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.