Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Finally, a clip for you

I got home from work early today, and had the house to myself for an hour or so. Sort of. It was me, the dog, and the cat. But they cooperated.

Although it took me about 30 minutes to get this take, it still has three major stumbles in it. But I am posting it anyway. Lord only knows how long it would take to capture a "perfect" take (whatever that may mean). This clip, errors and all, is a pretty accurate reflection of where I am at the moment. While I'm proud of and encouraged by my progress, there are acres of improvement to be realized. I have to eliminate the stumbles, even out the tempo, get smoother with the LH transitions. Once I'm done with all that, I can move on to the special sauce to really make this music. Things like paying really close attention not just to the dynamic markings, but also the way Einaudi himself uses dynamics in his recordings. I have also noticed that he tends to hold notes here and there for emphasis. I'm a long way from that kind of artistic subtlety.

(Once I get all that ironed out, maybe Monica K. will let me submit an improved version for the recital. I'd really like to start accumulating those little recital medallions!)

Listening to the clip, I am struck by how out of tune Ole Bessie is. Sorry about that. I'm used to it, but it seems particularly annoying on this recording. On the other hand, it ain't getting any better. At least the soundboard crack is behaving itself these days. Summer seems to be good for it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I can "play" Limbo

Since Friday, I have probably put in about 8 hours on Limbo. I can now "play" it (more on those quotes later). I put in two clean takes last night, in fact. I'll post a vid this week (assuming Sue doesn't go into labor in the meantime, which is a distinct possibility).

There were two obstacles to overcome. The first was having to play Eb-Bb-Eb on the left hand. Think of the demands here... black keys, left hand, even the requirement to use a thumb. My left thumb, no less. It's like all my piano phobias had a convention or something. Good gravy, I had a hard time with this. The first (and, for me, most difficult) occurrence of this transition is measure 16. It took a very long time to be able to do this without looking. I'm still not fully there yet, in fact, but I can do it now with only a slight hesitation. Getting this progression smooth will be one of the defining milestones to meet before calling this piece "done".

Second obstacle, one which Sawtooth also reported some difficulty with, appears a few measures later. Measures 25 and 26 are the first occurrence of a particularly tricky... arpeggio, is that what I should call it? I had to play this phrase over and over and over and... in fact, on Sunday, I totally had to ChuanChang* these measures. For 20 minutes, all I did was play them over and over again. And I found that after awhile, they got worse! So I shelved them and tried to work on the Eb-Bb-Eb transition I mentioned just a moment ago. Then, yesterday, magically, I had very little trouble with those measures (and their reoccurrences later in measures 29-30, 57-58, 61-62, 89-90, and 93-94...).

* - ChuanChang is a new verb I making up for use in this here blog. It means to quickly and mercilessly hammer a tricky phrase, in a highly repetitive manner. Theory being that there is no sense practicing that 99% of a piece you know really well when there is that 1% giving you fits...

As you know by now, there is a lot of repetition in Limbo. This is a mixed blessing. The good news is that you only need to play maybe two minutes' worth of notes on a five minute piece.* On the other hand, there is great risk that Limbo can sound really boring, mechanical, and repetitive. Playing the notes is one thing. That's where I am right now. Making them into music is an entirely different cup of meat, and that's where I go next. That I can "play" Limbo by no means suggests that I am "done" with it. There are extraneous hesitations to be exorcised. Dynamic markings, oh, mercy, are there ever dynamic markings! Notes to be held, emphasized, just a fraction of a beat longer than others. Grace-notes that you barely hint at, which start the next phrase.

* - Well, in theory, it's a five minute piece. Takes me about six and half right now, but that's just a technicality, right?

This is where the fun starts. This is the sort of thing I was hoping to progress to when I started learning piano back in January. Of course, I am also impetuous, itching to try my hand at the next Einaudi piece. I'm eyeing Fuori Dal Mondo. Give it a listen, tell me what you think.

Fuori dal mondo - Ludovico Einaudi

Monday, July 28, 2008

Best Buy gets into the game

I know Best Buy has sold some Yamaha keyboards, and they had, it seems, a reasonable price on a Casio PX-110 Bundle, but now it seems they're going all-in, and opening a full-fledged music section in select stores.

Best Buy to open in-store music centers

A retail entity able to leverage the kind of scale BB has is bound to increase competition in the market. From the linked story, they are planning to stock Roland. That they already sell Yamaha and Casio boards suggests to me they might increase the breadth of their offerings there, too.

