and you're a smartass. Like he is. And you're a loner. You don't care what people think of you. You go around saying funny smartass things all the time. And now you play piano like he does. You're just like him."

Sure enough. Gregory House plays a mean keyboard. At the conclusion of many of the episodes, after severing ties with most of the people around him, leaving most of them in tattered emotional ruins, (granted, also performing miracles of medical diagnostics often in the nick of time) he can be found tickling the ivories.

Ah alas. I am a loner. I don't form friendships easily. I have a very small circle of close friends. Like, uh, well. A couple I guess. Compulsively-addictive personality, Mea culpa, but been off any substances for over three decades, unless you count strong coffee and chocolate cake, and some would.

Women of my acquaintance find Gregory House fascinating and attractive, which solidifies my conviction that the emotional and mental inner-workings of women will always be beyond my comprehension. There seems to be an inverse/square ratio relationship with gentlemanly behavior and female sexual response: the bigger the schmuck, the more women will want him, which explains why women liked Alan Alda, who had to be one of the most insufferable narcissists in the history of human existence. Here's my impression of a date with Alan Alda: "Me me, me me. But enough about me. What do you think about me?"

Ha ha ha, maybe I am a lot like Dr. House. I told my wife about this and she agreed that I did say mean, smart-ass things sometimes. I think she refers to my running commentaries about shows she sometimes watch, which specialize in hyper-hosts and wallow in maudlin emotional content. I mean, to be specific, Extreme Home Makeover. I hate that show. Now I'm glad that deserving people are helped, but this style of voyeuristic "reality television" has gone too far and I am ashamed of us as a species for allowing it to continue. Can the camera get any closer to the tear-streaked faces, and can the carpentry crew fake empathy and sympathetic joy any worse? You can practically hear them thinking, "Can I quit hugging these smelly kids and get on with hanging this sheet rock? I only have 12 more hours to deadline and I only had four hours sleep, that prick Ty only sleeps like two hours a night the hyper crackhead and he listens to Radiohead all night; I'm losing my mind, someone shoot me; why didn't I stick with English Lit in college; God help me." Speaking of Ty--Ty Pennington, easily the worst choice for a television personality since Carmen Elektra, reminds one of the ADD kid next door who bounces a ball against your siding continuously, and whose parents refuse to do nothing, until driven to madness, you drive to Tru-Value Hardware, purchase a Tranq-gun, and pop the kid one in the gastrocnemius just so you can have one minute of sweet, sweet silence. (For those of you who aren't Dr, House, the gastrocnemius is the large muscle of the lower leg, shown here:)

So where does this leave us? I think I've made a cogent, logically consistent, solipsistic and incontrovertible defence against the argument that I am in any way shape or form like Dr. Gregory House--except that I play the piano. He plays it a lot better than I anyway. SO ene there the resemblance ends. Thank goodness.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Random Jottings

I think my cold is getting better, though a tickly cough woke me up a 4 AM this morning, so I got up until it passed. I found myself perusing the internet, and my son sent me a video of two Texans fighting in a Whattaburger restaurant. I've found myself fascinated lately with videos of people fighting in public. Usually these aren't true fights but clumsy wrasslin. I occasionally found myself involved in public fracases in my youth. Fortunately these weren't very heated and didn't lead to any severe injury on anyone's part, although I did punch someone in the neck once for pulling a knife on me. I figured the punishment fit the crime, as the Mikado said. I can say one thing with utter sincerely: thank God there weren't cell phone video cameras and You Tube when I was young. I would have been ruined.

I've spent some quality time working on my piano in between business matters. My Hanon is smoothing out; my Brahms Lullaby is becoming positively soporific. I'm almost ready to move onto the next piece. Think I'll do so tonight after I finish some work-related projects.

Here is a very interesting video on how a piano key works.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Works in Progress

Teacher has a family emergency so canceled this week's lesson, leaving me to mine own devices. So I honed the exercises and forged ahead on Brahms' Lullaby, plus started working on a couple of more advanced pieces. I'm also foraging for material to practice to push myself ahead. The stick and the carrot theory.

