Wednesday, January 6, 2010



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.

1 comment:

  1. I meant to hyperlink to Mona's Hot Four up there - oops. I'll go back & fix later, if I remember, but meanwhile: