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!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

To Rest or Not to Rest, That Is the Question

Tonight I am faced with a choice: stay up and learn a new song like I promised myself I'd do every day this year, or go to bed like my body is telling me to do, thereby taking care of myself like I promised I'd do this year.

It's always about priorities, isn't it? I was even co-writing an original musical about choices and priorities, until I recently realized that composing musicals is not a priority in my life. Music directing other people's musicals, arranging music for musicals, playing for musicals, yes - but not writing my own, at least right now.

Another night I might make myself a cup of tea and stay up and learn a song. But last night the insides of my sinuses exploded into my second cold of the year ($^*^&#% I just got over a cold last week!), so I'll head to bed this time.

Good night. ACHOO!!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

They Can't Take That Away From Me

8:45 a.m., and she's out the door like the cork from a champagne bottle, because she's running late, as usual...

It's a busy week. A quick rundown before I head to my lunchtime gig playing in the lobby of an office tower:

MON: She's Always a Woman. Deceptively simple. Like many men, ironically. I was having trouble memorizing it until I scribbled a chord chart and put the barlines of the A section in different places. My way made more sense to me harmonically, and just as much sense melodically.

Note: I'm sure someone out there is rolling his (or her) eyeballs that I had to change the way a song's notated in order to learn it. To him I say this: when you're trying to memorize a song every day, ya do what works.

TUE: What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life. I'm giving myself a break of sorts for the rest of the week by choosing jazz standards instead of 4-verse Billy Joel epics.

I'm a sucker for the minor 9 with the descending chromatic line, a common chord progression that never gets old for me and which, in fact, I often crave on rainy days. "What are You Doing..." starts with this, so it's pleasing to me for musical reasons. Just for that, I'll forgive the lyric "let the reasons and the rhymes of your days all begin with me". If someone looked deep in my eyes and told me that, I'd probably run screaming from the room.

For my personal taste, sentimental lyrics + ballad/rubato = overkill. I prefer to play it in a sort of a bastardized bossa/cha-cha kind of groove. As I was warbling along with myself yesterday, I realized the transition out of the bridge is really fast in even a slow groove - there's not enough time to breathe. Ha! I had never noticed that before! Oh, singers and their needs... Of course, this was written as a ballad. The singer takes all the time she wants, and the pianist texts while he (ahem, she) waits. But the sentimentality... I can't, I just can't. So I added a bar and kept the groove. Sound advice in arranging, and in life, come to think of it. I must be thirsty.

TODAY: No idea. I won't be home til after 9. Actually, I won't be able to post this til then, so scroll down to see my future, and mystery solved!

One gig and three rehearsals later, I have determined that the song of the day will be "They Can't Take That Away From Me". It doesn't get much more standard than that. I have 5 versions: Ella, Ella & Louis, Billie, Diana Krall, and Frank Sinatra. I looked on the Itunes store to see what else was available. Out of respect for Office Space, I refrained from making Michael Bolton's version the 6th in my collection.

My aim tonight is to memorize the verse (the slow, conversational intro part before the main part of the song that everyone knows), since I already know the rest pretty well. Most verses in old musical comedy songs like this are musically boring - they basically functioned as transitions from talking to singing, so who cares? That's why hardly anyone does them. But this particular verse is great. It is also self-referential in that way that only great musical theater can be, when Ira Gershwin steals from Irving Berlin in the lyric "the song is ended, but as the songwriter wrote, the melody lingers on". Well played, Ira, your song is more famous now!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday Funday, or, Why I Love Freelancing

It is a rainy, windy, utterly disgusting day in New York City, and I am very grateful I don't have to go out in this mess until tonight. I had one client who came to me this morning, and I have go to teach a lesson tonight. Nat and I were supposed to rehearse this evening, too, but she's under the weather (this is not fun weather to be under), so we rescheduled for later this week.

So. Here I am, with a cup of tea, some peanut butter and crackers, and my long to-do list to keep me company. The downsides of freelancing are: ridiculously long days of ping-ponging all around the metropolitan area, the occasional non-payment for services rendered, having to work through bad weather, break-ups and other literal and figurative migraines, because the show must go on, and there's no paid time off. But there are upsides. Like right now, it's noon on Monday, and my CEO, CFO, marketing manager, and head of the creativity department, all of whom share a human host body with me, are telling me I can and should watch the latest episode of 30 Rock before continuing about my business. This week is going to be crazy busy. Go ahead. Chill for 21 minutes. On a rainy Monday afternoon. People, don't hate me 'cause I'm lucky.

After my 21-minute break, it's back to the to-do list, which today will include, yes, you guessed it, another tender Billy Joel ballad. I think I'll learn "She's Always a Woman". Yesterday it was "She's Got a Way". I'll move on from my ballady comfort zone soon, but I need to save some of my time today to review other songs. The learning a song a day has been a challenge, but a gentle challenge, like running a 5K. The retaining of said songs... more like a marathon, requiring a longer, steadier commitment.

