Saturday, July 30, 2011


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


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


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.