On first blush, I regard this as a good thing. I'm a little surprised, though, that they are going this route. For some reason, I thought it was hard to make money selling musical instruments. Guess not.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Getting long looks at my hands these days

Over the last three days, I've probably put about an hour and a half into Limbo. I'm still on the first page, which I can sort of play at half tempo. When I hook up the iPod and play it full speed, it's pretty messy, so I am not doing that quite so much right now.

But one thing I am noticing: I am watching my hands A LOT. I think I know why this is. I am having quite a bit of trouble with the transitions, both RH and LH. The movements are new and unfamiliar. I anticipate that this too shall pass.

The key to my learning this piece, I think, is to learn the RH so well that goes on auto-pilot. I have heard 4 or 5 different people's versions of Limbo by now, as well as two different versions from Einaudi himself. From what I can gather, the LH is the one that provides the depth and expression. Sure, it's just playing chords, but those chords (and their subtle changes) are what give depth to the RH arpeggios. So while I still need to get comfortable making LH transitions (heck, I'm still testing out different fingerings), I am going to be drilling those RH arpeggios over, and over again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Using my iPod as a learning tool

My iPod was missing. In fact, it had been three months since I'd seen it. I missed it horribly, like a lost dog. I had come to accept never seeing it again, and even began shopping for a replacement. But I couldn't pull the trigger; I was horrified to learn how expensive new iPods are. Apple keeps improving them, and charging more and more for the improvements (go figure).

So imagine my delirious relief when, in the midst of looking for some nail clippers in my bag the other day, I found it, folded neatly in a folded, laminated 3" x 5" pamphlet of the Think Client Value Questioning Model. Clearly, I am not referring to this pamphlet often enough.

It was jarring to see what was on the iPod. "Dancing Queen? Funkytown? Who put those on there?"* Equally jarring was what was absent. Nothing from The Killers, The Nationals, Death Cab for Cutie, or Airborne Toxic Event? Had I not even heard of these groups when I lost the iPod? Has it been THAT long? It seems like I'd been listening to some of that stuff for months, but evidently not. So I spent an hour or so flushing old stuff, and added the new. And it was at this point that my iPod became my newest piano-learning tool.

* - Sue reminds me that I put these on there myself. Our children requested them. I originally left this detail out, as I didn't want to throw them under the bus like that.

I added Limbo.

Hear it for yourself (not my performance, mind you, but the composer himself, live, in concert):

Einaudi - Limbo - Ludovico Einaudi

I spent a couple hours yesterday introducing myself to page one (of four) of Limbo. I marked it up with all sorts of remarks and warnings to myself, and translated some of those off-the-scale notes into a letter I could recognize. (Wish I was better at this.) At the risk of sounding simple and naive, it was a true thrill when I played the first chords. My mind said something along the lines of, "Holy cow, that sounds like Einaudi music, only it's coming from Ole Bessie, not the kids' CD player!" *

* - For a couple of months now, Jillian, Jason, and Rowan have been falling asleep to an Einaudi CD I made for them. Subliminally, I am creating either great affinity for, or violent aversion to, modern piano music. Not sure which it is, but they seem to like it so far.

What I was doing was this. I listened to a phrase, played it by myself (many, many times, with lots of repetitions), then listened to it again, trying to accompany the track at tempo. I was basically unsuccessful at this, hitting just a fraction of the real notes, but that's ok, since the recording did a good job of hitting the ones I was missing. This approach has the added benefit of confusing those within earshot. "Wow, is that you playing that?" I'd be interested in knowing if any of you have used this approach when learning new pieces.

Limbo itself, as many of you have told me, does not seem to be that difficult. Just a handful of LH chords (I count six, give or take one or two), with the RH doing arpeggios on those chords. I am sure a seasoned piano player could get through it in an hour or two. For me, the transitions between notes are new and unnatural. I am going to have to actually learn / memorize them, and I could see it taking a month or so, depending on how much practice time I put in. That should be just about when we move into the new house (did I mention... I did, right?) It's also a new key for me, the key of Whatever-It-Is-That-Uses-Three-Flats. If I ever get a piano teacher, we're going to have some elementary music theory to rehash, that's for sure. And while I see why Sawtooth regards Limbo as exercise, unlike traditional exercises (scales, arpeggios, Hanons), I thoroughly enjoyed my first pass at it. Can't wait to work on it some more.

But there's more. This is going to be very difficult for me to explain, partly because I lack the words to describe it, and partly because I don't totally understand it myself. But here goes.