Excuse me, y'all, but I have an appointment to keep now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

You May Be Right

It's 1 a.m., and my upstairs neighbor just started practicing. Luckily for me, he's a really good acoustic guitarist - pleasant and not too loud. We have a tacit agreement not to complain about each other practicing.

More fun with Billy Joel. Yesterday:
I chose "The Stranger" because A) it's in my transcription book, & I'm planning on learning all those songs, and B) the intro and outtro (the whistle part) caught my attention the other night when I was listening to a bunch of Billy Joel. It's pretty. It sounds good on solo piano. It reminds me of movies about organized crime families.

I'm not sure why I never paid attention to this song before, because it's really fun to play. It's usually the lyrics that draw me to a song. (Side note: my sister, who deals in words all day as a translator, prefers instrumental music. I play music all day, and I most like music with words.) The lyrics of this song creep me out a bit. Hmm, maybe I don't like strangers. But I was reading some of the comments people have posted online about this song, and it seems a number of people find solace and validation in the fact that there's a song about, essentially, the strong spirit/weak flesh conundrum. So that's cool. I guess it's kind of like the Doubts I mentioned before - thoughts we'd like to control but can't. Though to be accurate, "The Stranger" is more about primal urges than Doubts. Right now I have a primal urge to go eat more of the yummy fancy-schmancy cheese I bought tonight.

It's really late, so instead I will write about today's song, "You May Be Right", one of my all-time favorite songs. Again, it's about the lyrics first. High school music theory, half a dozen guy buddies whose asses I totally kicked in that class. But they told me dirty jokes until I smiled. I recognize that girl in her electric chair with the stick up her butt.

I should mention - I suck at playing rock & roll. I do ok with ballads, and I'm starting to get my fingers wrapped around swing and salsa, but this kind of bluesy, rockin' rockity-rock... again, my aim with this project is to suck a little less each day. Meanwhile, tonight I got sick of the way I sounded after about 6 keys, and started messing around. There's a fun country-ish version I found by Cliff Wagner and the Old #7 (new band to me, yay!), and there's a square string quartet version available on Itunes. I thought, what would I do with this song if I were to play it in a way that comes naturally to me? So, I put it in 3, and put the first half of the verse in Lydian mode, which made it sound really creepy and Sondheim-y (if I may flatter myself).

It occurs to me that I should record myself and post some of the recordings here. Readers, you have permission to bug me about this. One of my other major projects this year is slaying my dragon of music technolophobia, so I'm putting this out there in the cyber universe so I can be guilted into actually doing it.

Now, about that cheese...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just the Way You Are

Honesty, Just the Way You Are

So when you start studying meditation, they tell you that the most important thing is to show up and do it every day. Doesn't matter if it's good or if it's "working", just keep showing up and trusting the process, they tell you, and eventually the results will follow (By the way, if any of you know who "they" are, I'd like an introduction. I have questions about some of the things "they" say, like that thing about the size of a man's feet, and...).

It's been sort of a just-show-up kind of day. A good one, as these kinds of days go. A small victory this morning: two of the singers in a class I accompanied came in without sheet music for their songs, but I was familiar enough with the songs ("Misty", and "Who Will Buy") that I could accompany them from memory. Not perfectly, but it was nice to know that I can play a standard in a key I'm not used to, and still more or less stumble through the bridge in approximately the right key (ish) to the safe territory of the final A section.

In an attempt to make myself feel like doing more than just showing up, I had scheduled myself some mandatory down time this afternoon, as part of this new "taking-care-of-myelf" initiative. Vegging out. Yechhhh. I hate vegging. The tricky thing about vegging for me is, sometimes it does what it's supposed to, and I feel relaxed and energized afterwards. The rest of the time, I just feel cranky and annoyed that I just wasted that time vegging. And I can't tell which is going to happen at the beginning. Nevertheless, I have learned through experience that not making enough time to at least have the option of vegging for a while is a really, really, really bad idea, for me and everyone who has to come near me.

Today during my veg time, I downloaded some more Billy Joel (yay!), caught up on 30 Rock, and made some awesome home fries. I discovered the song "Vienna". I took it as sort of a personal message from Mr. Joel to me. Thanks, man. I will slow down a little. I can't promise I'll enjoy it, but I'll try, and I will learn that song pretty soon.

In the meantime, I'm learning other Billy Joel songs. By the way, my rendition of "Piano Man" was well-received last night at Akilah's show - I didn't forget any of the lyrics, though I did crack up while I was making fun of Adam Feldman! The show was fun, and Akilah did a great job, even though the show was a little lower than we had planned... We thought we must be crazy, but we both agreed it felt really low and the keyboard must be set down, probably a whole step. We checked later and sure enough, the transposer, which we hadn't been able to figure out during our quickie tech rehearsal, was set. So: score 1 for music technology (still my arch-nemesis), but also score 1 for Kat's relative pitch, being 99.9% sure the damn thing was down a whole step.

Monkey Mind!

