Friday, December 25, 2009

Gone fishin'...

Aw2pp will go dark for a week or so, while we visit friends and relatives in Texas, and all parts in between. Yes, we're driving, and we're going to attempt it one fell swoop. 18 hours straight. 4 kids and 2 "adults". Wish us luck.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

- Aw2pp, and a partridge in a pear tree. (Wait, that's two gifts!)

Merry Ice-Mas

We don't do much here that would qualify as breaking news. Frankly, I am not on-top-of-it-enough to do that. Most of my posts germinate for a few days or more before they end up fodder for you. But these pics were too interesting not to share.

Here is our driveway this morning. Ice was about an inch thick here. Children were warned to stay off, and, wouldn't you know it, they did.

The Birch in front of the house is not happy with this.

The kids' week-old snowman seemed a little down, too.

It's ironic, Dad was here over Thanksgiving. He's lived most of his life in Alabama, including the last 32 years. I remarked that they had some ice storms while I was at Vanderbilt (late 80's, early 90's) that were simply ferocious. I had the gall to add that that sort of thing doesn't really seem to happen here.

- Aw2pp, who stands corrected.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yip Yip Aliens

I don't have much to say today. The Fighting Amish are done for the year, ending my interest in fantasy football. Work is slowing down after a very, very busy few weeks. And after a couple piano-related posts this week, I'm spent on that topic. For now. Instead, put on your Rocky the Flying Squirrel voice, and say it with me: "And now for something you'll REALLY like..."

Rowan watches plenty of Sesame Street. It is therefore with informed regret that I report to you she has yet to meet the Yip Yip Aliens.

Words fail me. And them too, but that's part of the point. They communicate much more with significantly fewer words than does, say, Elmo. Ro's missing out.

- Aw2pp, who speaks whale.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)

Here is another recording from the Plateau of Piano Mediocrity. PT tells me that this is traditional Japanese music played during tea time or something.

Sakura - Cherry Blossoms (Alfred's Book Two)

What I like about it: It took me two weeks to get this far, instead of three. Nice ending, too. Mordendo...

Why I consider it symptomatic of mediocrity: Rough in tempo and dynamics. This is an elegant, almost fragile piece of music. It sounds like I'm playing it with boxing gloves.

- Aw2pp, idol of idle youth.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obligatory kid and family pics

It's been awhile.

Joey's growing up quickly, especially the last month or so. That'll be a theme here today, and you'll notice that many of the pictures include him. Here's another, in fact.

Jason (70 months) and Joey (16 months) playing our newest Wii acquisition, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games™. (Yes, that is the full, official name of the game.) That's Jason on the left.

These two are looking more and more alike all the time. It's a credit to them both, really.

This was taken on a recent train ride through a Christmas village not too far from here. Free train, free hot chocolate, free popcorn... what's not to like? We'll have to add it to the list of things we should do every year. Joey was less enthusiastic later that evening...

"Don't worry Joey, your older siblings weren't so crazy about this either when they were your age."

Same night. Those aren't Mardi Gras beads. Just clarifying. He makes faces like this when he doesn't want you to take his picture. Posting it is an attempt on my part to say, "Nyah nyah nyah, we took it anyway, and now the whole world can see your goofiness." That'll learn him.

Good news! Joey is ambulatory (look it up, it may not mean what you think it means) and capable of getting himself into a whole new world of trouble. Here he is on the second shelf in our pantry. Getting in is easy... getting out, not so much. Speaking of which...

... this has yet to be explained to my satisfaction. Maybe I'm better off not knowing.

Tom Skilling says Meteorological Winter begins December 1. Phil Plait says Astronomical Winter starts December 21. They're both right, of course, but neither of them can tell you when Winter actually begins. I will tell you. Winter begins when I have to shovel the driveway, and the kids look like this after playing outside for 5 minutes.

No, we haven't signed Joey up for piano lessons yet, which probably explains this strange chord he's trying to play. He's at least six months away. He does, however, enjoy turning the piano off while I am playing it. For some reason, he does not do that to Jillian. Secretly, I'm insulted. But I won't tell him that, and I'm fairly certain he doesn't come by here, so the secret is probably safe for now.

- Aw2pp, sensitive to his critics.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Greetings from the Plateau of Piano Mediocrity!

I made a recording for you to commemorate my arrival here. Here, give it a listen, and tell me what you think: link - House of The Rising Sun from Alfred's Book 2

The Plateau of Piano Mediocrity is not such a bad place, really. Quite crowded though. And from the looks of things, lots of folks have been here a long time... some seem resigned to spending the rest of their lives here.

