Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Follow me on A Year of Standards

Hi readers, from now on I will be posting at my new blog A Year of Standards - as much as I love meowing, "a year of standards" says more about what I'm doing! Please follow me over there. Old posts are archived there as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sweet Home Alabama, Shadowman

Turbo blog entry. More to practice. Need sleep. Not so much burning the candle at both ends as submerging the candle in the fires of Mordor, and today I was sick again. Bleh. Always fun to play a gig when you think you're going to puke at any moment. I think I'm a lot more exhausted from this whole break-up/move/figuring out a new life thing than I like to admit. I don't have as much energy as I usually do, and my immune system is shot. As an added bonus, whenever I get sick, I also get upset and sad that I'm sick, which is kind of dumb but there you have it.

I needed a pick-me-up song with a good groove today. No tender ballads, please. I looked at my uber list: "Right Here Waiting", no. "Fire and Rain." No, definitely not today. "Sweet Home Alabama"... I looked it up on playlist, and was grinning as soon as it started playing. I like the eight-note groove on each chord change - a little extra attitude, hitting it twice - and of course the iconic guitar riffs. I've been choosing guitar-based music a lot lately. I think I might need a guitar. I'm an occasional lyricist, and I usually picture myself with a guitar when I'm working out the lyrics in my head. Which is a problem, since it takes me about five minutes to change chords on a guitar. There may be a visit to a pawn shop - or more likely, craigslist - in my future. Meanwhile, I'm in the middle of learning the piano solo at the end of "Sweet Home Alabama".

Last night, my friend Joshua came over to jam and we transcribed the song "Shadowman" by K's Choice, a Belgian band I'd never heard of before. My current favorite thing about this song: the Asus4 at the end on the lyric "now'd be perfect". The song is in C# minor, and we haven't heard Asus4 before in the song and here it's just sexy, resolving to A and then C#min/G# and G# then back to the tonic.

It's all in the resolution: the progression that starts the song, we analyzed as "figure 1": C#min - A/C# - F#7sus4/B - F#7/A#. Music theory nerds will understand why we started to analyze the third chord as Bsus4. B, F#, E. But instead of the E resolving to a D#, the B resolves to the A#. It's not just semantics, it does sound different. The resolution colors the chord that came before it in hindsight, and then when you hear it again (as you do many times in this song), you know what to expect. There's a life metaphor in here somewhere.

The form and the harmony on this song are actually really interesting, but I'll have to save any more geekery for another time. Meanwhile, you can check out the video and draw your own conclusions. I feel so honored that they chose my first initial for their band name!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Melon Camp

I love to play with words.

This post comes to you live from friend and artistic partner-in-crime Nat's apartment - aka, the building next door. Nat is away for the weekend, and I am taking care of her cat, Mimi. Mimi got into Nat's pajama drawer last night and is exhibiting signs of needing attention, so I am over here with my laptop and my ipod for some quality Kat-cat time. Nat has a piano, and has changed the password on her wifi since the last time I used it, so I have high hopes of being productive.

I have been asked to talk about what motivates me to choose a particular song, and how that relates to the music itself. The truth is, my reasons for choosing a given song have up to this point been 1. practical (the sheet music was at the top of the box I hadn't unpacked yet), 2. professional (I recently felt retarded for not knowing this song in a work situation), or 3. therapeutic (eg Pink's Funhouse album). Nothing to do with the music itself - if my choice to learn the song on a given day has anything to do with the song itself, it's usually about the lyric. So, my grand plans for building myself a pre-planned curriculum notwithstanding, I decided to to stick with my willy-nilly "What Song Do I Feel Like Learning Today" method, with the added caveats that I take note of Why This Song, Musically Speaking; and that I learn it by ear first, thus improving my ear and removing the Do I Own The Sheet Music part of the equation.

Why is it that the things that are most challenging for us are also the most rewarding? I'm a visual learner, and I learn almost as well kinesthetically, but despite my ability with music and languages, my facility with learning music aurally is weak considering my background. And the results are SO MUCH BETTER!!! After spending close to an hour jamming "Takin' Care of Business" on Wednesday and not looking at any music except a perfunctory check that there were definitely only three chords in the whole song, my playing went up a few notches for the next 24 hours. Actually, it seriously kicked ass. I am always much appreciated at my Thursday voice classes, but I received a few comments last Thursday that I sounded especially good. I want this to be my new default level of playing. So, if I practice like that every day, and the effect lasts about a day, it will become habit, and sucking a little less each day will be reality, right?

