Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As I celebrate the ONE YEAR mark of my piano training, I feel pretty good. I moved on from the first verse of THE ENTERTAINER to the second verse, and my teacher gave me a bag of M&Ms to celebrate. However, I gave myself a bag of Lindor Truffles to suck on all day. After all, this is a big day. I know there are those who never thought a reprobate like me would stick it out. But my passion for the keyboard and related musics has, if anything, become even more firmly entrenched.

And I've practiced every day when I've been home, and most of the days when I haven't through some means or other. I mentioned my roll-out keyboard, and I also spoke of my subterfuge of going to music stores when I'm out of town, pretending to be an interested buyer, and "testing" pianos in order to get my practice time in. Unfortunately, it was during this window-shopping I conceived an unholy love for the Yamaha Klavinova. Now I suffer eternal longings. To add to my misfortune, these cost between three to five thousand dollars, and I'm by no means a 3-5 large neighborhood pianist. Not yet anyway.

So I feel good about the past year. I look forward to the upcoming year and learning the rest of my two projects.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spliting the Brain

A long time ago the Sperry labs introduced an interesting concept; the idea of left-brain and right brain cognitive modes. Supposedly, left-brain modes included logic, linear thinking, orderly reasoning, while right brain modes included creativity, intuition, irrational thinking, spirituality.

So which is music--left or right brain?

Both, most probably. Actually, probably certainly. You have to have a great deal of technical knowledge to play an instrument, although some people seem to do this intuitively, so there goes that theory. Or does it? Maybe I should get to the point, because there's pie in the kitchen, and I want to eat some when I finish. Piano playing requires both hands, and occupies both hands at the same time. Both hands are often playing different sequences of notes and chords at different speeds and rhythms. This seems impossible when you think about it, but with enough practice a good pianist makes it look effortless. Of course when I strangle the ivories, it make strong men weep and battle-scarred pit-bulls whine in commiseration.

Today at my lesson I exhibited my progress with The Entertainer. My teacher got down to the nitty-gritty. She said my right hand had it down pat (of course like my psychotherapist, I pay her a great deal of wampum to prop up the ramshackle infrastructure of my splintered ego) but now it was time to whip my left hand into shape. We went over the entire first verse, which is a page and a quarter long, note by note, the entire Bass clef. Now I'm practicing the Bass clef--the part of sheet music one plays with the left hand--with great focus and intensity. The idea is to bring it up to the same level of facility as the Right hand. I have a friend who applies this alternating-hands theory to another cherished activity, albeit one more private and libidinous, and which has absolutely nothing to do with music, or indeed with arts and entertainment of any kind (except his own entertainment, I suppose) and he swears to its efficacy in training the hands in equal proficiency in the requisite skills, so I'm optimistic.

It was proven some time ago that the Right-Brain Left-Brain model isn't a literal representation of how the brain works. Otherwise, all left handed people would be creative and all right handed people would be analytical. And what would you make of me, who was born all a-Widdershins but trained to be a Righty? Messed up, is what. However, the Right-Brain Left-Brain model stands quite well as a metaphor and a delineation of the dichotomy between intuitive and the analytical cognitive modes.

An interesting limitation of the human mind is we cannot call upon both Left-Brain and Right-Brain modes simultaneously, nor does either mode recognize the other. We have to switch back and forth between them. Apparently, women are much more facile at this than men, which is why in arguments women can oscillate between logic and irrationality with such blinding elan, men are soon reduced to babbling puddles of raw protoplasm. I'm not making this up, science has proven this in a number of studies, not to mention I once read it on the wall of the restroom at the Stuckies off I-75 in Jellico, so that proves it.

So what does one do when confronted with the daunting task of playing music? The strength of one's convictions alone may not be enough to carry the day. Consider this: Reading is a Left-Brain skill. Playing music, presumably, is a creative--hence Right-Brain, activity. So when you're attempting to read sheet music and play simultaneously, great facility dancing back-and-forth between Left and Right cognitive modes is required.

Which I've found difficult, especially when tired. Sometimes I'll stare at the page and all those little dots mean nothing, because I'm stuck in Right-Brain mode. I have to make a conscious effort before they shift and "talk" to me. Interesting. At least to me. I enjoy insights into how my creaky mind works, it helps me understand how to bypass its slow decent into decrepitude. I sometimes imagine my half-centuried brain as something similar to a barnacle-encrusted mass resembling the crud they scrape off the hulls of ships, or that calcified wad of gunk plumbers dislodge from pipes saying, "Dis wuz yer problem lady, dat'l be two hunnerd bucks."

