Monday, March 31, 2008

Wow, Apollo

I had skipped Good People in Alfreds because none of my "teachers" (read: Youtube posters) had recorded it. I figured this was one of the handful of pieces that was part of the All-In-One book, but left out of the standard Book One. And therefore, it could be ignored, if I couldn't pick it up quickly and easily. Of course, I realize how silly this reasoning is, but hey, did I mention that I was hoping to play The Entertainer by May 1? I'm on a mission.

Anyhow, a couple of things happened along the way to the piano bench yesterday. First, I warmed up with Why Am I Blue?, which is standard for me these days. I sometimes have a little hiccup when I have to handle the fine and return to the beginning, but otherwise, I like this piece, and play it pretty well. Then before returning to the real focus of my work these days (Little Brown Jug), I took a second look at Good People.

"aw2pp, this doesn't look so bad... in fact, it looks a little interesting... try that RH part, see what you think..."

Next thing you know, I am back on Youtube looking for some version of this, whether it's Alfred's or not. And yeah, verily, I found one. And it was my pianoworld Alfred's Book One classmate Apollo who had posted it. I was excited to see this. Then, when I went to the video, I was blown away...

I haven't figured out how to embed a Youtube clip here, so take 75 seconds out of your day, and watch this: Apollo's posting of Good People on Youtube

This is really amazing. Apollo, like me, has been at this piano thing for (IIRC) two months, maybe three. And yet he (right?) even added some extra-fancy embellishments that aren't in the original score. And they work! Astounding progress. Apollo, please post more!

So, until my version of this piece sounds 75% as good as this, Little Brown Jug has been shelved.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Little Brown Jug, still underway

After about two hours, I can play Little Brown Jug at probably 3/4 tempo, hands-separate. According to Chuan Chang, that means I am thisclose to being done with it! (Well, not really, but I am trying his theories on this piece to see if they help.) Yes, I am still ignoring the suggested fingerings, and yes, it's working for me so far.

One thing I am surprised at, as I focus on getting it down HS first... I am not doing nearly as much keyboard watching as usual. More updates on this as further events warrant.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Start the clock

At 7:00 PM Central Time this evening, I started Little Brown Jug. Vegas has put the over / under for my getting it completed at 8.5 hours. I'll let you know how it goes. First impressions? I am NOT liking Alfred's suggested fingering on the RH. I still don't care for moving my RH thumb up and down between white and black keys. In this case, my hands are big enough to cover the spans with 2-4 or 2-5, as needed, but long-term, I think I am eventually going to have to give in on this.

The other thing you need to know is that after an 18 page thread on PW, I finally know what I want to play when I grow up (as a pianist): stuff by Ludovico Einaudi. How long will that take, I wonder?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wow, those pages went fast

Took a couple of days off this past week. But to my astonishment, when I actually did sit down at the piano, I found that not only had I not lost any ground, but I seemed to have improved during the brief sabbatical.

All those waltzes and waltzlike (hey, another new word!) pieces? Check.

Those new blues pieces I was raving about last week? Check. Well, check-minus, anyway. Hold that thought.

I have skipped The Can-Can due to my utter distaste for it. I don't like it when professional musicians play this, much less a hack such as myself. I am working on The Marines' Hymn right now, with a couple of brief forays into Why Am I Blue?

What's up with the sudden progress? A couple of things, I believe. First, I think there was simply a settling of learnings that happened with time and few good nights' sleep. (This reminds me, I keep meaning to write about Piaget's theories of Cognitive Development and how I think they relate to learning the piano, but then I keep putting it off. Maybe subconsciously I am afraid to run off the 5 or 10 of who actually visit... I'll get back to you on this.)

Second, I think I have lowered my standards a little bit for when to progress. Earlier (like, you know, a month ago), I wouldn't move off a piece until I had it absolutely perfect. Backwards, eyes closed, different tempos, whatever. Then I learned, and reported here, that just because I played something perfectly weeks ago, it doesn't mean I have learned perfectly... I was revisiting conquered pieces from the past, and playing them poorly. So instead of trying to reach a perfection that, it turns out, was merely a mirage, I now get to the point where I can comfortably and consistently get through a piece, even with an error or two. Hence the check-minus on the blues pieces. I still have a hint of a pause as I work my way through measures 9 and 10 in Got Those Blues!, but I'm good with it for now. I hope to get better as time passes, and I use this in future warm ups.

