Saturday, July 27, 2013

Song Writing and Running Out of New Music

  Seeing local live music is a blessing and a curse for me. The regular, everyday version of myself enjoys the break in the normal flow of a week by hearing some music I've never experienced before. The dreamer part of me that still fantasizes about doing music for a living starts feeling negative with thoughts of, "if these people can't do it for a living, how would I?"

  The other night I watched two friends perform at a small singer/songwriter sort of venue. Both of them are talented songwriters with outstanding voices and quite pretty. What else could the world want from their musicians? Yet they both have been doing their thing for many years now, they still have to work regular full-time office hours to get by (acknowledging here that there is also more than a little luck involved in getting anywhere). Granted, that may be all they want to do. I've never asked them since it seemed like a slightly offensive question if they did want to do only music as a living and had been unable.
  While I listened, I was thinking about what it must take to write a song with the power to live in people's memories forever. Here were some songs written from the heart, about love and pain and desires and so much more, yet potentially only a handful of people will ever know them. This further progressed in my mind to the thought that maybe we're running out of new music that can be written, which seems mathematically improbable. In the same way I often think there are no new stories that can be told but I still manage to find new books that entertain me.

  I couldn't really get the idea out of my head and when I got home I started researching it. I found a great video discussing the topic that covers it better than I ever could:

  The part about how we tend to gravitate towards certain sounds especially rang true and goes to show how pop writers keep pulling in the money by making songs that are so similar. And that's not me being snobby towards that type of music as I'm certainly not above getting a pop song stuck in my head for days at a time...or weeks at a time. I'm looking at you, "Call Me Maybe." It's simply not the type of music I would want to make myself, though I honestly have no idea what type I would want to create. Most of my writing experience comes from telling stories of the many ridiculous situations I find myself in anytime I venture out of my front door, or poetry. As such, it's hard to wrap my head around the concepts just yet of what would make a powerful, moving, and memorable song. It's probably one of those things you can't fully grasp until you try it yourself, and I feel like that is still a ways down the road. Still, the thought is often on my mind and I'm eager to try and unravel the mystery when I have more experience to draw upon.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Nashville Celebrity Sightings

  Living in Nashville, I often see various famous peeps out and about. I don't think much about it these days other than, "oh cool, there is So and So." I don't feel I am easily star-struck. There's a few people out there I'm quite big fans of, but you could count them on two hands. Of those ten or fewer, you could count on one hand how many I'd get actually excited to run into out in the world. So when I tell you that as I was going home today and drove by Joy Williams in traffic that I nearly wrecked my car in excitement, you can guess who one of the handful is.
  Her music in The Civil Wars is what reignited my desire to play and, potentially, create music. I never stopped loving music, but somewhere along the line I gave up on the idea of playing it in any capacity. I can't even pinpoint what in the music specifically did it to me, but I picked up my guitar for the first time in nearly two years the first time I heard "Poison and Wine," which I had on repeat for such an extended period that I was almost convinced it was one giant, hour long song.

  At any rate, I felt like it was some sort of sign. At the very least it made my day, especially when she tweeted me back that she was glad I didn't wreck. I am easy to please.

  On a related note, their new self-titled album is out August 6th. It is giving every indication, of against all odds, being even better than their first.

The Piano is Wooing Me

  When I first started this blog, my initial goal was to update daily, until I realized I had underestimated how difficult it was to blog about one very specific topic. After that realization I decided to update "at least a few times a week". That also, obviously, has proven a hurdle. The bonus to my failure of updating as much as I wanted is that anytime I think "I need to write a bit tonight" I end up practicing instead, which I'm counting as a win. It's been a long time since I've had the stirring in me to work on something as persistently as I have been doing with my music revival. Here's to hoping whatever fuel is moving me along keeps burning.

