Well-Tempered Clavier??

Nope, still don’t care for the harpsichord.

But I haven’t actually listened to any more since I last wrote.  I had several people tell me that I should give it another try, and my children even gave me an album to change my mind, but my turntable isn’t working at the right speed.  And let me tell you, running harpsichord music too slow does NOT improve its sound.

I will give it another shot, I promise.

I discovered my aversion to it by listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2: Prelude and Fugue in C Major.  Chris and I settled in one night on the couch with a glass of wine and the Classical Music for Dummies CD.  They have a section in the book that takes you step-by-step through each piece, and Chris read aloud to me as we listened.

Since I have zero musical training, I found this enormously educational and great fun.  We listened to selections from Handel, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  The book explains that since the harpsichord keys aren’t touch-sensitive, the player can simulate more volume by rolling the chords — playing each note in a chord a split-second apart.  I was astounded by Bach’s piece; there is great mastery of composition and playing going on here.  I just didn’t like the tinny sound of the instrument.  Not solo, anyway.

Counterpoint, Bach’s specialty, is far more complicated and delicious than I’d realized.  Four individual parts, all voicing their own unique opinions, somehow blending together harmoniously.  I understand now why people call him one of the greatest artists of all time.

Listening intently to a piece of good music is a form of meditation, an act of mindfulness. If you never listen to classical music except as background music or at your kid’s school concerts and recitals, try giving yourself 10 minutes some day to lean back, close your eyes, and really drink it in.  (And turn the volume up, if you can).  It’s relaxing and exhilarating all at once.  It’ll renew your faith in humanity.

Even if it’s harpsichord music.


Something new every day

The piano lessons have been skimped on a bit the past couple of weeks. My daughter is a very busy person. School starts inside a month. What will become of me?

I’m not practicing as much as I’d like because our piano is in the dining room, which is open to the entire rest of the house. I rarely have the house to myself, and although my loving family has been nothing but encouraging, I am absolutely certain that my playing a tune haltingly 20 times over is driving everyone bonkers. So I keep my practice times short.

When Elissa is absent, I’m mostly using The Piano Handbook. The author, Carl Humphries, is oddly snarky, saying things like, “Any fool could do that.”  Also, he throws you right in with a brief section on musical notation that leads directly to your reading the music, moving your hands up and down the keyboard, and playing with both hands at once.  It’s going to take me forever just to get through Section One.

He’s also British, and the Brits have different names for the notes:

  • whole note = semibreve
  • half-note = minims
  • quarter notes = crotchets
  • eighth notes = quavers
  • sixteenth notes = semiquavers
  • thirty-second notes = demisemiquavers

Demisemiquavers is fun to say.  (Go ahead, try it aloud!)  Quaver is just as it sounds, literally, when you’re playing something fast.

Online Etymology Dictionary says that “crochet” (I wonder how the English pronounce this?) is from the Old French word for “hook.”  A quarter note, of course, looks like a hook.

“Minim,” as it sounds, means “smallest.”  According to Dictionary.com, the minim in music used to be the shortest note in use.

Ya learn something new every day.

On the up side, the book comes with a CD of all the pieces it has you play.  I find this immensely helpful.  If I don’t know what the piece is supposed to sound like, it takes me a lot longer to figure out how to play it.  It’s also got a great section on the history of the piano.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that I hate harpsichord music.  But I discovered this in a fun way. I’ll tell you about it next week, but before then try really listening to some harpsichord music.  It’s dreadful.  If you don’t agree with me, write in and convince me otherwise!

What are friends for?

A different view

A different view

HaHa!  I have graduated from “Frogs on Logs” to “Allegro” and “Minuet.”  This means I am all growed up!

Actually, it’s the same number of bars and the same notes, just in different combinations.  And since I was complaining earlier about the lack of titles in Chopin’s work (he was a purist, evidently), I probably shouldn’t be snobby about “Frogs and Logs.”  I quite like some of these little tunes — one of my favorites is “Dancing with Frankenstein.”  Very spooky sounding.

I’ve started to feel slightly encouraged — I’m reading the limited number of notes I know fairly quickly, and putting my hands in the right general place.  But just when I think I’ve got something, Elissa bounces into the room, glances at the music, casually reaches down and moves one of my fingers.  I’ve been playing Middle C with my right thumb (Finger #1), instead of my left.  I start over.  Onward ho.

Elissa has convinced me to have a family/friend recital when I complete the first book.  I’ll need to pick several pieces since the ones I’m learning are so short.  We played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as a duet and it so delighted us, we’ve decided to play it for the recital.

Why is sharing our art is so important? Early recitals, childhood plays and refrigerator drawings, writing workshops… all of those things are about learning and support.   Okay. But my partner asked me a few days ago what difference it would make if I wrote something and stuck it on the shelf instead of publishing it.  I think he feels that art should be done for its own sake, for whatever personal growth and expression you get out of it.  And that somehow publishing or showing or playing for other people is too egotistical.

I can understand that point of view.  But for me, sharing artistic endeavors has always been about understanding each other and what it means to be alive.  It’s about exploring all aspects of this crazy life — all the joy, beauty, compassion, desire, rage, grief, and sickness that come with being human.  Art tries to embody and comprehend these things in a new way, and sharing our perceptions can help us see more clearly.

Living is damn hard work.  Let’s help each other out.  It’s good karma.

It’s kind of funny, really, that I didn’t want to play for anyone, but chose to share the music in a different, safer (to me) way — writing about it.

Music cries out, soothes, uplifts, brings us together.   My music may not have that power yet, but it will come.  And when it does, I’ll play for whoever wants to enjoy it.

Until then, I’ll play for people who have to listen ‘cause they love me.

Hey, what are friends for?

Rusty boltsI took these rusty bolts out of my head.  I feel much better now.  Time to make new connections.

All of my new books arrived at once, plus I checked out Classical Music for Dummies, which is quite amusing and informative.  I’ve been grazing through them all and have picked up the pace on my practicing.

Where I’m at physically:
I’ve learned middle C, treble notes D, E, F, and G, and bass notes D, A, and F.  I can’t read the music very quickly, but I can read those notes.  I’m hearing when things don’t sound right.  I’m paying more attention to the directions given in the music.

I know that many people learn by ear, and maybe that’s better; there seems to be an ongoing argument about it.  I feel strongly that I need to be able to read music, so I’m taking the time to learn what I’m looking at, not just memorizing little tunes.  And I have to admit that I don’t have much confidence in my ears; reading something comes more naturally to me.  I’m hoping the ear thing will just sort of happen.

I have no idea if my progress is slow or fast.  Of course, I suspect it’s pretty slow, given that most songs I play are about eight bars long and I sit there for a half an hour before I can play anything correctly.  Technique is harder than I suspected — you can’t just hit the keys, you’ve got to hit them at the proper angle, with the proper force.

I don’t care, though!  Whatever!  I’m having fun!

Oh, and my back hurts.  Elissa said it would, but I didn’t believe her.  I want to sit cross-legged on the bench, but she won’t let me.  She’s strict!

Where I am mentally: I’ve mostly been reading Kenny’s Werner’s book Effortless Mastery.  This is a spiritual book, and full of contradictions that aren’t bothering me at all.  It mostly comes down to this: What goes on in our heads has enormous influence over what comes out of us.

As I read the book and practice, what I’ve been carrying around with me most is the idea that you shouldn’t view something as hard.  You should look at it as merely unfamiliar.  You are already a master of the skill — you just aren’t intimate with it yet.  As soon as you get familiar with it, you’ll feel the mastery.  Simple, huh?

It’s just a slight shift in thinking.  It gets rid of all the self-doubt and frustration that comes with learning something new.  It reminds me of a sculptor’s process with a piece of stone: the sculpture is already in there, you just have to knock away the extraneous bits to get to it.  For some reason, I’ve actually been able to hold that frame of mind.  Maybe because it’s a three-day weekend.

Kenny Werner also believes that you should stay with each piece until it is fully absorbed, fully mastered, before you go on to the next thing, or the next level.  I’m not sure it works this way when you’re creating something; perfectionism, thoughts of being shunned from human society for producing something bad, knowing that even your dog will hate you, can keep you endlessly stuck.  Best to keep moving.  (As we carpenters like to say, “Do your best, caulk the rest.”)

