Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reasons why we never go anywhere

A two-part tale.

Part One

About six weeks ago, Dan, an former colleague, emailed a dinner invitation to Rhett (another former co-worker) me. I confirmed with Sue that we were available*, and told them both that "we" would be there. Rhett and his wife have three children, I recalled, and I was sure they'd play nicely with ours. I picked out a couple wines, loaded the family up, and off we went.

* - Why anyone ever asks me if I am (we are) available on a given date is beyond me. Sue knows these things, not me. Between birthdays, sports, practices, and various other get-togethers, I am hopeless when it comes to keeping up with our schedule.

Rhett and his wife arrived before us. Sans children. I later learned that our hosts were, um, surprised that we brought ours. I'm clueless, of course, and didn't pick up on any of this. In fact, I was so out of it, that when Sue told me on the way home that the children were not expected, I didn't believe her. But then I went back to the original email. "Dinner... wives... might take some time to arrange sitters..." Well then. Yes, we brought our four children to a formal dinner party. Whoops.

Our gracious friends handled it well, to their credit. They read to our children; they grilled hot dogs for them; they sat on the living room floor and ate off the coffee table while the Aw2pp crew commandeered the kitchen table. Our children, to their credit, were also very good, with no known episodes of crying / whining / potty accidents / breaking things*.

* - Unless you count the page Rowan ripped out of some 100 year-old dictionary**. FWIW, the page was blank.

** - No, I don't know how Ro got her hands on a 100 year-old dictionary.

So I did send a hat-in-hand note to Dan, apologizing for inadvertently doubling the size of the guest list. I thanked them for being the wonderful, gracious people that they are. Dan's response to me began: "Aw2pp, you ignorant slut!"

I believe that means they are still coming to Joey's first birthday party this weekend.* But wow, we're clearly rookies at this dinner party thing.

* - I think. Remember, Sue owns our schedule.

Part Two

Sue has some old friends from back in college, a couple who recently moved to Des Moines. That's a reasonable car trip from here, so we packed up the family and spent a recent weekend with them. Good times. They had a daughter (and her 2 year old) in town, and it was lots of fun to see Rowan play with a peer for once.

"Thank you, drive through please!" Ro has some experience with McDonald's drive-thru's. I love how the yellow shirt she had on goes so well with the rest of the ensemble. And no, this is not the same playset that topped the list of Cracked.com's "9 Toys that prepare children for a life of menial labor".

Our weekend hosts drink lots of fancy California Cabs, and we made a small dent in the collection. We also watched a lot of golf, and marveled at Tom Watson's British Open almost-win.* And though it was too cold for much swimming**, the kids handled it well, and busied themselves with other activities, including an afternoon visit to a Living History Farm.

* - It hurt to see that wind up the way it did... and I say that as a fan of the eventual winner, Stuart Cink.

** - Which didn't stop us, mind you, we still went swimming at their country club. Had the place to ourselves, we did. Ro and Joey were pleased.

Among things you learn at a Living History museum:

You learn where milk really comes from. (Jason was enthusiastic, getting right in there.)

(Jillian, keeping a respectful distance, not so much.)

You develop an appreciation for modern conveniences, like indoor plumbing.

You learn that children 100 years ago couldn't play the piano if they couldn't reach the pedals. (Sorry, Ro, maybe next year.)

When we weren't doing fun things like milking cows, one of the kids' pastimes was playing with our hosts' ancient Chihuahuas, Chica and Carlos. Jillian, Jason, and Rowan liked chasing them around the house, and taking them for walks. Carlos was feisty, and would holler at you periodically for no apparent reason. Chica was the skittish sort, who trembled all the time, and didn't like to make eye contact. Neither of them
particularly enjoys company, so it was with some surprise when, on Friday night, Carlos seemed to soften his disposition, particularly towards Jason, who had been tormenting him most of the day. Carlos actually sort of cuddled up on Jason's lap at one point during the evening, which seemed to make them both very happy. Our hosts, pleasantly surprised, remarked, "Wow, Carlos never does that." It was just about that time that Jason noticed that Carlos' nose was not wet. We all made some other observations, too, that maybe Carlos was not himself.

"That cough doesn't sound good."
"Yeah, he's been fighting something lately. Vet said not to worry about it."

