Friday, December 23, 2011

Year End

For a little while my piano was inundated in Christmas accoutrements as we moved it aside from its corner location in order to erect our Yuletide tree. This year we gave our much-serviced artificial tree, which had stood tall for the past five years, to Goodwill and bought a live tree. Our cats love this, as my Lady cat lays beneath it like a panther and my male cat drinks from the reservoir. I took about a week off from playing and practicing as I concentrated on performing at Holiday parties and taking care of school preparations.

So this week I've played a little bit, and my teacher and I have taken several steps back: I'm concentrating on improving my sight-reading. Last lesson we spent working through several children's songs while I avoided watching my hands. I intend to practice this while I go to school until I gain proficiency. It's a real weakness, I think, that I can play some fairly advanced music but if I forget a part, I can't look at the music and instantly recognize were I am. I can't always rely on my memory. When I'm tired, or playing an unfamiliar piano, my memory sometimes fails me.

But then we have this other somewhat large shadow looming ahead of me: returning to school. I honestly don't know what I'm getting myself into. I may coast right through. Or it may take a while to catch my stride. So what to do about my piano practice? I don't know.

I guess I'll just have to take it a day at a time.

A new year is just ahead, with new challenges and new adventures. I'll turn fifty-two right in the middle of next year. When I was in High School I never thought I'd make it this far. And I'm going to go to college. Wow.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Piano Recital Ever

I Just returned from my first piano recital, at a retirement center here in town. I estimate about twenty-five people were in attendance. The weather was a rainy, sulky, slightly cold day. Six of us performed for the residents. Some of the little kids were very good. I went on third, and played The Entertainer and Cristofori's Dream. It was the first time I've ever played for anyone (seriously, the first time) and it felt weird, because I couldn't see the audience like I can when I perform my act. I had that feeling between my shoulder-blades you get when a predator is about to pounce. I tend to be slightly distrustful of people I don't know, and it's worse when I can't see them, but it helped that my teacher and her husband were there and I knew they had my back in the event the residents rose up in force like the villagers in an old Hammer movie to burn me at the stake. Most of the other players there had a fairly elaborate support group in place: parents, family--this was a big thing to them. I showed up alone. Nobody up here really cares enough about what I do to show up at my recitals, or to congratulate me that I was accepted at Indiana University to pursue my Master's Degree--a big step at age Fifty-one--or that I have begun drawing and painting again in pursuit of that goal: a Masters of Fine Arts. Am I feeling sorry for myself? Perhaps a little. It would be nice to have a cheering section at home. But perhaps it's the time of my life to go it alone for the time being.

But the recital was a new experience and I learned from it. Nobody threw anything at me so I guess it was fun, and the old parties didn't hit us with their canes so we survived the experience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Holiday Memory; or Why My Gigs are Better Than Your Gigs

I was once performing walk around palm reading at a New Year's Eve party, and a friend was playing steel guitar with his band on the stage (we had both been booked by the same agent). I took a break and was sipping a cold drink near stage listening, when he nodded at me to indicate a young lady on the dance floor. She was quite intoxicated and dancing without inhibition of any sort. Her male partner was spinning her round and round, and she surrendered willingly to the forces of gravity and inertia. The effects were fascinating as her ample attributes were barely--and I mean BARELY contained by a very low-cut denim bustier. The band members were all grinning like Cheshire cats as they enjoyed the floor-show.

At this point her equally-intoxicated partner gave her a vigorous spin, and as she reached the apogee of the orbit, snapped her arm to reel her back in. All of Newton's Laws kicked in and the top three buttons of the bustier gave way, freeing with considerable energy that which had formerly been contained. The spectacle was magnificent. As a man of artistic sensibilities, I applauded God's divine handiwork. My friend's steel guitar, up to this point so melodious and measured, emitted several discordant squawking sounds. The other band members carried on with heroic stoicism, although several jaws seemed to have dropped.

After what seemed like a very long time, the object of every male's attention noticed what had happened, screamed, attempted to draw closed the curtains of discretion, and ran from the dance floor, leaving us all poorer in spirit but richer for the memories.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I Tackle Bach

I've made some headway into this magnificent arrangement--by Camille Saint-Saens no less--of J.S. Bach's Sinfonia to Cantata # 23 Wie Danken Der Gott Wie Danken Der. This has always been one of my favorite pieces of music, usually played on the organ, using multiple stops and pedals, and is an amazing piece. I wondered if there was a good (operative word: "good") piano transcription of this and I began my search.

It took a while but I found the Saint-Saens transcriptions, as well as a video of a chap playing the living daylights out of it. I brought it to my teacher, who was quite excited at the prospect. We began to work on fingering. With Bach, fingering is essential.

I've pretty much memorized the first page and have made some headway into the second. It's such a dense work that this is barely a minute into it, but it's a start. I would never have believed I could play such a piece, not to mention even begin to tackle it after less than two years of lessons, but here I am. But on the other hand, a year ago I had only intended to learn the first part of The Entertainer and save the second part--which seemed incomprehensible to me--for my second year. Now I can play the entire doggone thing.

I'm going to New York City next week to attend the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in my life, as well as visit MOMA and the Guggenheim. I'll be so thoroughly steeped in culture I hope it fuels my way through the Sinfonia.

On December 4th I'm slated to play Christofori and the first two sections of The Entertainer at a recital, so I'm curious to see how this goes. I've never played for anyone before.

Friday, November 4, 2011

God No, A Review

Charles Cicardi Scott sent me this book, which is subtitled "Signs You May Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." Charlie told me he found it on the clearance rack at B&N for a buck, so if you want to read it, there you go. One dollar and about three hours of your life you can't get back.

I read it at Starbucks and at the allergist, where I go once a week to get my immunization shots, after which I have to sit for twenty minutes to see if I'm going to die from anaphylaxis. If I die, I want the last thing found clutched in my claws to be a book howling with atheist blasphemy. And this book fills the bill with interest. Penn loves to write about two thing: his genitalia, and how much he hates religion. Each page drips with contempt for piousness and descriptions of his dangling doodle.

I am not a fan of P&T. I don't like anyone who attacks the belief system of others for entertainment or for promoting their own agenda--and despite what P&T have said in interviews, both their show and Bulls*it are both redolent with Libertarianism and Atheism idealism. Both of which, oddly enough, I share, although not to the fanatical point of shoving down anyone's throats--which they seem intent on doing. So as both an atheist and Libertarian you would think I would like them. But I don't. People who rant and preach tend to make me tune out and go to my happy place, where large costumed people sing opera very loudly and 200-piece orchestras drown out conversation for miles around.

But about this book. If you like rants, it's pretty funny in places. He name-drops more than Kreskin (who, in one chapter, he trashes mercilessly and calls a scumbag) and it's obvious he craves attention and if he doesn't get it, he just yells louder and drops his pants--LITERALLY--and like a lot of fat guys (Chris Farley and John Belushi come to mind) he seems to be obsessed with getting naked as often as he can in public. He does this, he says, because he's a freedom-fighter who's making a statement in defense of the Bill of Rights. Groovy, but I'm a Libertarian too, and I have never appeared naked in airports. Perhaps he has blurred the subtle difference between "Libertarian" and "Libertine," which I have also done on occasion; an understandable malapropism.

Penn says there's no such thing as an agnostic. He says this is just an academic weaseling from people who are afraid to commit one way or the other. I find I tend to agree with this. Either you believe there is a Higher Power or you don't. Like being a little bit pregnant, this isn't something on which you can hedge your bets. He says "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer and I also agree with this. So did the early, original skeptics who concluded absolute knowledge of anything was impossible. On subjects like creator God, origin of the universe, the existence of a soul, the Buddha said, "Don't waste your time. Work out your own salvation with diligence." Not that I'm comparing Penn with the Buddha. Penn is an oleaginous slob with the social skills of a twelve year old, and I think this book is at least 60% self-serving flapdoodle; that he paints himself as far deeper and more reasonable than he actually is. Like a carny barker, he's presenting himself as a professor of erudition he doesn't possess. He's hung out with smart people and picked up some of the lingo but when he parrots it, it rings hollow. I keep in mind he's an illusionist, and that he's continually going for shock reaction, and that he hates religion. The chapter where he feeds bacon cheeseburgers to fallen Hasidim Jews and gloats with demonic glee is a good example. He's not content to simply dismiss the idea of God; he wants to take a crap on His head. Nothing seems to please him more than to piss off a pious person through some expression of outrageous blasphemy. This, to me, is childish. It was funny when you did it in high school, but like wearing a Karl Marx T-Shirt, once past the age of twenty-two it's no longer edgy and rebellious, it's just a lame cry for attention.