I'm fascinated by the sheer diversity of arrangements available for a single piece of music. I have three arrangements of Over the Rainbow, each more advanced than the next, same with What a Wonderful World. In the meantime, this respiratory infection has returned with a vengeance, and I'm on an even stronger antibiotic, so feel crappy. I putter about the house, work on my taxes--which, being self employed are prodigious in both scope and depth--and practice as much as I can. All while wheezing and sneezing. I feel like a nineteenth-century consumptive bohemian.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hanon and the Virtuoso Pianist

When Charles-Louis Hanon composed his epic work, The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises in 1873, I wonder if he envisioned the generations of future aspiring pianists huddled intently over their keyboards, peering at his deceptively-simple looking measures, trying to get their fingers to cooperate.

Because they do appear simple, at least the early ones. On first glance you think, "Oh, you just run up and down the scales. What's the big deal?" But then look more closely. There are subtle gaps, and finger positions, and other things, which make Hanon much harder than they seem.

With perseverance comes understanding, and you eventually see where he's going with these elegant little training drills. And your playing does improve rather quickly.

Basically, piano playing consists of this: You play the treble clef with your right hand and the bass clef with your left. But there's more to it than this, unless you're happy to just bang out a tune. There's technique; which requires precision and sensitivity. This is what Hanon set out to teach when he designed these training drills. He analyzed common problems and rectified them, concentrating on speed, precision, agility, strength of the fingers and flexibility of the wrists.

Very few--if any--of the online "Play-the Piano-TODAY!" quick-learn courses even mention Hanon. I think they're afraid the idea of daily drills might scare off their short-attention span, want-it-now customer base. This is too bad. There is a great sense of satisfaction in finally mastering something elusive, and in knowing you're stepping in the footprints of the Masters, and even if you know you'll always only be a Lurker in the Shadows, it's still very cool to know that Rachmaninoff practiced Hanon too. I think more effort invested in something "hooks" you deeper.

There are two Hanon exercises in the first Alfred Basic Adult lesson book, from the Second Volume--not the First--of the Virtuoso Pianist. These are not the famous Hanon 1 & 2 exercises, on which I'm also working. I think these are included because these two are simpler and fit in better with the progression of the material. Then, the hook: "You can find more Hanon exercises in the Alfred publication: The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises.

Sigh. Back to Amazon. A few days later, I too, join the ranks of winsome keyboardists pounding their way thorough the 60 Hanon drills. It occured to me I could keep a journal of my progress through Hanon like that woman did through the Julia Child cookbook, but then, on second thought, dumbass--I already am.

By the way, Hanon--and other composers of technical exercises--are not universally revered. Some modern, progressive teachers are opposed to the idea of repetitious exercises to improve technique, arguing that hours spent performing unmusical exercises can dull a student's inherent musicality.

Perhaps it can. I would suggest moderation. At this point I'm not exactly ecstatic playing "Little Brown Jug," but I see it as a stepping stone to Brahms' Waltz in A minor. The old carrot-and stick, you know. No pain, no gain. Pay a little, play a little. Walk it off. Grin and bear it. Insert your favorite generic macho aphorism here.

But I'm still green, and it's still much fun to me. I'm coming up on my tenth week of instruction, and am on page 110 (out of 140) of book one of Alfred. The material is getting harder, and Monday we look at Brahms' Lullaby.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oh Look--a Piano

UPS knocked on my door with a large box containing my piano, the quite impressive Casio Privia, which is now installed in the corner of my living room. My wife is in Arizona attending her friend's wedding, happily unaware of just how BIG a full 88-key piano keyboard is. But she'll find out. I hope she'll still love me.

I've been watching Der Rosenkavilier with my cat waiting for it to arrive (I guess the proper term should be wondering if it would arrive) but my ordeal is over.