Songs. A song a day. Ok. Yesterday: "Honesty". Today: "Just the Way You Are". Love "Honesty". Love how in the last verse Billy Joel sings "you're the one i depend upooooooooooooonesty" into the chorus. Things like that make me really happy. "Just the Way You Are"... I used to really dig this song. Not so keen on it anymore for some reason. I always hate when people tell me not to change. It's so very high school yearbook, you know? Look closely, that may be the only time you ever see high school yearbook used as an adjective. So I'm not a fan of the lyrics (c'mon, I want my tender love ballads laced with cynicism!!!), but I do like the changes, especially on the bridge. Yeah man, nice key centers, and way to use pivot chords!! This was especially refreshing after playing certain musical theater repertoire earlier today, by certain composers who shall remain nameless, who apparently slept through the part about pivot chords in music theory. And who somehow don't throw them in instinctively. And -

I could go on, but it's time for some of that mandatory hardcore vegging known as "sleep", so I will sign off with this final comment re: pivot chords:

Singers, it's not always your fault.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Best of My Love

The Best of My Love

A random choice, this song. I had these grand plans of choosing my songs once a week or so, and doing a lot of intense listening and research etc. etc., but I must have been forgetting something: namely, the fact that I live in New York City and have an erratic and (thankfully) busy schedule. I reached the end of the day today, and realized I had no brainpower left to learn a totally new song. I had this song stuck in my head earlier today for some reason, so it seemed a natural choice. It was quick and painless.

They have a very Western vibe, the Eagles, don't they? I'm not sure how to explain it. Obviously, there are some musical characteristics - a little country vibe in the bass or the changes, and they sing about peaceful, easy feelings and Winslow, AZ. (Personally, places like Winslow, AZ give me anything but a peaceful, easy feeling - I get claustrophobic in small towns. That's why I don't live in them anymore.) But there's something else, too, that I can't put my finger on. It's the same feeling I get when I meet someone here in New York and I know even before they tell me that they're from west of the Mississippi.

Whatever the Dude may say, I like the Eagles. And I don't get thrown out of taxis either.

Monday, January 18, 2010

And So It Goes

And So it Goes

A day off. Hooray! It was a lovely, peaceful day that went somewhat contrary to plan. I had my day planned out pretty much to the minute, as is my custom, on a couple of hot pink sticky notes. But I discovered that my boyfriend also had the day off, so the day started off with pancakes and Simpsons instead of whatever was on the post-it.

The day took a bit of a sinister turn in the evening when my boyfriend pointed out the empty parking space in front of our apartment, where my friend's car had been until some unknown point in the afternoon. Turns out it had been stolen (er, towed) by the NYPD, because my 90-year-old neighbor told the cops it had been abandoned. No warning or anything. My friend is pretty pissed that the only recourse she has is to sue my nonagenarian neighbor who was just looking out for his 'hood. As for myself, I'm relieved that it was towed and not stolen, not least since I sleep about 20 feet from where she was parked.

I had planned to go to some friends' show, but ended up staying in, waiting for a police officer to bring me the paperwork my friend needs to get her car back. I should say, I had a good excuse to stay in. I really wanted to go out, but I needed the alone time even more. Sometimes being alone with my piano (as I was all day, once I tore myself away from the Simpsons) doesn't count.

I would like it to be known that today's song is an example of extreme compliance with Rule #2. Love. It.

Officially, "And So It Goes" is in C major, but it likes to hover around the relative minor an awful lot. Come to think of it, so does "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning", only in that song, the effect is more slinky than solemn. Here's what I like: every time we come to that A minor, we land on an A minor sus on the downbeat, then resolve the D down to the C on the second beat. There is none of the plaintive dissonance of B against C natural - except once. In the last verse, on the lyric, "but you can make decisions too", on "too", he voices the chord with the B suspended against the C. Listen to it, it's easier than me explaining it further.

I like that the A minor-11 voicing has a sort of controlled poignancy. As if he's saying, "Here I am, making this decision to let you into my heart, and I am going to pretend I'm ok with the risk of pain." And by the final verse, he can't pretend anymore: "But, oh yeah, you can make decisions too, so I'm not completely in control of this situation ow ow ow half-step poignant can't-live-with-you-can't-live-without-you" (yes, I'm mixing my pop stars here, I know)...

I know, I know, this is a tiny detail, and it's only present in the piano part of Billy Joel's recorded version of the song. On a lead sheet, the chord structure is the same in every verse, and in other versions, the pianists throw in that A minor-9 chord with impunity, seemingly without respect for the arc of the story. Maybe they're not anal retentive like I am. Or maybe they just exist in a different sector of the musical universe than I do. I exist in the sector that houses and employs a lot of singers and actors. I love singers and actors. Someone's got to; they need tolerant pianists. And I think the world needs pianists who give a damn about the voicing of an A minor chord on a particular lyric.

I was gonna write a lot more about lyrics and how I love them, but even days off (especially days off) come to an end, and it's now past two in the morning. So we make plans, and they go awry, and we try to control the resulting dissonance. And so it goes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Life of the Party


Note to self: Next time you have a day with a 10-hour rehearsal, pick an easier song to learn.