If you're going to read atheist literature, I guess this is a more entertaining read than Dawkins and if you can get it for a dollar or two why not?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Schooling Old School Style

I have made a midlife decision to return to school.

For the past couple of years I've been sifting through the dregs of my life in an attempt to re-do or undo all the events from my past which made me unhappy. Taking music lessons was the first step of this process, and all humanity marvels at the benefits the world has reaped from this foray into the musical arts. If nothing else, the literary legacy of this blog will survive the ages as one man's brave journey into the terrifying world of sharps and flats; of tremolos and crescendos; and of scary German composers.

But it's time to take the next and even bigger step. One of the major turning points of my life was the derailment of my Plan A into Plan B, which eventually led to my somewhat shaky career as a professional entertainer. Plan A was to pursue a college degree to the PhD level and teach Art. I was going to be a Professor. Various life passages occurred which made this impractical. Then I entered a long, demanding phase of my life where I was too emotionally drained to create artworks. Instead, I got a degree in the Engineering field (I know, a complete 180 degree turn there) and worked in that area for a while, where I wasn't particularly happy, and when the big Recession of the 1990's hit, I segued into entertainment as a way out of a completely miserable situation. It wasn't the work: it was the people. I found I hated over-analytical, opinionated nerds who knew everything. There are several factors contributing to this reaction, involving Jungian archetypes and deep reaction formations, but in summation, if anyone other than me acts in this pernicious manner, I can't stand it.

My undergraduate career at the University of Tennessee was marked with a series of disasters which would rival Odysseus' adventures. My living quarters burned down, forcing me to seek temporary shelter in the loft over a friend's bar (and try getting quality sleep directly over a jukebox booming until 3 AM--when you have 7:50 classes). Then the death of a parent. An expectant wife, impending parenthood. My car stolen and turning up, engine destroyed, in Evanston Indiana. Seeking various employments to support my family while juggling school. I finally realized this dream of mine wasn't meant to be. I dropped out of school and concentrated on supporting my family. Until I divorced, then I went to State College and earned the degree in the engineering field, and worked there for a while.

One of the problems that plagued me all my life was a lack of focus and discipline. My parents never ingrained these values in us. They were too busy engaging in marital warfare to take interest in raising their children to be successful students. I know my parents never made me do homework, nor helped me with it when I halfheartedly tried do it. I don't think either one of my parents could even do math, even if I were foolish enough to ask them to take a break from plotting each other's ruin to help me navigate the puzzling maze of long division. Furthermore, I've decided both my parents were masters of self-destructive behaviors, which they passed on to their kids. I know I've dropped time-bombs along the path of my success pretty much all my life which detonated just at the moment of victory. I've tried to stop doing that but old habits die hard. One other thing I learned over the years if if you have trouble completely wrecking your own success, hook up with a destructive or needy life-partner who will do it for you and save yourself a lot of planning and effort. This is another behavior I've tried to nip in the bud.

I was an adult before I figured out discipline. Discipline and focus are the same thing, and both require you to eliminate distractions. If you eliminate distractions from your work environment your mind will become bored and focus on the task at hand. One of the huge problems with our information-laden society is that there are so many interesting distractions all around us. Between Facebook, Tweeting, e-mails, and Internet surfing, it's a wonder anything gets done.

Back to my decision to continue my interrupted schooling, it turns out I have to perform a course-by-course credit transfer from my old courses from UT to my current intended college, Indiana University. The complication? When I went to school circa 1982 (yes, thirty years ago) we were on a quarter system, not semester. We also wrote on stone tablets and used abacuses in math class. So transferring credits becomes problematical. There is a concept in math called homogeneity of units, which means you do not perform operations with disparate units. You must convert them to similar units before performing mathematical operations. In other words, you don't multiply inches by feet--you must convert feet to inches first, then multiply or divide. Otherwise, buildings fall down. This type of error is actually more common that you might think--which is why buildings and bridges fall down. So my quarter-to-semester conversion is causing the system to choke, hiccough, sputter, and beat its cybernetic breast. Not since Captain Kirk hurled the Imponderable Paradox to Nomad has a computer system been presented with a more baffling conundrum. So far I've been sent to four different departments and spoken with six department heads. Nobody seems to know quite what to do with me. But the Admissions Department is processing my application for Spring semester (not quarter) so the gears are turning.

I am both excited and apprehensive. I have no doubt I'll ace the classroom studies. But the studio art classes? Well...it's been a very long time since I've spread my artistic wings. This may be a good thing as my former works were a bit childish. Although well-executed at times the concepts were usually immature. I have grown a bit in the past thirty years and look forward to seeing what visions erupt from my long-repressed artsy side.

I want to make it plain this decision isn't simply a mid-life whim nor an attempt to return to my youth. I'm redirecting my career path. I plan on going for a Master's degree with the intention of eventually teaching on the college level; which was my original plan. I can finish this program well before my mid-fifties. It's within the realm of possibility. Barring house fires, the earth swallowing me, my head exploding, or someone dropping a nuke on the Midwest, I foresee smooth sailing.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New Beginnings

As I put the finishing touches on THE ENTERTAINER (not quite mastered it yet, but have learned the entire opus, and am polishing the final two sections with laser-like diligence) Teacher and I set out to make a plan.We will finish out the year going over Cristofori's Dream line by line, polishing out the lumps, and I'll place it and The Entertainer on the practice list, and then we'll start on a new and exciting piece of music. I found a piano transcription, by none other than Camille Saint-Saens, of one of my favorite Bach pieces: The Sinfonia to Cantata Number 29. I first heard this in the 9th or 10th Grade I think, on an album of Bach pieces, and it has remained dear to me. It puts me in a happy place. Bach must have loved it too, as he recycled the piece at least a couple of times, as a Viola Partita and as a Lute Sonata.

I've included two videos here, both the original organ presentation of the Sinfona and the Saint-Saens piano transcription. I look forward to tackling this. I suppose it will take me a year or so to be able to play it at all. How long it will take to play it skillfully--who knows. But I love this piece so much I'm a highly motivated learner.








Monday, October 3, 2011

Octoberfest

It's now October, and I'm working on finishing up The Entertainer. I'm also looking into going back to school: Grad School that is, to work on a Masters Degree. A MFA, aka Masters of Fine Art. I will either focus on Art or Creative writing with the intent of teaching. I feel very peaceful at the thought of actually working toward a future, and not having to get up at the age of 75 and going out to perform shows.

I guess you're never too old to take care of unfinished business.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sediment

That goddamned D section of The Entertainer is finally sinking in and coming together, which is a relief, as it really isn't all that hard and I was afraid I was suffering brain damage from my new meds or from malnutrition from my recent fifteen pound weight reduction. But apparently my constant practice is paying off because today I've been playing it fairly smoothly. I also began work on the final verse, the E section, which is also fairly easy.

This is the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attack by criminals against the country, so the mood today is somber. I also found out the cemetery where my dad's buried has been bought, so apparently I need to deal with this odd situation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Father Guido

Virtually all musical compositions are recorded for posterity (for better or worse) in musical notation which has become systematized over a period of several centuries. The Grand Staff is a familiar icon even to non-musicians. Everyone recognizes sheet music.

But who came up with the idea of recording musical ideas as a line of dots and dashes on a grid of horizontal lines?

The answer is found in a Medieval text called the Micrologus, written around 1026 by a Benedictine monk by the name of Guido of Arezzo. The Micrologus became the most widely circulated treatise on musical theory during the middle ages, (which probably meant it was read by a hundred people) but what concerns us for the moment is that Fra. Guido, in this treatise, invented for the first time musical staff notation. Before then, the standard was Neumatic notation, an example of which is shown below, useful for Gregorian Chants and other monophonic works but for polyphonic compositions, well, something a little more sophisticated was required.

Fra. Guido noticed singers struggled to remember these Gregorian Chants and thought there had to be a better way than these somewhat arbitrary markings. As it turned out, there was. He published Micrologus and revolutionized music forever. If you look at the page from the Micrologus below, you'll see it isn't all that different from modern sheet music.

Take a moment to think about the momentousness of this accomplishment. In the 7th century musical scholar Isidore of Seville had written that it was impossible to accurately notate music. However, attempts to do so go back to 2000 BCE, although these efforts were very crude. An exact, scientific systematic approach had yet to be created. Guido took the first steps toward modern musical notation, and continued to develop musical instruction and notation all his life.

