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?

Thursday, April 1, 2010


It was a glorious feeling to wake up this morning feeling mostly alive and just a little sniffly, since the previous 36 hours or so consisted mostly of me canceling appointments and otherwise lying as still as possible with either NPR or some BBC mystery (who am I kidding? Poirot, always Poirot) droning softly in the background.

A two-song day, the eternal game of catch-up. A transitional day as well - I worked on "Funhouse", the title track of the Pink album that will forever bring back memories of this time of my life. Song choices have been haphazard and based on what I have on hand or almost-know. Some choices, like the Funhouse phase, have been therapeutic. So that's all cool, and now I'm starting a phase I will refer to as the uber-standard phase, in which I'm going to try to plan ahead (ha!) and learn songs that are so well-known that it's kind of ridiculous that I don't know them inside and out. There are a lot of these songs. People wonder what rock I've been living under when I say I don't know them.

My uber-standard of the day was "Can't Help Falling in Love". It's based on an 18th century French love song by Jean Paul Egide Martini, called "Plaisir d'Amour". George Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore wrote the English lyrics (like "My Way", they had nothing to do with the French lyric. We like stealing French things and making them Amerrrrrrrican). This version was made famous by Elvis in 1961. Then everybody and their grandmother covered it. The version I knew of first was UB40's version. UB40 will always remind me of visiting my sister at her college apartment in Tucson. Red, Red Wiiiiiiiine...

I will have to try for musical analysis and geekery another night, because my valiant immune system is telling me I should go to bed now, lest I have a relapse of the pestilence.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


How fitting that I chose to learn 'Fever" on a day when I actually have a fever. Ok, so it's from the 1950s, so kinda bends my timeframe, but it's an uber-standard. I'm glad I chose this song for today, because it's easy, and because everyone does it, and there are a jillion different ways to do it. My friend Alysha Umphress (currently in Broadway's American Idiot) does her rendition of "Fever" with Ray Fellman at the piano - lyric & arrangement-wise, it's like the Peggy Lee version. The video's from a couple years ago, but I got to hear them do an impromptu performance of it a few nights ago. I could listen to Alysha sing all day, and ditto for Ray's playing.

Ok, people, I'm going back to sleep! I have two shows tomorrow, so I need to get rid of this bug. Maybe I should bend my timeframe rule again and memorize "I'm Young and Healthy"??

Monday, March 29, 2010

I Will Survive

Where does the time go!?!? Monday night, again? The end of March, already?

I know where the time has gone: into my apartment, into all the furniture and little things I've found and purchased and brought home or had delivered and blah blah blah blah blah... The time that hasn't gone into my apartment is firmly lodged in my sinuses. At least, there's something in there. I look forward to the simple pleasure of breathing through my nose again.

Now that we've determined where the time is, where am I tonight?

Home. Almost out of the woods, apartment-setup-wise, thank goodness. Feeling a little lost/stuck: grad school makes its bi-weekly trek across my mind and as I watch it cross, I wonder, should I be giving you more thought? In contrast, feeling content to be alone this rainy Monday night, puttering around, practicing, plowing through paperwork. Having guilt-free dominion over my time is a perk of being single.

Also, I am behind. Not on anything that matters to anyone else, like rent or credit card payments, just on everything I want to get done for myself. Like this project. Now that my mind has space in it for something other than furniture-shopping and just getting through the day, it's hitting home that this project is going to take a lot more time and effort than I've been putting into it in order to get out of it what I want. The self-discovery is great and all, but I do want to improve my chops and my ear, build my repertoire, and write about a process and an experience that other people might find interesting.

After the above, you will not be surprised to learn that I am working on two songs today. Saturday was eaten up by laundry and two trips to Ikea (small car + tall shelves), and Sunday was devoured by work all day and a sinus infection, or whatever this is. My first song is "I Will Survive". It was made famous by Gloria Gaynor, but I first encountered the version by Cake when I was in high school. I loved it, of course, because it had the F-word in it. Gloria Gaynor apparently dislikes that version for the same reason. Anyway, I chose it because it is super-easy to memorize. It basically goes around the circle of 5ths every eight measures ad nauseum, so I printed out the lyrics and played it in a few different keys. My next song is "Glitter in the Air" - the Pink song that turned me on to the Funhouse album after a friend sent me a link to the youtube video of Pink's Grammy performance.

I still have to work on that, so I will sign off after I paste in some earlier observations about tonight's practice session. Oh, I have headphones now! I can practice at night and actually hear myself!

Observations as I practice tonight:
I have so much to do - another song to learn, laundry and books to put away, papers to file, emails to send, more things to practice and read and study and take care of than are realistically going to get done tonight - that I can feel myself rushing as I play. Duh, no wonder I have a tendency to rush or lose the groove - it's a habit.

This reminds me of someone I've been accompanying lately. He's a singer who's not so good at, um, ...pitch. He's very sweet and has a charming stage presence, but he has a problem singing on pitch. Which is kind of non-negotiable. I realized after a couple times working with him that his pitch problem is just habit. He can match pitch easily when I make him slow down and listen to himself. He needs some help with vocal technique, but mostly he just gets distracted and sings off key, and it's a habit.

So it is with my playing. I'm in the habit of constantly thinking of the next ten things I need to do, or remembering the thing that didn't go quite as I had hoped, or having both sides of a difficult conversation that may never need to happen - all while I'm negotiating something as complicated as playing the piano. A few years ago, I noticed that I always seemed to play better when I was feeling a little under the weather - not totally knocked out, but just a little sniffly or achy. And I've noticed recently, as parts of my life have been in boxes and/or shambles around me, that when I have to work, it's a huge effort only accomplished by completely shutting off everything but what I'm doing at exactly that second - but I've been working well when I have to. I believe this is called "compartmentalizing" and "being in the moment". Now I just have to learn to do this when my life is going smoothly.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Popular, ...or, Naptime

I cannot get anything to make sense right now. Earlier, I was writing an intended post about time management, and cleverly linking it to yesterday's song, "Popular" from the musical Wicked (balancing work, rest, social life, needing to network, being *popular* - free association works for me). As it turns out, I have a lot of thoughts about time management ...and no time to put them in coherent order. Ha. I have so many things to say on the subject that I don't know where to start!

My to-do list is much the same way - it is so long, with so many tasks vying for top priority, that I don't know where to begin. Actually, that's a lie. I know exactly where to begin. Sleep. Practicing would be counter-productive at the moment, because I play with bad technique when I'm this tired, and lord knows I don't need to cement any more bad technique in my body. I could do little mindless tasks around the house, but... since I have the option, I'm going to take a nap.

By the way, I wrote all this by hand on the train, so there is a small victory in here for time management.