I am now at the point in Alfred where we are slowly introducing new key signatures. The Marines' Hymn (and, sigh, The Can-Can) are both in G-major, which is a necessarily tame start. This has been a major fear point for me. As a kid playing saxophone, my instrument (the alto sax) was an e-flat instrument. This meant, for reasons utterly beyond my comprehension, that most of the key signatures I played in were pretty tame. A sharp or two at most, almost never a flat. I developed, in those three years, an intense dislike for any "exotic" key... which, in my book, is any signature with more than one flat, or two sharps. About two months ago, I found a score for U2's New Year's Day, and saw three or four flats on it... immediately threw it away. I hope Alfred will cure this phobia of mine, and I welcome any suggestions from folks who have conquered a similar condition. Most of the really interesting things I want to play are in some funky key signatures, and I will welcome a mindset that says "Oh cool!" rather than "Uh oh".

Monday, March 17, 2008

Making progress

It's been a good few days. I find, over the weekends, that I can accumulate 2 or 3 hours each day, unless I have a volleyball tournament or something. This weekend, we had some lighting selection decisions to make (yeah, that house is still under construction), but mostly, it was a quiet, stay-at-home weekend for us. So I made progress on the pieces I am working, which, at the moment, now includes this pretty lengthy list:

  • Lone Star Waltz
  • Cafe Vienna
  • Brahms' Lullaby
  • Joy to the World
  • Cockles and Mussels
  • Got Those Blues! (This one is a blast. I feel like I am making real piano sounds!)

Yes, I am actually working on all of those, and yes, in some cases, I have been working on them for, gosh, a couple of weeks. Remember, I work on things for as long as it takes me to get to where I can go through them without any errors, more often than not. But if I get to the point to where I can go through a piece pretty comfortably, even WITH a few errors, I give myself permission to work on the next piece. This means, at any given time, I can be working on either one piece, if it is giving me lots of trouble, and I am not sufficiently successful with it turn the page. Or, as is the case right now, a wide range of pieces.

Two changes I have made: first, I am actually trying to implement some sort of warm up. Before, I just jumped straight into whatever I was working on. Second, I am warming up with pieces from earlier in the book. This came to mind when I unexpectedly found it difficult to return to things I had thought I had "mastered". When the Saints Go Marching In, for example. I pulled that up the other day and was unpleasantly surprised to find that I couldn't go straight through it in the first take. Or second. Or fifth. It took maybe 8 or 9 tries (I stopped counting) before I played it at tempo, without errors. Lesson learned: don't forget to revisit the old pieces.

Finally, today is Jillian's last class in her first ever series of piano lessons. She is there at this very moment, in fact. She is not sorry to be done with the Schaum Green Book, and last week asked her teacher for the next one, even though the next set of lessons doesn't begin until April 7. She is very excited about getting a new book... "Daddy! Did you know that the red book is actually a regular size book! I bet those songs are LONG!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Turning my attention to acoustics...

I am surprised at how my attention seems to unfocused right now. I want to FLY through my Alfred's book... note, for example, my stated goal to have The Entertainer done by May 1. Seems a little unrealistic at this point. I also am on the hunt for a Faber All In One Book One, but haven't found one locally. (And I don't feel like paying an extra $16 to ship it to me on a timely basis... of $3 to ship it to me in, like, a month. That bites.) On top of actually wanting to learn to play piano, which is plenty as it is, I am also giving a great deal of thought to our next instrument. Let's hit on all these.

I haven't been able to get too much practice time lately, so I am still on Brahms' Lullaby. I haven't yet made it through the whole piece without an error or hesitation. But I was surprised to learn from some posters at pianoworld that the Brahms is not in the regular Alfred's Book one. Rather, it appears midway through Book Two. The reason I am surprised to hear this is because it has quite a bit in common with Cafe Vienna, which I am using as a sort of warm-up these days. I think it makes much more sense here than later. Anyway, I think I am about an hour's worth of bench time from being able to put Brahms Lullaby to bed (sorry, I couldn't help myself there).

The main reason I am interested in the Faber and Faber book is to vary the music. I complained earlier about the boring, repetitive nature of the Alfred's pieces. I am hoping that the Faber book may give me a little bit of variety. On the downside, if I undertake two method books, it might slow my progress in both. Of course, maybe that is not such a bad thing.