It is an impressive piece of equipment. Now I must read the manual so I won't blow it up. It's a workout playing it. Pushing these keys is about three times the effort of my old "soft key" Yamaha keyboard.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bumps in the Road

I had a spa day yesterday. My wife gave me a gift certificate Valentine's Day for the local spa, and I've been saving it until I really needed it. After the last few weeks, my inner voices suggested to me the time had come. I had a one-hour soak in a hot jacuzzi followed by a massage from head to toe (note to my libertine friends in New York: Not that kind of massage). Today I'm relaxed and much more clear of mind than I have been in a while.

I've learned difficult practices all my life. I've been a sleight-of-hand magician, among other things. When I was in school, Calculus was hard, as was Particle Dynamics and Geometry. I plugged through them though and eventually my sluggish brain accepted these new skills. But obtaining new skills takes time and repetition--and patience.

One thing I've learned is that are periods of disillusionment when you realize some things are just hard to learn and you wonder if you can do it. Your mind rebels. Sometimes you have to trick it. You have to misdirect yourself. Give yourself rewards; play the carrot-and-stick game. Keep yourself motivated. The difference between someone who can learn and someone who won't is perseverance.

I truly think most people give up when they hit the first hard bump. Many people want to learn a new skill, but as soon as it starts to become difficult, they think, "Oh, this is too hard," and give up. This first bump, in my experience, averages out at about six weeks. If you want to pick up inexpensive exercise equipment, start checking the want-ads in the newspaper or on-line about six weeks after Christmas for those abandoned New Year's weight-loss resolutions.

But if you have the determination to power through that six-week slump, I truly think you can see it though. Now there will be other bumps along the highway to achievement. Many of them. I can speak from experience, because I'm one of the very few people I know who accomplished his childhood dream. I knew I wanted to be a wizard when I grew up. I saw magicians on televisions and I knew I wanted to amaze people for a living. Now I perform Mind-reading and Hypnotism shows, which is even better. It wasn't easy to achieve success in this field, and there were a lot of setbacks. But I kept going. I can't really tell you what kept me going, but I knew if I gave up even once, I would never try again, so I never quit. There were times I whined a lot, and times I lost pretty much everything due to life disasters, but I managed to recoup and kept the dream alive. I scraped by somehow.

I won't say it didn't cost me. Sometimes it cost me a great deal. I had to make difficult decisions. Some people thought I was crazy to sacrifice the security of a "real" job for the roller-coaster of self-employment. Well, I suppose if you've survived as many economic ups and downs as I have, and seen as many people as I have out of work while I still did shows, you may redefine your idea of job security. But until the day she passed away, my mom never thought I had a real job, and many people have shared that sentiment. "Work," in many people's minds, can't be something you do unless it involves going to an office and having a boss yell at you. So I try to yell at myself for ten minutes every day just to satisfy these people. It doesn't seem to help, though my neighbors don't bother me anymore because I have a reputation.

So the point is this: learning this piano business is difficult. I'm finding once you master one skill and think you have it licked, you move on to something else and it's as if you started all over again. I can see why so many people give up or remain at a certain, very simple level (Rock and Pop music require very basic skills you know). If you look in the want-ads or on Craigslist the musical instuments section is enormous. People buy an instrument (guitars seem especially popular) and maybe take a few lessons and find it takes a lot of practice--and my piano teacher says that even people who take lessons hate to practice. So after a while the instrument sits around gathring dust, because most people only do (1) what they have to do, (2) whatever's fun and (3) sleep and eat the rest of the time.

My message to you is if you have a dream, pursue it with diligence, and see the bumps in the road as rest stops. Take a moment to catch your breath and look around for a moment. Maybe all you need is a little perspective. If nothing else, give yourself a spa day.

The Blues:
When I was a much younger man, around age twenty I believe, I dabbled with the blues harmonica. I gained some prowess with it but not enough to play with a band, though I did play once or twice with a friend's band to the surprise of my friends. Here is a picture of a much tubbier me doing so:It occurs to me now that I understand music better I could pick up this instrument again and ply it with deeper understanding. You know ther's a formula concerning how Bluesmen get their name. The first part is a infirmity, the second a locality, and the third part a name (Like Blind Memphis Slim), so mine would have to be Dyslexic Indiana Johnny. Look for my fist album, Singing the Lubes.