My schedule is so wacked-out, and is wildly different from week to week. My average bedtime lately has been 3 a.m., which is extra fun on Sunday mornings when I need to leave by 8 for my church gig. My body is happiest when I go to bed around 12 or 1, and get up around 7 or 8, and it's wondering why we aren't in California right now, since that's where my circadian rhythms seem to be. Sorry, body, let me remind you, we are a musician.

Last night, I got home after 3 from a gig. Today I had to be somewhere at 11, which was nice because it wasn't too early, but I had to get up before too much of the day burned away. Days when I don't have any scheduled appointments, but a ton of work to do (learn music for gigs, freelance on-my-own-schedule projects) are the worst, because I am invariably exhausted and have no attention span. I made myself the promise this year that I'd take a full day off at least once every two weeks - that is, no paid work, and, if I can help it, no business meetings or work-related practice. But there's so much overflow from Work and Life that maybe once every two months I have a Planned Day Off was actually feels like a day off. Hence the inability to concentrate on Swamped-But-Set-Your-Own-Schedule days. So I get less done, so I have more overflow into the next supposed light/free day. Vicious cycle.

Then there's the fact that transitioning into a new home and neighborhood and relationship status all have a way of eating up a lot of time and energy that might otherwise be free. Right now I have the sense that I am swimming as hard as I can, and getting nowhere.

Oh well, being "productive" doesn't seem to be the point right now. Transitions like those mentioned above, lifestyle changes, career goals shifting slightly. There will be time later for running around like a crazy person, crossing things off the list. Right now seems to be the time to figure out what the hell I want on the list in the first place.

Now, about that nap.

Monday, March 22, 2010


It is with a touch of irony that I blog about the Pink song "Sober", which I still have to work on (keyboard, volume just high enough to hear over the noise of putting the keys down, because I still need to get decent headphones), at 1:30 in the morning after two beers and several sips of a friend's mojito at a bar in my new neighborhood. Refined sugar doesn't count if it's from a friend's drink, right?

Here's what I get out of this song: Sometimes there comes a point when we get tired enough of our addictions that it's worth the trouble to stop.

So. Sugar. Lent. Just a practice run. My addictions are all completely legal (such a goody-goody), which makes them that much harder to manage. Twelve more days until Easter and cake and cookies - twelve endless, interminable days.

Really? That's less than two weeks. The entire season of Lent is only six and a half weeks long, and I have not made it without cheating and messing up. And I'm just giving up refined sugar - it's not like I'm on a juice fast, or a fast of any kind.

Take a moment out of myself to observe. I learn how addicted I am by how skilled I am at advanced rationalization. I learn how to start over when I mess up, instead of saying "Screw it, I messed up, I'm a failure, let's throw in the towel." I learn that this too shall pass (seriously - six and a half weeks). I learn that I have options; honey is not refined sugar. I learn how much space sugar - freaking SUGAR - takes up in my life.

A few days ago, I asked, Who am I alone? Who am I without the boxes of my relationships with others, with myself, with various substances and entities (the internet, my other completely legal addiction)? Not that it really matters, since I will never be without relationships - but it might be good to spend a little time considering the question.

Tonight, I am a girl who stays up until 2 a.m. to write and to learn a song, because it was important to do that, and because earlier it was important to hang out in my new neighborhood with a friend who will let me steal sips of his mojito.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Playing the Ink

Here we are again, the wee hours - just so much to do in a day's work. Yesterday, I learned "So What" from Pink's Funhouse album, with the intention of going straight through and learning all the songs on it, or at least all the singles. "So What" - easy to learn and to play, especially since I've been mainlining that album for the past week or so. I can't help but think my neighbors might have gotten sick of hearing me play the repetitive little melody of the intro and verse. Na-na-na naa na-naa naa...

Contrast that with today's epic Jason Robert Brown song, "King of the World" from Songs for a New World. I needed to work on it a little bit anyway for a gig this week, and I decided that I might as well make it the song of the day, and savor the fun of Funhouse a little longer.

Memorizing-the-Form-wise, "King" is easy (intro, verse-prechorus-chorus, verse-prechorus-chorus, bridgity-bridge-bridge, chorus, tag), with the exception of the bridge ... I call it a bridgity-bridge-bridge because it's ...well, long and drawn-out as only Jason Robert Brown can draw something out. It is - if you choose to analyze the song as I did - twenty-eight bars long. The right hand of the piano part is a repeated 5-note pattern that's really simple conceptually and really irritating kinesthetically. Then there's a funkdafied, syncopated buildup into the final chorus which is completely balls-to-the-wall ridiculous.

This is the kind of stuff I live to play.

A note on modern musical theater composers and sight-reading/faking: Jason Robert Brown's music tends to be very idiomatic of some existing pop style. This isn't to say he doesn't have his own compositional voice, but, in an emergency, you can usually tell at a glance, ok, this is more or less a rock/blues/funk whatever tune with a not-unheard-of chord progression, and you just hang on and count like the dickens. With Guettel or LaChiusa or Lippa, it may look like something familiar at an instant's glance, but you soon realize the harmonic or rhythmic language is not quite...normal. More rooted in classical music, so perhaps there's more scope for variation in the musical language than there is in a composition rooted in music of the plebs? A guess at most. But that's been my experience when put in a position to sight-read any of these composers' work.

Playing the Ink: this is jargon for playing exactly the notes written on the page, as opposed to "comping", or making up a groove based on the chord progression and style of music. Classical musicians who don't improvise only "play the ink". Then there are some fine players who wouldn't know one inkblot from another. My goal is to be able to do both: play the ink and comp well in a lot of styles of music. Five years ago I was an ink-only musician. I'd say I'm making progress.

The reason I bring this up right now is that, for many of the songs I work on, I just type up the lyrics and maybe the chord progression, giving myself no ink to play. I'm a very visual learner (weird for a musician, right? AND I'm a morning person, believe it or not). Learning from the sheet music saves me a lot of time, but I actually get too caught up in the music I see rather than hear, and I'm trying to learn to get off the page as quickly as possible.

Now, for "King of the World", I'm learning the ink, and there's no way I'd be able to memorize each note in the time I was able to spend on it today. At least I know the form and the chord changes, and have listened to it a bunch of times. I'm pretty sure that, if Martians landed and demanded that I accompany the Head Martian on this song from memory or else they'd blow the planet to bits, I could at least get through it. Hopefully Martians aren't giant JRB geeks. In any case, I think I will go to bed now, which seems the only thing to do when my blog posts take a turn for the extraterrestrial.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I took myself off-grid yesterday and the first half of today - I needed to get some rest and have a moment away, even though I couldn't really get out of town. I even turned off my phone and my computer for almost 24 hours. Somehow the internet survived without my constant monitoring, and here I am, doing my best to build up my sleep debt again.