Apparently Fra. Guido's radical theories attracted the hostility of the other monks at the Abby at Pomposa, and he had to move to Arezzo, a more progressive town, to further pursue his musical experimentation. Arezzo had no Abby, but it did have a plethora of cathedral singers, whose training Bishop Tedald invited him to undertake. In subsequent years Fra. Guido developed valuable techniques, including a mnemonic which was the forerunner of our "Do-Re-Mi" system. He taught the use of "Solmization" syllables based on a hymn to Saint John the Baptist which begins "Ut Queant Laxis" and was written by the Lombard historian Paul the Deacon. The first stanza is:
  1. Ut queant laxis
  2. resonare fibris,
  3. Mira gestorum
  4. famuli tuorum,
  5. Solve polluti
  6. labii reatum,
  7. Sancte Iohannes.
Guido used the first syllable of each line, Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol and La, to read notated music in terms of hexachords; they were not note names, and each could, depending on context, be applied to any note. In the 17th century, Ut was changed in most countries except France to the easily articulated Do, derived from the name of the Italian theorist Giovanni Battista Doni. Si, which has the S of Sancte and the I of Iohannes, was added in modern times.

Fra. Guido, who seemed sympathetic to the plight of musicians plagued with the task of memorizing abstract concepts of musical theory, also developed an interesting technique for mapping musical tones to the human hand.

Little is known of Guido d/Arrezzo's later years. It's known he attracted the attention of Pope John XIX, who invited him to Rome, where he went in 1028, but he returned to Arezzo soon due to poor health. After that, there is no information available about him, but his legacy to music--the Grand Staff--changed the world.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Is a Workhorse

In between my professional duties, I am making progress refining the 'D' Section of my personal Aegean task, The Entertainer. For the past few days I've been ironing out pauses between the various phrases--I call these fragmentations--in order to make that lovely up-and-down movement do just that: flow up and down like water (or Ale, I suppose, considering the time and place the composition was conceived) . I've made considerable progress. And predictably took a couple of steps back on the first sections. This happens to me. Perhaps it happens to everyone. It seems when I upset the dynamic of a piece it takes a little while to re-establish the equilibrium. But the end result is a more solid construction.

According to the meter at the allergy clinic, mold spore and weed pollen is very high, so I feel tired and feverish, the curse of the allergy-prone. But the good news is I feel a thousand times better than I did this time last year, thanks to good meds and allergy inoculations. So that witch-doctory works after all.

In other news, good news too, my weight reduction efforts are paying off, I've dropped about twelve pounds.


Monday, August 29, 2011

First Upload for you Happy Listen Fun Joy

I finally recorded a practice session and it was, for the most part, horrendous. But I captured a snippet of The Entertainer that wasn't half bad, if a little heavy on the pedal. Here is an upload of the first section as played by me. I spared you the ear-torturing second section, as I haven't quite got it up to speed yet--but will soon. Not to mention third and fourth section, on which I am, yes indeed, working with laser-like diligence. So here is my very first audio upload, and despite a little overcaution and some hesitation here and there I thought it was coming along quite nicely for a chap who a year ago was practicing scales.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Attack

Attack is a term which describes how you hit the keys. It's a macho word intended to make us foppish piano guys feel like real men as we daintily pluck away at our effete pursuits, hoping we won't succumb to ferocious bouts of nosebleeds or consumption. I'll comment in my snobby way that in most Rock n' or Roll attack doesn't matter, because most of those guys flail away at the keys like Bobby Brown going after Whitney Houston (ouch) but when you actually play with consideration toward expression, you have three things to consider: pressing the key, holding the key, and releasing the key. Each moment of contact affect how the tone sounds.

If you hit the key quickly, and release immediately, this produces staccato--a short burst of sound. If you begin the next note before the last note ends, this smooth, liquid transition is legato, and a seamless legato is hard to master, but oh, so desirable an effect to attain. A rising inflection is a crescendo; a descending inflection is retardato.

Complications arise when you realize musical compositions are constructed of complex arrangement of notes. Chords can consist of three, four or five tones. Sometimes a chord may sound better if different notes receive more emphasis than others.

I recently realized this about the first section of The Entertainer.

Yes, just when I thought I had it licked. it occurred to me the upper note of the octave, the key played by the little finger, needed more emphasis. So I began "leading" with the fifth finger instead of the first (that's the thumb for regular human beings). Of course, this threw off the entire dynamic and I had to slow down to reorient. But it did sound a lot better. Brighter, happier.

But my litter finger aches.

I'm working on the D section of Joplin's brilliant little work, a section so different from what went before in mood-- even a different key, the key of F Major--it might have been excerpted from another composition. It seems simpler and easier to play so I hope to learn it quickly. Section "C" is coming along, even the second iteration which is an octave higher. By Christmas I think I'll have something to cheer about.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I'm Going to the Opera

I decided it was time to take care of the second item on my "To Do" list (the first being the very reason this blog emerged from the quantum fog of imponderables: my decision to study music). I made arrangements to make a Spirit Quest to New York with my son to the Metropolitan Opera. To be more specific, we're going to the November 19th 2011 showing of Phillip Glass's opera Satyagraha, a lovely work honoring Mahatma Gandhi. I'll embed a music file you can listen to as I relate my tale.




My involvement with this work goes back almost thirty years. I first heard parts of it on NPR, and I knew I had to have it. The opera premiered in 1980, the year my son was born, and it seems to me I heard it around that time, but I could be mistaken. It was, after all, a while ago. Perhaps the broadcast I heard was the 1984 performance by the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, which was released as a boxed record set. At that time there was a record store which carried Classical music and they had ordered albums for me in the past. I recall the manager's name was Andy, and once he had obtained for me the complete Khachaturian Gayne Ballet from Russia. You could not at that time purchase the complete Gayne anywhere but Russia because of Soviet proscriptions concerning the exportation of native music. I recall the boxed set of Gayne, which I still have, cost the outrageous sum of $30 (1980 dollars at that).

So Andy, known to me and my friend Donahue as The Insomniac for reasons too lengthy to go into here--but mainly because he had eyes like a lemur which never blinked and who spoke at a data rate rivaling DSL--obtained for me the boxed Satyagraha. I made a condensed jam tape of highlights on cassette tape for my car and it accompanied me in my journeys.

At that time I worked at the State Mental Hospital (I ain't making this up) while I was in school, and I worked with a chap named Mark who was fascinated by my unusual musical taste. I had introduced him to Frank Zappa, who Mark probably liked as much for the racy lyrics as the blistering guitar solos. So I brought my new acquisition to work with me to play on the turntable in our breakroom. Esther, who was a very funny redneck lady who weighed in at around 400 pounds, was horrified by the sounds issuing forth. "Jesus Lord Mary and Joseph," she declared, "That sounds like Communism." She delivered this verdict in a honeyed Southern drawl nuanced with smoker's rasp and conditioned with obesity-induced apnea. She goggled at me like I had lost my mind for listening to such cacophony, a look to which I had grown inured since age twelve and my initial infatuation with Wagner, as related on Page One of this self-indulgent spew.

Knoxville in the early 1980's was not ready for the music of a visionary like Phillip Glass. I suppose there was a cultural cadre of fops huddled together away from the drunken mobs of UT Football fans stumbling around like moonshine-fueled hyenas, listening to John Adams and Phillip Glass and possibly even John Cage and Henryk Gorecki, stroking their beards, nodding sagely, and muttering, "Hrmm....Indeed...." at perfectly appropriate intervals. If such an Underground Cabal existed, I had not as yet discovered the key to admission.

Anyway, I found the music beautiful, and my wife of that era found it maddening. Literally. She said it drove her insane. Satyagraha is a composition without brass of any kind, performed entirely by strings and woodwinds, with Glass's trademark repetitive compositional style; and this seems to irritate some people. My son grew up listening to Zappa, Wagner, Glass, Gregorian chants, my weirdo friends and I discussing philosophy and theology, me levitating off the ground and pulling my eye from my skull; not your normal East Tennessee upbringing. Eventually I overheard him listening to the very music he heard as a toddler. I had corrupted him. Sometimes I think in this society where "music" is Lady Ga-Ga, and grunts and profanity accompanied by electronic noise, it may not be doing your kids a favor instilling a love of good music. I know most of my life I have been partnered with lovers and spouses who didn't share my love of theater and music, and this isn't something I would bequeath my descendents. I envy people who can go to concerts and sit hand-in-hand with someone who shares their interest in the Great Masters. When I go to the Opera, I sit alone, or rather it's just me and the composer. But it's enough. Probably the only times in my life I'm truly happy is when performing before an audience who truly gets it, and when I'm listening or watching opera.