  I decided to learn piano instead of picking guitar back up (right away) because it felt like a fresh start. When I stopped grabbing my guitar daily, I had become frustrated with a plateau I'd been stuck on for so long. I thought that taking up a new instrument would be like starting as a beginner, and it as been. I believe I'm picking it up decently fast but I still feel almost lost in what I'm doing. And so far I've loved it. The tangible improvements have been nearly intoxicating.
  In addition, I felt piano would be a good way (as I've previously mentioned) to really learn some music theory. I don't want to attempt to write music just by fooling around until something sounds passable. I want to play a chord and automatically know that, hey, I played a Cm, so I know I can play such and such and it sound good. I want to know how everything is built. I never learned that with guitar. And truly, I never learned how to play guitar. I learned how to play songs on a guitar. Other people's songs at that.
  What has unexpectedly happened is that I've fallen slightly in love with playing piano. To such a degree that I've been pondering getting my own - a small upright, mind you, but a piano all the same - as my 61 key, non-weighted keyboard is simply not cutting it to my ears any longer after I started playing on a real piano at the music studio.
  None of this is to say I won't be picking the guitar back up; I fully intend to get back to my sexy stringed instrument. Who says I can't play two instruments?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Piano Class 3: Timing and the Lady with Tourettes Yells At Me

  (Class Date: 6/19/13)

  Class 3 was doomed from the moment I awoke that morning. It was one of those days where everything goes slightly awry. Fast-forwarding through all the unimportant details of work, I made it home uneventfully with a few hours to spare before class. I took a much needed nap that initially started as a simple "I'm just going to lay down for a couple of minutes." Two hours later I snap awake, glance at the clock and realize I'm going to be late. The studio being 5 minutes away made it a less dire situation, but I don't like being even a minute late, especially when people are waiting on me.
  I arrived a few minutes after the start of class but unbeknownst to me I was going to be later still. As I pulled into the lot, a fancy convertible pulled in right behind me. Naturally I thought nothing of it, assuming it was just another visitor. I started toward the building, when behind me suddenly came some of the most vile, foul-mouthed cussing I'd ever heard. It takes a lot to give me pause; I grew up in the era of the internet after all so I have seen some crazy things in my day. But my ears perked up at this. All I thought was, "man, someone is getting it" but it turns out that it was I who was, in fact, getting it.

  I looked back at the car and made eye contact with the lady driving, barely taking note of her extremely uncomfortable looking friend in the passenger's seat. When our eyes locked, she said, "hey you piece of s*** mother f*****!" and, still not grasping I was actually getting cussed out, replied with a very jovial "hey!" and a head-nod at which point I was nearly swept away by the tidal wave of profanity that she unleashed on me. I would transcribe it here but it would require me to use about 100 *'s to clean it up.
  It took my brain a while to actually process that I was not only getting cussed out but that this lady was accusing me of running a 4 way stop and nearly "killing us all", as she put it. For a moment I worried that in my rush I had done that very thing, but looking back to the intersection a few dozen yards away, I noted it was a 2-way stop and I had the right of way with no stop sign in the direction I was coming. If she actually thought I'd wronged her, or if she was just insane, I'm not really sure.
  I attempted to explain that she was mistaken and pointed at the intersection where you can clearly see the fact that it is a two-way stop, but she was having none of the whole "me talking" thing. Realizing she couldn't be reasoned with I attempted to end the conversation, at which point I experienced the classic situation where you can't come up with anything witty to say in the moment but then later coming up with the perfect comeback. The best I came up with on the spot was a smile and a lame "you're a classy lady" before disregarding her and heading inside. That disregard was a little more difficult than anticipated when she decide to peel out as she left - calling me a few more names in the process - and pelted me with gravel from behind.
  While she struck me as a bit of a terrible person, I have to give her props for her boldness. I live in a pretty questionable neighborhood, so following someone and then screaming at them like a lunatic doesn't seem like a wise move. Luckily for her she happened to do it to one of the few people who wouldn't break out the weaponry.