Monday, March 15, 2010


With the friendly aid of Musician's Friend, (who lives up to their name in every way) I've re-ordered my keyboard, so let's see what happens. The customer service rep--who says, not surprisingly, she has heard many tales of woe such as mine--suggested once I receive the tracking number, I manuallt take it to UPS and give it to them, with my name, address, phone number, and I'll think I'll mention I have relatives who work for various law enforcement agencies and friends who work for enforcement agencies on the other side of the law. Big Nose Tony, Nick the Phone, Black Gunn and Willy Bonkya owe me a few favors anyway.

I have to work today as I'm behind due to six days of travel in two weeks. Way behind. Oy. Must run.

Friday, March 12, 2010

No New Piano for Me, aka The Idiots Have Won

I was informed by UPS that my new piano, the mighty Casio Privia was lost. This was not entirely true. Follow this sad tale of woe, my dearlings, and see what I must endure for the sake of the muse Calliope.

Exhausted from waiting for delivery of my jewel, and confused by conflicting reports of the UPS online tracking info, I called the UPS service representative. After twenty minutes of listening to music, recorded assurances of the prompt and speedy service UPS delivers (pardon my skepticism) and random crackling, a nice young lady answered. She conducted a speedy investigation, and immediately informed me my package was lost. Furthermore, I should contact the shipper--Musician's Friend--and inform them so they can instigate an investigation.

Yow. So I do so. Musician's Friend promptly replied. The package wasn't lost--it had been returned to them, by the Bloomington UPS office, as undeliverable. In other words, it had been less than half a mile from my house, correctly addressed (I asked them to check) and these yahoos couldn't--or wouldn't--deliver it.

I say "wouldn't" because this isn't the first time this has happened to me. You see, Bloomington is a haven for people who couldn't survive anywhere else in civilized society. If you were to magically transport most of the people in positions of responsibility here to another part of the country, frustrated employers, baffled by the stoned indifference to job performance exhibited by these time-displaced flower children would give them the boot within two days.

I used to keep a blog on MySpace documenting what I called "Bloomingtonisms" in order to vent my frustration trying to run a business here. The synopsis: you cannot. Most of my "local" business is conducted in Louisville and Indianapolis. Terrified at the prospect of further trauma at the hands of these blank-eyes, vacuously-smiling Children of the Corn, I rarely leave my apartment except to go to the office supply store, post office and to buy food.

Something in the water, maybe? Or is it all those acres of corn? I don't know. I'll ask people where to send information about my show, and they can't tell me their physical address. That's right--many people here do not know where they work, or in may cases, live. I'll ask for directions and receive confused congeries of inter-dimensional tangles nobody could follow. My GPS doesn't help because often they'll give me the wrong Zip Code. The local AT& T representative was angry with because he told me the office was on 2nd Street and I couldn't find it. It turned out it was on 3rd Street. Oh yeah--they only remember to send me a bill for my advertising every three months or so, when they emerge from their coma long enough to actually do some work. Here's another one: Once I asked to get some cheese sliced at the local grocery store and was told by the lady behind the counter the idea was too "weird." I'm serious. Apparently, this person only makes cheese sandwiches from one-pound blocks of cheddar.

Anyway, back to UPS. This is the fourth incident in recent memory where they couldn't seem to deliver a properly addressed package. My last electric piano almost suffered a similar fate, but I checked up on it in time to intercede. I called UPS and they said they didn't have a proper address and were about to return it to the shipper. I told them to hold it and I'd pick it up. I drove through blinding snow to the warehouse and after twenty minutes of searching through unbelievable chaos, identified it. I pointed to the label where my name and address was clearly printed. Not quite simmering--I had driven through a blizzard and it was too cold to simmer--I asked to see the driver. It turned out he was still there, chatting up the counter girl. I pointed to the label. He said "Uh, yeah, I guess I didn't see it." Well, the counter girl was quite cute, but the label was nine square inches and the package weighed thirty pounds.