Looking back, I see that my trip began down in the Valley of Piano Discovery. The road rises quickly at first, but then gradually settles onto the Plateau. The subtle decrease in grade makes it hard to pinpoint exactly where the Valley ends and the Plateau begins. But after awhile, there is no mistaking that, though you’re making plenty of lateral progress, the terrain isn’t taking you any higher.

Way off in the distance, I see the Hills of Piano Excellence, and, past those, the Peaks of Piano Virtuosity. I would like to think I am headed in that direction, but the way is shrouded in a deep fog, and I am not entirely certain how to get there from here. Michael Stipe says it can't be done. I guess I'll keep on taking one uncertain step at a time. At least I can see that far.

Ok, so the metaphor only works to a certain point, I admit. But the truth is, it doesn’t feel to me that I am making a lot of progress these days. Plenty of reasons for this, of course… mostly having to do with schedules, travel*, work… you know, life. But it doesn’t change the self-perception that I am pretty much the same piano player I was a year ago… certainly the same one I was six months ago… At this rate, Chopin and Liszt are going to have to wait a long time for me to catch up with them.

* I’m doing my best to squelch a whiny post about traveling for work… truth is, I should be thankful that I have a job. But be warned, I may lose this argument with myself, and whine in an unseemly manner.

What makes me feel this way? A couple of things. First, it seems to me that it is taking a longer-than-expected period of time to pick up new pieces. Second, the added time I spent polishing pieces I think I've learned isn't really making them sound that much better.

Consider this recording I’ve attached. On the one hand, there is a lot to like about it. The phrasing is nice, and I added an 8va section (that's the higher part in the second half) that, to my ears, gives it a little bit of life that the original Alfred's version lacked. That's all good. Problem is, I worked for three weeks to get it to this point. One week to learn it, and two weeks trying to iron out wrinkles and eliminate pauses. Those two weeks produced no observable results. To me, it sounds hesitant and timid. It also sounds like another hour or two would fix that right up, but I'm telling you, it won't. This is as good as I can get it, and, until further notice, it ain't getting any better.

Likewise, it is taking a very long time to learn some of the Christmas pieces I’ve been assigned in Bastien Book 4, and also the Clementi Sonatina. It takes me a month or more to get those things down. In my mind, the music doesn’t seem that difficult, so it shouldn’t take so long. But the mechanics of making the fingers consistently go to the right places aren’t coming easily.

There is one more important point to be made here: I believe this is perfectly natural. Most learning involves an initial period of rapid acquisition, followed by a longer, perhaps even indefinite, period of perfecting some basic skills while slowly acquiring new ones. I get it. I am experiencing, I assume, the same feelings that everybody goes through when they pick up the piano later in life*. My hunch is that the vast majority succumb at this point, and accept that this is the musician they were meant to be. I’m going to continue to plug away, hoping to finish Alfred’s Book 2 some time mid-next year, and Book 3 another year after that.

* - Except for the select few who are naturally gifted… I'm looking at you, Tim Moriarty, hello!

Liszt and Chopin can wait for me. They've got time on their hands, to be sure. Good thing, because those Peaks are way far off in the distance.

- Aw2pp, who remembers something about slow and steady winning the race...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In which he plays his first Steinway (long-ish)

About three weeks ago, I met some old college buddies in Nashville to watch Vanderbilt get destroyed by Kentucky* in football. Eh, it happens, one gets used to it. (Rice fans, testify! Can I get an "Amen!"?)

* - A truly unrelated observation: can somebody explain to me why Kentucky fans travel in such numbers to watch their team play football? Dudley Field, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, seats roughly 40,000 people. Come game day, there were 30,000 Kentucky fans in attendance. Basketball, I get, but what interest do Kentucky fans have in football? Professor K, can you help me out here?

Nashville is a comfortable drive from 41 miles west of Chicago, but part of the weekend involves some Friday afternoon golf. Driving in time for tee-time would mean getting up and hitting the road around 4 AM, which is a lousy way to start a busy weekend that also includes late night card-playing and such. As luck has it, one of my buddies is a surgeon in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and that represents a comfortable stopping point. So I rolled into Dr. C's driveway late Thursday evening, caught up on current events, debated the Public Option, and went to bed.

Next morning, I woke up to an empty house, save me and two Chihuahuas*. Dr. C was visiting some patients he'd worked on the day before, and his wife Penny was delivering the kids to school. I put on my running shoes, and went out for a run. On the way to the front door, I noticed something that had escaped my attention the evening before... a large grand piano. I took a closer look at it and saw that it was a Steinway, which I guessed to be about 6' or so.

* - What is it with our friends and Chihuahua pairs? Thankfully, all dogs survived this visit.

So I immediately scrapped all other plans, and went to town on the piano. At least, you'd think that, knowing me. Well, I didn't. Volleyball season is fast approaching, and I'd been getting away from that "get in shape" thing I have to do these days just to be able to play. And besides, something didn't feel right about sitting down at this beautiful piano without, you know, permission or something. So I headed out with my Blackberry and headphones, and went for a run around Dr. C's neighborhood.