So this week I'm training the Left hand. Which has nothing to do with Left Brain mode. Except when I'm reading the sheet music and trying to memorize it. Confusing? You should have tried to write about it. I fell asleep twice. Where's that pie?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cybercommunities; Part Two

I took January off to convalesce, and it was a good idea. I'm recovering nicely, and even beginning to feel a bit restless--a good sign I think. Soon I will meander over to the gym to engage in swimming or some other such physical exertion and reestablish my formerly-daily workout regime.

However, inactivity doesn't set well with me, and television only offers so much distraction. Real Housewives of Atlanta will destroy your faith in the evolutionary progression of the human genome, and House marathons only run three days a week. Taking January off was a good idea but on impulse I did something else that probably wasn't: I revisited the Chat Room of my former Buddhist Forum.

Although I hadn't been there in over nine months, it was as though no time at all had rolled by; the same people, dynamics, interplays; no growth or progress as far as I could see. Of course, the big question was, had I grown during my abstinence from the Internet? Had I changed? Well, I was more aloof, absolutely uninterested in engaging in debate or discussion, impossible to bait. I completely ignored direct attempts to challenge me and lure me into debate. I actually used the 'Ignore' feature on a couple of people who were particularly pernicious.

Growth? No, more like whatever happens to a newborn when the umbilicus dries up and rots off. Or when a limb on a tree dies and falls off. Just....disconnected. A Zen guy would ask, "Yes, but are you the limb or the tree?" which is why I hate Zen.

My primary motive for dropping in on this lot was to relieve boredom and to amuse myself , and I did. It probably wasn't very nice of me, but I played mind games with the more obnoxious and egotistical of the Chatterers. Most of these people knew me for years, and you would think if I told them things completely out of character, or spun out contradictory stories, someone would call me on it. Nope. They accepted the most absurd inanities and debated the ridiculous points I invented on the fly as if they were the most profound philosophical syllogisms in creation. Why? I cannot fathom. Nothing better to do? A desire to hone intellectual skills amongst people who would never meet?

I knew why I was there: I'm sick and can't get out much. As soon as I'm better I'll do anything other than sit on a couch and talk to people via a typewriter. I'll go to the gym, walk in the park, breath (semi) fresh air--anything.

I would feel bad about playing with this lot except the people I selected for my especial attention were the most insufferable posers you can imagine. For some reason, I take great delight in fucking with people who take themselves too seriously. These so-called Buddhists pontificate about attaining heights of meditative calm, claim to be just a hair short of enlightenment, and yet in response to some joking around, one of these soporific gurus attacked me and--get this--mocked and made fun of my psychiatric disorder (for those of you who don't know, I am a Bipolar Type II). Don't worry, this didn't disturb me; in fact I laughed out loud-- but this douche-bag is always going on about how much compassion he oozes for the suffering masses. In one swoop he exposed himself for what he truly is: a phony and a hypocrite. Like a lot of these cyber-dwellers, a fictional creation every bit as much as Harry Potter and Ebeneezer Scrooge. Or me, for that matter. Never forget that I'm not real either.

And for goodness sake, banter and humor is completely lost; I had to explain --over and over--that I was being ironic and sarcastic, that what I said was a joke, I grew weary of saying I wasn't serious, that what I meant get the picture: lots of self-importance, little wit.

Some might think this blog entry is mean and spiteful. And you're probably correct. But I don't feel well, I'm tired a lot, and if I expect better from Buddhists it's only because I've spent the last week listening to them claim better about themselves. But believe me, I didn't let anyone off the hook. I was not nice. In fact, I was a bit acerbic. I suppose I wanted everyone to dislike me a little so they wouldn't really miss me when I'm gone. But I don't think anyone there will be astute enough to pick up on that. They'll just think my 'psychological issues' are acting up again. Pah. Buddhists. Kiss my ass.

It was my own fault. There's no-one to blame but myself. I had weaned myself from the Internet and in a moment of weakness and boredom decided to see what was happening amongst the Cyber-Buddhists. It was a mistake. Nothing is happening. Nothing at all.