Even after two hours, I can already see that this music isn't composed of notes to be played, per se, but patterns to be realized, tweaked, and revisited. Sure, the patterns are made of notes, but the notes aren't what it's all about, any more than bricks and stones are what our new house is all about. The music feels like it is composed of shapes, and the shapes have variations. Limbo takes these shapes, gives them different colors, adds a new edge / vertex, then maybe examines the new (but nevertheless recognizable) shape from a different angle. At the end, you return to the original perspective, and look at the shapes you started with, but you see them differently, based on where the music took you to that point. When I come to understand the shapes, I'll have a better sense for the variations, and I'll be able to play the music, rather than just the notes. I like my chances.

I'll spare you the customary, polite "Does that make sense?" because I presuppose that it does not. It doesn't really to me, either. I'll understand if you roll your eyes, and conclude "Oh, heaven help us, AWTPP has gone all psychedelic on us, I hope he gets help soon." My feelings won't be hurt. But FWIW, that last paragraph is an accurate reflection of what it feels like to try to play Limbo, and to listen to it after having tried to play it. Maybe all music (or all good music) is that way, and I just haven't realized it yet. But with Limbo, this is now really obvious to me.

Friday, July 18, 2008

One of these days...

... I'm going to have to start Amazing Grace.

I'm at the point in The Entertainer where I am focusing on things like dynamics, maintaining tempo, and doing my best to honor those little staccato marks where appropriate. Mind you, I haven't yet gone the whole way through without making an error, but you'd have to know the piece pretty well to know that. (You're a pretty astute bunch, so I bet you'd be able to pick up on my errors.) But, point is, I am LONG PAST that stage where I would consider my grasp of The Entertainer good enough to go on to the next piece. And yet, I haven't.

Two reasons for this. First, Amazing Grace scares the Bejeezus out of me. I have dabbled a little with the RH (so I guess I sort of started it), and, wow. For such a familiar piece (I have all four versus memorized, thank you Camp Ozark*), it's really a baffling thing to play.

* - I learned many useful and important things at Camp Ozark. Scuba Diving, the correct pronunciation of "Regina, Saskatchewan", ropes safety, the words to all sorts of country songs I would never otherwise have heard, and how to differentiate between a king snake and a coral snake (a VERY important difference, mind you). But I don't think I any experience at Camp Ozark shook me quite as much as learning that you could sing Amazing Grace to the tune of the Gilligan's Island Theme**.

** - Of course you're trying this now.

Heck, my pseudo-instructor (PianoNoobAlexMan) never even really mastered it, as you can see here.

But there is another reason. I haven't learned everything Book One has for me. Part of the reason why I know this is because when I dust off, say, Good People, I still can't play it very well. In fact, these last few days, I have tried pretty much everything from Lavender's Blue on. And it takes, depending on the piece, maybe 5 to 10 times through it to get a clean take. I am also finding that when I played these earlier, I had gotten used to watching my hands. I had played all of these enough to have memorized the music. Turns out I had only temporarily memorized these things. So today, I have to look at the music, but then, to my horror, I find I cannot play the piece unless I am watching my hands. I wasn't aware of this habit at the time, but I'll be darned if I'm going on to Book Two without fixing it.

Sawtooth, the new house is about 5 miles due west of Geneva. The mailing address is Elburn, and the kids will attend schools in St. Charles. (Registered them yesterday, we did!) So we're moving to "St. GenElburn".

mom3gram... HOLY COW! 10 grandchildren!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Completely piano-free post

Thanks to mom3gram for her warm welcome back. To answer her question, the baby is due in about three weeks. We never got a firm due date on this baby, which is probably just as well, as we've had to induce his/her older siblings. Jillian's water broke at about 38 weeks. Jason was induced at about the same stage when an ultrasound suggested (correctly) he was getting too big. Rowan likewise was induced when an ultrasound showed her to be getting big, but when she was born, she came in at a piddling 7 lbs. 9 ounces. Ever since, she's been trying to catch up, size-wise, with big sister and big brother. I don't like her chances, but she is charming enough to make up for it.

(Just to prove my point, she has just now brought the roll-up piano over to me, cranked up the volume, and is dancing to the demo tunes stored therein. She seems to like Red River Valley best. She'll be two next month.)

The target date, unless baby #4 takes matters into his/her own hands before then, has all along been August 8. There's a lot to like about this date. First, obviously, the awesome birth date (8/8/08) means the child already has its lucky numbers assigned to it. Second, it's a Friday, which is not a bad day of the week to have a baby. Third, we've got Olympics coverage starting up then, so I (I mean, Sue) can watch wall-to-wall coverage those first couple of days from the hospital bed. Unfortunately, Sue's midwife is not available on that day, so we'll see how it shakes out.

We're now in week 35, according to the latest email update. And it's HOT in Chicago this week. So Sue, who has been measuring about a week ahead in that belly-circumference measurement thing they do, is pretty much ready to get this over with.

