Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Younger performers often ask me how do you handle it when things go wrong? There is no set-in-stone answer for that, because every disaster is different, but I have one rule that tops my list: Never Lose Your Cool. I was recently reminded of an incident early in my performing adventures, which I will now relate to you:

In 1983 I was doing a show in Murphresboro, Tennessee, which isn't far from Nashville, for a transportation company. It was a good group, but rowdy. The owner of the company reads my introduction, and as soon as he finishes, a fellow pops up from his table, which is very near the stage, and starts singing, in a very loud voice. And what is he singing? Charlie Rich's BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. If you’re too young to remember this country classic, you should Google it on Youtube to see for yourself the horror to which I and my audience was subjected.


I say, 'Yes, thank you sir, please sit down now..."


"Yes, that's good. We're trying to have a show here, so if you'll just sit down..."

He doesn't hear me, and I realize he is blackout drunk. he doesn't know where he is. He thinks he's in a karaoke bar or in Vegas, and he heard my introduction--vaguely--and reacted to it as if it were for him. By now he's in the second stanza:


I realize I can't shut him up. So I walk over to him, hand him the microphone, take him by the arm, and walk him to the stage. I lead the audience in clapping this party a rhythm as he reaches the chorus:


I hoped no one else in the hotel knew what was going on behind those closed doors, because it was appalling. Let me describe this Tribute Artist. He was about six feet seven inches tall, thin as a stringbean, wearing a powder blue leisure suit with pants four inches too short, revealing white cotton socks and white vinyl shoes. He had on large amber-lensed aviator sunglasses. His gray hair was swept back in an Eighties Dirty-Harry coif and shellacked down with Bryllcreme or some other pomade on which you could have landed an airplane; that hair was going nowhere.

He sang the entire song, to the last note, and even included a hip-wriggling dance number in the middle to a band only his ears could hear. The audience was howling. I decided one of two things would happen: He would sing the entire contents of the Charlie Rich Greatest Hits Eight-track Tape, and I would collect my check and go home after the easiest gig I ever had—-or he would finish his one song and be done.

It turned out to be the latter. When he heard the laughter and applause, he stood there blinking, looking confused. I think he sobered up just enough to have some dim realization of his surroundings. I hurried over to the table where his friends were and commandeered two very large chaps, who we'll call for the purposes of this documentary Dumplin' and Biscuit. "Come help me get him out of here," I whispered, "And for God's sake get him a cab and send him home." I didn't want him interrupting the show with any further impromptu serenades, and it looked like he was going to pass from blackout stage to regurgitation at any moment.

"Don't worry buddy," Dumplin' assured me. "We'll take care of him." Wiping tears from his eyes, either from mirth or emotion from his friend's moving performance, Biscuit nodded and they escorted my opening act from the building. The trio moved through the crowd amid applause and cries of "Can I get yer autograph there, Charlie?" "Good job there Mr. Rich," and other witticisms.

I took the stage and said, "Another hand for Mr. Charlie Rich. I didn't realize this was open mic night. Do we have anyone else? Patsy Kline, Johnny Cash, Willie? Very good, let's get started."

I was twenty-three at the time, and this was one of the earliest episodes of having to deal with a difficult situation, and dealing with it with a cool head. At the time it was nerve-wracking, though looking back on it, it's pretty funny.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Back when I used to practice diligently to perfect my magical skills, I worked very hard to make difficult mechanations seem effortless. In fact, in most cases, for sleight-of-hand to be successful, it must be invisible. This requires many,many hours of practice, but more than that, it requires analysis of what I've come to think of as fractures. these are the parts of a performance piece--any performance piece--that isn't working smoothly, or where the effort shows.

What you find with magicians is they tend to blink, wince, stutter, or perform a gesture out-of-synch with the rest of their movements. This is, of course, to magicians who haven't practiced diligently enough to remove the fractures. They, in some way, telegraph that something just happened. While an audience can't usually tell what exactly occurred, they know the performer hit a bump in the road, a mine in the field, a log in the water. Audience members with less-than-mature emotional development will usually announce out loud they saw you do something, too.