I'm on a little Heart kick right now. I have these grand plans of giving myself a curriculum of songs and artists to study, but right now part of the point seems to be just to learn whatever strikes my fancy on a given day. So - yesterday I worked on "These Dreams", and today I worked on "Alone".

Late-night music theory geekery: "Alone" sort of meanders key centers - that is, at different points in the song, different chords feel like "home", or a chord you could end on without pissing anyone off. It begins and ends pretty definitively in minor (B-flat minor for the recording, though I find the sheet music is most often in B minor), but takes a turn for the relative major (D-flat) on the pre-chorus, and the submediant (VI - or G-flat) on the chorus (yes, I just had to google "submediant" to make sure I wasn't making it up at 2:30 in the morning). One could probably argue that the chorus instead begins in E-flat minor (and one might be right, seeing as I haven't cracked open a theory book in years), but the last five bars definitely feel like they're in G-flat. And finally the song ends with a few bars of piano in B-flat minor, mirroring the intro. No repeat and fade, thank ye pop music gods.

I am a giant nerd.

Then there's "These Dreams", which just never feels like it settles into a key (it stays in the mist, ahem). The verse is pretty modal, meaning it does use the notes from a particular scale, but there isn't any one chord that says "yes, I am home! You can end here!" The chorus is sort of in the key of C. The melody definitely feels like it's in C, but there are no root position C chords, so it's still tantalizingly vague. Oh, also, the rhythm: lots of strong lyrics etc. on beat four of the measures in the chorus. This song "hides 1" about as well as an 80s power ballad can. More mist, I suppose.

Side notes as I transition to personal stuff: 1. I share a birthday with Ann Wilson of Heart. Yay! and 2. I would like to hear what would happen if Ann Wilson's voice and Freddie Mercury's voice could have a voice-baby. Which of course is impossible.

So. Alone. The past couple days of detox and self-exile have prompted the question, who am I alone? The old standard "You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You" crossed my mind. This song is potentially depressing for those of us who are single, but thinking about it without the lacerating fear of growing old alone or choking on dinner and dying alone in my apartment (which almost happens to single women in Sex and the City AND 30 Rock, so it must be true)... who am I outside the context my relationships? Not just romantic relationships, relationships in general. We always put each other in boxes in relationships, and some boxes are comfortable enough to stay in for a lifetime, and others... well, we try to stay away from people who put us in uncomfortable boxes. But what about the boxes we design for ourselves?

Monday, March 15, 2010

If It's Magic

The main challenge of this project is just finding the time to do it, and then finding the time to write about it. The past couple days have been quite productive, which is a welcome change, and finding time to sit down and learn a song has been quite a challenge. At least I'm getting better about picking my song early in the day, so I don't arrive at 11 p.m. thinking, crap, what song do I want to learn at this time. One of these days I'll even manage to plan further ahead, but I'm kind of having fun waking up each morning thinking, "ok, what song do I want to learn today?"

Today's song: "If It's Magic". A Stevie Wonder ballad, very sparse instrumentation, unlike a lot of his funkier tunes. I'm always intimidated to start learning a Stevie Wonder song, but upon analysis, always find how beautifully simple and well-designed they are. Clean. They make sense, structurally.

Memorization: this is the second time I've scribbled myself out my own version of the A-section of a song, with barlines in different places than the official piano-vocal arrangement. The verse starts with a descending bass progression, then three II-V-I's (slightly different variations of that old chestnut each time)... I like dividing the beats so that the II-V's fall in the same bar. That's just me. It made it a little easier for me to memorize than to think about the 6/4 bar here and the 2/4 bar later in the form, and the fact that there are a couple beats missing from the piano-vocal arrangement if you are paying attention to the pulse (albeit "free"-ish) of the recording.

Ok, I will refrain from complaining any more about the book I have until I make sure I don't know anyone who wrote the arrangements... except to say, there are mistakes all over the place! Differences of opinion, yes, but also plain ol' mistakes - typos. Arghh. More in this Stevie Wonder book than I've encountered in other pop piano-vocal books. Also - my thought is, yes, it's my responsibility as a musician to listen and absorb this style of music that isn't always at its best played by a solo pianist of classical heritage... but, I read music, and I buy the book because it saves me time. So yes, it irks me that the 2-bar riff at the end of the form isn't written down (can't remember which song that was), and that the piano arrangement for "Sir Duke" has nothing to do with the groove you hear on the recording. If you're gonna write it out for us note-reading schmoes, do it right!!

I would go on about this matter, but it's after 2 in the morning, and I have a full day tomorrow. Yesterday's song: "Imagine". Another structurally sound, simple song - Lennon's warhorse verse-refrain-bridge form. Yikes, two songs in a row with wistful lyrics pleading for a better world. How is my cynical mind withstanding this?!

I need a review day soon, to reinforce the memorization of my recent songs. One bout of semi-concentration does not permanent make, I find. ...And, speaking of Yoda, I have to say I object to the lyrics in the third verse of "..Magic": "...then with it why aren't we as careful..." Sorry, Stevie. I know it makes it work with the melody of the different verses, but I have visions of intensive Jedi training in the Degova system whenever that line goes by. This is the musical theater composer in me coming out - lyric is everything, but everything. Not so in other forms of music. An observation.

My, I am cantankerous tonight! Criticizing my superiors! I need sleep, and a shower (no hot water from Sunday madrugada until this evening - the boiler got flooded from all the rain on Saturday). Also, I need an up-tempo, stat! It's been a ballady past few days. Good night, moon!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rainy Saturday Night

Here's a fun little haiku I wrote a couple months ago:

crushed by loneliness
asphyxiated by love
slow death either way

Recent songs - Alicia Keys:
"Superwoman", "If I Ain't Got You"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stages of Grief

Must... stay... awake... long enough... to post...blog...

Yesterday: "Hurt", performed by Christina Aguilera. I am not a psychoanalyst, but I'll hazard a guess that this song describes the "bargaining" stage of grief pretty well, what with the lyrics in the pre-choruses and the bridge ("there's nothing I wouldn't do", etc).

This song is in a minor key, not surprisingly. E minor, to be exact, one whole step above "the saddest of all keys" - (shout-out to Spinal Tap fans).

Warning: I am just beer-influenced enough right now to try to explain a scientific concept I can barely grasp myself, and am far, far too tired to be very thorough or very accurate. So, first I am going to provide you with a link to a page about the Overtone Series.

And, second, I will try to make sense of it in my own words...
Basically, when you play a note on a pitched musical instrument (one on which you can play a melody- many drums are non-pitched), that note vibrates at a certain frequency which we recognize as a particular pitch. But it is also simultaneously vibrating at faster frequencies. What we hear the most is the slowest-vibrating (lowest, or fundamental) tone, but in the mix we also hear the faster-vibrating tones (or overtones).

There are whole-number ratios involved in the differences in frequency (like I said: beer, fatigue). Whole-number ratios in different frequencies = notes that sound good together. The first few overtones consist of the notes of a major chord. It starts to get a little funky after that, but one could argue that the overtone series spells out a slightly out of tune dominant 7 #11 chord - a hip jazz chord one often hears at the end of big band numbers.

This occurs in nature! I think that is so cool! So anyway: major chord = as nature intended, happy, bright, yay! ...
Bum, bum, bum...
Minor chord = slightly deviant from nature. Sad. Brooding. Also, sexy.

Today I learned Sheryl Crow song "Strong Enough". Given that she talks about "tears of rage" in the first verse, I'm going to stretch and call this song representative of the anger stage of grief. Yes, I am making this up.

I love this song. What do I love about this song? I love that the chord progression is really simple and repetitive, making it easy to memorize (even though the internet chart I found had bogus chords on the bridge, sending me to Ear Training 101 for a hot second). I love that it's in three-four - not too many pop songs are. Lyrically, I love that she clearly is jaded enough to hold out for a man who's strong enough for her, but lonely enough to invite him to lie to her if he isn't strong enough to be her man. I love how the pitch of the melody rises on the lyric "please don't leave", and she switched to head voice - vulnerable, plaintive.

Why am I writing about grief tonight?

"Hurt" really struck me as I listened to it yesterday morning. I suppose it saves time to show up at therapy already in tears. Then tonight I saw a play about grief, which involved a character who had been a singer but hadn't sung since her infant child died. So it seems to be the subject of the moment.

The excitement of moving in has faded as I am beginning to settle in to my new place. Things that I couldn't process while still living with my former beau begin to surface. I dip my toe in the surface of the pool of Social Interaction with Boys Who Are Cute, and realize that it's been almost five years since I've been out with a boy I don't already know from doing a show together. And I'm just hella exhausted from moving and life and my crazy schedule.

And that, dear readers, is why I have written about grief tonight.
Hasta pronto - let us see what adventures tomorrow brings!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My Way

What makes an artist?

I'm sure there are as many answers to that question as there are people to answer it. To me, one key thing about being an artist is stubbornness - being willing and able to stick to your guns when you are the only one convinced that you are on the right track. Take Thelonious Monk. Certainly no one else would have thought the notes and funky, angular rhythms he chose were the "right" ones, yet when you listen to Monk, they seem to be the only right notes and rhythms in the universe.

And so I begin my "new" year with two songs entitled "My Way". Today's "My Way" was the old chestnut made famous by Sinatra; yesterday, I learned "My Way" by the Texas band Los Lonely Boys.

Los Lonely Boys: 3 chords total, bluesy rock jam
Sinatra: many more than 3 chords, in a pretty standard jazz/pop progression
Los Lonely Boys: in-your-face lyrics of a youngish person determined to live his life the way he sees fit
Sinatra: philosophical lyrics of a man nearing the end of his life and reflecting on having lived it as he saw fit, through all its ups and downs
Los Lonely Boys: three brothers' Texican rock band; no famous covers that I know of
Sinatra: This song was made famous by Sinatra, but the original song is a French song called "Comme D'Habitude" by Claude Francois, Jacques Revaux and Gilles Thibaut. Paul Anka wrote English lyrics that have nothing to do with the original French lyrics. It has been covered a zillion times. I was familiar with the Gipsy Kings' version, "A Mi Manera" before I knew that "My Way" existed. Those Spanish lyrics don't have much to do with Anka's version or the original French.

Speaking of "my way", I tried playing around with both of these songs, to see if I could find a different take on them. A way that is mine, ahem. Los Lonely Boys' song was pretty easy to play with - I think I came up with a sort of mellow version that was pretty fun (which makes the lyric seem like fair warning rather than in-your-face ...suits me fine, thank you very much).

The uber-famous "My Way" (I tire of calling it Sinatra's, since he didn't write it, and was one of hundreds who performed it, even if his version is the best known...) was harder to change. It's not that I am so familiar with it that I just can't think of it any other way. I've actually logged a lot more time listening to Los Lonely Boys' "Way", because it's one of my favorite songs. No - it's that "My Way" is one giant dotted rhythm the whole way through. The emphasis falls on words that are on the 1st and 4th beats of the measure for the majority of the song. So it's hard, without drastically changing the rhythm of the melody, to make it sound like anything other than a stately French overture.

It's a shame Edith Piaf died before this song was written. She would have killllllled it! The English lyrics are actually a bit reminiscent of her signature song "Non, je ne regrette rien": "I'm about to die. I regret nothing. Nope. Nothing.", is what both songs seem to say. Hmmm... I smell a medley...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Happy New Year!

What? ...um, Kat, it's the 8th of March. It isn't New Year's, it isn't Chinese New Year's. It's not even Jewish New Year's.

I am restarting my year, complete with the intention to maintain - er, form - healthy habits like jogging, keeping my apartment clean, and springing blithely from bed in the morning without hitting the snooze button. And learning music, and writing about learning music, because music and writing are what I love, and I gave myself this project, and I am determined to see it through. And well-behaved young ladies from rural Southwestern mining towns don't get to be professional musicians in New York City if they are short on determination. So, even if I have to start over every day (which I do have to do, if you think about it), here is what I'm going to do:

Learn and memorize one well-known popular song a day. Suck a little less each day. Try to have fun in the process.

Rule #1:
I have to like the song, or at least be really interested in learning it. This is now Rule #1, because life is too short to wait to do things you like, and too long to spend doing things you don't like.
Rule #2:
The song has to be a well-known song either written or made famous between 1960 and the present. I decided to narrow down the category because there are so many songs in that category that I want to know, and because I get lazy/busy with 32-bar standards from the 30s and 40s. This is supposed to be a challenge, dang it!

I knew as soon as I started this project that it was about more than just learning songs. I thought it was going to be all about dealing with my arch-nemesis, Perfectionism. Well, it has been about Piano Kat vs. Perfectionism. But there's more. I am one original musical, one important relationship, and over two grand in moving and home expenses lighter than I was at the beginning of the year. I don't know how all the spiritual mechanics of it work, but I do know that having this Musical Task Thingy to come back to every day helped me get unstuck from a Life Ditch and back on the road (a bumpy road, but a road nevertheless). This Musical Task Thingy also helped see me through some recent dark weeks, even as I took the Half-Ass-Music-Learning to a whole new level. Showing up counts for something, right?