In my new, mentally-healthy, non-workaholic state, I recognize that I either have enough energy left to learn the song, or write about it. So... I'll see ya tomorrow, and with any luck, I'll have "Life of the Party" from Wild Party (Lippa's) semi-memorized.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best Is Yet to Come

The Best is Yet to Come

Yes, Mr. Coleman, yes!

Ok, I admit this is another song I wasn't crazy about when I started working on it. I don't not like it, but... I'm mostly learning it so I know it better for Akilah's show. But talk about compositional craft! I've always liked Cy Coleman's music, but this it the first time I've ever sat down and looked closely at one of his songs.

This song was a bit of a pain in the ass to learn, what with me being in a hurry all the time, because the form is longer and more complex than most of the songs I've learned so far. It starts with an AABA-ish verse, then an "interlude" (so labeled in the piano-vocal arrangement - I was looking at both the PV and the lead sheet for this one) in the relative minor, then back to the musical material from before, but in a modified form and a different key center. No two sections are exactly alike.

I took a couple semesters of composition lessons in college. I was sort of the unwanted stepchild in an overburdened department; I had tested out of first year theory and needed to make up the credits with elective theory courses. Now I wish I'd taken jazz arranging instead, but hindsight's 20/20. Anyway, my teacher sometimes described composition in terms of unity and variety, and how human beings need a balance of the two in their art. AABA form is the perfect example of this: A - we hear it once. A - we hear it again, and we like it, because we're creatures of habit who crave familiarity. B - something different, almost always in a different key center, because we're bored by this point (think of it as an affair, perhaps). and A again, usually back in the original key - because we like adventure, but most of us want to come home and be at peace at the end of the day.

Can you tell I love AABA form? I could talk about the "tag" as well, but I'll geek out on that another day.

Instead, I'll finish by congratulating the late Mr. Coleman on 1. motivic development and 2. minimizing the Cheese Factor in his modulation up a half-step at the end of the form. 1. Like I said before, no two sections in this song are exactly alike - either the key or the melody or the chord progression is different. One might fear that he leans a little too much to variety in the unity-variety spectrum. But he uses the same building blocks throughout, just building subtly different houses in each section. That's mad cool yo. And 2. It's such a musical theater cliche to go up a half-step once, twice or ad nauseum in any given tune that it leaves many a musician cringing and wanting to outlaw the use of the flat-VI as a pivot chord. He does it really sneakily, coming out of the interlude into what I think of the B section of the verse ("Wait til you're locked in my embrace..."), only now the entire section's a half-step higher than it was before, with the result that the final A section is also a half-step up. So no abrupt flat-VI-becomes-V-in-the-new-key Cheese Transition. Yes, still the same transition, but not so abrupt. Ease me into it, that's the key. Ha ha, no pun intended.

I would like to thank those of you still reading for putting up with my music theory geekery (perhaps a refreshing break from my mental abyss narcissism). Oh, and I listened to about 5 different versions of the song on internet radio, and I would just like to say, I really like Tony Bennett. He da man.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Piano Man, At Last

Note: Don't get excited by the title of this post. I am still a girl.


The next few songs are from a cabaret show I'm accompanying next week: Weds 1/20, 7 p.m. at the Stonewall Inn, for fabulous singer and Stonewall Sensation champion Akilah Williams.

This is a chance to see me in a tux singing "Piano Man". Lord help us all. I kind of dig playing with the whole flamboyant-male-accompanist-with-vampy-female-singer cabaret stereotype. It's such a strong stereotype that when my writing and performing partner, Nat, used to tell people about our performances, they would assume I'm a guy. Um, whoever heard of a guy named Kat?

(Speaking of working with Nat, a moment for shameless self-promo:

"Piano Man" was yesterday's song, and I should look at it a little more tonight. I have it pretty well memorized, but I wanna do the piano solo, and if I'm gonna sing it in front of actual people, even if they are drunk people... Also, I don't think I'm going to sing it in Billy Joel's key. I'm not sure what key I will sing it in, because right now I pretty much don't have a voice, thanks to some amazing green crud I have in my chest. This will be interesting when I have to shepherd five 9 year-old-girls through their voice class in a half hour. I'm an emergency last-resort sub at a music school where I work as an accompanist.

I left the house this morning at 8:30, and will get back around 11 p.m. Typical freelance day, just kinda ping-ponging around Manhattan for various gigs and appointments. Very grateful for all the work, even as I curse the subway system and the green crud that thrives on long days like today.

Today's song is "At Last". I worked on it between Tweenie Bopper Choir and grown-up choir rehearsal. I contemplated how best to capture the lushness of the string arrangement from Etta James' version on solo piano, or how to otherwise futz around with it, try different things. The structure of the song (in fact, the structure of many pop songs) is so basic you can kinda do anything with it. Or nothing. Tastefully simple can be good.