There were other incidents where I had to go in to identify packages that were misfiled, misplaced and in one case, almost delivered to someone else because for some reason not ever clearly explained to me, someone had switched my label for someone else's.

This is a town of 30,000 permanent residents. It's smaller than Mayberry. The other 30,000 are a transient student population. I've been in the same location since I moved here six years ago. The UPS people should know me by sight. I get several packages a month since I have to buy everything online, because you can't get anything in Bloomington that doesn't appeal to anyone past the age of twenty-one (did I mention half the population is student?). I think there's a complacency that's set in because students don't care, won't complain, and half of the remaining population are retirees and much of the remaining leftovers are mostly interested in biking and hiking. Or play Farmville on Facebook for hours on end.

So I've given up. This is my second attempt to mail-order a piano. The first time I interceded in time to snatch it from the jaws of infidels; this time I was too late. I just don't have the time or inclination to fight the system of mediocrity that seems to be indigent to this system. Unless a piano drops from a third story window onto my balding pate while I'm strolling down the street, I'm going to have to make do with my third-rate Yamaha for now.

The idiots, in other words, have won this round.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mood Roller-Coaster

Since I was a wee lad (or a little sh*t, as they say down South where I'm from), I've had fairly dramatic mood swings. At one time, I was diagnosed as cyclical depressive. This was revised, after an anti-depressant made the mood swings worse, to bipolar type II. Whee, enjoy the ride. I actually do. I'm reasonably well-adjusted to what some people choose to call a "disorder."

Such a condition is dramatic, but not all bad. For one thing, having a mood-based psychiatric condition such as this gives a person an intellectual intensity emotionally-stable people lack. It also unfortunately, gives one periods of sloth-like torpor where you do a classic crash-and burn for indeterminate periods. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain what is euphemistically known as a "real job." So most bipolars either get on disability, enter institutions, or do what i do: become gainfully self-employed. I work as a self-employed entertainer. Fortunately, I'm fairly successful at it.

Complications arise when you decide to live with someone else, as say-- a spouse. Now they have to share in the roller-coaster ride. Alas, not everyone is cut out for the ups and downs. So bipolars are not known for successfully maintaining either jobs or relationships. It is hard to live with me, I freely admit. Add to my frequent passionate focus on my work and interests my just-as-frequent crashes; heck, I wouldn't want to live with me. So I salute my wife''s patience. I love her very much and try to show her I do. But the reality in my head doesn't always match the world around me. I live in my own "bubble world" where everything takes on an operatic niceness. I don't watch news and try not to wallow in the word's misery, so I probably miss a lot. Or, considering the state of angst most of my news-addicted friends are in, maybe I'm not missing much at all. When the apocalypse charges in on fire-breathing steeds, I'll be sitting at my piano working on an adagio, humming to myself while the rest of the world tumbles screaming into the abyss. What a final scene. Almost operatic.

But the advantage, I guess, is that this mental intensity allows one to learn very fast. There's a type of tunnel vision that can set in which allows you to focus your entire brain on whatever catches it. I wrote my first major book, Runic Palmistry, in two weeks while under the spell of this focus. This isn't atypical. Friends who've stayed with me have expressed their amazement over how motivated and driven I am. Obviously, they've never known a bipolar in one of his or her productive phases.

The point: Spring seems to have arrived, and my mood is finally picking up after winter's down cycle. Now I can really hit the road running on this piano business.

It's probably a good thing I live in my own bubble world. I could be easily discouraged if I faced reality. After all, I'm fifty years old. When I go to the music building, where all these tiny, eighteen-to-twenty-something kids are practicing their hearts out in almost-soundproof rooms, I see their well trained fingers flying all over the pianos. Some of thewe youths have probably taken lessons since they were four years old. I saw an online posting from a kid who asked if he--at the age of eighteen--was starting too late to learn to play classical music. Ah me. If he only knew. Jump to it kid. You have plenty of time.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Famous Hanon

I'm currently working on Hanon's exercises, a series of piano exercises designed by Charles-Louis Hanon, designed to train you in all sorts of skills, from finger extension to finger independence. Piano teachers have sworn by these exercises forever, although some modern pianists have criticised the entire idea of exercises, saying these can stifle a student's innate musicality. Ah well, I'm not sure I have anything innate to stifle, so I don't think I'm in any danger.