So. I surrender. I have no idea what this project is going to be about. Learning music, obviously - and I have noticed a marked improvement in some aspects of my playing - transposition, groove, arranging, all things that are critical to my work, all a tiny bit less sucky than before. And instead of berating myself for that which still sucks, I'm trying to be really specific about what it is and work on improving it. Take that, Perfectionism! Other than that... all bets are off. This could be about anything. Having fun playing music, even. Bring it, life.

I did learn a song today - "My Way" - not the one you're thinking of, but the Los Lonely Boys song. It might be a slight bend of Rule #2 as it's not all that well-known, but it's one of my favorite songs. It's 1:17 a.m., and I'm wiped out from my long Manhattan-Ping-Pong day, so I will write about it tomorrow with the other "My Way".

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Heart Will Go On

Since we last met, I have moved my stuff into my new apartment, and spent way too many hours putting things away and shopping online for things I need to make this place a home.

Moving my piano today was quite the adventure - physically, for the burly men who were moving it. For me, it was a more internal roller coaster ride. As cheesy as it sounds, a big chunk of my soul is contained in that heavy hunk of noisy furniture, and while it was at the old place, I was too. Now it lives with me at my new address, a black, dusty, guilt-tripping object that dominates my living room and my life. Never mind the lamp and the dozen cans of tuna and other random stuff I still have to go back for, I am officially in a new place now.

Or am I? I've traveled quite a bit in the past, and the one thing that always fills me with consternation is the fact that, no matter how hard you try, the one thing you can't leave behind anywhere is yourself. She will always catch up to you, and usually sooner than later. She is persistent; she is resistant to change. ...Hey, that rhymed.

Persistence. I never had to work very hard as a kid. Small pond, biggish fish; straight A's, no sweat. If I didn't excel at something, I said, "Oh well, I don't really care about that anyway." Sometimes it was true, like with sports. Other times, it was a cop-out. And I catch myself making the same cop-out now. I'll struggle a little with something, and then decide that it's not what I'm supposed to do anyway. It must not be what I really want, because if I really wanted it, I could get it.

Such is the burden of the girl who is used to being successful. There is no try and fail and try again, and keep trying until you reach the goal. There is only, try, and if you fail, give up and maybe try something else. Nothing really wrong with that, but it's not working for me anymore.

Quick note on songs before I lay down my weary head: this week was Oscar-winning-songs week at a competition I played for. I learned "My Heart Will Go On", "Falling Slowly" and "Colors of the Wind". As much as I am totally half-assing (actually, more like quarter-assing) this project right now, I notice that this gig is much easier than in past seasons, because I am working on pop songs every day.

Hooray for persistence!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Going Through the Motions

Quick post, since I may or may not be in the same place am my internet service the next few days. Quick, because it's 3 a.m., and I have to leave here at 7 to take care of aforementioned internet hook-up. I will be glad in another week or so when this back-and-forth is over.

I am literally falling asleep as I type this, so let's see how lucid and concise I can be:

This month has been much more about taking care of personal business than about improving my musical skill or moving my career forward. A friend recently reminded me of the quote "if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough," by which measure I'm certainly trying hard enough. If you view this project purely as a musical exercise, I am totally floundering. I've shown up most days and sort of looked at a song through my haze of distraction, but I don't think I've retained a single song in the past three weeks. And, memorize lyrics, what? "Sucking a little less each day" is stuck in neutral.

But if you view this project as a form of meditation, I'm doing ok. I'm showing up (almost) every day and at least going through the motions, and I'm becoming more familiar with my process of learning music and with all the ways I get in my own way. So... yay. I think.

What are the motions I go through? Usually I listen to the most famous recording of the song, and sometimes other famous versions or versions by artists I especially like. I print the lyrics and analyze the form and chord structure. Then I play it - sometimes in different keys, or different feels until I am doing it without looking at the music. That's the theory, anyway.

Tonight's song is "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)". The best part about the song for me is Whitney Houston's riffaliciousness, so that's food for thought as i work through it. Incidentally, according to wikipedia, this song is about leaning on your friends to ease the pain of a break-up. So a shout-out to Walter, Yare and Russ for helping me pack tonight - and not only that, but plyng me with food and booze and making a tedious and sometimes painful chore feel like a party.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

End of the Road

This entry is heavier on geeky analysis than philosophy...

One of the problems I face when working on these songs (well, it's more of a choice than a problem - this isn't exactly the war on poverty here) is whether to focus on learning it as a solo arrangement, or as an accompaniment for a singer or part of an ensemble. Figuring out how to comp a groove to be part of a band or play for a singer is usually simpler than figuring a solo piano arrangement.

This is especially true with up-tempo R&B numbers that are thickly orchestrated. The horn licks, bass line and background vocals are so hip you don't want to leave anything out, but it's physically impossible to make all the seemingly indispensable parts happen at once with only two hands. I guess this explains why a lot of piano-vocal arrangements suck. Most piano parts include the melody line (which I think is retarded - the melody is a half-inch away in the vocal part if we need to play it! Give us a little credit here!), and just voice the chords very klunkily underneath the melody. It sounds like Schubert if you play the notes on the page. For those of us whose eyes still gravitate to the notes on the page when given the choice between notes and chord symbols, this is a little distressing. I think I must be reading the chords more these days, though; a couple times this week I have had to check the notes because the chord was wrong and didn't make sense... which tells me I'm reading the chord symbols more now. Yay! Can I have a cupcake?

Not until Easter. Humbug.

Today's song is "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men. It feels appropriate right now. This is a long-ass song - almost six minutes. (This is why I don't mess around with Mahler.) Classic example of too-much-going-on-for-two-hands-to-cover, not to mention the spoken parts that are just, well, impossible to express on a piano. So I'll memorize this one for accompanying purposes.

Simple form, harmonically. One A-section intro, then loosely A-A-B-A-A x 3 and then two more A sections of chorus. Lots of retrogressions. I'm not great at hearing these - I'm very much an up-a-2nd-down-a-3rd-down-a-5th kind of girl. I'm also not great at understanding compound chords (eg, F/A) within the key, which is a pain when I'm transposing. But that is why I'm doing this.

I haven't written this week because I've been busy with work and moving, and have had to take care of a couple of unexpected, unpleasant things. I'm looking forward to being on a new road soon.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Woman's Prerogative

Psych! You thought I learned "A Woman's Prerogative" today, didn't you?

Two thoughts immediately came into my head as I wrote that: 1) who says "psych!" anymore? and 2) how many people know that "A Woman's Prerogative" is actually a Mercer/Arlen song? From the musical St. Louis Woman, most famously done by Pearl Bailey. There is not too much info online about the song, but I just found an interesting article about the etymology of the phrase "It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind."

I would like to posit the possibly revolutionary hypothesis that it's a woman's prerogative to make up her mind in the first place.