The reason fractures occur is because the performer has to stop performing for that split-second and start thinking about what he's doing. Thrown out of the intuitive flow of performance, the shift from right-brain stream of consciousness to left-brain analysis generates a visible jolt.

The secret to eliminating fractures in sleight-of hand is simple: practice, practice, and practice some more, until you can skate past the difficult section without stopping to think. I will tell you many burgeoning performers give up long before they get to the point of mastering some of the truly difficult maneuvers of the conjuring arts. Over time you develope your own toolkit of practice techniques. One of mine was to leave decks of cards in random location throughout the house. Whenever I came across one, I'd practice whatever routine I was working on. This surprised my brain into learning the routine under fire. The drawback to a practice session, is that it creates habitution. You become used to the conditions of the session. You have to shock your brain into performing the material under different conditions.

I've found exactly the same phenomenon occurs when learning piano music. There are parts of any piece which are much harder than others, so while you're learning the musical number, you come across these "bumps" and slow down. The great thing about music is you can hear the fractures while you play. Some magicians blank out the fractures in their performances, or actually integrate them into the performance. That's right--rehearsed fumbling. I've seen it many times. This is why every performer needs critique from a qualified observer. Please note the word qualified.

What I'm doing right now, right at this point in time, even as we sit here and share the sequalia from our post-traumatic stress disorders, is polishing out the fractures in the two pieces of music on which I'm working. Oh, I'm so close. I toodle along so happily until I hit one of these fractures, then my fingers send a distress signal to my brain: "Help, where do we go next; and when's lunch?" and then the smooth flow of music disintegrates into cacophony.

Now that you're back from Googling the word cacophony, understand this: I love learning difficult skillsets. If I didn't I would have given up sleight of hand magic at age twelve. Or quit piano about ten months ago when it dawned on me that this was the most difficult thing I've ever attempted. You see, I want to play these pieces so badly. As my fingers get closer to the sounds in my mind, it makes me happier.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Oh Blah BlahBlah...

Anyone who actually reads this daggone rambling blog is probably tired of hearing about Joplin,and wishes I would learn the damned thing already, but come on--it's a hard piece. But I am making incremental progress, and I can actually play the entire first verse completely through at this point--though it's clunky--and have begun on the second verse. Where I intend to stop for a while and pick up the third verse sometime at the end of this year.

As for Christofori's Dream, well, I've just about licked the hurdles I faced in the first half and have gnawed my way well into the second half. As I see it, there are two small points in the second half which will require a few day's diligent practice to master, and I'll have it, the rest is just routine memory and practice work.

After I put these two masterworks into the practice-and perform pile, I'll move onto my next practice piece which will either be Bumble Boogie or something else.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Superbowl

I have seen the best minds of my generation engulfed by the madness that is Superbowlmania, and there I was in section 400, at approximately the elevation of Mount Everest, watching the contest between the Steelers and the Packers play out way down there. I can no longer say I've never been to a Football game in my life. I've been to exactly one, and it was the Superbowl. I guess if you're going to go to one Football game in you're life, this is the one to go to.

The Steelers fans were animals. Our seats were in the Steelers sections and those guys were just about barbarians. They were out for blood. They kept calling out, “Yo defense, kill somebody over here, already.” Some of these beasts poured beer and threw stuff on Packers fans in an attempt to start brawls, but the Packers fans were too easy-going to oblige. After all, people wearing cheese wedges on their heads aren’t exactly badasses. You could immediately tell the Steelers fans from the Packers fans too—the Steelers fans were usually unshaven apes, or they looked like My Cousin Vinny or cast members from the Sopranos. The Packers fans were pasty Midwesterners for the most part who peered around like they were always looking for someone in authority to ask for directions. The Steelers fans looked like if they saw someone in authority, they would either offer them a bribe or knife them down.