As you know, we are not about to rush out and replace our old piano with a fancy new digital. Therefore, I have turned my attention to the longer-term purchase, which would be a new (well, new for use, not necessarily new) acoustic. I have Larry Fine's Piano Book, which is apparently THE SOURCE for information on piano purchases. The book is absolutely mind-boggling in its detail of how pianos work, how retailers and distribution networks work, and what to keep in mind when considering a piano purchase. I am about halfway through it, having skipped a lot of the technical details, but here is what I have learned so far:

  • If you are considering uprights (which I am), avoid short ones, for reasons of sound, action (the internal workings, that is), and resale. If you can, start with 48" models, and work up from there (although there seem to be a handful of shorter but very expensive uprights whose innards are exceptionally designed, and make up for shortcomings of stature).
  • If you are considering used pianos (which I might), absolutely, positively DO NOT purchase one without first having a tech inspect it. And make sure the tech has no stake in the outcome of the decision.

This particular edition was written 8 years ago, and published in 2001. There are annual supplements to it, which correct or update out-of-date information. While the book itself is ubiquitous (there is one in our library, and at every Barnes & Noble and Borders I have visited in the last week), the Update... not so much. Can't find it anywhere. This morning I finally broke down and ordered it off the web. (For good measure, I also ordered Alfred's Adult All-In-One Book Two. You know, in case I finish the first one. Did I mention my lack of focus?)

The 2000 vintage Larry Fine seems, to my casual reading, to be EXTREMELY suspicious of Chinese pianos, which were barely trickling into the USA at the time (from what I gather). Those that made it here seem to have suffered some serious manufacturing, perhaps even design defects. I am very keen on getting the supplement, because I am told these pianos have come a long way in a very short time. They may be part of the conversation before this is all over.

I think we need more clips here. Jillian has a piece in her Schaum book that I want to capture, if only for the comedy of how fast she plays it. Maybe I can get that posted next time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How do you learn to just let it go?

I speak Portuguese and Spanish. Well, at one time, anyway, I spoke Portuguese and Spanish. I minored in Portuguese in college, and played a season of basketball in a Brazilian league in São Paulo. Back then, my Portuguese was natural, and just rolled out without any thought as to grammar, vocabulary, or accent. For several years after this wonderful experience, I would seek out Brazilians and other Portuguese-speakers, and have conversations with them. Almost without exception, these wonderful and gregarious people would humor my attempts. On a couple of occasions, someone even expressed surprise that I wasn't, after all, a native brasileiro.

I left Brazil 19 years ago. Since then, my Portuguese has fallen into a decrepit state of disuse. Once in awhile, like at a restaurant or even at work, I will have an opportunity to dust off my old skills on a native Brazilian. This is almost always a bad idea. I find my Portuguese is now halting, indecisive, and, above all, requires a great deal of effort. I know what is happening... my brain is working overtime to decode and translate every word I say or hear. The running commentary in my head sounds like this: Is this a Spanish or Portuguese word? (The two languages share a lot of vocabulary.) Am I using the right verb tense? Why can't I keep my hands still while I am trying to speak?

It is an exhausting, labor intensive process, and I can't keep it up for more than five minutes at a time. I am sure that this would probably pass if I spent, say, a week re-immersed in the language, but that seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Why bring this up? Because I am finding my experience with Brahms' Lullaby feels a lot like trying to speak Portuguese. The tune is familiar, and not really that complicated. I am sure that with another, oh, 2 or 3 hours, I will be ready to move on from it. But, as I mentioned last time, it is very mechanical. In particular, the right hand moves around just a little bit in ways I have not yet had to attempt. I still make lots of errors, and it takes me probably twice as long to get through it as it should. But... when I do it best... when I come closest to getting it right... I find afterwards that my mind has sort of blanked out on it.

Stated another way: when I am trying to get through it, my mind is running a commentary, similar to what Alfred has suggested in earlier pages. Start with RH1 on E, move up a third with RH2, back down a third, OOM PAH PAH with the LH... and with enough practice, I will have committed these movements and coordinations to memory well enough to claim a victory. But man, I wish I could just CHOOSE to let everything go blank, and play the piece by feel, because that is when it goes best.

Problem is, I haven't yet figured out to choose this. My mind simply wants to give the marching orders.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Thoughts on digitals

I mentioned before that I am an acoustic guy at heart. If this makes no sense to you, I won't be able to explain. The closest can come is this: there is just something right about an acoustic piano in your house. I have very specific ideas about the acoustic that I hope will some day adorn the new house, but in the meantime, I must accept the reality that a DP is the way to go.