But I'm enjoying the two I'm working on. There are sixty, in a little treatise called The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, which may mean since I've learned two, I'm 1/30 of the way to becoming a virtuoso. Hoorah.

I'm still recovering from this plague I encountered, so I'm tired, so won't write much tonight. My cat is in my lap, snoring, and that sounds like a good idea. Goodnite.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I Cracked It

I finally played completely through, from beginning to end--for the first time, this piece of music which has taunted me for two weeks. It's a piece called "Beautiful Brown Eyes" which I jumped ahead and tried to learn a few weeks ahead of schedule because, well--I wasn't really challenged by the lessons we've been tackling so far. Teacher knew about this. She even played the piece for me. I yearned to play it. It's the first REAL piece of music yet. It has a 3/4 waltz/swing rhythm which changes chords several times on the bass line, and a lilting, pleasant melody.

I confess to you it's from the Alfred's Country Music Songbook. But it's an inoffensive little number. One of those country ballads from the old days before country music became merged with pop and electronics. And whatever the hell Charlie Daniels plays. My apologies to fans of Mr. Daniels, but as an aficionado of good violin music, to see him sawing at a violin like a lumberjack trying to fell an oak tree, I want to cry.

Anyway, I wasn't really supposed to tackle this piece until I masted the lessons comprising, apparently, of "Lavender's Blue" and the very jolly "Blow the Man Down" both of which I notice have very similar--but simpler--chord progression. Apparently, this salty old shanty was to prepare me for the rigors of the country ballad, should I choose to tackle the supplementary material (which, as you know, I did). Hoorah, when I attempt to Blow the Man Down later this week, it will child's play compared to the rubric I finished untangling this morning.

Now the good news is my new keyboard, the mighty Casio Privia (see below) has a built in USB MIDI hotplug interface. Which means all I have to do is plug it into my computer (along with some software I imagine) and I can record my stumblings amongst the black-and-white expanses. I want to do this as I'm unfortunately, one of those restless perfectionist sorts who, as soon as I learn something, am no longer satisfied with it and want to move on. It helps to keep some sort of record of my progress, or I'll always be stuck at the same level of frustrated grasping. I know this about me from everything I've ever done. If I ever reach the level where I'm playing from The Well-Tempered Clavier, I'll still be dissatisfied if I don't have some kind of series of touch-points to look back upon and say "Look--you really sucked back then."

Here's a picture of my new keyboard, which you have to admit is pretty butch:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Great Love

The piano is a mechanical device consisting of 88 keys and three pedals. Those keys, when depressed, activate levers, which in turn, send little hammers flying up to strike metal strings--similar in appearance but very different in actuality--to those on a harp. These strings produce the melodious tones that comprise everything from Chopsticks to Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.The hammers have to hit these strings quickly, then drop away, lest they interfere with the string's happy vibration. If they stayed in contact with the string at all, we would hear a "clunk" instead of a melodious tone. The mechanical action allowing the hammer to drop instantly away from the strings is called the "escapement."

Furthermore, as soon as you release the key, these small pads called dampers drop down to stop the string's vibrations. This is why as long as you keep the key depressed, the note is sustained, and as soon as you let go, the key returns to its position and the note fades out.

However, the purpose of one of the pedals--the one to the far right--is to lift the dampers and prevent them from falling. This is the "Sustain" pedal. It causes those notes to peal like chimes.

There's a lot more. There's a sounding-board to amplify the sound so we can hear it, and a vast difference, of course, between cheap pianos and the really expensive ones. In the building where I practice my lessons, there are both cheap pianos and really good ones. For the past few weeks, we've been trying to always find the good ones. There's a big difference.