So New York is on my itinerary. I have bought the tickets, two seats behind the conductor, and booked the flight. So devious is my plan is that I bought tickets for the performance which will be broadcast in HD in theaters, so I can watch MYSELF watching the opera when it goes into encore presentation two weeks later. And the most beautiful part of this master plan is that when Satyagraha comes out on DVD my great moment will be captured forever. My son and I, in New York, looking out at the world, closing a cycle that began thirty years ago--or in my case, forty years ago with a two-dollar purchase of Das Rheingold purchased from a discount book store--saying, "Suck it Knoxville." And the Fops in their secret underground cabal will stroke their chins, nod and say, "Hmm.....INDEED."


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Beat Goes On

I have been giving some thought (a dangerous practice) to the subject of tempo, because The Entertainer has a notation at the beginning--by the composer--Not Fast. Music of the Night is to be played Andante, which means "at walking speed." My problem is I tend to walk at a rapid clip, so slowing down for these pieces is problematical.

With the aid of our trusty friend, the Metronome, we can keep to a certain tempo without committing the sibling sins of rushing or dragging, and through steady practice learn to play at a smooth, even pace. Of course, andante for one performer may not be as leisurely as for another, and much of music is subjective. So I have different versions of--for example--Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony which differs by as much as seven minutes in duration.

Weary of this madcap anarchy, along comes Beethoven, who was the first to actually instruct us seekers exactly what tempo he required of us. His compositions have notations at the top telling us to set the Metronome at 120 beats per minute, for example, and by God you'd better do it or he'll rise from the grave and scream "Nein!" while you're trying to master the Tremolo at the beginning of Appassionata. Although come to think of it, an enraged German specter screaming at you while you practice may be quite beneficial for your Tremolo.

And what does one make of the heretical Gustav Mahler who not only made tempo notations in polylingual form--mixing Italian, French and German-- but also in paragraphs. For example, the second Movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb: "a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution." Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his Symphony No. 6, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig "Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous."

Tempo is usually suggested in Italian, since in the Seventeenth century the Italians pretty much had a lock on musical convention. By then, the Medicis had poisoned or exiled anyone who tried to challenge their idea of what looked or sounded good. You didn't screw around with the Medicis, especially Catherine. Catherine de Medici would poison you for failing to compliment her new bodice. Interestingly, during the Renaissance music was assumed best played at the rate of the human heartbeat, which at a Medici's gathering could possibly be zero beats per minute if you ticked them off. Even assuming you survived all seven courses of a Medici banquet without succumbing to painful death, this doesn't help the musician much, since the resting heartrate of a trained athlete vs. a morbidly obese and inebriated Neapolitan Libertine could vary quite a bit. To add further confusion to the musical historian's already befuddled pate, terms have changed meaning over time. Largo, for instance, which today means "broadly" used to mean "fast." Probably that heartbeat thing again. We're more conscientious these days concerning cardiovascular health.

Here is a list of sundry tempo terminologies:

  • Larghissimo — very, very slow
  • Grave — slow and solemn
  • Lento — slowly
  • Largo — broadly
  • Larghetto — rather broadly
  • Adagio — slow and stately (literally, "at ease")
  • Adagietto — rather slow
  • Andante Moderato — a bit slower than andante
  • Andante — at a walking pace
  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato — moderately
  • Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato — moderately quick
  • Allegro — fast, quickly and bright
  • Vivace — lively and fast (quicker than allegro)
  • Vivacissimo — very fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo — very fast
  • Presto — very fast
  • Prestissimo — extremely fast

Additional Terms:

  • A piacere — the performer may use his own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"[3]
  • L'istesso tempo or Lo stesso tempo — at the same speed
  • Tempo comodo — at a comfortable (normal) speed
  • Tempo di... — the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march))
  • Tempo giusto — at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo semplice — simple, regular speed, plainly
I never bothered to memorize all of this; if I run across something I don't know I have a handy little book which I can consult. (What's that you say? The Internet? I have no confidence in this new-fangled Interweb. Probably the invention of the Devil designed to spread misinformation and Idolatry.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life Without Meds: Better?

For a number of years, probably more than a decade, I was on a couple of meds for my bipolar condition. These meds were also supposed to subdue my compulsive behaviors and improve my impulse control.

Did they work? Yes--or something did. However, there were side effects. The most prominent one, it turned out, was that many, many people experienced hair loss from taking one of the two meds I was prescribed. As it turned out, so did I. Male pattern baldness doesn't run on either side of my family, yet I have a shining bald spot leering at the word from the apex of my dome.

So I decided to wean myself from the meds, one at a time, slowly. I found my view of the world became clearer; in other words I could perceive with much greater intensity all the aspects of this crappy world I hate. I also found I didn't agonize over purchases, I just made them. Amazon's stocks rose 10% during this med-free period.

The one aspect of my impulse control I couldn't grasp has involved food. At one time, during the medicated period, I dropped down to 195 pounds. My weight has increased by about 25 pounds since I moved to Indiana and got married. I turn to food for comfort and self-reward, you see.

Of course I was sick all last year and couldn't breathe, so this has to be factored into the equation. yet 25 pounds is a significant weight gain, and as the saying goes it's a lot easier to put on than take off. I've been working out again, about 3-4 days a week, with my doc's approval. He said to do aerobics to improve my lung function. So I do; 45-55 minutes on a variable treadmill, which takes my up and down hills at a speed (so far) of 3 miles per hour. I intend to increase both speed and intensity over time.

Yet this exercise isn't going to accomplish much if I can't control my snack-attacks. I've reached the conclusion that without help, I cannot. I've always been obsessive-compulsive. I don't know what it's like not to be. Anything which is pleasurable and mood-altering becomes the seed of compulsive behavior. I admit it, I'm afraid I do need those meds to help control my compulsive eating habits.

Wonder how I'll look completely bald? Guess I'll find out.

Ah me. I thought I could fix myself but apparently I cannot.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Foppery

I wrote before about my development as a Fop, from early childhood to full-blown adult Fopdom. I was thinking about my childhood (always a dangerous activity) and I recalled an incident from around 1970, when I was in the fifth grade. My family was at the fair and I, being closest to the ground, saw a small coin purse. You know, one of those cloth bags that snap shut at the top. I soon discovered this bag held around $30 hard cash. Since there was no identification along with the money, and no way to find who dropped it, the boodle was mine.

You would think a ten year old kid with $30 1970 dollars would buy toys and other such idle fripperies. But not I--I wanted to go clothes shopping.

At the time there was a store called Atlantic Mills, where my mom loved to shop. So off we went, my new-found wealth in hand, to buy clothes. My mom made suggestions, but the final decision was mine. I bought shirts with loud, colorful patterns and a pair of red Converses. I have a copy of my school picture for the fifth grade and I'm staring down the camera with a firm gaze of cool contempt. I don't think anyone knew I was trying to look like the dignified, proud lords rendered by Howard Pyle in The Legend of King Arthur and His Knights. I'm bedecked in one of my acquisitions; a purple and white checkered shirt.

After coming to school for two solid weeks resplendent in a different new shirt each day, my fifth-grade teacher asked "Did you spend ALL that money on clothes?" Her tone of surprise communicated to me for the first time perhaps my actions weren't typical of a ten-year old kid. As for my classmates, they couldn't care less if I had upgraded my appearance; I was still weird and--believe it or not--only one of TWO chubby kids. Now times have changed. If you look at a typical Elementary School assembly, fat kids are in the majority.

My peers thought I was weird for a number of admittedly valid reasons. For one thing, I read books such as Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, tales of knighthood and chivalry, and other literature from a bygone era and a distant culture, and I imitated the speech of those noble characters. Furthermore, I had absolutely no interest in sports and this alone proved I was some fantastical, alien creature.