  Unfortunately, I let this person's rudeness set the precedent for class instead of forgetting about her immediately in the way such people deserve, and my practice definitely suffered for it. I found myself a bit amped up for the entire hour and my hands unsteady. All in all it made for what I feel was my weakest progress thus far, and I'm counting all the additional days of which I've yet to catch up and chronicle.  I sadly spent most of the time thinking "I should have said this or said that" instead of focusing on the task at hand.

  As for the content of class, thankfully it was just some practicing on playing along with different time signatures, 4/4 and 3/4 in this instance. Not a new concept to me so even with my limited mental facilities working for me I kept up well enough, but I certainly struggled with hitting the correct keys on the piano, which is probably sort of important to playing well. I wouldn't know but I'm pretty confident in that statement.
  What struck me most in this class is just how much is going on in sheet music and the more impressed I become with people who can seamlessly read a song while playing it for the first time. I never bothered learning to read music when I picked up guitar, but as I'm doing so now, I am discovering that I had absolutely no idea how much is going on in such a small space. The key a song is in, the pitch of the notes, the time signatures, the actual notes with their various times and placements, dynamics, legatos and slurs, and on and on. There's just so much information in such a little space that it's a little overwhelming. Given, what I'm reading right now is only doing 3 or 4 things at a time, but I've seen some pretty intense music that seems akin to juggling 10 objects at a time with one hand tied behind your back. No doubt experience will lessen the intensity but as a beginner, it's a daunting mountain to ascend. And not that I plan to be an orchestral pianist that needs an especially high level of reading skill, but I hate doing things halfway so my natural desire is to master it. If that actually happens is something that won't be seen for a looooong time.
  As a younger person, all of these concepts bored me and I never cared to learn them. I just wanted to learn how to play songs. Now that I'm a bit older, I want to learn how to play music and I find the concepts fascinating, making me wish I'd taken the time as a kid to learn them as a kid. But that can be said for a lot of things I failed to do when I was especially young. I just try to do better now that I am, hopefully, a little wiser.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Realization on Singing

  I've always had a fondness for singing. If you ever pass me in a car, there's a 99% chance you'll see me belting a song out along with the stereo. Or possible without the radio even. In the shower, in the car, in meetings when my mind wanders... I've usually got a song stuck in my head and I'm letting it out somewhere. This stems from all the way back when I was a young kid and I used to love to sing that Heart song "All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You" and didn't at all understand why it made my family extremely uncomfortable. What parent doesn't want their 8 year old boy belting out lyrics like "he brought out the woman in meeeeee, so many times, easily!" in the middle of the supermarket?
  Unfortunately, just because I love to sing doesn't mean I can sing well. I've toyed around for years with the idea of taking a singing class to see if I was a lost cause or not, but I've always put it off. While I can be silly and bust out some terrible, high-pitched rendition of 80s hairband songs in front of people without an issue, the thought of actually trying to sing well in front of someone makes me all sorts of terrified.

  It hit me the other day though that I don't really know if I can sing or not. I know I can't sing other people's songs that well because I'm trying to use their voice instead of my own. I really have no idea what I actually sound like when it comes to singing. I only know I'm not a very good impersonator. I'm not really sure how you shift into your own voice without writing your own song.
  This realization made me again start toying around with the idea of taking a class. Who knows, maybe I have an amazing voice and just don't know how to harness it. Wishful thinking perhaps, but anything is possible. If I can ever get the courage to make the jump, I'll let you know the results.

Piano Class 2: The Alphabet is Hard

  (Class Date: 6/12/13)

  I was anticipating having to learn some sort of mnemonic device for the piano tuning, such as my favorite one (despite the cringe-worthy grammar) for standard guitar tuning, Elephants And Dogs Got Big Ears. Somehow I've made it all these years without realizing that the keys just went in order from A to G. It seems obvious now that I know, but I suppose I never gave it any thought until recently. It makes all those keyboards I've seen with stickers with the notes all along the keys seem slightly silly, though it's still probably a quicker way to learn than my current method, which I'll cover shortly.