These are the things I have the mental energy to think about now that I've dropped one major project and postponed another one. I feel decidedly more sane than I did a just a few days ago, when I was thinking I needed a leave of absence from my life. Not in a suicidal way, just in a sort of cabin-in-the-mountains-with-no-connection-to-the-urban-industrial-complex-for-several-months kind of way. Today I rode the subway and didn't write lyrics, or answer emails, or make hyper-organized, cross-referenced to-do lists on my phone, or, most significantly, feel guilty for not doing any of the above. I just listened to my ipod. It was kind of awesome.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Get Out of Jail Free Card

My first day of not learning a song - I had a really busy day, and I made a couple very, very difficult, draining decisions about how I'll be spending my time in the near and less-near future (more on this later, most likely). Now it's past midnight, and I have a dreadful head cold and feel like someone's shoved a cactus down my throat. So I'm going to use one of my get-out-of-jail-free cards - ie a song I already know quite well, which I will work on a bit tomorrow in addition to another song.

Cuz, people, sometimes a girl just gotsta get some sleep!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When I'm Sixty-Four


My parents have been married for 40 years today. Wow. They made it through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughts (have we decided what we're calling that decade yet?).

My parents knew each other growing up, but not high-school-sweetheart-well, just as acquaintances. They went to high school together. Dad graduated two years before Mom. Mom sat next to one of Dad's sisters in choir. They never went out until they were in college, when Dad needed a date to a physics awards banquet (I come by my nerddom honestly, thank you). His sisters set him up with Mom. It's been a while since I've heard this story, so I'll have to ask them for the details again. Their first date was a science banquet, and I believe they went spelunking on their second date. Since they've been married, they've lived in Germany, Austin TX, England, and various small mining towns in Arizona and New Mexico. Side note - my sister had an obnoxious Texas accent when she first learned to talk, and an East Anglian accent by the time she was 4. Now she's a translator and interpreter in Japan, where native speakers routinely refuse to believe she's a foreigner when they speak to her on the phone.

I would give a woefully inaccurate summary of their life together, but I'm a little short on time for even an abridged version. Today I worked on "When I'm 64" in honor of my parents, because it celebrates the mundane little details of growing old together. Also, my dad turns 64 this year. So that's kinda cool.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Across the Universe

And the Doubts are back. I knew it wouldn't be long. They live with me, the Doubts, and they almost never go on vacation, and when they do, they don't stay away for long. They will make you crazy, but the worst thing about them is that they actually sound rational and sane if you let them talk to you.

"Why are you doing this? Are you really so narcissistic as to believe that anyone would want to read about what goes through your head when you learn a song? Do you even want anyone to read this tripe? What kind of musician are you, anyway, that you have to give yourself this so-called "challenge" to learn stuff you should know? You better hope no one working in your industry reads this - you were actually thinking of announcing it? Nah, better off if you don't even post it..."

The Doubts are very talkative.

I'm shining this light on them, hoping they'll shrivel up and die. If they don't die, maybe I'll at least be able to see who's making all that noise. I've been trying to figure out what I can cut from my schedule so I can stop feeling so overwhelmed. It occurs to me that if the Doubt, You-Suck, and Maniacal Control-Freak families would just move out, I might have time for what's important - and still get almost enough sleep sometimes.

By the way, it's not like I feel lonely or sorry for myself, having squatters like the Doubts. They're like roaches - everyone has 'em, and they'd probably survive a nuclear attack. And yet look at the price of real estate in roach-infested Manhattan.

So, oh yeah, music. Here are the songs I've worked on so far:
Here Comes the Sun
Eleanor Rigby
Hey Jude
Ticket to Ride
Across the Universe

I was going to switch to Stevie Wonder today, but I think I'll stick with the Beatles for a while. It's nice to get in a little deeper, get really familiar with the musical language of a particular artist or, in this case, group of artists.

Like how with the Beatles, they often have what I think of as an extra bar at the transition of the sections - eg - "Hey Jude", the verse is 8 bars long, then there's this random 9th bar, a sort of full bar pick-up into the next section. And when "Something" modulates to A, there's a full bar of A major before the next lyric. It's like he's saying "Ready? We're in a new key now. Ok, go!" "Hey Jude" is Lennon/McCartney and "Something" is George Harrison, so it wasn't just an individual tic.

I guess I notice this because most of the popular songs I've actually taken time to study are 32-bar AABA jazz standards. Is it because the Beatles didn't start as dance music that their songs have various phrase lengths? (Not that you want to rely on dancers to put things in 4-bar phrases.) But that's not something you think about til you write it down. Sometimes I have something in my head for years before I write it down, and by that point I'm always surprised at how it looks, and at how I think about it a little differently from that point forward.

Aside from crowding the Doubts out of their abode with this project, I'm having fun discovering new music (new to me - like a used car). How else would I have found Bobby McFerrin's and Dave Matthews Band's versions of "Blackbird"? That's one of my favorite songs - a couple of my good friends in college used to sit on their front porch and play & sing it together. On 9/11, I went to their house and wondered what the hell had happened to the world. They played and sang, and it mattered maybe just a tiny bit less that the world would ever after be divided into pre- and post- 9/11.