All this has changed with the advent of the electric piano. In this modern age of miracles, sounds have been digitized and electronically recreated. The action of the hammer has been replicated in the better models. Even touch-expression--notes sounding louder when you hit the keys harder and softer when you touch them gently--has been reproduced with amazing accuracy. Plus with electric pianos, you plug in headphones and don't disturb the neighbors or wake up your roommates. Or if you hate these particular individuals, you can attach killer speakers, crank the volume and blast them into oblivion.

And yet there's no substitute for those big, impressive Steinway Grand Pianos. My gosh, those are impressive creatures. I know an electric piano will never go out of tune, and there are some physically impressive models (Roland especially has recently produced some nice furniture in that line) but my breath stops short in the presents of an ebony Grand.

One day, my beauty, one day.

Friday, March 5, 2010

I almost Die But Instead Buy

I've successfully evaded the flu all doggone winter, while all around me the disease-ridden hoards hacked, sniffled, coughed, and lurched in abject misery. Whenever it seemed as if I were about to come down with something, my iron-horse constitution fought it off almost immediately.

Well, I pushed myself too hard I guess, between cranking out four video projects and doing shows simultaneously, I caught a flu or cold which settled into my lungs and knocked me for a loop. However, I did everything that needed to be done, including keeping up with my piano practice. My passion for the ivories will not be quenched, by disease, war, la grippe or hardship.

Two days ago, my wife was so worried about me she convinced me to go to the walk-in clinic. I literally couldn't walk up the stairs to our send-floor without stopping to catch my breath. So I did, and they diagnosed me with a serious sinus and upper respiratory infection. I was given a breathing treatment and two shots in my rear end, one of which--the antibiotic--hurt and gave me a muscle cramp. However, the steroid improved my breathing and I was able to drive my son (who helps me with my video productions) back to Tennessee, where I am now, even as I type this report.

Knoxville, unlike Bloomington, which has virtually zero resources, has a plenitude of music stores, so on the mend from la grippe, I went in search of my goal, an electric keyboard with hammered keys and touch sensitivity. Guitar Center had some great sales but I had to transfer cash from savings to checking to get it, which I can' t do via ATM. So Fate (or technocratic red tape) saved me from impulse buying. However, I did go to the local used book emporium and pick up a huge stack of cool sheet music; everything from Peter Schiklely to Brahms to Brubeck, for under $10.

But wait--there's more. My plague-ridden brain is moving slower than usual, but I finally realized if retail stores are running sales on certain models, it follows these models are about to be replaced by manufacturer upgrades. So I got online and found even better deals--with free shipping and minus Tennessee's outrageous 9.5% sales tax. Musician's Friend even throws in free stuff when you buy from them. So I reasoned as follows: Look. I almost died from the Prussian Wildeflu or something. I have a birthday coming up in a couple of months. I need this keyboard. These sales won't last forever. Did I mention I almost died? Life is precious and we have to seize the moment. I found one for $100 less than the one on sale at Guitar Center. This was good enough for me.

New keyboard in 3-5 days. Hope wife won't kill me.

In the meantime enjoy this beautiful performance of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll on piano:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bits and Pieces

I'll admit, when I was much younger, I was easily discouraged. I think I may have been hard-wired to give up easily. My family never set high standards. We were at the lower end of middle-class, and that's being generous. My Dad worked at Rohm and Haas, the company that invented plexiglass, and my mom was pretty much a housewife until she had a spurt of mid-life ambition, took some business courses, and started a home business daycare. I think this sudden initiative puzzed my father. He wasn't used to women who developed a modicum of self-esteem.

But we weren't encouraged, as kids, to set lofty goals. My parents wanted me and my brother to become tradesmen--plumbers and electricians--and perhaps it would have been better for us if we had. Our lives would have certainly ambled along a simpler, less brambly path through the dark forest of our childhood. Instead, we reached for more vaporous aspirations: art and poetry. Is reading literature at an early age a good thing? If you ask me and my brother be prepared for a long, circuitous and existential circumlocution.

Our father was completely baffled. I know very little of his childhood, but what I do know breaks my heart. He never spoke of his past, and from what little I could find out, I don't blame him. A man who sought solace from his unrelenting work-ethic in beer and sports, he often watched two sporting events simultaneously. He accomplished this feat in the days before television remotes and picture-within-picture (this was the 1960's) by resting a small television set atop the monolithic Zenith squatting at the end of our living room. Not infrequently he'd listen to a third event on a transistor radio.

So he found himself with two intellectual, artistic, and at times, foppish sons who, I'll admit, sometimes sneered at their ignorant, uncouth parents. At least, I know I did, especially when I arrived at an age when I actually realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only were they ignorant, but by anyone's standards--they were both also quite insane. I was an odd child. I've been told I was like an old man in a child's body. I apparently used words, phrases and sentence structure no child had any business uttering. I attribute it to being a Seventeenth-century rake cut off short in a sword duel and being suddenly reincarnated. That's my story anyway.

Some parents, finding themselves with intelligent children (or so I hear) encourage their children's talents. These children flower under their parent's tutelage and go on to greatness and fufilling lives. Our parents didn't quite encourage us. It was more like we were taught if you reach too high, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Better a life of comfortable mediocrity than one of dangerous ambition.

A parent's teaching is like a strong hypnotic conditioning. Over time, your parent's attitudes sink in and stay in. I know that I, anyway, didn't try as hard as I could in school. Many of my teachers asked me why someone as smart as me didn't use my full potential. I really didn't know. All I knew is that there was this mental barrier; some kind of wall in my mind, composed of fear, self-doubt, contempt, and a feeling that I didn't deserve anything better. I guess I was afraid if I outdid my parents, I was somehow betraying my family. Over time, I developed an understanding of this wall; I came to know it well. I found chinks and cracks in it and eventually learned to accomplish many things in spite of it. But I've never managed to tear it down. Or climb over it. I think it's there for good.

Self-limiting behavior is nothing new or rare. Most people have it to some degree. Self-limiting behavior is a way we keep from going beyond our comfort levels. But when self-limiting turns into self-defeating, then it's time to do something about it. Eventually, I did. It took years.

What this has to do with my decision to play piano is tangential to this discussion but does have some bearing. When I was in school, there were things I could do easily, and other things I could not. In Junior High School, I fell behind in math, for example, because we had a senile teacher who really didn't care if we learned it or not. He was a year away from retirement and was more interested in catching as many peeks up the young girl's skirts as he could while he still had the chance than teaching class. I couldn't learn Algebra or Trig from him and he wouldn't help us if we fell behind. I know know that some kids have parents who help them with homework, or get tutors for their if they need it. At that time, I had neither--neither of my parents went to High School and couldn't help me.

However, subjects such as English and Art were second nature to me. Following the path of least resistance, I flourished in those subjects and barely pulled through in math. But, I could have learned math and done well had someone taken the time to sit down with me and showed me how to do it. Instead, I thought there was something wrong with me and I was "unteachable." So when I graduated from High School, believe it or not, I couldn't do long division. When I went to college, I decided to make up for this lack and took remedial classes. Eventually I majored in Engineering which required me to learn Calculus. I graduated with a 3.35 average. So I knew I could learn math--I could learn ANYTHING--if someone took the time to teach me.

So I was reluctant to try to learn a musical instrument in High School, you see, because I was very good at Art and Writing, and I couldn't stand to be a newbie at something and find I couldn't learn it--math all over again.

Looking over this rather self-indulgent blog, I know it sounds as though I'm dripping with self-pity. But actually I'm feeling pretty good today. What started this round of thought is that we have worked through page 95 of good old Alfred, and I've finally cracked--or at least begun to crack--these songs I'm working on which requires melodic lines with both hands. This is actual piano playing, albeit very simple. Teacher is taking me seriously and nagging me about technique, such as playing softer, louder, hands closer to the keys--you know; actual piano playing technique as opposed to just pushing keys in the right order. I'm LEARNING, you see.

Somewhere inside me is a little kid jumping up and down yelling "Its about time!"