Tonight I went to a friend's leaving drinks (a handily concise British phrase for the activity of eating/drinking with a friend who's about to leave town for an extended or indefinite period of time), and there I met Linda, a woman about my mom's age who moved to New York a couple years ago to pursue her lifelong dream of acting. She has raised a family, worked in the corporate world, cared for aging parents; she has survived cancer and surely numerous other challenges. She has the look and bearing of a woman who owns her actions and their consequences instead of the other way around.

I left tonight feeling grateful that I got to see my friend before she leaves for the other coast, and that I spent the evening in the company of people who - to riff on "Desperado" again - dare to choose their own prisons, instead of settling for the prison society chooses for them. I imagine some of Linda's friends and family thought she was crazy to leave the landlocked states for the income-gobbling but actor-friendly coasts. My own Aunt Linda chose to follow an artistic path and not to marry, and thus is alone, poor, and accustomed to her siblings' eyeball-rolling. She's kind of my hero. Certain members of my own closest circle have been, if not exactly frosty, less supportive than usual of my recent decision to risk being sentenced to the prison of walking through the world all alone.

But it is my prison, and my prerogative to choose it.

Um, so, like, songs and stuff...

I think I'm going to learn "Beautiful", written by Linda Perry and recorded by Christina Aguilera. I stumbled through it by ear once accompanying for a voice class, but I like the song and would like to know it better. It also makes for a little continuity, since I recently learned "What's Up", and Linda Perry was the lead singer for 4 Non Blondes. That's the best I can do for continuity right now - I am not going to beat myself up for lacking the mental bandwidth to plan songs ahead right now.

p.s. I couldn't find any online footage of Pearl Bailey doing "Prerogative", so I linked to a performance of Nat and me performing it a couple years ago at a cabaret show. This is not meant as a disclaimer, but my oh my how she and I have both grown in the past two years, artistically speaking.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh.

People, I'm not gonna sugarcoat this - this project is not going well right now. I will leave out the gory personal details, but let's just say, I'm feeling a little stressed.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. My relationship with organized religion is mutable and tenuous at best, but I do like the way Ash Wednesday is observed at the little Lutheran church in the Bronx where I play. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time that is traditionally set aside for cleansing, simplification, reflection, and, for the masochistic among us, giving up some luxury or treat. Refined sugar, in my case. What was I thinking!?!?!? All I can think about now is cupcakes!

The ashes are mixed with oil - both are substances which are traditionally cleaning agents. Usually the ashes are made from the previous year's Palm Sunday palm leaves. The circle of life and all that shizzle. "Remember that you are from dust and to dust you will return," the pastor says as she (in the case of my church) applies the ashes to your forehead.

A weird, kinda creepy, very Catholic thing to do, I always thought. We Presbies never did anything on Ash Wednesday. I think it was about three years ago that I was playing for the service and it hit me: Ash Wednesday is the Christian tradition's annual moment to say:

"Hey. You are mortal. So stop f***ing around, and take the next few weeks to scale your life back to the basics. Figure out what you really wanna be doing with your time in this body on this planet, because it's finite. To dust you shall return."

Ok, I'm listening.

There are a lot of things I want to cram into this finite lifetime, and I would like to make clear, in case the universe has misunderstood me in the past, that moving my piano from apartment to apartment within New York City is not - repeat, NOT - in the top 100. Nor is ending relationships.

I much prefer music. Music.

I "learned" "Desperado" - quote marks because ... well, I have heard this song a zillion times, and I didn't spend much time on it. So I already "know" it, and I probably didn't "learn" it as well as I could have. But at least I can sound it out. Love the chord progression - that IV-iv gets me every time. I only spent a short amount of time on it, because the lyrics are perhaps not what a girl who is going through a breakup wants to go over and over late at night. "You better let somebody love you, before it's too late." Well, f**k.

Um, so... arch form. Loosely, A-B-A-B-A. I've gotten so used to AABA or verse-chorus-bridge-esque. This song actually feels kinda long to me just because the structure is so symmetrical, compared to other pop songs. Anyone else experience that?

Yes, I must at least go through the motions of learning a song each day. I need that distraction. Gentle readers, thank you for coming with me on a journey that is not quite what I had bargained for. I anticipate returning to my usual cheerful self sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I have fences to ride.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Georgia On My Mind

Written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, made most famous in 1960 by Ray Charles, and Georgia's state song. Cool.

I do not have it in me to learn a second song tonight, as it's midnight, and my nose is cold, which is always a sign that I'm about to get sick if I don't take care of myself. Weird, right?

A few notes on the recent songs:
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - same 4 chords over and over. Yesss. Reminds me of a shirt I saw on a guy on the subway - showed the guitar tab for D, G, and A, and underneath it said "Great. Now go start a band."

After working on this song a little bit, I'm not surprised that Paul Anka covered it, swing-style. The melody of the verse is really interesting, and attractive to jazz musicians in that it doesn't plod on strong chord tones on strong beats in the square, unattractive manner that jazzheads find so loathsome. Nice instrumental-esque major-6th leap - "on guns" and "and bring", to use the lyrics from the first verse. And way to wail on the 2nd scale degree: "hello, hello, hello...". Well done, Kurt. I want to take a little time and listen more closely to other arrangements - Tori Amos, Patti Smith, Anka, maybe others - and see what they did. Cool song.

"Your Song" - thanks to Moulin Rouge and Ewan McGregor for introducing me to this song. Harmonically, kind of the opposite of "Smells" in that the chord progression is not very repetitive, as pop songs go. Also the original version is very piano-centric - another contrast (by the way, I had a really good time using the distortion guitar sound on my new keyboard with "Smells"!). I don't have much else to say about this song right now.

"Georgia" ... compare and contrast with "New York State of Mind". Nostalgic place songs (though "Georgia" may have been written with Hoagy's sister in mind - thanks, wikipedia!). Notice the first few chords: I - III7 - vi ... (a common enough progression, I grant you). The first phrase of the melody centers around the third scale degree. That's about it, really. But it was something I noticed when I was working on "NYSOM" a few weeks ago, and I thought of it again tonight. Ray Charles was one of Billy Joel's musical heroes, and the songs remind me of each other. And they both have the word "mind" in the title. That must be it.