I am so totally out of time with this entry. Must go tackle the to-do list. But it seemed really important not to let the Doubts win tonight.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hey Jude


10:30 p.m.
Won't you please join me in a moment of cranky? Because I am in a horrific mood. Really horrible. I have nothing to say about today's song, because I haven't started on it yet.

Not adjusting well to being back in the city. Nothing's really wrong, I'm just having a hard time remembering why I live in such a cold, pressure-cooking, crazy-making money-sieve as this. I have managed to collect a few too many things on my plate, and I'm trying to figure out how to make it work and/or simplify (yeah, I know, the irony that I imposed this project on myself is priceless, isn't it??).

My trip home to New Mexico was a reminder that some people have never participated in this frantic lifestyle, and they're just fine. Hm. I hope that going to a show tomorrow night will remind me why I'm here (aside from the fact that I would probably die of boredom in New Mexico). Meanwhile, I will get my whiny ass to the piano and try to be done preparing some stuff for tomorrow and learning "Hey Jude" by midnight or so. Harrumph. Take a sad song and make it better, indeed. I'll tell ya where to take your sad song and -

Ok. My boyfriend is making a grocery run for me. I didn't even ask him to do that, he's just sweet and helpful like that, even when I'm breathing fire and threatening to bite his head off. And, speaking of fire, I have heat and hot water and a decent landlord, which is more than some of my friends here have right now. So that's not so bad, right? C'mon, man, I'm tryin'...

1 a.m.
I would like to report that I did take a sad song, and I did make it better. It hardly took any time at all. Also, I get extra credit for reading the wiki article about it. Woo hoo!



So today we run into the first logistical problems of the new year. I'm at my aunt & uncle's in Albuquerque, and they don't have a piano. Realizing this a couple days ago, my overactive Internal Planning Committee went into high gear: I will choose songs before the drive up to Albuquerque, and listen to them on repeat! I will sing them! I will write the lyrics on scratch paper! I will study the lead sheet! I will copy down the lead sheet from memory!

I think maybe I'm maybe making this too hard for myself. I would have done some listening in the car, but my aunt and uncle were listening to some music I gave them that I wanted to hear (Mona's Hot Four, Live at Mona's. Check it.). Then I fell asleep. Apparently my body has more sense than my Internal Planning Committee.

As it turns out, my aunt & uncle have a teeny-weeny 2-octave keyboard, and it took me just a couple minutes of looking at the lead sheet to feel confident I could play it from memory. We're not talking fabulously inventive solo piano arrangement, but I know the song. Imagine that. I like how the refrain has the same changes as the intro, but the harmonic rhythm is half as fast. Crafty, those Liverpudlians.

Today I got to see my childhood best friend, her husband, and their newborn son. It's been nearly two years since I last saw them, when they came through New York en route from Argentina to New Mexico. See what happens when I leave them alone? Scandalous!

It's a bit of a trip to see my best friend as a mom. I was telling my own mom that I know I'm getting old, because it's not just my Mormon and conservative Christian peers who are reproducing anymore. Sarah and I have been friends since we were six, and together we survived piano lessons (she took Suzuki, I took traditional lessons), braces and band camp (she played clarinet, I played French horn). She and I grew apart and together several times over the years. Sarah more or less quit playing music in college (she went to Texas Christian, I went to the University of Northern Colorado), which kinda bummed me out, because she is no slouch as a pianist, and has one of the most beautiful clarinet sounds I have ever heard (I have only met one other clarinetist whose sound I enjoy as much - Dennis Lichtman - have you checked out Mona's Hot Four yet? Because you need to.). Anyway, Sarah did spend a semester in Mexico, and she came back fluent in Spanish. This was awesome for me, because I've spoken Spanish since grade school. Now we could talk about boys in two languages. After graduation, Sarah took herself and her language skills to Argentina, where she worked as a volunteer in inner-city schools in Buenos Aires, doing art projects with the younger kids and homework with the older kids. At one of the schools, she happened to meet the music teacher, Sabino, who was also an excellent guitarist. He had a good sense of humor and beautiful hazel eyes, and she told me the first time she those eyes she thought, "I'm supposed to marry this guy."

Luckily, to make a long story short, he agreed with her (and, to tie up a loose end from the previous paragraph, she dusted off the clarinet and started playing with his band around Buenos Aires, for which reason I gave them permission to marry). Now, several years later, they live in a cute little house with a big yard, and they have a cute little boy with a big personality. And long fingers. So maybe he's a pianist, although apparently he was practicing guitar chords in his sleep the other night. C major, then B minor ... maybe he's learning "Yesterday" in C?