I still love buying clothes. In my day-to-day life I tend to dress casually, but my professional wardrobe is resplendent. I once pent $200 on a belt. I don't think my dad ever spent more than $2 for a belt, and he wore the same one for twenty years as far as I could tell. I can explain where this tendency for dandiness came from. Certainly not my environment. Past life? Who can say? All I can say is "Greetings and Felicitations, everyone."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Spreading Out

Today I'm puttering around the house thinking about how I would like to explore other musical instruments. I gave in to my constant yearning for a Theremin and finally bought one, which is amusing me greatly, and I've also always been fascinated with an Indian (that's East Indian, not Red Indian) keyboard instrument called a Harmonium. Here to the left is a picture of this cool device and a video that will knock your socks off:



Honestly I probably won't buy a Harmonium any time soon, though I may start hinting broadly about Christmas gifts in a wistful intonation. A good Harmonium can cost from $800- $1200, although cheaper models can be had for around $300. But the key word is cheaper. I would rather spend the extra money and have something decent, which won't explode the third time I try to play it. If I had possessed an iota of confidence my piano studies were anything other than a passing phase, I would have bought a really good piano, like the one I have now, rather than progressing in stages to better and better keyboards. As it turned out I've clung to music studies like a barnacle to a walrus, so everything worked out according to my mad vision.

While the Harmonium will have to remain in the realm of gleeful potential for the time being, on the other hand, another instrument which I recall fiddling with in my callow youth was an Ocarina. This is a more affordable and compact instrument with which I could play and not have it take up 3/4th of my living space. A company called Mountain Ocarina crafts several swell little models, so I picked up the C & G package for under $50.

With a surge of self-awareness which impressed even me, I realized what I'm doing is making up for my childhood. I'm doing things for myself my parents wouldn't or couldn't do: studying music in elementary school was something I wanted but my Mom was convinced it was another scam the schools cooked up to "get your money," so that was out. I used to invent instruments involving tin cans, rubber bands, twine, pipes, plastic detritus which probably killed large portions of my liver, various kitchen utensils and dangerous tools, you name it.

And one lesson which was woefully and prominently absent in my upbringing was self-discipline; or for that matter discipline of any variety. I saw my mom literally give up trying to hang a shelf from the wall. All you had to do was drive a couple of nails or screws, and attach the shelf, but mom would get mad and try to drive the screws in with a hammer, bend them over into twisted angles--and the shelf tilted so far forward anything place upon it eventually slid off--but mom shrugged and said it was good enough. Half-assing was a way of life with my family; if it wasn't easy it wasn't worth doing. Impulse control? Hah, say again?

I finally learned the hard way the family dynamic only delivered a frustrated, angry existence and if you wanted a better life with an iota of autonomy, you had to work for it. I buckled down in college after a while and became the first--and so far only--member of my family to earn not one but two college degrees. Why two? I guess I wanted to prove to myself the first time wasn't an accident.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Yesterdays

Yesterday I didn't have a brain in my head. My teacher had errands to run, so Fate smiled upon me and I didn't have to go to my lesson, where nothing would have seeped into my buzzing haid. My lesson was rescheduled for today, and I feel slightly more focused and a bit less exhausted.

I think my three-times a week exercise program takes something out of me. I'm not sure why. I can't be that out of shape, so I wonder if this lack of oomph isn't allergies and heat taking their toll. I was told it might take a year before I saw dramatic improvement from my allergy immunotherapy. But I am better than last year, when I couldn't breathe. But I do wonder why I tire so easily. My annual check-up didn't reveal anything amiss, although the doc said I need to lose weight: hence the resumption of my exercise program even though I don't feel like it.

Most mornings I wake up sore, tired, and experiencing a malaise similar to how I remember a hangover feels. It takes a couple cups of coffee and about two hours before I feel human again. So every day I try to shake off whatever-this-is and take care of myself. I've cut my food intake back a bit, and increased my activity level, so maybe it will just take a while to adjust.

I've also weaned myself off two medications intended to make me feel better. One of these I had been on for eight years; the other six or so. I actually feel better--more alert--off the meds, although I'm not sure anyone can be objective about their own life. A couple of friends have asked me if I'm all right, but other than being tired I think my spirits are good.

I practice my piano obsessively, sometimes until the tendons of my hands and arms are achy, and I'm making progress but still wish I could learn faster, or that I had started lessons ten years ago. I think my dissatisfaction arises from not having anyone with whom to compare notes. I compare myself with myself, and the way music sounds in my head is perfect and easy. The way I play it though, falls far from the ideal. Yet when I make even a little progress I rejoice. I'm closer.

In a world as crappy as this, any reason to rejoice is a good one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mo Better Progress

I have finally tackled both the "B" AND "C" section of The Entertainer, and by God am making regular progress with both. The "C" section is essentially a reprise of "B" but an octave higher. It took me a while to figure out the 8va note applied to both hands or just the right hand, and I finally decided after listening to a recording of Scott Joplin playing the piece, it only applies to the right hand.

Which magically transformed a section of music I could play more or less well into something entirely different. You wouldn't think separating the hands by an additional octave would make a difference, but it does. For one thing, I can no longer watch both hands at once. The hands are too far apart. So it occurs to me to learn the right hand piece without looking, like I did with "A" section. Fortunately, I've practiced enough to where my hand half-ass knows the intervals, so it's just a mater of a little more practice.

I've also almost powered through the entire right-hand part for Music of The Night. It's a simple piece but replete with chord inversions and augmentations, so I'm picking up a smattering of Music Theory as I go. I should have the entire thing down in two more weeks.

I've retired Cristofori from learning to practicing, so I just play it a couple of times a day, working on the lumps in the gravy as I go. My next two pieces are going to be Claire de Lune and this very nice arrangement of Whiter Shade of Pale.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Musicality

One of the people who came to look at my piano-for-sale was a sweet little lady who played Southern Gospel on it, and as she worked through the piece she mentioned she didn't read music. Yet she could play a fairly complex piece.

I don't understand how one learns a musical work without reading music. I suppose you can watch someone play it over and over--like a lot of YouTubers apparently do--or work it out on your own through repeated listening, but man that seems hard.

Further investigation revealed a lot of people, many of whom were in High School Band, couldn't read music. I was told by one acquaintance he just "copied the motions" to play the music. Once I was at a music store while this guy in his mid-twenties shopped for a piano for his wife. He played a few keyboards, and played quite well. Subsequent conversation revealed he never studied music nor could he read sheet music. In his words, he had a God-given gift. This is what I mean by "musicality," being born with an innate sense of what sounds good. I study music theory to attain what some people have from birth.

God must hate me, because although I love music, I have no gift for it. I have to have the sheet music memorized before I can play a piece. If I sounded out any piece--play it by ear--it would always come out in the Key of C. Complex chords, such as those consisting of four notes or more--fuggedaboudit. Even with the music in front of me I sometimes have trouble, especially in Minor or Flat keys, where you have to remember a lot of Sharps and Flats as well as the flow of notes. I yearn for musical expertise like a person in love yearns for the woman he can never have. My love for music, in other words, is an unrequited one. My Muse is apparently a femme fatale.

It took me about two weeks of fairly focused study to learn the basics of musical notation; well enough to pick my way through most sheet music. A year and a half later the only time I have to stop and think about it is when the notes fall on Ledger Lines, those lines that extend above and below the Grand Staff.

With music you have instant feedback. Something either sounds the way you hear it in your mind or it doesn't. When it sounds good you experience instant gratification. When it sounds sour, you know you need to work on it. When a beginner succeeds in tapping out a familiar melody, and then learns to use both hands in coordination, the feeling of joy is indescribable. Since most people who play seem to have begun when they were children, I don't know if they remember (or if they ever experienced) this giddy feeling when everything starts to come together. Starting in mid-life, though, has the advantage of perspective, and gives an adult permission to be a child once again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Eagle Has Landed, or; Frontal Lobotomy in the Key of E


My new piano, the Casio Celviano 240, is assembled and set up in the space the Casio Privia used to occupy. I've played with it--and on it--a bit but the effort of putting it together by myself sapped me a bit. The box weighed 137 pounds, and I had to help the UPS guy carry it off the truck and into my home. I am not exaggerating when I say the box was as large as a refrigerator, The UPS guy had a worried expression, bordering on panic, Like the expression a man get when he has to pass gas urgently, but isn't sure if it's actually gas or a bout of Montezuma's revenge. He seemed better when I offered to help him.

The CRATE sat on my floor for all of thirty minutes because while my old piano sat smugly against the wall, there was not an inch of room left to assemble this behemoth. Shortly, the chap who bought my Privia came over and handed me an impressive wad of cash, and left with my former love in his trunk. He's a serious musician, though, so the old keyboard is in good hands I think.