It's really hard for me to leave the visual-verbal part of my brain. I rarely do. I realized this a few months ago during a Congeolese dance class (which I am terrible at, by the way. If you ever need a good laugh, call me, and I'll tell you when I'm taking class). Congolese is a style of African dance that's usually quite fast, with lots of isolations and polyrhythms that don't come naturally to me AT ALL. The rhythms the drummers play are so complex that I don't immediately transcribe them in my head, which is part of the reason I take this style of dance. Anyway, a few months ago, I got across the floor, having more or less successfully executed a fast, syncopated combination, and I realized I hadn't had a thought that contained a word in at least a minute. Just the rhythm of the drums, and the feeling of the movement.

I share the visual-verbal thing with a student of mine - and he's a lawyer, which means he never gets paid to get out of his word-brain like I do. He took lessons as a kid, so can read fairly well, but his rhythm is always off. I usually stay away from writing in the counts, but for him we wrote in every single subdivision on the first few pieces he worked on, because having the concrete "one-and-two-and" visible on the page was the only way he could learn the rhythm. Today for the first time, he was in the same universe as the metronome, so I could take him the step beyond just being basically accurate with the rhythm. "Really lock in with the click," I told him. "Forget the one-and-two-and- for a second, and just listen. Ok, were you ahead or behind? Ahead here, behind there. Yes. So try again." And so on. I am teaching him to play by ear, and to internalize the pulse, and we have the same problems, just at different levels of playing.

Arghh, there was more I wanted to write, but I'm out of time - it's almost time to go learn "When You Say Nothing At All". Quick sum-up: Thursday I chose "Cherry Bomb" by John Mellencamp. Despite the fact that I woke up with Reba's "Why Haven't I Heard From You" running through my head, I was really, really in the mood to learn "Cherry Bomb". So, Rule Number One prevailed, and learn it I did, late at night with my keyboard headphones over my Ipod earbuds.

I determined that it was the weather that put me in such a mood. It's been nice all week here in New York - a little too nice perhaps at 89 degrees on Wednesday - and "Cherry Bomb" is an outdoor song, a summer song. Some of it's in the lyrics: "outside the club - Cherry Bomb"; "the winter days they last forever", but the fiddle is what really does it for me. It plays bluesy licks and backgrounds throughout the song. The fiddle is an outdoor instrument. It's not "The Violinist on the Roof" - that would be a tragicomedic one-act musical about a stressed-out music major the week before juries. The fiddle is the same physical instrument as the violin, but the rhythms, the blues scales and slide-y inflections of fiddle-playing are quasi-illegal on the violin, and they speak to me of backyards and bratwurst.

Friday: "Jack & Diane" - well, it was on my uber-standard/icon list, it's nice to stick with one artist for a couple days or more, John Mellencamp music reminds me of my sister, my sister lives in Japan, and I miss her. So that's pretty much why I chose "Jack & Diane" for yesterday's song.

Ok, I really have to continue with my to-do list, which includes learning the aforementioned "When You Say Nothing At All". Today, I wanted to learn something slow but not sad, because I am really tired, but content. It seems fitting that I should be learning this song when on a day when I'm thinking so much about verbal-ness and music. Music says it best when words just don't cut it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Takin' Care of Business

Ya know, sometimes motivation and free time in which to be productive do not occur simultaneously. Like right now. I have 26 minutes in which to write a blog entry about yesterday's song and send a few emails, and I'm kinda not feeling it. Same thing goes for practicing, more often than not. As soon as I sit down to practice, I think of ten urgent things I have to do, like look up that travel book on amazon, and throw away last week's tuna salad and eat another cookie. Overcoming the urge to get up and tend to my little mental illnesses while I'm supposed to be practicing is really hard.

So that's why I get a teeny bit annoyed when someone's reaction to my being a pianist is, "Wow, you must be so talented. I wish I could play the piano for a living." Oh? That's really sweet, and I appreciate the compliment, but are you really disciplined and self-motivated and possibly slightly masochistic? Then no, you don't wish you played the piano for a living. A friend and fellow pianist recently wrote about feeling the same kind of annoyance, and his annoyance stems from the fact that he's called talented because he's a musician, but what about all the talented teachers, business owners, etc? So that's true too.