All right people, I have returned to the land of music theory geekery - clearly I am feeling better. Valentine's Day included brunch with five other strong, vibrant, fabulous women. Then some work, and then - oh! I forgot. I was supposed to take a dance class, but I was the only one who showed up (the class is small anyway because this teacher only started teaching recently, and I guess everyone either wants to be having sex or drinking on Valentine's, depending on their relationship status) ... so, since my dance teacher is in the throes of ending a decade-plus long relationship that makes my breakup look like a mild case of the sniffles, we went for a drink and talked about boys instead. But first I played the cowbell and some salsa montunos with the drummers for a little while. Fun! I need to play with drummers more often.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Teen Spirit and Women's History

READERS: I am going to make MARCH, which is WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH, an ALL-LADIES MONTH - meaning I want to learn songs that were written or made famous (preferably both) by women. Just to narrow it down a bit, I'm going to do songs from 1960-present only. SUGGESTIONS PLEASE! COMMENT HERE, OR EMAIL ME THRU MY WEBSITE.

I owe myself two songs today, and, truth be told, tomorrow. I missed last Sunday (I think, maybe Saturday?) and yesterday because I was just too wiped out, physically and emotionally, by the time I was able to sit down in front of my piano.

I did not post anything yesterday or the day before, despite my mentally-healthy promise to myself, because I was busy being a mentally-healthy social butterfly. Jaradoa, a wonderful theater company/community service organization I volunteer with, has a team on the Broadway bowling league, so I went Thursday night with my friend Eileen to be a Jarabowla. I was actually just a Jaradrinka and Jaracheerleada this time, and it was a lot of fun, so much so that it might just become a weekly tradition.

Yesterday evening, I signed the lease for my new place. YESSS!!! Relief. Now I can concentrate on other things, like packing and moving and oh yeah learning music. After signing papers and handing over lots of money in my soon-to-be neighborhood of Spanish Harlem, I had dinner/drinks with a friend in the neighborhood I'm about to leave. I will miss living in Astoria, with its elevated train and diverse ethnic restaurants and the too-sweet desserts at the Greek cafes, but am looking forward to living in a neighborhood where I can always find good avocados and where live salsa music abounds.

Oh yeah, music... that's what this is supposed to be about.

I just printed the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 500! So many songs, so little time...

Ok, I am going to pick one song I am really familiar with and one song I should be familiar with but am not. Ready, set, go...

(several minutes later...)

Song that I've played for singers enough times that I probably know it by heart already: "Your Song" by Elton John

Song that I should know but don't: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. I'm pretty excited about this one. And how much do I love that Paul Anka does a swing version?

I will let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day!

Need sleep. Only posting because I promised myself I would. Worked on "Somethin' To Talk About". Fun song. Very guitar-centric, and this groove not my strong suit, but I can make it sound good if I hang w/ the rock & blues for a while.

Love the snow, especially because I didn't have to leave the house today. But it also delayed the response to my apartment application, and the suspense is killing me! Or at least making me very sleepy. That's probably more to do with the late hour, though, so I will sign off for now.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bonnie Raitt, and bonny rent (hope?)

Fact: I do not concentrate well when I my near-future living situation is up in the air. Well, actually, I concentrate extremely well, but the only thing I can concentrate on is finding a new place to live. Today was spent answering emails and making phone calls about finding a place and finding someone to move in here. I saw three apartments and put in an application for one of them, and I'll find out within the next 48 hours if it works out. Fingers crossed.

So... now that I've spent most of my evening wondering if I'm going to get that apartment (a fruitless exercise), and looking at futons and area rugs for the place I don't yet have, I'm going to go learn a song. I think I will learn another Bonnie Raitt song - "You". I hope it's a reflection of my solid mental health that I can learn this song in the middle of the sunset of a long, live-in relationship.

"Have a Heart" - pretty easy to commit to memory. Verse-pre-chorus-chorus X 3 - and the 3rd verse is instrumental. That's pretty much it, as far as the lowest common denominator goes. I'll have another look at that tonight, too, since it looks like I'll actually get started before midnight tonight. Ready... set... go...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Have a Heart

I am making myself the promise that I will post something here every day - more for my own sanity than for any other reason. When walking the mean streets of break-ups and New York City real estate, one needs a little routine.

It's 1:46 a.m. as I write this. Tonight I will work - briefly, but work nonetheless - on "Have a Heart" by Bonnie Raitt. I find that when I'm going through relationship transitions, I'm drawn to music written and/or performed by strong women. This song doesn't reflect my situation at all, but I've always liked it. I like the sort of almost-reggae feel and the first lyric: "Hey, shut up!" - genius way to start a song!

Last night I started dealing with the apartment search. For the self-employed musician, it means getting a lot of income documentation together. A lot of New York apartments require that you prove you earn at least 40 times the monthly rent, meaning, for example, if the apartment is $1000 a month, you have to earn at least $40K a year. So, I went through papers and got stuff together, emailed my landlords to give them notice, called or emailed about a few apartments that looked decent. Looking at craigslist has become an addictive behavior - refresh, refresh, refresh, email posts to self. I saw a studio apartment this afternoon. I wrote a blurb about my current space, posted it on facebook, emailed it to friends. This left me little time for the compulsive cleaning out of my junk I've been indulging in lately - books, clothes, CDs, papers, never-used silicon egg poachers (thanks, Mom).

All this nuts-and-bolts stuff feels surreal in and of itself, but makes the relationship situation seem more real. Some days I stay positive and think of all the new beginnings and opportunities that are presenting themselves (hanging out with friends I haven't made as much time for since I've been in a relationship, for example). Other days are Sad Days.

This relationship started almost three and a half years ago, six weeks after an amicable split with another great guy. So really, I've been in good relationships pretty much continuously for over four years. I don't really remember what it feels like to be single. I don't understand exactly what makes a relationship tick, what makes it work or not work. And I certainly don't know the best way to go about finding the right place for me to live. Lots of anxiety. Lots of time spent taking care of what I will call the Logistics of Relationship Transition (LORT... reckon the government will hire me to make acronyms?). Lots of mourning. Lots of uncertainty.

This I know: the repeat and fade tradition so common in pop music does not work in a live setting. So I'm gonna go play through this song, and figure out an ending that doesn't make me cringe. Then, tomorrow: new day, new song.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friends

I will have to finish my Week of Wonder some other time. I want to spend a little more time and energy on his stuff than I have at my disposal this week. His music would also be more fun to play with other people, something I have yet to schedule successfully.

This week: Time - relatively ample. Powers of Concentration: nil. Interest in learning tender, carefree love songs: none. Today's song was supposed to be "I Just Called to Say I Love You". It did not seem like the right song to learn today, given the circumstances. I decided to take a detour back to the Beatles and look at "With a Little Help From my Friends" instead.

Lots of backwards chord progressions in this song - what are those called again, retrogressions? When the root movement goes the opposite direction of the direction the Denizens of Common Practice Period deemed normal? I think retrogressions. My music theory vocab is apparently out to lunch. Anyway, for those of you who lead normal lives and don't think about music theory all the time, these types of chord changes usually give the harmony sort of a bluesy tinge.

