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.


  1. I just realized, reading this post over, that I contradicted myself in the second paragraph - my therapeutic reasons for learning the singles from Funhouse were mostly lyrically-motivated, but there is a lot in the music as well. More on this another time.

  2. hi. This has little to do with your above comments specifically, but I wanted to tell you: A couple of days ago, I heard a long conversation with Bobby McFerrin. He said he was employed as a rehearsal accompanist at a university in Utah and one day decided he was actually supposed to be a singer. So he went to a hotel bar and asked if he could have a job playing there. He said he only knew about 6 songs, though. So he did a few of them and they said he could start in a month. So... he undertook the task of learning one song every day for a month so he would have an act for the piano bar. Of course, I thought of you. He had a much more definite impetus and deadline to do it, but the principle is exactly the same.

  3. Hey, he just told Liane Hansen exactly the same story on NPR!