Anyway, back to monkey mind. I think the energy that makes me want to pursue an artistic career is the same energy that is hard to harness and leash to a piano, or a notebook, or whatever. Without it, it might be easier to sit myself down and work, but I wouldn't be an explorer. I wouldn't have googled "best break-up albums" when I was supposed to be working on "Piece of My Heart", so I wouldn't have discovered a blog that wrote about my new favorite song that no one's heard of, Adam Schmitt's "Thanks for Showing". I probably wouldn't be sitting here, looking out the Starbucks window at 9th avenue during a one-hour break between accompanying for voice classes. I would likely be sitting in an office somewhere, counting the hours until 5 p.m., the days til the weekend, the weeks til my next vacation (wow, paid time off. That was nice.). And, since we're assuming this is a version of me with out Monkey Mind, I might be very happy in such a situation. But I don't come in a Sans Monkey Mind model, so here I am, fighting the good fight and mostly enjoying it very much (despite how cranky I sound much of the time).

Speaking of discipline and being self-employed and such, yesterday's song was "Takin' Care of Business". By BTO. Yes. Not the Stones. I figured it would behoove me to learn this song. Also, I didn't sleep well and was slightly, as the British have it, hangovered. So I decided I needed an up-tempo to help me stay awake, the more groovin', the better. This song is the perfect strut tempo for me, as I discovered by walking to the train in my favorite shoes, plowing strollers and small dogs out of the way. Not really. But I was in a really good mood by the time I reached the train. Also, only 3 chords, over and over. I confirmed this with my fake book. Yes. Why don't I trust my ear? I can trust my ear. Not sure why I don't trust my ear.

I pretty much spent an hour with my ipod on full blast, playing the song over and over. I'm sure it sounded really strange to anyone listening to me practice, because sometimes I would echo what I had just heard in the recording, or go back and forth between playing the melody, or just a bass line, or comping. This song kinda goes on and on and is pretty repetitive, so I want to go back and look at the lyrics and also figure out exactly where the stop-time section happens, but I was having too much fun yesterday to do anything brainy like that.

And I'm outta time!

Monday, April 5, 2010

I Heard It Through the Grapevine

I'm going to blame sleep-deprivation for the twenty minutes I just spent figuring out why my printer was still reading the black cartridge as empty, after I had just changed the ... color cartridge. Oh.

Today I learned "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". It was not what I expected at all! I thought I knew it - not to play, but, you know, recognize and sing along with. But the song in my head that I thought was "Grapevine" was actually a conglomeration of "Grapevine", "Big Girls Don't Cry", and "Takin' Care of Business." Thank you, 1980s television. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory, I remember plump, anthropomorphized California raisins and bran flakes dancing to this song in a Post Raisin Bran commercial, and somehow it got mixed in with Sesame Street's "Big Birds Don't Fly". Not sure where "Takin' Care of Business" came from, but I have definitely had
"I heard it through the grapevine (Every day!)
heard it through the grapevine (every way)
heard it through the grapevine (it's all mine)
heard it through the grapevine (and workin' overtime)"
stuck in my head in the past. Similar musical material. Another potential medley rears its threatening head...

...Awkward pause.

So I have a confession to make. When I just looked up "Takin' Care of Business", I was surprised to find that, um, it's not a Rolling Stones song... and hello, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, nice to meet you. That's embarrassing. But you have to know, I am the daughter of a man who had to ask the spotty, cracking-voice cashier at a CD store (I picture the teenager who works in all the service industries on the Simpsons) to help him find a CD of "the band that did 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.'" Pop culture and my family are like oil and vinegar - we could be so good together, but we just don't mix. My rebellion against the hegemonic classical influence of my upbringing has been slow, and there's a lot of music to catch up on. I remind myself for the umpteenth time that that is why I'm doing this!

A few thoughts before I sleep to dream of color cartridges and dancing raisins: 1. The bass, chord changes, and the melody in "Grapevine" often hit on beat four or the and-of-four. That is why it's so hip. However, playing it on solo piano or accompanying a singer with just a piano, somewhere you gotta throw in some downbeats to make up for the pulse provided by other instruments, either by altering the bassline from what's in the recording, or in the rhythm of the chord comping. 2. This song is really sad! I never really paid attention to the lyrics before. Girls, be up front with your dude, because hearing through the grapevine that you're leaving for another guy... that's just not cool. 3. I like the super-dramatic string parts. 4. I played a little show today - a gig I do occasionally, but hadn't done for probably almost a year. I may not be retaining my daily songs right now (I am DETERMINED to fix that!), but my playing is much stronger than it was a year ago. I'm more comfortable outlining a groove that's not written on the page, and I'm much less stuck in the page, thanks to the crazy practice of trying to learn and memorize a song every day.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Circuit Training

An hour of practice, and hour of writing piano arrangements, repeat; blog, email, clean apartment in a hopefully successful attempt to keep the rodent(s) away. Fueled by cookies (it's Easter somewhere).

