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All for the sake of Art

I found myself eagerly anticipating piano practice as I drove home from work today.  One of my lovely readers gave a me a link to Andrew Furmanczyk’s Academy of Music to supplement my lessons on piano, and I’ve been looking over both his piano lessons and his music theory lessons.  Andrew is an endearingly goofy young man from Canada who has developed free online tutorials because he believes everyone should have the chance to learn music.  I was taken with him immediately.  He makes me happy.  And I came away from the first lesson knowing how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  Otherwise, it was all good review for things Elissa has already taught me.  And yes, she made me draw the clef signs over and over, so that someday I can write out my own music.

It’s still overwhelming, especially when I watch Elissa play.  She reads the music for both hands simultaneously and translates it to her fingertips fluently — something I despair of ever doing.  But listening to music gets me excited about the process.  I’ve been listening in a new way, just as you try to read like a writer when you want to write a novel.  Elissa and I have both been into Pink Martini’s Hang On Little Tomato lately.  Songs like “Una Notte A Napoli” are great for counting the beat.  They make you want to get up and dance the Cha-Cha or anything else with a fast 1-2-3-4 beat.  This is difficult when you are driving home in rush hour.  I counted out the beat as I listened, even played a little hand-piano with my free hand. I have to admit this was a little distracting, driving one-handed and cha-cha-cha-ing while my stereo was on way too loud… but it’s all for the sake of Art, right?  (In case my kids are reading this — Do as I say, not as I do!)

All this seat-dancing (not the same as lap-dancing) and listening to beautifully-sung Italian music made me think of all the things that I’d still like to learn: languages of all sorts, singing, dancing, more instruments, cooking, how to keep my cat from throwing up on the carpet, etc…  It’s so much more difficult to find the time and energy (not to mention money) once you have a family and a full-time job and financial responsibilities. And because of that it’s easy to say, “It will take too much time. Do you realize how old I’ll be by the time I’ve mastered this or that?”  The answer to that, of course, is Yeah, the same age as if you never started.  So if you’re lucky enough to have a little more freedom in your life, don’t neglect your heart’s desire!  Take advantage of the time you have.  And if you’re already looking back in regret, try to clear a little corner of your life out where you can make a commitment to have fun again.  And then do it.

I think I’ll go practice “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” again.  It’ll make my teacher proud.  And if anyone knows how to keep your cat from throwing up on the carpet, let me know.

No Sleep Refrigerator PoetryI got up way too early this morning, before 6:00.  I decided, as I tried desperately to return to slumberland, to write today about something dear to my heart — sleep.  I LOVE sleep.  I want to marry it and have its babies.  Unfortunately, I am too often the jilted lover.

Too Little Sleep is the enemy of piano playing, and writing, and being nice to each other, and focusing on whatever it is you need to focus on, and art in general.  I won’t deny that being slightly (or completely) crazy has produced some great art, but in my case I don’t have that luxury.  I need sanity.  I need energy.  I need rest.

OKAY, OKAY, OKAY, sometimes it’s worth it to go without.  Sometimes you need to be courageous.  But if you let it become chronic, you’re in big trouble.  I don’t care who you are.  Did you know that there’s a rare genetic disease where you FORGET how to sleep?  Over the course of a year, usually when you’re in your fifties, your body just stops sleeping.  Guess what happens next?  You die.  They still don’t exactly know why.

National Geographic published an interesting article called “The Secrets of Sleep” in its May 2010 issue. They talk about fatal familial insomnia (the aforementioned disease), and why it is we need sleep to live.  Hardly anyone gets enough sleep anymore, and a lot of us are stumbling around (or driving) like drunks because of it.  The article quotes Harvard sleep researcher Charles Czeisler as saying, “We would never say, this person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!”  And yet we celebrate that work ethic.  Quality over quantity, guys.  It’s the quality of the work that counts.

I can hear you saying that this must be a long excuse for not having practiced my piano this week.  I did practice, thank you very much.  But I was exhausted, and it didn’t seem to go all that well. I had trouble focusing or remembering anything from my last lesson.  This isn’t surprising, since one of the theoretical functions of sleep is memory consolidation.

Pick your poison:

  • The snoring spouse
  • The 14-year old cat who stands in the middle of the hallway just outside the bedroom door and mews loudly.  If you have the audacity to close the door, she’ll scratch at it ceaselessly.
  • The offspring calling at 2:00 a.m. because she’s at a friend’s house and can’t sleep.
  • Things that go thump in the night.  And motorcycles roaring by.  The fire station down the street.  The train four blocks away. (Okay, I like that one.  I find the mournful whistle soothing.)
  • All the various phantom loads of the house — the nightlight in the bathroom, the clock radio, the computer in sleep mode blinking at you mockingly (haha, I’M asleep), any other electronics in the bedroom glowing weirdly.
  • A full bladder.  Twice.
  • Alarm clocks!  Damn them!  They are pure evil, with their insistence that we get out of bed, whether our bodies are ready or not, and stumble around in a blur.  (Can you tell I’m not a morning person?)
  • Jangly nerves.  Anxiety.  Being overtired!