But I agree with this idea when you’re learning a piece of music.  Fully absorbing all of its lessons will make your playing so much stronger for the next one.  You’ll learn things you didn’t even realize you were learning if you stick with it until it’s right.  It’s easy to get impatient, but then you’ve got gaps in your knowledge.

I know this doesn’t work for everyone.  People (especially 12-year olds) get bored and want to keep moving on to more exciting things.  Sometimes that’s what keeps you motivated.  But I hate being in a hurry.  For me, learning the piano is a chance to slow down and let myself BE.

What’s your process when you’re acquainting yourself with the Unfamiliar? I really want to know!  When you’re done blowing things up, or watching other people blow things up, write to me!  Happy 4th, Everyone!

More Noise, Please!

We’ve hit summer full-on now.  It’s in the 90s most days, and oppressively humid. I took an early morning run yesterday, listened to the birds out singing to one another.  It was early enough that only an occasional car swished by the park, and I opted not to turn my headphones on.  It’s rarely that peaceful here.

More than any other summer sound, I love the rising and falling chirp of the cicadas.  It reminds me of long hot summer evenings, chasing fireflies around in the yard.  And nothing to do the next day but the same thing. Three glorious months of vacation stretching out in front of you, timeless.

Ah, the sweet sounds of summer.  Children yelling back and forth to one another.  the wind in the trees, the rumbling thunder.  The roaring of lawn mowers, weed-whackers, mulchers, and trimmers spreading out over the neighborhoods until you can’t escape.  Oh, wait.  I hate that sound.

I make my living as a carpenter.  We’re a noisy lot.  Our company mostly does remodeling, so our noise doesn’t generally infect whole neighborhoods, but we certainly have our days.   But something about the constant noise of lawn mowers in the summer wears me down.  I can’t get away from it.  All day long, it follows me around as I go from job to job, out to eat, home in the evening.  Someone is always out mowing the lawn wherever I am.  For some reason, in the last few years I’ve been unable to tune it out.

Tim Robbins, in the movie Noise, played a character that went bonkers from the ever-present noise of New York City.  He began breaking into cars to disable the alarms.   I feel his pain.  For some reason it just sticks in your head; you become aware of it and then can’t return to a state of non-awareness.

Everyone would agree that car alarms are irritating, so why are power mowers acceptable?  Because some good comes of it: when the mowers go off at night, people’s lawns look nicer.

In my perfect world, we would live somewhat simpler lives with smaller lawns, and we could all use push reel mowers, like the ones they sell over at Clean Air Gardening.  In the meantime, I’m trying to be thankful for the order that comes from chaos when the lawn is manicured.  We can play bocce ball and not lose the balls.  And we can see the flowers we’ve planted along the edge of the yard.  I’m not as itchy when I walk through the grass.  And I have less chance of stepping in cat poo if the grass is shorter.  Music to your feet.

So there’s the metaphor for the day: my piano playing sounds noisy now.  Not constant grinding noise like a lawn mower or my violin practice, but intermittent, unsteady tones like a faucet dripping.  It’s annoying, but as I continue to practice each little piece, the random sounds become music under my fingers.

Classical? Jazz? Ragtime?

I started this blog post by endlessly surfing the web, reading about Chopin’s short and somewhat unhappy life and exploring the metaphorical possibilities of tempo rubato, a term which I had never heard of until last Sunday.  I wrote, surfed, wrote, digressed, surfed some more.  Somewhere in there I stopped to eat some watermelon.

Narrowing my thoughts about lifelong learning, brain science, music, entropy, and the scandalous secrets of classical composers down to a few hundred words each post is proving difficult.

So I did what I do best: I ordered books.  If I play my cards right, maybe I can count this as practice AND an excuse for why I didn’t get my blog written.  Okay, no dice.  But I will share my purchases with you.

We’re currently using Elissa’s old piano books, which were written for young children.  These books are fine as far as they go.  After all, I’m coming to this with a beginner’s mind.  Elissa has stories to tell about her own learning when she teaches from them, something I enjoy.  But I’d also like some books that assume I can reach the pedals.

One book that’s been floating in my head for years is John Holt’s Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, a memoir about learning to play cello in middle-age.  John Holt was an educator who slowly came to advocate for a particular brand of homeschooling called Unschooling.  He stated: “My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.”  He believed that humans are good at learning and like to learn, but do less well when other people try to control or regulate our processes too much.  He wanted everyone — young and old — to have the freedom and the support to follow their passions.

I read John Holt and John Gatto, another renegade teacher, back in the day when we homeschooled my elder daughter, and my ideas about learning were forever changed.   I was always intrigued by John Holt’s own story of lifelong learning, but I never read it.   I was too busy thinking about how his theories applied to my children.  Tonight, I ordered the book on Amazon for $1.00.

Linda Gabriel, over at Thought Medicine (check it out!), recommended Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner.  His assertion that “Mastery is available to anyone,” sounds like it will be a confidence booster.  Many of the reviewers said that the book helped them let go of frustration and have fun with their music.

Lastly, I also ordered “The Piano Handbook: A Complete Guide for Mastering Piano.”  Most of the theory books got mixed reviews, but I felt I needed something practical.

I almost ordered a couple more, even though I know I won’t have time to read them right now.  My usual thought when I’m trying to learn something is What can I READ?  Even if it’s something visceral, reading about it is natural for me.  It’s also, I admit, a little bit safer — you can read endlessly and never actually DO anything.  This time I’ve made myself accountable to too many people!

But I missed something, this time.  I have one Chopin CD, a couple of Mozart, a few pieces of Haydn, Liszt, and Wagner.  Not much else.  Where should I begin with this?  Classical?  Jazz?  Ragtime?  Which artists?  Do you have a favorite pianist and/or composer?

Please send your suggestions!

I cannot tell a lie…

A bit of clarification is in order.  I told a wee bit of an untruth in my first blog entry, but it wasViolin on top of my piano unintentional.  Blame it on lack of sleep, call it a senior moment or what you will, but I HAVE had music lessons before.  I studied the violin, oh-so-briefly, when I was pregnant with my current music teacher.  I got as far as a very screechy rendition of “Ode to Joy” before we moved and I had a newborn to take care of.  End of lessons.

You would think I would have remembered this, given that I still have the violin, and it’s SITTING ON TOP OF THE PIANO.  Eh hem.  I hate to admit it, but I didn’t like that teacher very much either (see my first post).  He mainly played guitar, and he wasn’t very patient.  Is it really that difficult to find good music teachers?

I’m still interested in the violin, but I have a neck injury that makes it awkward to tilt my head for very long.  It’s not off the table yet, though.  First, piano.

Thursday night Elissa and her dad and I headed out to see some world-class piano-playing by Ian Hobson.  Because it’s summertime, and he’s a professor, this performance was somewhat casual and cost almost nothing.  We got seats in the front row, just to the left of the piano, so we could see his fingering.  Perfect.  (Except for the guy sitting next to me with Eau de Cigars on.)

Because I’m not a *professional critic* I can say that I was freezing my patootie off in the auditorium.  Do they keep it that cold so the piano stays in tune?  Or to keep people awake? (My boss says she always falls asleep when she goes to see the symphony.)

The theme of the evening: Chopin, in celebration of his 200th birthday.  I’ve listened to some Chopin, but I’m not intimately familiar with any composer.  When I listen to classical, it tends to be in the background.  You can’t appreciate Chopin if he’s in the background.  How amazing to watch the fingering on these pieces, which were all technically challenging.  But to fully appreciate the music, I had to close my eyes.

Elissa circled the ones she wanted to learn on her programme.  Ambitious girl.  Good for her!

A number of questions came to my mind as I looked over the programme.  Questions that until now had never occurred to me!  Like: What the heck is a mazurka?  What does it mean when they say, “Such and such in C major?”  And WHY DON’T THEY GIVE REAL NAMES TO MORE OF THESE COMPOSITIONS?

A mazurka, according to Wikipedia, is a Polish folk dance in triple meter, usually at a very lively tempo, with an accent on the second or third beat.  Come on, admit it.  You weren’t sure either.

From what I can glean, “in C major” means that the musician starts the piece in that chord.  (Elissa isn’t here to ask, so correct me if I’m wrong!)

I can’t find an answer to my third question; I’m not sure how to Google it.  I’m guessing it was just the standard way of doing things. I know some compositions have unofficial names, but it sure would be more memorable and less confusing if more of them did.

I think I’ll call my first composition “Whoohoo!  I did it!”