I told Sabino about my song-a-day challenge with a little trepidation, because I really admire him as a musician, and he is not shy or subtle about expressing contemptuous opinions about amateur or amateurish musicians. I grew up surrounded by amateur musicians, but wasn't really exposed to professional live performance until I left my hometown for college in the great Cowtropolis of Greeley at age 18. I guess I still feel a little insecure. But this is my hear of Fuck It, I am Being Brave, so I told him of my wee personal challenge, and, as expected, he laughed at me. Which was annoying. "One song!? You should learn 4 songs a day! You should learn 10!" I protested feebly. I'll learn 4 songs a day next year. This year, one is enough. "No, no, Kati, you know, before, I learn 10, 20 songs a day," - (he's Argentine, exaggeration is in his blood) - "and then the next day I forget them, but later I start to play them again and from the first note I remember." Ok, whatever. I'll get there.

I heard these things and, like Mary, I pondered them in my heart. I'm sure I could learn 4 songs a day. And then forget them. And then hear them and remember how they go weeks or months later when I play them, probably with a singer or in a band. It's a little different memorization process than I've had in mind so far. Dammit, I'm still - still! - thinking like a classical musician.

Classical musicians think differently. The better ones are intimately acquainted with the form of the piece they're playing, the harmonic progressions, motivic patterns and development of the melody and contrapuntal lines. They understand what they're playing. But the thing about classical music is, you don't have to understand its structure to play it. You can get by just learning the dots and squiggles on the page, and, ultimately, you're expected to infuse soul and appropriate performance practice into an accurate rendition of the dots and squiggles on the page. Analysis helped me memorize classical music; in fact, I memorized most of Gubaidulina's Chaconne for my senior recital in college during a 4-hour flight delay at La Guardia airport. But you still memorize every single note, and everything is involved - muscle memory, aural memory, visual memory, analytical/intellectual memory, obsessive-compulsive-neurotic-stressed-out-music-major memory. It feels different in the body to play, and different in the brain to memorize classical music than pop and jazz and other styles where each note doesn't have to be the same every time.

Classical music, and the process it takes to learn, memorize, and play it, is beautiful, sublime. That said, I wish some classical musicians would give jazz musicians more credit for what they do - realizing (and then some) figured bass, or rather, figured treble. And for understanding structure, and for using their ears, and for taking the time and trouble to develop the skill of improvisation. Because jazz is not, as many aurophobic classical musicians ludicrously claim, something you're either born with or not. Sure, some people are born with it oozing out their pores. But for most of us, it's a musical vocabulary and the skill to use it, something that takes years of dedication and listening and practice to develop.

Ok, Kat, off the soapbox.

Music notation wasn't designed for ... well, for much, really. Chant - one melodic line at a time. I remind my students that the music always comes first, and then it's written down. Usually. I don't go into the exceptions, it might frighten them. Music notation evolved and bumbled along and served the Western world pretty well through the end of the 19th century. But the cultural mix of the New World engendered styles of music that just don't look good written down. African rhythms and syncopation look terrifying on the page. This music - blues, jazz, rock & roll, r&b - was born of the aural tradition. Hear, imitate, steal, make your own. And of the oral tradition. Hey kid, I like the way you play. Now try this.

I'm not quite sure what I'm getting at here. If I were being paid to write this, I'd take the time to edit and figure out what I'm saying and then rewrite it to say it better. But I'm not, so I'll just take a wild guess and get on with my life. I am a lapsed classical musician. There, I said it. My name is Kat Sherrell and I'm a lapsed classical musician. It's a little like being a lapsed Catholic, except I don't really think I've left behind classical music for the rest of my life. I just want to learn to think a different way.
This is a terrible analogy. Try something else.
Ok, I left my homeland, Classical Musiclandia, and embarked on a trip to a new land, Land of People Who Groove and Improvise and Do Other Such Blasphemous-Sounding Activities. I don't feel accepted in the new land - you can still sometimes catch my Classical accent, and my vocabulary is limited. But my native countrymen now look on me with suspicion because I left. Not to be flippant or anything, but I think what I'm feeling is a much milder version of what emigrants, or people from more than one ethnic background, or people who marry outside their faith, feel. Where do I fit in?

Who knows. Maybe I'll have a clearer picture in another few hundred songs.

Here Comes the Sun, Because


"Here Comes the Sun"
I get my sports, weather, and celebrity death news from my friends' facebook status updates. I know the Giants lost badly last week because of the vitriol on my news feed (one friend compared the game to an interpretive dance reenactment of the Rape of Nanking); I'm vacationing in New Mexico, but I know it snowed in New York today - a friend missed his mom's birthday in Boston because of the storm; I found out about the deaths of Natasha Richardson, Brittany Murphy, Michael Jackson the instant the news hit the internet through that infernally addictive social networking site.

2009 was not a great year for celebrities, was it? There was that swath of celebrity deaths during the summer around the time Michael Jackson died. I can't remember off the top of my head who died, because, well - Michael Jackson died.

Wait, why am I talking about Michael Jackson when I'm learning Beatles songs? My point is, 2009 was rough on celebrities, and on many of my friends, and it had its moments of profound non-smoothness for me. "[John Doe] is excited for a new beginning in 2010!" and "FU 2009!" were popular status updates yesterday. Not surprising.
When you're in a storm, if you're smart, you first find shelter, then wait for the sun to come out (if you're like me, you stand in the middle of a field, shaking your fist at the sky and yelling at the thunder and lightning to go away).