Was well on my way to a two-song evening, but during the time slot I had allotted for the second song ("Piece of My Heart"), I got sidetracked researching break-up albums. As a result, I didn't play the song. But I did discover and fall in love with Erma Franklin's version of it (which is the original, having been released before Janis' version), and I found, read about and/or downloaded break-up songs by Snow Patrol, Bruce Springsteen, and a half a dozen other artists. So it was still an hour well-spent, even if the internet is the archnemesis of time-management. Before that: "Every Breath You Take", and experimenting with incorporating the melody and the iconic guitar part into a solo piano arrangement.

Good day all around: Beautiful weather and a walk in Central Park this morning, and this afternoon my good friend Christy came over with her screw gun and level. She hung things around my apartment while I made brunch and took pictures of her pretending to be Rosie the Riveter. We talked about boys and future plans and how particular boys do or do not fit in with said plans (mostly do not), and then we sang through some stuff - that is, she sang, I played.

Some people find that they're happiest doing whatever job will afford them a tolerable lifestyle and enough time and energy after work to do what they really love. Christy, a talented, hard-working and beautiful (which helps for a female in this biz) soprano, is now halfway to getting her MBA, a trajectory she started after one too many demoralizing experiences trying to be a professional performer in New York City. So far, my experience has gone in the opposite direction. I found that the grind of a day job, even though it was music-related and actually used a lot of my musical skills, was draining my soul of energy and turning me into a very angry person. But I can foresee a day when ping-ponging around the isle of Manhattan for a few bucks at a time will get old, and before that day comes I either have to move up the ladder I'm on or think about switching ladders.

What's the difference between giving up and simply deciding that what you thought would make you happy is not, in fact, making you happy? More on this later, back to circuit training.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hotel California

Serious case of writer's block as I sat down to write after learning my song of the day. I started half a dozen times, all different subjects, all ersatz and contrived, and finally told myself, try just telling the truth:

The Doubts are attacking tonight. Nothing you want to talk about is remotely interesting, they say. You should give up on this project, because you are an utter failure at it, just like you're an utter failure at giving up sugar for Lent. Also, you suck at relationships. If you were a normal human, you would have gone to your student's birthday party, and your piano tuner's gig, instead of coming home after work to learn songs and write about learning songs. You are a lame-ass party pooper.

Have I mentioned how much I hate the Doubts?

Well, anyway, I greatly appreciated the birthday party invitation, which came with a disclaimer that the other guests would be 19 and 20, like the birthday girl herself, and I had planned to drop by for a while, before meeting a friend or two at my piano tuner's gig. But after being knocked out sick for a couple days this week, 9:30 p.m. found me on my way home from work (today: teach at home, play for rehearsal in midtown, play for Good Friday service in the Bronx), just wanting to stay in with my beer, fried things, wifi connection, keyboard, and music books. So f*** off, Doubts, I have all the things I need, and you're not one of them.

Tonight: "Hotel California". I started a list of me-proclaimed uber-standards last night. I tried at first to think of songs that have been covered a lot. This song has been covered and parodied, so I think I'm in ok territory. I listened to a number of different recordings on playlist.com (great internet radio resource), including a few different Eagles versions and the Gipsy Kings version that is in The Big Lebowski. Also heard a couple ska versions, which brought back memories of my college boyfriend, who listened to nothing but ska, despite the fact he was a euphonium major. (Side note: I have dated two euphonium players, which probably makes them a disproportionately large percentage of my boy history. But they were both great kissers. Trumpet players, not so much. Score for the low brass contingent.)

Where was I? Ah yes. "Hotel California" is a very wordy song, but at least the chord progression is easy and repetitive. Intro, 32-bar verse (that's a double scoop verse), 16-bar chorus, lather, rinse, repeat twice, famous guitar solo, etc. The verse progression is almost entirely down a 4th, up a 3rd - could be one giant succession of "Amen"s. The song is in B minor, but the chorus has a brush with the relative major - the first four bars of the chorus could be a hotel jingle: "Welcome to the hotel...". And is it just me, or do Eagles songs not usually have a bridge? This may bear further inspection. I got used to Pink's "verse-chorus x 2 then bridge and out" form. Lather, rinse. "Desperado" didn't have a bridge, if memory serves me correctly.

If I were really hardcore, and/or had a patron so I could devote all of my time to this, I would also transcribe the guitar solo from "Hotel California." I will go back to that another time. Tonight I contented myself with playing the song in a few different keys and styles (ska not among them, but quasi-tango, yes). Food for thought: as I learn pop/rock/r&b standards, what are the standards to which I hold myself?