Today's song goes out to my many wonderful friends who help me get by. Special shout-outs to my homegirls Alisa, Amanda, Eileen, Erin, Nat, and Sarah. It's a little extra nerdy of me to alphabetize their names, but they have each been so supportive and helpful in their own individual ways this week, it seemed to make sense since it would be hard and also weird to rank them in order of importance. I could put them in order of appearance in my life instead: Sarah, Erin, Nat, Alisa, Eileen, Amanda...

Ok, the little tiny sane person inside of me just dope-slapped my inner theater dork and insisted that all the facets of my personality cooperate and get this tired body in bed. Hasta lueguito...

My Own Personal Earthquake

Oh, gentle reader. Oh, brave, brave, brave, gentle reader. Since we last saw each other, my life has undergone something of a seismic shift. Internal pressure has been building for some time, and the big one finally hit the other night. I can't write much about it right now, because it's not only my story to tell, and because I'm still sifting through the rubble, trying to figure out what happened.

Too soon to use an earthquake analogy? Yikes. I could say instead that I threw a grenade into my life and watched it explode, but I prefer to think of it as a natural disaster that resulted from shifts in my own internal tectonic plates. Either way, the casualties: 2 human hearts, 1 shared habitat in a lovely, gigantic apartment, goodness knows what else.

Speaking of earthquakes and efforts to recover, Nat and I performed at the Haiti benefit last night. I hope they made some money for Doctors Without Borders, though I sensed that the audience was mostly made up of the performers. There were still a lot of people there - it was more than 5 hours' worth of short sets by rock bands, drunk (but good) opera singers in jeans, and other unclassifiable acts such as the highly entertaining Debutante Hour. I don't think anyone recorded our performance, so I'll have to record us the next time we get together to rehearse. We performed "Pick Yourself Up" and "God Bless the Child". "God Bless..." was new for us, but "Pick Yourself Up" is one we recorded for our demo a while back. We haven't been performing much recently (because we've been putting our time and energy writing), and we felt a little rusty the first time we ran through it last week. So it went on my list. Yes, it's sort of cheating, since I'm already really familiar with this song. But some things get short shrift in the run up to an earthquake.

I have actually continued my Week o' Wonder - "You Are the Sunshine of My Life", "Isn't She Lovely", and "Sir Duke" so far. According to my post-it, today's song is supposed to be "I Just Called to Say I Love You". I can't say I can play any of these songs Wonder-fully, nor did I transcribe any of the solos or memorize them very thoroughly. This is not the week for relentless pursuit of perfection. I will return to pursuit of perfection, or at least my intention to suck a little less each day, sometime soon. Meanwhile, we continue picking up after our disasters, small/personal and large/humanitarian.

p.s. i tried to upload Nat's & my demo recording of "Pick Yourself Up", but there was an error and now I'm out of time - will try again!

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Week of Wonder

I'm about to embark on a week of Stevie Wonder songs. How does one choose only seven? Well, this will probably be the first of many Weeks of Wonder.

Speaking of wonder, I realized a while back that I have a choice: I can feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of music there is in the world and the fact that I will never even come close to hearing all of it, much less playing or understanding it. Or I can enjoy the feeling of abundance that stems from the realization that, even if I learn a song a day (or 4, like Sabino suggested) for the rest of my life, I won't even scratch the surface of the musical universe. It seems appropriate: if there's going to be bottomless suffering and violence in the world, shouldn't we take time to notice the good stuff too?

Clearly, I do not work for the news industry. You don't sell papers by noticing the good stuff. Actually, you don't sell papers at all these days.

Speaking of suffering and music - Nat and I are performing Wednesday night as part of an eclectic musical evening, the proceeds of which are to benefit Doctors Without Borders' work in Haiti. The evening is hosted by Opera on Tap - further details are available on their website:
The Parkside Lounge - $20 - 8 p.m. until quite late judging by the number of guests.

Isn't it interesting how we are each moved to do whatever it is we do best when disaster strikes? A couple years ago, I was visiting my parents when my mom broke the news to me about a high school classmate of mine who had recently taken her own life. I had been practicing, and when I went back to the piano, I felt or heard a voice (somewhere between loud/booming and still/small) that said "MAKE MUSIC. END SUFFERING."

Yeah, I don't really get how that works either. But I have decided that that's not my job. I am a musician, wholly useless when it comes to humanitarian aid, so I play a song and hope for the best. Other people care for their kids, or teach other people's children, or grow food, or put out fires, or allow characters to inhabit their bodies to present a important story on a stage or screen. Or any number of other important things.

Cool, huh?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

31 down, 334 to go...

Here is the list of songs for January (shout-out to Brett, who requested "Someone to Watch Over Me" - one of my favorites too!):

Here Comes the Sun
Eleanor Rigby
Hey Jude
ticket to ride
Across the Universe
I Want to Hold Your Hand
When I'm Sixty-Four
The Lady is a Tramp
Piano Man
At Last
The Best is Yet to Come
New York State of Mind
Life of the Party
I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning
And So It Goes
The Best of My Love
Just the Way You Are
The Stranger
You May Be Right
She's Got A Way
She's Always A Woman
What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?
They Can't Take That Away From Me
Someone To Watch Over Me
God Bless the Child
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Pick Yourself Up

My project over the next week, which looks like it'll be a lighter schedule than last week, is to review these songs. I can tell you right now, I have not retained all of them! The test is if I can play them in public... always an exciting way to test oneself. I was playing "She's Always a Woman" the other day at my lobby gig, and I found myself in some wildly wroooooooong key at the bridge and sort of... made up a new ending, so to speak. Heh heh. Luckily most people aren't paying attention as they hurry past on their way to or from lunch. The ones who do listen are usually very nice and friendly. Except for that one bitch, who came up and told me to use less pedal. And not in the conspiratorial, constructive outside-ears kind of way I appreciate from my colleagues, but in an I-am-better-person-than-you kind of way. So I say, eff you, lady, if you're so great, you should have become a professional musician instead of an office drone.

And outwardly I smile my up-yours smile and continue playing.

My favorite experiences at this gig are: keeping the security guards from falling asleep (they appreciate the occasional 80s rock tune), entertaining the occasional 2-year-old who is visiting mommy or daddy at work, and making people smile when they recognize a tune that takes them back to some other lifetime. One time a tiny woman of indeterminate but probably "a certain" age stopped dead in her tracks - I think I was playing "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" - and when I finished, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and a big smile on her face and said, "I haven't heard that song in years."

Wonder whom she was remembering.

I am starting to wane, so I will have to wait to wax philosophical about what I've learned and gained so far in this project. Ciao, belli! Thanks for reading and for your comments and feedback - please keep it coming!