So. A new year. Here Comes the Sun. We hope.


I have a confession to make. I did not really like this song to begin with (bad Kat! Breaking rule #2 already!). For some reason, it annoyed me. I'm not a stoner; in fact, I don't really do any mood-altering substances that are stronger than beer or chocolate, so maybe I just don't get the lyrics. Then I listened to it this morning as I was folding laundry. It's kind of amazing what you notice when you're not really paying attention. Round...turns. Wind...blows. Blue...cry. Oh, you Brits and your double entendre and your bad puns. I like all those things - Brits, double meanings and bad puns. And so I began to like this song.

You may be wondering why I chose to learn a song I didn't like. Well... I'm on vacation in New Mexico, with only one music book (a Beatles fake book), and I was a little pressed for time today - family time and a 5-hour drive from my hometown to Albuquerque. "Because" is pretty short, simple and easy to learn - I could play it a couple times, but memorize it mostly by analyzing it, which I can do in the car. It consists of three 10-bar A sections (an intro & 2 verses), a 4-bar bridge, and 2 more A sections (a 3rd verse and an outtro). All the A sections have the same chord progression. I have no idea if this is how it should be analyzed; it's been too long since forms & analysis class. I don't care. Much. I like the outtro's variation on the melody. I like the chromatic descending line at the end of each verse. I like that the song ends on a diminished chord, just to piss you off.

Yesterday, I had more time to learn "Here Comes the Sun", so I spent a little time listening and analyzing it, but then I played it once in every key (12) and kinda let my ear take over. Here's something weird - when my ear begins to take over, and I begin to just "feel" what I'm playing, my intellect protests: "NO NO NO NO NO!!! IIIIII'm in Charge!" What a dictator.

A Year of Standards

01/01/10 - the wee hours January 1, 2010 - the start of a brand new year, a year in which I'm determined to learn one song every day.

To be able to play - and in a dire emergency, sing - one new song every day for one year. From memory. To not suck too much at it; to suck a little less each day.

The RULES: 1. Songs must fall into one of the following semi-subjective categories: pop hit, jazz standard, not-too-obscure showtune. 2. I have to like the songs (If I don't follow this rule, I will likely be found with self-inflicted piano wire wounds by the end of January). umm... I guess that's it. I feel like there are more rules, but maybe I'll just start with those two.

The REASONS: Why on God's green earth would I want to add such a thing as learning a new song every day to my already-hectic schedule? And whyyyyyyy, I ask you, why am I going to take the time to journal about the experience? I don't think I know the answer to the latter question yet, but as to the former: I have a deplorably small repertoire for a professional musician. I'm a pianist - I'm used to playing whatever singers put in front of my face. But I've always been more of a reading musician, and I'm sick of having to answer no when asked if I know how to play a song from memory. "I grew up sheltered, before YouTube, in the middle of nowhere, exposed only to music written before Beethoven died, and it was three miles uphill both ways to..." - still true, but beginning to sound like a pretty lame excuse for not knowing music that is standard in the New York musical theater world in which I now work.

As soon as I started trying to learn a song a day (I gave myself a head start around Thanksgiving to see just how much this project is going to kick my ass), I realized there are a few good reasons to do it that I hadn't anticipated:

Duh, I'll get better at learning and playing music. I realized that, but the realization was sort of obscured by my first reason - frustration, frustration, frustration with my lack of familiarity with music written by people who are not necessarily dead/white/male.

And maybe if I obey rule number 2 (learn only songs that I like), I will rediscover that feeling of freedom, of playing because I love it so much, that childlike rush that made me want to play music in the first place. I feel like I've lost touch with that joy in the midst of the daily play-to-pay: bills as steep and tall as New York City skyscrapers, technique that needs fixing before I injure myself, a treacherously slippery career ladder. I use all my practice hours (and, alas, too many of my boyfriend hours) just hurrying to learn music for the next gig; whether I like the music or not is moot. I still love playing music, obviously, but it feels like a marriage that's going through a rough patch. I go through the motions, wake up, try, try, try again, and hope that I can reignite the old spark, but something has to change or it's divorce - somethin's gotta give...

And... I'm gonna have to, like, let go of my perfectionism a little, 'cause at the rate of a song every day, perfect ain't gonna happen. This is really scary for me. I often feel like I'm falling off a cliff, and the ideal of perfection is the only trustworthy branch that will keep me from plunging to the rocky depths below. Which is nonsense, I know. Utter horse hockey, etc. And profaner things as well, but what if my Grandma reads this blog? Because, oh yeah, I'm gonna post these musings online. Y'all, I have no idea how to blog. Mental note: watch Julie & Julia, read up on blogs that are about doing something once a day...

Another blow for perfectionism. Why do I sense that this is a big somethin' that's gotta give?