The directions say it requires two people to assemble the Celviano, but I accomplished it solo in less than an hour with my cat supervising. I plugged it in, turned it on, and for a moment was afraid to press a key--what if after all that, the keyboard didn't work? There are forces in this universe which seem to take a great glee in crushing the will to live clean out of my soul. However, it did work, and work beautifully.

One thing I immediately noticed was the keyboard of the piano is higher than my old one. I extended my bench to the highest level and it was still not to my familiar height. I did find, however, bringing the keyboard closer meant I could see it better. I can sit on a cushion if I need the height, but I think I'll try this way for a while.

The pictures on the internet do not do the Celviano justice. It is a lovely thing; the faux wood cabinet is rich and classy in appearance. The sound of the piano is terrific, especially through headphones or external speakers. The on-board speakers are pretty good, but do not quite have the clarity of what you hear through the headphones or a speaker system. However, they're still very good and produce a rich sound.

The "touch" of the keys, with their faux-ivory finish, is excellent. I think it will help bridge the gap between my home practice and the feel of my teacher's Steinway.

It also comes with a huge onboard music library the piano can play automatically, and --get this--a thick book of sheet music for the pieces in the library. How cool. I'm quite happy with it.

I Play Good music, but I Don't Play Music Good.

It's true. I select all these lovely pieces to learn and although I've come a long way for an old dude who never studied music before a year and a half ago, I still lack finesse. I would love to play any of the pieces I've learned all the way through--once--without making a single mistake.

I began this journey with a tour guide named Alfred. When I started learning about the lovely piano, my first teacher and I worked through Alfred's Piano Course for Adults, Book One. We sped through the first book rapidly, in eight months as I recall, and had begun Book Two when my teacher vanished. She had serious health issues and I couldn't find out anything about her once she went into the hospital for heart surgery, so all I can do is wish her the best and hope she made it through all right.

My new teacher doesn't use Alfred's instructional course. We jumped into learning actual pieces. Which I liked, because I felt like a "real" pianist. She says I'll learn what I need to know as we go along, and this seems to be working quite well. So far I've picked up quite a bit of musical theory from studying the four pieces on which I've focused.

Yet my Alfred Book Two forlornly stares at me. Almost accusatory. So it occurs to me that I could, at this point, work through Alfred II on my own while also working on my formal lessons. I will need to free up more time, but hey--sleep can wait.

In other news my NEW PIANO is out for delivery, according to UPS ( pronounced "oops") so I'm sticking close to home to wait on it. UPS has a habit of hiding behind the other building and waiting until the exact moment I run out on a brief errand to come by and stick a notice on my door saying "Ha ha--missed you again. Sorry."

I'm also waiting for the chap who bought my old digital Piano, the Privia, to drop by and line my palm with ducats. So it is a day celebrating the Circle of Life--if not the Circle of Fifths, as the Lord Giveth and takes away.

Speaking of the Circle of Fifths, this is a fascinating thing. In essence you begin at the Key Of C and then count up five tones, which brings you to G. From G it's five tones to D, etc.

So what good is this? the beginner asks. Why not do ABCDEFG, as God and the Board of Education intended? What you learn is that as you circumnavigate the Circle of Fifth, you add one sharp to each key as you go around. In other words, C has no sharps, G has one, D has two sharps, etc.

Now when you get to the keys of B-major and F-major, some of the rules change, but the Circle still applies. There is even an "Inner Circle" for Flat keys. And of course a series of nifty mnemonic acronyms, such as Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Bologna; or Fat Cops Get Doughnuts After Every Bust.

But if you practice and learn in a systematic fashion, you don't need mnemonics. I learned the Major Scales in the order of the Fifths and when I practice the scales I do it in the same order, so one day I woke up and realized I knew the Circle of Fifths. Hoorah.

Next, I hope one day soon to wake up and be a prodigy. Um, it could happen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Refining Gold from Ore

I find the more I practice a piece the more I find "cracks" or fractures in it. The parts of Cristofori that sound really good only accentuates the parts that are still clunky, so I practice the fractures more to refine them. Then when they sound good, other points call out to me that they crave attention. It seems like progress, at least for me, consists of three steps forward and two a-widdershins.

While it occurs to me perfection isn't possible, nonetheless there has to be a point where you say good enough. Otherwise you drive yourself crazy striving toward a pinnacle of perfection which isn't obtainable in the mortal coil. One begins to feel like Sisyphus pushing his stone, and we all know how painful pushing a stone where it doesn't want to go can be.

But where is that line? When and where do you cross the finish line? I think a lot of people give up long before they can even see the finish line. Especially when the practice is hard, and when practice is the one and only way to achieve the goal. If you look on e-Bay and Craig's List, you find the detritus cast aside by frustrated would-be musicians: instruments for sale at a fraction of their original price, put on the block festooned with taglines such as Mint condition, Seldom used, Like new. These are the sad relics of dreams gone to despair. You observe this phenomenon with exercise equipment too; someone decides to erect a home gym in the spare bedroom, and six weeks later they're selling off the weight bench because of the astonishing discovery that exercise is hard, and it takes a consistent dedication to practice to carve out that Godlike body.

When I decided to take piano lessons (and has it been a year and a half already?) I bought a reasonably good keyboard, a $125 Yamaha, serviceable but far short of the stature of the piano I have now. The reason for this was I knew very well many people quit when the effort required to reach a goal becomes too intimidating, and in the past I have done exactly the same with many things. My personal history is a conglomeration of passions embraced then set aside. I am a dabbler in many areas where perseverance is the watchword, and I never persevered. The one exception is my own profession, and I sometimes took years to master the skillsets required.

The key element, I think, is desire. How badly do you want the prize? I know I always wanted to know more about music, and there were songs I wanted intensely to play. So I bought an inexpensive keyboard to see if I was going to stick with it.

As it turned out, I not only stuck with it, my initial interest flowered into full-blown obsession. So I sold my Yamaha and bought the Privia. For me, this was a huge investment in nothing more than a belief in myself. The Privia is a great instrument, and many pros use it, but when it became clear I was in the race for the long haul, I felt it was time for something that more closely emulated a real piano. Hence the bold and rather extravagant purchase of the Casio Celviano 420. My other option was to go for a Clavanova, but we're talking about a jump in price from $1100 to $3000. Perhaps in a couple of years. Financing a piano is darned close to financing an automobile.

While waiting for the Celviano, I've practically memorized the Owner's Manual. I have mastered all the various functions and sundry bells-and-whistles without ever laying phalanges on the dang thing. UPS hasn't updated the tracking information in three days, which, considering my past history concerning the juxtaposition of UPS and pianos, inspires a sense of rampant unease. But it is the weekend after all, and I hope to wake up tomorrow (Monday) with news from my Celviano informing me it's well, having a great time perambulating from Las Vegas to Indiana, and is anxious to meet me.

Let's not even consider what will happen if it arrives beaten to pieces. I'll curse the Fates so loudly it will ring the welkin in Valhalla.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

For My Own Sake, I Crash and Burn

Was supposed to attend a picnic/recital today at my Piano Teacher's place, and while I relished the chance to meet other fellow travelers, I had to pass. I performed four hours of fast-paced readings and other miracles last night in a loud, noisy club until 2 AM, and woke up today achy and tired, and I have to do it again tonight. So I slept very late, ran necessary errands, and made myself ready for the second half of the gig tonight. It's a very enjoyable gig, it's just been a long time since I've worked a busy, noisy environment for such a long stretch. It's taking a while to catch my stride. Tonight will be busier and louder, but I'll be more accustomed to it.

But I did practice, and incremental progress seeps into my calcified brain. I was delighted that many of the rough spots in Cristofori are working themselves out, and that The Entertainer is coming along, and I even have memorized fairly consistently the first 3 1/2 (out of five) pages of Music of the Night. I do wish I felt better but if I tried to perform this afternoon, I'm afraid on top of the strain of tonight, it would be too much.

In other news I've acquired a Theremin, which is arriving Monday, so I'll have something to occupy my mind while waiting on my new Piano (which is scheduled for delivery Wednesday by end of day). I'm wagering on END OF DAY, like around 7:0o PM, so as the Gods of Chaos can eke every morsel of enjoyment from my suffering. My new Theremin was acquired through a complex three-way negotiation which would require a flowchart to describe. It looks like the picture to the left:


The new Piano has a USB-to-Computer connection, and an on-board recorder with SD chip, so I'll be able to record my progress. If the result isn't too appalling, I'll post the samples here. I've never been able to get the MIDI-to-computer connection to work, I think because I lack proper software. An on-board SD chip will make transferring files a cinch. All I gotta do is move the chip from the piano to the computer and et voila--the deed is done. I hope. Procedures which seem to work effortlessly for some people can quite often frustrate my best attempts for weeks. Tech support at Microsoft now know me on a first-name basis and due to many hundreds of hours spent on the phone with same, I can understand fluent Hindu-English. Of course I had many years of practice deciphering Southern English, which really isn't all that different.