"Does he always shake so much? I thought Chica was the one who shakes all the time?"
"Well, it is chilly out here."

During the night, there was some howling coming from the laundry room, where the dogs slept, but apparently they howl at night on a regular basis. They're, after all, Chihuahuas. Jason was the first one up Saturday morning. He heard Chica barking from upstairs, and wanted to go on the morning walk with the dogs. But they couldn't find Carlos. (Hopefully you have some sense as to where this is going... if not, you are in for a shocker.)

Evntually, David, our weekend host, found him in his bed. Yes, like his more famous cousin Gidget, Carlos had breathed his last, and joined the Great Chalupa in the Sky.

The last picture taken of Carlos. That's him on the right, under Jason's control.

Our host family made the requisite arrangements (I'm surprised how much it costs to cremate a Chihuahua), shared the news with their other children, and did what they could to assure us that we did not hasten the poor animal's demise. Once that was all taken care of, they then turned their attention to their fancy sound system, which we had done something to. Thankfully, they were able to get that fixed, and life returned to normal.

Chica, last we heard, seems unaffected by the situation. She still trembles and looks frightened all the time.


Don't invite us over. We mean well, we really do, but perhaps it's best that we keep to ourselves for a few years.

- Aw2pp, amateur haiku critic

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two kid updates...

To keep the schedule sustainable, and to make sure we don't go insane with activities, we try to limit the kids to no more than two activity enrollments at any given time. Not sure if we're even going to be able to maintain that pace during the school year, especially when Rowan and Joey start getting involved in things. But this summer, we have (well, Sue has) been able to shuttle Jillian and Jason back and forth between swim lessons* and piano lessons.

* - "Swim lessons, Aw2pp?" Ya, I know. "But weren't Jillian and Jason on swim team last year?" Yup, they were. "So, how..." It's a bit of a long story, and deserves its own post. Another time. For now, suffice it to say that they have been in swim lessons this summer, and it has been a worthwhile use of time and resources.

How's piano going?

Jason's piano practice has been laser-focused. Pretty much all he does is work on his performance of Jillian's Dance of the Unicorns Dolphins Generic Creatures. (Hear his performance of this piece from several months ago at this link: http://www.box.net/shared/iv161vyb6a). To his credit, he has even done a little improvisation on the theme, and I gotta admit, it's more interesting than before. Furthermore, when he is physically present at lessons, he is fully engaged, having fun, and, most importantly, learning.

But the good news ends there. His passion for Dance of... spills, annoyingly, into his lessons. He finds ways to play it in and amongst the other things he is asked to do at lessons. Poor PT, she is so tired of hearing that music. "Anything but that!" Once he gets home, he simply does not practice what he has been assigned. He dislikes practice, and he pushes back on Sue and me when we ask him to practice. We remind him that asked to take lessons. Therefore, he needs to follow through on the commitment he made to us and PT, and stick it out through the end of the summer lesson session. But once those are over, we told him that we'll pull him out of lessons until he demonstrates that he is committed to giving piano practice the attention it deserves.

This is sort of a template for us. If our children show an interest in something, especially beneficial activities and interests like piano, reading, or sports, we'll honor their interest to the extent that our schedules and finances allow. A corollary to this is that we aren't going to sign them up for something in which they have (or express) no interest. But once they tell us "I want to do (insert activity)," we make sure that they realize what they are committing to, and we hold them to that commitment through the duration of the season / session. Which means, for the rest of this month, anyway, we are still going to make sure Jason practices, and he is still going to his final couple of lessons. But when the next round starts, I will resume my lessons, taking Jason's place.

Jason is, after all, 6. There is plenty of time for him to rediscover a more abiding interest in the piano. Or maybe he'll follow in my path, and wait 30+ years before formally taking up the instrument. Or maybe he never will. But for now, he has had his introduction, and it'll suffice until we hear otherwise. When school starts, we'll get him signed up for... soccer and basketball, I think? Or maybe horse riding lessons... I think both kids expressed an interest in those. But man, riding horses is pricey.

Jillian is just as fired up about piano as ever. She is genuinely pleased with her progress, looks forward to lessons, and, for the most part, practices without being asked. As piano pieces spin up periodically on the iPod, she often asks me to estimate how long it will take before she can play the music. Most of the time, my answer is something along the lines of "Not long."