  Sadly the most notable thing I learned this class was how hard it was for my brain to instantly recognize what letters are adjacent to one another without running through the song we all learn as children. I don't know if that speaks to the Alphabet Song not being the best method to learn in the long run, or just a failure with my mind, but I can tell you my brain has a miniature meltdown anytime I need to instantly remember "what comes before G?" without singing to myself.

  The book that I am studying from groups keys in two sections. The C-D-E group and the F-G-A-B group. It didn't really come up in class if that was a common method to think of them to help with memorization, but it's probably a lot more efficient than my ridiculous method where I ended up using mnemonic devices after all.
  C is my go-to key which I use to find all other keys. This has made me start thinking of it as the 'first' key.  Going up the piano, D is next which I think of as "D for 'divide'" as it divides the two black keys from each other. And then E for 'ends' because it ends the group of three keys. That's semi-logical, but then next group, all I have is F for 'first' because it is the first key before the group of three black keys. After that, I'm just "uh...and then comes... *sings Alphabet Song*.. G! And H...wait no, it starts over so A...B..."
  This can't be efficient. You'd think I would simply think, "D is after C, E is after D" and so on since I've been doing that my whole life, but no.

  An interesting thing I noticed during this week of practice is that, as I was working on learning a song that was not yet skilled enough to play, I had a moment of clarity where I could just 'see' all the keys without issue. I knew where all the keys were without thinking about it. I felt like a genius...and then just as quickly, that was gone and I almost couldn't make sense of any of the keys even when finding them from C. And I suddenly became completely unable to play even the smallest part of the song I'd been trying to learn all night which I'd been doing decently well on prior to my brain shutting down. I think I was at the point where I'd been messing around so much I sort of went cross-eyed. It felt like those time when you're looking at a word and it suddenly seems foreign to you.
  I decided to call it a night.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Canon in D

  When I signed up for my piano class, there was a single spot left which I tried to get various friends to sign up for with me but it turns out that evidently everyone I know is already piano masters because each person I asked said they'd been playing for years. I had no idea. You'd think that would have come up in conversation at some point. My suggestion of going anyway and then busting out a complex song in the second class like some sort of virtuoso wasn't an idea anyone was interested in entertaining.

  A friend at work was telling me about her history playing after I brought up the subject and she mentioned how the first song she ever learned was "Canon in D". Knowing what I know now, I find this claim unlikely. Chances are she learned "Ode to Joy" and such like the rest of us, but that perhaps this was the first song she sought out on her own to learn. Then again, maybe she's dynamite on the keys and I just don't know it. Regardless, at the time my brain took this as a challenge, and I resolved to learn it that night and rock her socks off the following day, and anyone else's socks who might be in the vicinity at the time. That was me flying a little too close to the sun.

  Keep in mind that at this point I had yet to even use two hands at once on the piano.  So when I tried for the first time while learning this song, my brain almost exploded and I may have blacked out a few times.
My hands work pretty well in unison and I would have thought my years of guitar playing would have made transitioning to piano pretty easy. I mean, the keys are equidistant apart, how hard could it be? Such was not the case.

  When I made it home, I found some sheet music and then I sank my teeth into it. The intro to the song seemed simple enough. It's not until around 0:33 seconds in that all hell breaks loose which is why, after 2 hours of intense effort, I learned to play exactly 0:32 seconds of the song. I use "learned to play" in the most loose of ways. I know what keys to hit in what order, let's say it that way.

  I mentioned my woes with the song on Facebook and my amazing musician friend and piano extraordinaire Kate Klim told me I should have learned it in C first "with the simple arpeggios" and called me a crazy person. With her comments in mind, I didn't feel too bad about floundering at the task.

  Next time, I'll bite off a little less and chew a little more thoroughly. It's not that I don't think I can consume anything I sink my teeth into, I just want to take more manageable bites.  "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is probably enough to fill my plate for now.