I can also apparently upload music files to play while I practice. If this actually works, it should greatly accelerate my learning curve. In addition, unlike my previous Digital Piano the Celviano has an on-board Metronome,which will be very cool on the frequent occasions I have to practice in Silent-with-headphones mode so as not to enrage the neighbors at 3 AM, or wake up wife, which is worse, as she lives close enough to bludgeon me into unconsciousness with one of the heavier Buddha statues we have scattered through the apartment.

Another technical finesse I've learned is that playing piano (soft) passages doesn't necessarily mean you strike the keys with wimpy strokes. I find if I do this, I drop out notes, especially on a piano with heavy keys. What I found out is if you maintain a firm finger and press slower, you fully depress the key. The same firmness applies to forte (strong) playing but the stroke velocity is faster.

I spoke to a lady who plays piano fairly well, but she doesn't read sheet music. I wonder how you learn a new piece without reading music? Playing by ear I understand, but some pieces have complex chords and passages. Is it possible to listen to a piece over and over and figure out all the chords by yourself? I suppose, but what a long and hard way that would be. I also observed many people watch YouTube videos and learn that way. The very thought of that makes me tired and wanting a sandwich.

It took me a couple of months to learn to read music, and it really wasn't that hard once you understand the "alphabet," so I wonder why more people don't learn this second language. Seems like it would make things a lot easier. But people are pretty resourceful so I suppose whatever works. That sandwich sounds pretty good; think I'll sign off and make one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I go Insane

Ah yes, the life of an obsessive-compulsive personality is a rich mine-car ride of of dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and creamy middles. Once something fixes my full attention, I CANNOT let go until the subject at hand is resolved.

I posted last time I purchased a Ceviano 220 digital piano, but after reading some more about it I upgraded my upgrade to the Celviano 240, which is one down from Casio's highest-end Celviano models (which is 260), The only advantage I could see in the 260 was an LED readout (yawn) and slightly louder speakers. And more digital sound effects and other bells-and-whistles. Since I'm not providing background soundtrack to silent movies, the mid-range 240 model was good enough for the likes of me.

So after two days of obsessively checking the status of my order, I just saw online that this beauty is now shipped and in the delicate hands of UPS Ground delivery. So I should get it by Saturday or Monday at the latest--if all goes well. Unless they lose it has they have my two previous pianos. I have my fingers and toes crossed and am chanting Voodoo Magick to attempt to sway the Gods of misfortune into giving a brother a break just this one time.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gain and Loss


I must bid a sad farewell to my old friend Ford Kross, who passed away at age 73. He was one of a kind and will be missed.

In other news, I broke down and upgraded my piano. Here is my new one, which will arrive sometime within the next few days (unless UPS loses it--see my blog last year WHERE'S My PIANO?).

This is the Casio Celviano AP220. The keys are supposed to feel like those found on a grand piano, Have an ivory feel and are realistically weighted. Needless to say I'll post more once I tickle the ivories in person.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bits and Pieces

Doc says I need to lose some weight and take Niacin (B vitamin) so I have committed wholeheartedly to these worthy goals. Of course watching what one eats focuses your attention on food, so I watched a little television and in 90 minutes saw advertisements for four different fast-food places and other purveyors of fatty, high-cal food. With this kind of brainwashing it's no wonder it's harder than sitting through an entire Dane Cook movie to resist crap food. Plus fast food does taste good, let's not forget that.

Doc also informed me Aspartame, the sweetener used in most diet drinks, creates a hunger response, so I switched to Tab. Yes, they still make this, and it's sweetened with saccharine. I found a stash at the local Kroger and strode cockily from the premises with my new favorite beverage. Three people on the way out of the store gawked at my 12-pack and exclaimed, "Do they still make that? I used to drink that twenty years ago!" You would have thought from their expressions of amazement and awe that I wielded the Ring of the Nibelung rather than a box of odd-tasting soda. I briefly toyed with the idea of slowly raising the magenta box over my head to see if everyone would drop to their knees and began genuflecting.

Aside from drinking what appears to be an archaic soft drink once favored by the Great Old Ones, I have noticed a reduction in my food cravings, so maybe science is right for once.

I continue to refine Cristofori's Dream, now I'm working on the rhythm pattens, adding tweaks here and there. Same with The Entertainer. I'll probably never stop trying to refine the pieces I learn, so won't mention it again.

Music of the Night, my -golly--third repertoire piece, is coming along apace. I've memorized the right-hand part for the first three pages (of five pages) and much of the left hand. The right-hand part is so chorded and developed it can almost stand alone. The left hand part is far simpler and mostly provides accents and emphasis. It's an interesting piece musically and just challenging enough to keep me interested, but nowhere near as knuckle-busting as the other two behemoths I'm tackling.

I was bitten by a spider today and soon an alarming red welt appeared. I had images of a Brown Recluse spider, cackling maniacally while injecting me with flesh-rotting toxins, so I hied me to the local Walk-In Clinic. The Doc was suitably impressed by what was by now a dark red splotch of two-inch radius, but assured me it wasn't Brown Recluse or any other homicidal species. I also learned there has been a rash (tee hee) of insect bites this season. They're turning on us, and there's a lot more of them than us. Is this the beginning of the end? Yes. Put your affairs in order and wait for the swarm of carnivorous cicadas.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Middle Age Has Its High Points

I've been trying--and with some success--to organize my environment. The bottom line is I've been cleaning my office to prepare for some mass marketing and promotional blitzing. I've found some printed sheet music I forgot I had, and also found a raise in my spirits: I have dreaded the very sight of my office for months, but have lacked the oomph and vision to do anything about it. I'm feeling much better lately so girded my loins (and we all know how painful that can be) and tackled this Herculean task.

In order to free up time to sweeping up the dung accumulated over the past year or so in the Aegean Stable which I call my office, I've had to tear myself away from my piano for a little while. I find I use my piano as a panacea for whatever ails me. If I feel lonely, stressed or bored, there it is, and there's always something to work on. I love the very sight of it. Although sometimes my mind becomes too tired to absorb any more new keyboard lore, I can always tool around with the scales or other technical exercises to improve technique. I've begun doing the Hamon Number Two exercise again, and learning to play my scales in counterpoint,and other nifty tricks of piano wizardry. Sometimes I grow impatient with my slow progress, but I recall a year and a half ago I couldn't play anything nor read music at all, and now I can sort of play Joplin and other cool pieces, and each week shows incremental improvement. I can't really complain.

Yes I've wrung solace and comfort from the pianoforte, but I've also used that beast as a tool of procrastination. I've known for some time I've needed to clean of both my car and my office, in preparation to move to another level with my profession (which is performing Mind-reading and Hypnotism shows). But I haven't. I've practiced piano for hours instead.

Not that I regret the time put into the piano. I've turned some major corners in my life, mind and attitude by finally studying music, although I wish I had begun ten years ago--or twenty. Plus, in my defense, I'm still recovering from the Great Respiratory Collapse of 2010, and my allergist says even though I'm making strong progress, it usually takes a complete season for the allergy inoculations to really kick in. So on days with high allergen count, I feel like someone slipped me a Mickey and I ache all over. A high mold spore count can make me so drowsy I can barely stay awake enough to do the things I have to do, much less anything requiring extra effort.

I have begun an aerobics program. Three to four days a week I go to the gym and do the treadmill, work with weights, and swim. With all this going on, cleaning out my office seemed a low-priority task. But it wasn't; nor is it. It needs to be done. So I finally decided on a systematized approach. Each day I've performed some major act of cleanliness. I've reorganized the closet and cleaned off my desk, and have thrown out two large bags of trash. Tomorrow I tackle my workbench. There are several large items which will go out to the storage unit, and this will free up some much-needed space. I think I may have put this off too long as I think a family of feral animals has nested in the southeast corner; I heard menacing growls as I tunneled my way through the debris toward that quadrant of the room. Nor is that the worst area. I intend to engage a team of Shirpas before tacking the northwest corner.

I've become quite interested in the Webber composition Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera. I found a more embellished version than the one on which I'm currently working and I think I'll learn it as soon as I learn this simpler, original version, which is meant to be played along with a singer. I don't intend to sing it as I don't wish to cause miscarriages in any expectant mothers of any species, animal or human, within earshot.

In Opera news there are no new Met HD broadcasts until October, but the Summer Encore Series begins tomorrow with Madama Butterfly. I'll go see it even though I have the performance on DVD because on that big screen, with surround sound, man it's nice.

That's all for now. If you don't hear from me in a few days send in a search party. I didn't like the sound of those growls.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cristophantom's Dream

I decided for my own education to kick it into a higher gear, and I wanted more training in the D-Flat Major scale before I tackled Clair de Lune seriously, so I obtained Andrew Lloyd Webber's piano arrangement for Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera, which--Hoorah--is in D-Flat Major. At parts it shifts into E major but no big deal there. It also has notation I haven't seen before so my eddication continues.

So I learned the right hand part--the melody-- of the first passage quite quickly. One thing about Sir Loyd Webber's compositions: Complicated they're not. The left hand accompaniment in the beginning is rather simple, so I played around with it and added the triplets from Cristfori's Dream--except I transposed them for D-Flat Major. Hee hee, this bastard stepchild actually sounded pretty good, and I felt like an improviseur. Musictheory is sinking in. This is nothing a second year music student under the whip of frothing instructors at, say IU or any other music school couldn't do with one hand taped behind their back with viola G-Strings, but for me it was rather cool.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Hard Isn't It?

The other day when I went to my piano lesson there was a very serious little boy practicing his A Major Scale while his equally serious mom hovered nearby in a chair. My teacher asked me to play a little bit of Cristofori's Dream for the kid, I think with the intention to loosen the little guy up. I told him if I had started at his age, by now I'd be good.

I would like to be good, but it's hard. I think this is the most difficult thing I've ever tried to learn. I'm still working on my first two "real" pieces" and just beginning a third. Granted, they're all ambitious pieces, and I'm slowly mastering them, but the operative word here is slowly.

People take lessons for years and in the company of other students, so they have camaraderie and feedback. I've just finished one and a half years of lessons, pretty much by myself; I have nobody with whom to practice and no peers to discuss my triumphs and setbacks. This blog is my sounding board: in the absence of companions, I talk to myself.

I think I would benefit from a small group of people along for the same ride. Maybe. On the other hand perhaps this solitary journey is meant to be just that--a private place for me to spend time with myself.

So I grind away at these works, and each week I play them a little better, making incremental improvements and inching my way toward the point where I can say, "Good enough."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Music Prevents You From Drooling Into Your Oatmeal

Or so says a growing body of research. Apparently playing music, or even just listening to music, can help prevent Alzheimer's and has even shown to improve cognitive functions in existing Alzheimer's patients.

A music therapy program raised melatonin levels and improved behavior and sleeping problems in 20 male Alzheimer's patients. The Alzheimer's patients underwent music therapy for 30-40 minutes, 5 days a week for one month. Blood samples were taken before the first session, at the end of the four weeks of therapy, and 6 weeks after the study's conclusion. Dr. Ardash Kumar and colleagues at the University of Miami School of Medicine (Florida), who reported the study in Alternative Therapies (1999;5:49-57), checked the levels of melatonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, and prolactin. These brain chemicals are known to affect mental state. They found that melatonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine blood levels had risen significantly by the end of the 4-week therapy program. Moreover, melatonin levels remained high 6 weeks after the program had stopped. Epinephrine and norepinephrine levels, by that time, had returned to their original readings. Serotonin and prolactin were not affected by music therapy. In addition to the hormonal changes, the participants in the study also became more active and cooperative and slept better.

"Relaxation with the type of music that calms you down is very beneficial," said Kumar. "To promote a sense of calm and well-being, you can listen to your favorite soothing music when you eat, before you sleep, and when you want to relax. Music therapy might be a safer and more effective alternative to many psychotropic medications. Like meditation and yoga, it can help us maintain our hormonal and emotional balance, even during periods of stress or disease."

Other studies have shown that challenging the brain with complex tasks helps stave off dementia, as well as a number of other proactive defenses: a healthy diet high on veggies and fruits; moderate exercise, a social network of friends; and avoiding stress.

Of course, the healthy benefits are derived only from actual music, not whatever it is my neighbors listen to, which sounds like steel structures falling apart while an audience of cats and orcas cheer on the demolition. Nor does it apply to rap, which makes one long for the sweet oblivion of dementia. See, I knew there were good reasons to (1) cultivate musical snobbishness and (2) in the face of common sense, decency and my neighbor's peace of mind, taking up practicing the piano at midlife. I may never be Rachmaninoff, but at age ninety I'll be sharp enough to know I'm atrocious.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mozart's Starling

On May 27, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart purchased a Starling. This tiny bird so endeared itself to the mercurial composer that when it died three years later, an elaborate funeral ceremony was enacted for the bird, including a procession of veiled mourners, hymns, and Mozart read at graveside a poem he composed for the occasion:

A little clown lies here
Whom I held dear—
A starling in the prime
Of his brief time
Whose doom it was to drain
Death's bitter pain.
Thinking of this, my heart
Is riven apart.
Oh reader! Shed a tear,
You also, here.
He was not naughty, quite,
But gay and bright,
And under all his brag
A foolish wag.
This no one can gainsay
And I will lay
That he is now on high,
And from the sky,
Praises me without pay
In his friendly way.
Yet unaware that death
Has choked his breath,
And thoughtless of the one
Whose rime is thus well done.


Mozart's grief may have been more than an elaborate show. In fact, it's almost certain that his heartache was sincere. Starlings are among the more amiable and interactive of the imitative avians, and Mozart's journals reveal his delight in his feathered little friend. Starlings are noted for their rich repertoire of vocal sounds and Mozart, the musician, would have been particularly captivated by his pet's vocal talents. In fact, he exclaimed "Das war schon!" (that was beautiful), upon hearing its song.

Starlings seem to train their owners as much as the owners train the bird; rewarding attention with faster learning. Starlings can learn from recordings (while young) but learn far faster from direct human interaction. They're also apparently more likely to repeat phrases which elicit affection and treats from their human owners. Like cats, one begins to wonder who is the owner and who is the pet?

T
his particular starling's song inspired the beginning of the last movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, although--oddly enough--some scholars seem to believe the bird somehow learned the theme of the Concerto while still in the pet store. It's a long story and only of interest to academics who love to wrangle over such things; what we know is Mozart had a starling, and the starling whistled his Concerto, if a little off-key (G-sharp apparently, not G Natural). And that when this clownish little musician died, Mozart grieved, I found this touching. Mozart had a number of unattractive personality traits, but anyone who mourns over the death of a little bird can't be all bad.




Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Clair de Lune

I sat down and worked out the scale of Clair de Lune, and revised my earlier opinion. I am now sure it's in the key of D flat major. I'll have my opinion verified by Teacher in a day or so but I'm pretty sure. This is the key signature of D flat Major:
Which by golly is the bulk of Clair de Lune. But I figured it out by myself using the Tetrachord rule. Every scale consists of two Tetrachords connected by a whole step. If you know this, you can figure out the fingering or pattern of every key. I looked at the lowest flat, in this case "d" and started playing the scale there. It just so happened this played a perfect Major Scale. If it hadn't, I would have tried another flat note. I knew the scale was neither 'C" nor "F" Major; neither would have that particular pattern of flats. In fact C Major has no flats.

It's cool knowing enough Music Theory to understand this much at least. I dig it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Busy, But Still Practicing

May is usually a crazy month for me, with performing demand at its peak--Post-Proms, mostly--and I've mostly recovered, it seems, from the bronchial woes of six months ago. Although I'm not at 100 percent yet. I am working out three to four days a week and feeling quite ambitious again, and making plans to launch a grand scheme I'm think of as THE PROJECT: a multi-armed assault of my presentational skills onto several venues at once.

Throughout this craziness I have been practicing my chops with Joplin (the B Section is coming together nicely) and Ol' Cristofori is sounding pretty good. Teacher and I decided to cut my lessons back to two this month due to my hectic schedule. I'm also trying to select the third piece to tackle, which we will do in June. I'm trying to decide between Clair de Lune or Bumble Boogie. I think it's going to be Clair de Lune. Clare de Lune will give me practice playing in a new key (from my cursory examination of the sheet music, it appears to be F Major, but then seems to change keys later on, but I'll have to consult with Teacher).