However, since we are, after all, building a house, there aren't piles of unspent money just laying around the house / yard/ mattresses. For this reason, I am interested in paying as little as possible for a DP that satisfied the following requirements:

  • Weighted keys - Non-negotiable, this. It absolutely MUST feel like an acoustic piano.
  • Reasonable sound - This, however, is negotiable. I accept that I (and perhaps Jillian, and some day, Jason, and some day, Rowan, and some day...) will practice with headphones. I have read that headphones make inexpensive DP's sound really nice. And since I am not going be buying a Clavinova or a Roland or something anywhere near four figures, I accept that sound may be somewhat compromised.
  • Features - meh. I am looking for a piano substitute, not something that could double as a pipe organ / harpsichord / Jimi Hendrix.
  • Toughness - I am not going to be guarding this thing 24 hours a day. Kids will play on it. Kids will bang on it. It needs to not complain about this sort of treatment.

My initial research has me pointed directly at Casio. In particular, the PX-120 seems to be the lowest acceptable entry point (although I would scoop up an older floor model should such an opportunity present itself). I get the feeling that Yamaha sells more in my price range (or slightly above it), but their comparable pianos seem to have semi-weighted keys, which scares the bejeezus out of me. I am going to give this a couple more days' worth of thought.

But one thing has sort of caught me by surprise... just because a keyboard / DP is, say, $399, that doesn't mean you are going to be playing for $399. No sir / ma'am. You are going to have to add a bench, stand, and pedals, unless you are shelling out for a higher-end model that already has these niceties. And I haven't the foggiest notion of how to connect such a unit to my laptop, thereby giving you kind folks the pleasure of hearing any output we might generate from it. That probably involves some cables, and maybe some software. I don't know.

Anyhow, it's early. More updates later, but I wanted to get this posted first. Next couple of days are shaping up to be busy.

The Verdict is in, and it isn't good

The tech came to see our old piano this morning. It didn't take long. The crack in the soundboard was significant enough to be observed from the back of the piano, without even looking inside the cabinet. (Should I be amazed by this?) The crack goes through the ribs, and would cost about $1,000 to repair. The highlights:

  • Overall, he suggested that the piano is in relatively good tune, given its age, the fact that at least four years have gone by since it was last tuned, and we have it on an exterior wall next to the front door.
  • He added that, given its condition, it should be adequate to what Jillian and I are going to put it through over the next four months or so.
  • BUT, unless it has some sentimental value, it was his opinion that it was not worth moving to the new house.
  • Finally, he suggested that Yamahas make very nice digital pianos.

I haven't touched the piano since, wow, Sunday. I miss it. But it's been a busy few days, and I am also newly sensitive to the ears of those around me. As Apollo suggested in the comments, the solution is obvious: a digital piano.

I am probably going to scope out the local scene for reasonable DP's. I have done just a little bit of research, and of course, there is always plenty of useful information in the Digital Piano Forum over at I'll give you some of my preliminary thoughts next time.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thank you to PianoNoobAlexMan

Jillian has a piano teacher. I'll tell you about her some other day. (Don't you love these teasers? They are really just notes to myself, to be honest.) Me? I do not yet have a piano teacher. I have very high, perhaps unrealistically high hopes for myself as a pianist. Among other things, that means I accept the likelihood that some day, I am going to need to sign up with someone. In the long run, I am simply not going to be able to take myself where I would like to go. But for now, learning the basics, I feel like Alfred is teaching me almost everything I need to know.


Thing is, I can't yet "hear" the music in my my head. What I mean by that is, I can't translate the music I read on a page into notes or melodies in my head. This is a real problem if I start on a new piece that is completely unfamiliar. Like Cafe Vienna, for example. Even though this was basically a shorter, Austrian version of that accursed Lone Star Waltz, when I first opened the page to it, the piece was completely opaque. So I did what I had done half a dozen times before, and turned to PianoNoobAlexMan, my surrogate teacher.

If you are in my stage of learning piano (mom3gram, I am looking at you here, but there may be others), you need to know PianoNoobAlexMan. He started with Alfred back in September, 2007, and was kind enough to post videos of all the Book One pieces as he completed them. For the most part, he does pretty well. Once in awhile, you will come across a recording in which he doesn't do a proper repeat, or forgets to move his hands an octave up... but in terms of learning what a new piece is supposed to sound like, he's been a real life-saver for me. And I am happy to report that, now that he has begun Alfred's Book Two, he is posting his recordings of those pieces on Youtube as well. Looks like I may get to keep my pseudo-instructor for awhile longer yet.

See (and bookmark) what I mean here: