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?