Monday, November 29, 2010

Stubborn Brain

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Breathing is Fun

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Undercover Practice

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Me, Joplin and the Haunted Piano

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

I love It

I love my piano.

That pretty much says it for now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Wishes for Year Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Metronome.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Progress Report II

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

Progress Report

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

Teacher Found!

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Quest for a Teacher

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Alas, Am searching for a New Teacher.

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

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

Life's twists and turns.