(Rowan is now making sleestak noises. And in the process of looking that link up, because I know none of you has any idea what a sleestak sounds like, I learned that a new Land of the Lost movie is in production, to be released next year. Starring Will Ferrell and Anna Friel. Good heavens, that sounds like a train wreck.)

So what about the house? Isn't that supposed to be done about that same time? Thankfully, we have some say on the closing date. Our builder needs to close "some time in August". We figure (well, Sue figures) two weeks should be enough time for her to recover enough to be a useful mover, so we're looking to take the keys to the new house August 22. School starts five busy days later.

She went out last week to take a look at things, and came back with this picture (among others):

Finally, the math geek in me thinks this is funny. Poor 8.

(Rowan is now playing Hullabaloo. Add that to my list of recommended kid games, for those of you shopping for birthday parties and such.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Back at it

So yesterday, I got about 30 minutes at the piano, to see if I'd forgotten anything in the last three-plus weeks. Um, yes, I had. If I had been live-blogging the event (I wasn't, I'm not that geeky... yet), I would have recorded something like this.

Opens straight to The Entertainer. "Wow, that looks really hard."

This is one of those things that probably keeps me from using my time as wisely as I could in practice sessions. I don't have a proper, repeatable warm-up routine. I haven't gotten into scales or arpeggios, and I have rejected (for now) the Alfred's Hanon pages, as I find them really boring. For awhile, I was warming up with pieces that I had "mastered" earlier, but for some reason, I got away from that. But as I looked at the music I had just opened up, it looked too hard to play. And I had been threatening y'all for quite some time that I was going to go back and revisit old Alfred's Book One pieces.

Turns pages back to Lavender's Blue. "OK, that looks doable."

Or so I thought. But I had quite a bit of trouble the first few times through this. After maybe 10 minutes, I got it down, but that was a disconcertingly long time to spend on what I had hoped was just going to be a warm-up.

Flips forward to Blow The Man Down.

Yikes. Takes three attempts to get through it without error. Is it a warm-up if you can't do it?

Jason asks to play the piano. I relent, and let him at it. Five minutes later, it occurs to me that nobody is on the piano, so I return to it, and attempt Lone Star Waltz. "That's one I can do."

This was the low point. It got better after this, but I had forgotten that Lone Star Waltz required some RH movement. Once I had that down, I had my sea legs under me, so to speak.

Jillian showed up about this time, and let me know that Lone Star Waltz is her favorite piece in Alfred's. She's even asked me to play it while she dances with various stuffed animals. I think she could play it, and told her so. Maybe we'll work on it.

With new confidence, I race through a couple of Blues pieces, then return to The Entertainer.

There was one measure that kept me from being able to go through this the whole way without stopping. So rather than just jump into the thing from the beginning, I spent about five minutes, hammering this measure, Chuan Chang style, over and over again. I probably played it 50 times in those five minutes. I then played the piece a couple times, in its entirety. I still have a couple of hesitations, but by the time I had to shut it down, I felt like I was finally back to where I was in June. Maybe even a little further ahead. It was good to be back.

Friday, July 11, 2008

And we're going on three weeks now...

In case you're wondering, no, there still hasn't been any piano time this week. Maybe Sunday?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm back, but not really

Hi. It's been awhile. Since last time, I spent an afternoon at DFW, flew home, loaded up a rented minivan, and drove an 1,800 mile round trip with my 6 year-old daughter, 5 year-old son, and 1 year-old daughter. We stopped in Nashville for a short vacation with my mom, who had flown in from Houston. We spent a couple days with my dad in Montgomery. And through it all, I neither touched my computer, nor a piano.

We are all glad to be back, but none of us is gladder than Sue, now 8 months pregnant. She survived the road trip, but as soon as we got home, she crashed for several hours. This suggested to me that she was going through more, um, discomfort than she was letting on. I mentioned to Discopalace that she is clearly ready to never be pregnant anymore. He had a very appropriate response, one which I wish I'd thought of: "I feel the same way."

My dad has a 31 key unweighted Yamaha keyboard, on which we all tinkered here and there. The stand brings it up to about the height of my knee. After a day or two, I got to the point to where I could render The Entertainer, but it was no fun for me. Jillian liked the variety of sounds.

Now that I am back, you'd think I'd head straight for Ole Bessie, but really, there is no time for that this week. Lots of catching up with work, and summertime kid activities. This means two things... first, I will be making no progress on Amazing Grace. Second, I won't have much to post here. I was working on a long, geeky post on the airplane ride back from Dallas... maybe I'll clean that up and post it later in the week.