I suppose if I had any interest at all in football all of this might have been more exciting to me. As it was I’ve seen enough football-related activities to last the rest of my life. My wife took me to the NFL Experience for five hours the previous day and walked me to death in what has to be the biggest money-making scheme to take advantage of fan-mania in existence. You pay 425 admission to get in to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on fan gear. Our promoters scored free VIP tickets so at least we didn’t have to pay to get in, but fan-girl wife bought a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff to bring back. I didn't have so wonderful a time however. After thirty minutes, so many morbidly-obese lumbering behemoths had lurched into me, twisting my shoulders around and jarring my hips, after a while I was in agony from my back and hip joints being wrenched from the jolts. It felt like I was stabbed with a knife. Come to think of it, with all those thugs from Pittsburgh in attendance, perhaps I had been. I swear it happened several thousands of times, these huge, lumbering mountains of land mammals slamming into me as they waddled around the NFL exhibits, goggling at the bright flashing lights and memorabilia and not paying an ounce of attention where they were going. I had to take four ibuprofens when I went to bed.

Football-related events had been scheduled for us by the promoters for almost every day. We were bussed to a Meet-and-Greet with Dion Sanders, elected into the Hall of Fame, who was a personable chap. Dallas was under the siege of an ice storm which in Indiana would have been a minor inconvenience worthy of a day’s worth of clearing, but in Dallas was a disaster. They had no way to deal with this frigid blight and freely admitted it. The ice lay untouched on the roads and parking lots; no salt, sand, bulldozers existed in the entire city to deal with it. Anyone driving on these skating rinks drove at five miles per hour. They truly didn’t know how to deal with snow and ice down there. We saw people trying to push snow around with leaf blowers, and you probably heard about the people injured when the snow and ice fell from the Dome of the Superbowl arena because the workers were standing around looking up at it. It never occurred to them that ice falls off a roof straight on your head. Up here, people know not to walk close to buildings because you can be impaled by a goddam thirty foot long ice-sickle. So the point is it took us forever to get to this event in downtown Dallas, where we were ushered into a tiny meeting room to listen to Mr. Sanders speak for a while, field questions, and sign autographs. Of more interest to me was when we drove by the grassy knoll, scene of the Kennedy assassination.

Football and football events are LOUD. The NFL Experience and the game both had pumped-up booming sound blasting at volumes calculated to shatter quartz. I will say the stadium full of 110,000 people was awesome and spectacular. Our seats were in the upper section directly across from the Giantron so we saw everything quite clearly. I don’t quite understand the rules of football but I followed it well enough to know when touchdowns and such were made. Wife forced me to wear a Superbowl T-shirt, the first sports-themed item of clothing I ever wore in my life. Sometimes I reflect on how much different my life would have been if I hadn’t grown up asthmatic and I could have played sports as a kid. My parents chain smoked and as a kid I couldn’t breathe. I remember waking up at night feeling like I was suffocating. A doctor told mom to quit smoking because I was allergic to tobacco smoke, and I remember mom in her typical fashion saying to my dad, “What the hell do doctors know? How can our smoking hurt him?” And the condition remained untreated and got worse. I was in high school before I got treatment for it and was able to breathe near normal and was in my 30s before I was completely symptom free. Being an asthmatic kid made me weird and bookish instead of being involved in sports like the other kids.

So at the Superbowl we waited outside in line three hours, I’m not exaggerating, to get inside. It was not very well organized, and you probable heard about all the people who paid for seats and didn’t get them after travelling from all over the country. And again lumbering Frankensteins jostled and jolted me until I was on the screaming verge of insanity. To attend any of these events a person endures hours and hours of standing in lines of huge crowds getting jostled and bumped while all the time incredibly loud BOOM-BOOM Pop and Hip-Hop music played endlessly. Rational thought is impossible with such over-stimulation of the senses. And yet, most people seemed so excited to get a glimpse of these heroes, and to watch tiny figures playing the game on the field far below, and to spend hard-earned money on the fan-gear, and I found this touching.