That took around 45 minutes. During that time, I talked myself out of the very sensible decision to ask permission to play the piano, and used that as motivation to get back to the house quickly. I justified myself thusly: "Why inflict my poor playing upon my kind hosts? They should be spared that."

When I got back, I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that I had locked myself out. The only creatures inside the house were the two yappy, unhelpful, and very agitated Chihuahuas. For 30 minutes, I alternated periods off stretching and canvassing the outside of the house for the proverbial spare-key-under-the-rock / statue. (Admit it: you have one, don't you?) The whole time, trying (and probably failing) to look perfectly innocent. Finally, in response to a text I had sent him, Dr. C told me where I could find the key, and voila, I was back in the house.

The dogs looked at me like, "Oh, it's you. Never mind all that hollering we were just doing."

By this point, I was very much looking forward to playing the piano. But there was a problem: my hands were frozen stiff. They were useless. It was probably 40 degrees that morning, and I had been outside for over an hour by this point. I could not play the piano at all. I tried anyway, of course, but it was awful. And about this point, Penny, Dr. C's wife, returned. And heard, oh, about 45 seconds of the misery I was inflicting on the piano. And said, in that sincere way that Southern folks can when they say something nice that flies in the face of all available evidence, "You play beautifully."

We got to talking, and Penny told the story of how they acquired the piano. Dr. C has an aging rich Uncle with no heirs, and wanted to do something nice for his nephew. About two years ago, they met at the Steinway store in Louisville, played a couple of pianos, and chose this new mahogany O. It took about an hour.

Since then, the Steinway techs have been by a half-dozen times to service the piano, most recently two days before my arrival. Apparently the Steinway people are a little fussy about how you treat their product... they say things like, "Uh, Mrs. C, there is too much dust on the instrument, you folks need to pay a little closer attention to that." And "Dr. C, those Southeast-facing windows will allow morning sunlight to fall upon the instrument" (they like to call it that, I guess) "during the Winter months. You are going to have to move it to a new location, please." They take notes on these things, like a doctor maintaining medical records, and are unhappy when they find their advice / suggestions from the previous visit go unheeded. I guess this is all part of the Steinway experience.

Penny went on to tell me that the piano isn't played very much. Dr. C played as a child, but rarely today. Their children take lessons on it, but don't practice as much as they should. The older one would be really good if he practiced. And Penny doesn't play at all, which you might have already surmised by her review of my playing.

Dr. C got home shortly thereafter. We all had breakfast together, cleaned up, and still had some unscheduled time. I sat down once more (with permission this time), and took a go at I Due Fiumi and my most recent recital piece, the first movement of the Clementi Sonatina. I had to play from memory, since I didn't bring any music (that'll learn me). I played these things well enough the second time around to get a good feel for the piano.

Of course it was amazing. Neutral in all respects, which I believe most Steinway folks regard as a good thing. Bass? Plenty, but somehow not booming. Treble? Wonderful and clear, but without that bell-like ringing our church piano (a Kawai RX-2) has. The touch was heavier than either our Casio or PT's small Emerson grand.

The Verdict (keeping in mind, of course, that I am a true novice when it comes to any sort of "real" piano, much less fancy-pants models like a Steinway O... basically, I know nothing about what I am talking about):

A beautiful piano, one I'd take in a heartbeat from any willing rich, heir-lacking Uncles. Or Aunts, distant cousins, or strangers on the street. But to be perfectly honest, it sort of left me shrugging my shoulders. I guess I expected to be floored by playing a new Steinway. You know, the sort of experience that melts the hearts of hardened men. This was nothing like that. In fact, to my hands, the progression of key weights, from heavy bass to lighter treble, was not nearly as smooth as I expected. The sustain didn't hold as long as I'd like but this is probably a matter of taste, and could be adjusted.

For what it cost (for those of you scoring at home, that would be around $60k, and Steinway is infamous for their refusal to discount), I expected more. I guess I expected it would have made me a better player, but alas, it'll take more than a fancy piano for that to happen.

- Aw2pp, who is nowhere near as with-it-and-hip as he makes himself out to be… Case in point: his use of “with-it-and-hip” in this tag.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Aw2pp is still in business...

... although you wouldn't know it by my posting frequency. A thousand pardons for the radio silence here. Since we've last talked, I have been knee-deep in many projects at work, most of them (so far) fruitless. I like our chances of closing some nice things before the end of the year, though.

This week, if I can get to it, I will put up a couple of recordings, give you my thoughts on playing a Steinway, and maybe find some Internet drivel for our collective mental and emotional health.

- Aw2pp, man-child.