But maybe that's the idea and I just don't get it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Scott Joplin and I Reach a Compromise

I put Joplin on the back burner for about a month while I worked on Cristofori's Dream and some training exercises. I didn't consciously admit it, but I was beginning to think I had bitten off more than I could chew. Primarily, I think, because this ongoing bout with respiratory problems has taken so much of my ooomph from me. I took January off from performing and have spent a lot of time resting, reading, practicing piano and doing not much of anything in particular but getting my allergy shots.

My teacher, however, had more faith in me than I had in myself. She nudged and nudged me to work on The Entertainer, which is a monster--the left-hand part is all over the place, and the right-hand part consists of octaves combined with an added third note--so I took it out while I continued to forge ahead with Cristofori. The hiatus allowed me to approach this daunting masterpiece with a fresh eye. I saw approaches to "connect" the parts of it together I hadn't noticed before, and it flowed better than it ever had. After a couple day's practice, I played the first phrase almost jauntily, and moved to the second phrase, which is actually much easier than the first. Soon I had it down, and the third phrase is just a reiteration of the opening phrase. The ending of the first verse is pretty easy--at least compared to what went before, so it was a matter of a couple of days to get it down.

So now I can play the entire first verse of THE ENTERTAINER; not very well, and with a lot of clunkiness, but I can play it, and now I believe I can actually learn it and learn to play it well enough with a lot of practice.

In other words, I had a breakthrough, a moment of realization where the walls collapsed and I broke through the other side. I know from experience if I beat my head against the wall it happens sooner or later. I was afraid with Joplin it might be much later, like two years from now. I think my skill levels increased while I was working away on Cristofori and some other exercises and my brain applied these skills to good old Joplin. Good thing too as I had reached a point where I was pretty much spinning my wheels; I had lost momentum.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Doc Dabble

Back when I used to (literally) take matters into my own hands (circa 1985 or so) there was a redneck sleaze magician whom we will call Doc Dabbel, now long deceased, and entertaining denizens in Hell, of a heart attack brought on by booze, pork products, and being an overall obese, oleaginous tub of rancid feces. He appeared at the local Magic Club and performed an initiation performance that was word-for-word David Copperfield's Bandana/banana trick, followed by Johnny Ace Palmer's Cups and Balls. I was the Program Chairman AND Sgt at Arms at the time. I took the Vote. I recommended we not accept someone who stole wholesale other people's act. The IBM Ring, whose members for the most part did exactly the same thing, disagreed and voted him in. Never one to suppress my feelings, I expressed my disappointment in the membership, but accepted the ruling.

The members at the time met after meetings in this Choke-and Puke called Jerry's Restaurant, although calling it a "Restaurant" is like calling Woody Woodpecker a "carpenter." So therewithin we assembled. "Doc," already considering himself not only one of us but already vying for position of leader, joined us. A large, loud, arrogant piece of work, you just knew he was used to bullying people and never heard the word "No." I instantly developed an intense dislike for him.

After we were seated, orders taken, and plates of charred mysterious viands of questionable origins placed before us by a waitress with a large Band-Aid on her neck--and of course Doc made suggestive and what he thought were witty comments to the waitress, who looked at him like he was something nasty she had stepped in--I asked him if he ever performed any original material or if everything in his act was STOLEN from other performers. My friend muttered, "Be tactful Riggs." He might as well have admonished the ketchup bottle to cease flaunting its unabashed redness.

Doc, full of himself, said, "No, if I see something I like, it goes right in my show. Why not? In fact John, if I saw something in your act, I'll put it in my show." You see, he was trying to establish dominance. He was also shoving a steak and fries in his mouth as fast as he could. It was like watching Jabba the Hut feed. I laid my hand on his and said, "You would?

He said "Yeah why not?"

"You'll steal from me? You don't think it's wrong to steal my lines and tricks?"

"Well, even if it is, what could you do? If I like it I'll use it."

I squeezed his hand and said "Well because if you stole anything from me redneck, I'll F*ing kill you."

He tried to pull his hand away and couldn't, I squeezed harder, and he grunted, "Let go." I said, "You just said basically you could break into my house, steal from me and there's nothing I could do about it. I'm telling you if you steal from me I'll ruin you."

He said, "It's just a magic trick. Let go of me."

I squeezed until there were knuckle-cracking sounds and said, "Let me make this clear Doc. If I catch you using any line, joke or trick of mine, I'll kick your ass so bad you won't be performing anything for a year. Are we clear?"

Throughout this whole exchange about five magicians watched in total silence, but a couple of unconscionable scoundrels were trying not to laugh out loud. My friend gave up on me as a lost cause. Doc realized nobody was going to take his side, he saw I was serious and if there was an alpha dog in the scrapyard it wasn't him. I was about thirty seconds away from breaking his wrist and he knew it. My temper in those days was not as well-managed as it is today and he had pissed me off. As I recall, and this was a long time ago, he said "You must be F*ing crazy," and I said "Oh yes, I am, but you're not going to ever steal from me."

I escorted Doc to the door and pushed him out, Doc bellowing about suing us all for insult, personal injury, slander, defamation of character, bigamy, and reckless endangerment. I said, "See you next month, and try to show us something original."

I returned to my cheeseburger, peace in my heart and soul, the satisfaction of a job well done, with a deep-seated sense of order returned to the universe and balance restored to all things. The president of the Ring said, "John that was unnecessary," and I responded "No, he was unnecessary. If you hadn't voted him in to begin with I wouldn't have had to bounce him." And one of the other guys said, "Aw, I was hoping Riggs was going to whup his ass." Like I said, some of those guys were uncouth barbarians.

We never saw Doc again, although I did go by one of his shows at a flea market, and although his act was a conglomeration of "borrowed" material, there was nothing of mine.

My friend likes to bring this story up at magic conventions to embarrass me. I thought I would expunge the record of elaborations, exaggerations, legends, slander, and hyperbole by recording here the facts for the first time as they actually happened.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Back to Bach

Teacher decided I needed some digression from Cristofori so she assigned me Bach's Prelude in C Minor to work on in small doses, probably because I'm becoming obsessed. Plus, the bassline is terrific training for the left hand as the first two lines are in A Flat Minor. She also reminded me to keep working on The Entertainer, woefully neglected, so I wouldn't lose the progress (what little I made) I already have on it.

Probably a good thing. I think I could benefit from a wider range of focus. My hands would probably welcome a change of pace and I know my brain will.

Hoorah, Bach!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year; Hoorah!

I ended 2010 with my wife's family, as I have done pretty much every year since I've been married, opening Christmas presents listening to the sounds of insanely delighted children. Not a bad way to say adios to an old year.

I seem to have a lot of friends who are glad to see 2010 in their rear-view mirror, but it wasn't a bad year for me, health challenges aside. other than a chronic inability to breathe--while I admit is a pain in the arse, 2010 was professionally and personally fairly satisfying.

I recall last year at this time I resolved, in my way (as I don't really make resolutions) to finally begin studying music seriously. I started looking online for piano keyboards and settled on a $125 Yamaha electronic keyboard, which in my zeal to begin practicing, I paid extra for two-day delivery. This began my adventures with UPS, who, although they deliver to my apartment two-five times a WEEK, couldn't seem to get a keyboard to me to save their lives. I called the central UPS office and was told it was about to be sent back to the merchant due to "Insufficient Address," nor was there an accurate telephone number to reach me. Odd.

I told them to hold it for pick-up. I had to drive through a blizzard to their warehouse after hours to pick it up, and by God there it was--with my full address, and telephone number, printed in big block letters right on the front. The driver, engrossed in charming the horse-toothed, gum-chomping floozy staffing the after-hours warehouse inventory, shrugged and commented, "Don't see how I missed that." My theory: If my keyboard had silicone boobs, he wouldn't have missed it.

A few months later of course, when I upgraded to my current Casio Privia, UPS lost my piano completely. I mean it totally vanished; sucked into a black hole. Internet tracking followed it from the vendor in Indiana, where I live, by the way, to Missouri for some Ungodly reason, to Miami, an insane detour for a city-to-city overnight shipment, where it got stuck. Again, I made woeful inquiries. It ees lost, Senor, I was told. Mucho sorry. Again, "insufficient address" was conjured from the aether as the culprit. So I called the vendor, who related me the following atrocity: The piano actually made it to my hometown. It was within two blocks of my grasp. Then UPS decided to send it back as undeliverable.

Now understand, UPS drives to my front door at least two to five times per week. Most of the drivers and I am on a first name basis; we show each other pictures of our families. The person with whom I spoke had the package in front of them even as we discussed this debacle, so I asked the helpful wight to read me the address. You guessed it: My address was clearly printed in exact detail, followed by my telephone number. A Mormon on a bicycle could have pedaled it by my door during his daily Missionary rounds. Apparently UPS has a vendetta against burgeoning musicians.

So the vendor offered to ship my piano again. And I descended upon the UPS with what amounted to a Wanted Poster. This piece of paper had my picture, my address, name and telephone number emblazoned in 40-point typeface. I swept into that office like one of Chiron's Harpies. I related to everyone within earshot--and my voice carries--the history of my past problems with that particular branch concerning the meanderings of my various keyboards. I further informed them I was expecting a package on such a date, that this package contained a PIANO; that this rather large and conspicuous package would be coming from such a vendor, and I was to be notified at THIS telephone number when it arrived. It was at this point in my soliloquy I unfurled my Poster. Here was my picture so they wouldn't forget who they were dealing with, along with my address, phone number, e-mail, Facebook, GPS coordinates, medical records, and Congressman's contact info just in case.

They all looked at me and nodded, but the habitually-vacant expression of the long-term Bloomington Native never left their collective faces, so I knew it was time to take it up a notch. I wanted them to remember me, not brush me from their Bloomington-memory as soon as I blew out the door, so after reiterating my past grievances, I asked the people at the desk what exactly was wrong with them that they couldn't read something as simple as a mailing label in plain English not once but FOUR times (yes, there were other incidents, but we won't go into the other two here), and how the hell do you lose a PIANO, and if I didn't get it this time I was told by the central office this particular branch would be scrutinized, probed, investigated, audited, brutalized, anally violated and slash-and-burned by a tiger-team of investigators from the Chicago office. This seemed to get their attention, because Chicago is where John Dillinger, Al Capone and Jerry Springer were from, and you didn't mess with those guys. My point made, I taped my picture to the wall and left.

I wasn't notified by telephone, but a knock at my door announced a delivery, and right the hell on schedule. A sweating UPS guy dumped a 125 pound package consisting of a Casio Privia, wooden stand, and sundry accessories on my doorstep. "Here's yer Piano," he grunted, turned and walked away, every nuance of body language telling me to kiss this ass. I finally got my piano--but service with a smile? Fuggeddabouddit.

Sometime this year I might make the next incremental upgrade, assuming my business continues to improve--and I see no reason why it won't--to a Yamaha Clavinova, an even bigger keyboard. And I pity the poor UPS guy who wrestles that big Son of a Bitch off the truck.

Have I made progress this year? I suppose I have but I sometimes become impatient with myself. I know a year isn't very long in the scheme of things but I hoped I had a hidden genius in me which would have surfaced by now and I would be playing a lot better than I am as I near the one-year mark. At least good enough to get Triple-Xed on America's Got Talent. On the other hand, I am playing stuff, can read music, and have the Major Scales down fairly well. I've also tackled some reasonably tough pieces of music and understood the composer's intention. l look forward to the next year and the incremental advancements I'll make as I digest further bits and pieces of knowledge and increase my skills.

I don't know if 2010 was a good year or a bad year as far as "things" in general went. I was far too busy focused on my business and my personal life. I really don't pay much attention to the news hysteria or the people who say the world is dive-bombing to an end. I've heard this since the Comet Kahoutek back in 1973, when Prophets lined up to pronounce the End of the World, and my 13 year old self thought "End of the world eh? Cool." I lived in the shadow of Oak Ridge Tennessee anyway , so the end of all things was something we just sort of became numb about over the course of time.

But was 2010 a good or bad year, and will 2011 be better? I can't say, as I have no sense of perspective on the matter. For me it was a year marked by a sense of personal optimism with an underlayer of denial about my respiratory problems--I just kept thinking the asthma was temporary and would eventually go away; a total indifference to the political "climate"the entire network of which--along with the cast and crew of followers, punters, players and debaters, seemed to me to be the total essence of the Pons asinorum; focus on my work and audiences and trying to bring a message of hope and encouragement to people who had had enough of fear and paranoia; trying to spend time with my family and be with them; of finally studying something I've dearly loved since I was a child but never had time to give to myself; so if there was an inherent "good" or "bad" value to 2010 I was oblivious to it. I was too busy living my life and letting 2010 roll on without me interfering with it. If I had tried to mess with things, it seems to me with the wisdom of hindsight, I probably would have only made things worse.

As for 2011, if we all resolve to try to do what we can to make a better year in even a small way, to move forward, to live free of fear, to keep others in our thoughts and help when we can, to roll with the changes of fortune and make these changes work to our advantage--2011 WILL be a great year, not because we hope it will be, but because we'll make it so.