The half-time show was more spectacular live than it appeared to be on television. There were about three to five hundred people in lighted suits on the field forming various configurations in time to the music, and from our lofty aerie it was a splendid vision. It almost made up for the awful music itself. Except for Slash, who is awesome, who provided thirty seconds or so of actual skillful performance. And it was LOUD. Jesus Christ, it was a tidal wave of sound. I wish I had that sound system at home to listen to operas with. Christ almighty, Wagner would be awesome at that volume, like Hiroshima.

The day of the game they bussed us over to the arena, dropped us off near one of the gates and said they would pick us up near same. So wife and I left our coats on the bus and went in wearing T-Shirts since the temp outside at that point had climbed to near 50ish. Around half-time we were notified via cell phone telephone, that modern technological marvel, that our bus was at Six Flags! However, no worries--we would be shuttled to it via a school bus that would be awaiting us “outside the gate.” Simple enough. However, two of our group somehow got lost, the temp had now dropped into the twenties, and it had begun to snow and sleet. And did I mention we were in T-Shirts? So our organizers had us stand in a group while they tried to find our missing sheep. Which took a long time. We huddled in this freezing rain for almost an hour before the missing chuckleheads turned up, laughing at their wacky misadventures. But then, they could afford to laugh—they were wearing winter coats. Next, we found out, our bus was several blocks away...somewhere. So we set off looking for it, yet another in an endless series of our impromptu derring -do that weekend.

To be brief, we were out in that freezing rain for over an hour and a half. After about an hour though, I was no longer cold; in fact I began to feel warm, like on a balmy spring day. It crossed my mind this probably wasn't a good sign, but oddly, the thought made me happy and I started laughing. My wife became alarmed at this point. Fortunately, it was just then we found the missing bus, got aboard, and donned our coats. I felt pins and needles all over and the happy feeling went away, replaced by exhaustion and a desire for some very strong coffee. One thing I learned from this was is I ever became homeless and on the streets in wintertime, it won’t be so bad.

So today we got up, went to the airport, flew to Indy, drove home. End of the adventure. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Almost being crushed to death by hyper-obese fans, trampled to jelly by a crowd of 100,000 fans desperate to get inside a frozen-over dome, killed by made-men from Philly, experiencing stage-two hypothermia, and having my hearing permanently damaged in one weekend--once is more than enough. My idea of a vacation is a quiet cabin in the mountains with some good books and music for three or four days away from everyone. Which I think I will do very damn soon. But wife had a great time so I’m happy for her and this one was for her anyway. I performed my husbandly duty and I’ll have my spirit quest sometime this summer.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Joplin, Part Two and other Stuff & Things

I'm on my way to the Superbowl tomorrow weather permitting (Indiana, along with the rest of the country, is in the middle of the SNOPOCALYPSE) and I have a lesson today, so I chiseled my car out in prparation for same. I'll be away from my piano for five days, literally the longest hiatus from practice since I've started.

I've memorized the second verse of The Entertainer for the right hand and have begun playing with the left hand part, which is, as was the case with the first verse, a lot more difficult to commit to memory. The "home base" seems to be an inverted C chord though, which is fairly simple, but you get to this C chord from several different positions which is tricky. Plus Joplin had a great love for all these weird Chord inversions off all sorts, which sound beautiful when played but for an apprentice such as myself, are dificult to memorize out of the blue.

But I did it for the first verse, and I have confidence I can do it for the second.

Interestingly enough, Joplin modified his strategy for the second verse melody. In the first verse, the melody is an octave (the same not played n octave apart) with an added third. In the first verse, this added third note is at the bottom of the octave. In the second verse, the added third is at the top of the octave. This creates an interesting dilemma when you reach the notes G and A--in order to keep the melody harmonious, they have to share the same third note, in this case, E.

I know people hear this piece and think "Well, that's pretty." But when you study it as a piece of composition, it's fascinating and complex. Which is why I jumped into this to begin with 9well and to keep my brain moist and spongy). I wanted to understand the music I was listening to, and appreciate the composer's intention.