I’m sure you’ve got your own from different times in your life.  An elderly relative wandering about in the night mumbling to themselves?  A newborn?  A child with night terrors? Restless leg syndrome?  Some you have the power to fix (I put the cat outside).  Some of them you just have to wait out, hope you don’t kill anyone in the meantime.

What’s your sleep nemesis?  How did you overcome or get through?

Luckily, it’s the weekend, and I don’t have any children in the house.  Sleep and I have a nap date this afternoon.  I think it likes me after all.

Wow.  This is hard.  Okay, really.  I remember some stuff from grade school.  Who could forget Every Good Boy Does Fine or F-A-C-E?  Those are burned into my brain.  For those of you who learned an instrument as a kid, maybe this seems unfathomable, but I’m overwhelmed.  DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY THINGS YOU HAVE TO KEEP TRACK OF WHILE YOU’RE PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT!?

The books I am using say things like, “Have your teacher hold down the pedal if you can’t reach it.” And yet, in one song, I have to notice whether to play loud or soft or in between (forte or piano or mezzo forte), figure out where to put my fingers, remember which finger corresponds to which number (did you know they number your fingers?), and also keep the beat (how are you supposed to count your fingers AND count the beat?), all the while recognizing whether the notes are half, quarter, or whole, and whether or not you are pushing down the pedal or playing with more than one finger at a time.  And several other things that I’ve forgotten already.

I haven’t even begun to move around from octave to octave (I only sort of know what that means), or to actually read music yet.  Ach!

My daughter is all patience, but I can tell she’s bored, watching me hit the wrong keys over and over.  I know that younger brains are more pliable.  I knew that when I started.  I’m doing this because I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT.  Remember that?  It’s harder to make excuses when you already have a piano and a teacher at hand.

That was the real thing, wasn’t it: that it would be hard.  That I’m scared I’m too old and  won’t be able to do it.

Okay, it’s hard, and I’ve barely begun.  Someday it will all click together and then it will be easier?  My brother-in-law, who is my age and just learning guitar, assures me that there will be “Aha!” moments along the way.  That I just have to trust in the process and keep pushing myself. Or have someone else push me, if necessary.  Hence the blog!

To supplement my musical education, I’m reading The FJH Classic Music Dictionary.  There are 18 different tempo indications.  18!  They are (in English): extremely slow; slower than slow; slow (broad); slow; “at ease” slow; faster than “at ease” slow; faster than slow (broad); walking tempo; usually slower than walking tempo but sometimes faster; moderate; fast “cheerful”; not as fast as fast “cheerful”; lively; vigorous; very fast; faster than fast “cheerful”; very lively; and as fast as possible.

“Usually slower than walking tempo but sometimes faster” is my favorite.

Clearly these people were on drugs.

I am enjoying the way the Italian rolls off your tongue (or sometimes thuds in my case).  It makes me want to learn Italian, too.  Maybe that will be next year’s project.  Elissa’s piano teacher has offered to teach her Italian, but Elissa is resisting the idea.  If she only knew… Well, youth is wasted on the young.

In parting: a few words of encouragement from Rumi for those of us just beginning to blossom:

You come to reading books late in life.

Don’t worry if you see the young ones

ahead of you.  Don’t hurry.

You’re tired and ready to quit?

Let your hands play music.

How I Found Middle C

I turned 40 a few days ago.  Tonight I was to have my first piano lesson.  My first music lesson of any kind.  Okay, there was the recorder in fourth grade, but that was so long ago I can’t remember it.  Besides, does the recorder count as a real instrument?  My daughter makes it sound like one, but she’s got golden fingers.  The only thing I remember was hating my music teacher, so it couldn’t have been good.

That golden-fingered 12-year old, Elissa, is my teacher now, so I’m moving up in the world.  So far, she’s shown me where middle C is.  Most musicians can pick out middle C with their eyes closed.  They can walk up to any piano and just know.  I can make a decent guess — after all, it’s middle C, so it’s got to be somewhere in the middle, right?  Or you could count over so many keys from right or left.  I figured out a better way.

I cheated.

On our lovely little second-hand Kimball, middle C is just to the left of the K on the Kimball faceplate.  Haha!  I win!  I’m 40 and have never learned an instrument; I need all the help I can get.

Only problem is, every time Elissa asks me to point it out to her, I hit the white key just to the right of middle C.  She’s had to show me three times.  Hahaha…Excuse me as I descend into hysterical laughter.  So far so good, huh?

Elissa has piled a number of her old piano primers in the bench, awaiting our first real lesson.  I thought we could have fun blogging about our adventure, and we agreed to start on June 1.  I, amazingly, am here writing.  But alas, I’ve been left alone at the piano bench.  Elissa got an invite to go swimming and have a sleepover.  Her friend has a giant trampoline.  Who could resist that?

So while she is out bouncing (and screaming with delight, no doubt; there seems to be a lot of screaming at her age), I am dutifully affixing the proper location of middle C in my mind’s eye and in my muscle memory.  (And also Elissa made me a sign).  It’s a far cry from Kenneth Miller’s “pasture and storm,” but you gotta start somewhere.  Eventually, my teacher might even show up.

Kimball piano with signs for middle C

My middle C cheat-sheets