Oh, and she has a new found interest in the music of Led Zeppelin. That's almost enough to balance out the fact that she somehow knows who Lady Ga Ga is.

Almost, that is.

- Aw2pp, who pities Mr. T.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A rookie's lessons learned - I Due Fiumi

A day or two after I posted my recital clip on Youtube, I received an email asking me for tips on playing it. A week later, I got another email asking about a particular section. Last week, I received a third request for tips on I Due Fiumi (henceforth, IDF). It's quite likely that the only three people in the entire Interwebs who are interested on my take on IDF have now expressed their interest to me. But hey, if there are three of you, maybe there are more (perhaps 5 even?), so I figure it's a good post topic.

From general to specific, here are my thoughts on IDF. I would appreciate it if Anthony B, Monica K, and any other frequent / regular / sporadic visitor to these parts could chime in with their observations. My perspective is relatively unique, in that I am a new piano player, with a fool for a teacher* (most of the time). More advanced / technically accomplished pianists probably would have a different point of view.

* - "He who teaches himself has a fool for a teacher." - German Proverb. All sorts of bloggy goodness here, no?

- IDF, it turns out, is much easier than it sounds. In fact, of Einaudi's pieces that I have learned so far (IDF, Limbo, Ombre, and at the moment, I Giorni), it is by far the easiest. There are some passages that took me some time to play (and significantly more time to play well), but hold that thought. I would, as Monica K. has, recommend IDF as a first Einaudi piece for anybody who is relatively new to piano. mom3gram, I know you tend to downplay yourself, but I am completely certain that you could have this piece up and running in time for next month's ABF Recital.

- I always (AlWAYS, I say) played the main body section better the second time around. I have no explanation for this.

- In the recordings, Einaudi himself starts at about 108 beats per minute, then at measure 17, speeds it to about 120 (or thereabouts). Then returns the slower tempo at the coda. When I listen to my recording, I wish I had done this, because my own recordings sound slow and tentative in comparison to the real thing. Also, Einaudi pushes and pulls on the tempo quite a bit, and pauses at the end of almost every phrase. If the sheet music reflected his performance, there would be fermatas every four measures or so. Adhering (somewhat) to those imaginary markings made my performance sound more like his.

- A slight majority of the piece is played with the Una Corda (soft) pedal. In practice, this meant that my recital recording was too quiet. Folks with better control of the pianissimo side of the dynamic spectrum could do better than I, but I found I had to move everything up a little towards the forte side of things. You'll notice nothing in the sheet music calls for more than mezzoforte... I didn't adhere to that, but would have if I had better control of quiet notes.

- For the sake of simplicity, I played the left hand arpeggios mostly 531313, 531313, etc. I wasn't able to keep this up for the pattern in measure 6, which I played 541414 everywhere it appeared. My teacher did not like this, but it was too ingrained in me to change by the time I played it for her. Other important exceptions were measures 12 and 80. I simply could not play the following measure smoothly until I changed the pattern to 543434 (then then 321212 in the following measure). That helped A LOT! And there was one more exception to this, which deserves its own bullet.

- On the LH, there is a pattern that comes up a lot at the end of almost every phrase. The first instance of it starts in measure 7. Two observations here... first, Einaudi seems to slow down near the end of the second measure when he plays this, so I did too. Second, I played the LH 5312135, then started the next measure with the fourth (ring) finger. My teacher hated this, and my wife thought it looked very unnatural. But it worked for me.

- I neglected the coda section in my early practice, and should not have. Later, trying to get a good recording was frustrating. In about a half dozen takes, I played the whole thing well, only to make a fatal error on the coda. I believe Anthony B experienced something similar.

- To me, the piece revolves around the part where the RH moves up the register... starting in measure 33. Meanwhile, the LH is doing a countermelody that actually requires it to move around a little. This was my first exposure to this LH pattern, which, it turns out is a common one in Einaudi's music. I had to play these measures a lot, slowly, repetitively, over and over and over again, to acquire the pattern. For folks like me, without much piano experience, this is the painful, dues-paying portion of learning a piece like this. It was annoying and tedious, and (Ral is not going to like hearing this) I did not like it. After about maybe 10 hours of going through it in this manner, I slowly began to build up speed, and then one day it all came together magically. (Gremlins, again.) To this day, it remains my favorite passage of music to play on the piano (measures 33 through 52).

