Posts Tagged ‘music’

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.


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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!

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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

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