- One of my teacher's tips that simplified it for me was to start the RH (on measure 34) with my ring finger (would that be 4?). It's not natural for me, because that High C gets a lot of play in this part, and I'm using the weakest finger to play them. But it makes everything else much simpler.

- And once I had the RH down, I found I could, as Anthony B suggested, let my RH go on autopilot while I made sure the LH hit its assignments correctly. You'll know you are getting close when you can do this. (Of course, folks like Euan and Kawaigirl probably sight-read the music with that mindset.)

- There is an octave-plus chromatic scale part starting in measures 45 and 49. At first, I tried to do this with only a two crossovers (5154321543212), but that was, as we used to say in Texas, ignant. Impossible for me to do smoothly. After awhile, I sort of lost count of how many crossovers it took me, but it was at least three. What I probably do now is 5154321432132, but I'm no longer tied to a particular pattern on those anymore. I think that is because once in awhile, I would miss on the way down, and adjust on the fly, and play it successfully.

- Last thing, and it's subtle. Einaudi pauses briefly on the first 8th note in measures 60 and 64 (another imaginary fermata). When I got it in my mind that this represented the end of one phrase, and the second 8th note the beginning of the next, this made the passage much smoother for me.

Whew. All I got. As I said earlier, I would be happy if anybody had their own tips and pointers to throw in. One last comment: many of the things I learned and described here have made I Giorni easier to learn. I hope I continue to see these kinds of progressions as I move to more complicated pieces. After all, I have less than 11 months to learn Le Onde for the next recital.

- Aw2pp, who goes on and on like Internet words are free or something. Sheesh.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Insight update: Fill-up #1

8.25 gallons, 383 miles traveled, 46.4 MPG.

Still learning how this whole hybrid thing works. Looking to improve on that number next time.

- Aw2pp, the slowest driver in town

Monday, July 6, 2009


I've mentioned this before, but it bears a full revisit, because Gremlins are in full force these days. My observation goes something like this. While working on something over the course of several days, I make minimal progress while I am actually sitting at the piano. Sure, during the course of a 30 minute practice stretch, maybe something gets smoother, or I can play it marginally faster. But from the beginning of one piano practice session to the end, I am basically the same piano player. Strangely, real progress occurs once I have turned the piano off, and gone on to new tasks and fun-filled activities. And this is especially true when I have a good, useful practice session immediately before going to bed. The next time I sit down at the piano, I find, miraculously, that I have indeed become a New and Improved Piano Player. Things that I could not have done before... I can do. Things I was able to do before... I can do them better. It's a very interesting phenomenon, and if I had any friends who were cognitive psychologists, I am sure they could explain it to me. Since I don't (not that I know of, anyway), I prefer a cleaner, more succinct explanation.


Gremlins have a bad rap. In some cases, this reputation is well deserved. Observe as Bugs Bunny tries to fend off a Gremlin who was trying to wreak wanton havoc on a US Army Airfield during WWII. (Mind you, I regard this as one of Bugs' weaker performances, but it's relevant.)

Years later, in puppet form*, Gremlins re-emerged in one of Steven Spielbergs worst movies. (Remember, don't feed them after midnight. I mean, how hard was THAT?)

* - This was before George Lucas and Al Gore invented CGI, obviously. I expect a remake any year now.

The Gremlins I speak of are not the nasty, mischievous kind. No, these are helpful Gremlins. These critters are hard at work while I sleep (and, to a lesser extent, while I do things like yardwork, eat, or, you know, my job) creating and extending synapses, making new connections that help me play the piano in ways I could not before. These days, for instance, I am in the final stages of getting the Mexican Hat Dance up to a recording-worthy level of polish. Concurrently, I am also learning I Giorni. Both pices have required extended sessions of slowly, repeatedly, playing short sections, even individual measures over, and over, and over again. In some instances, this practice has been dull and tedious, and I have turned the piano off out of sheer boredom or frustration over my lack of progression. Then later, or even the next day, I come back, and without having touched the piano, I have suddenly mastered what I could not do before. More than once over the last week, I have thought to myself, "Holy cow, is this me playing? It sounds good."

I'm not alone here, right? Does this happen to you?

- Aw2pp, who keeps his supraesophageal ganglion to himself