Thursday, October 31, 2013

Queen of Hearts

The other day, there was some discussion on the different songs we all keep in our heads, and they come out from time to time. Here is me mumbling through one of my regulars--there were a couple of cats banging around, knocking into things and rattling plastic bags. If you listen carefully, you can hear them.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Calm Down A Minute

I was driving Eustacia back to college yesterday after a brief Easter break, and I listed for her all the things that will take place between now and June—three orchestra concerts with related rehearsals, two band concerts with related rehearsals, Eustacia's band concert at college, a dinner I'll be catering (more on that later), planning a trip to Romania (more on that later, too), packing up of the lake house, writing eight weekly columns, visiting No. 1 in Berkeley, covering a few random stories for Small Town Newspaper as needed, moving Eustacia out of her dorm for the summer; not to mention the usual cooking, cleaning, laundry. Of course, none of this has to be done all at once, and plenty of people are far busier than I and under a lot more pressure. But when I verbalized this list, my heart started to beat a little faster, and I had to take big breath for sufficient oxygen. Having a cold doesn't help with proper breathing as it is.

In the interest of putting our tasks into perspective, here is a short piano piece I find restful—Dvorak's Humoreske. I first learned it in high school and used to play it with a lot of punch like it was a party song you could tap your foot to; but then I heard it played as a violin solo, and the music was nearly sorrowful or at least thoughtful. The soloist took liberties with tempos and poured a lot of heart into it.

So, I went back to the music and slowed it down, thought more about the notes and the notations and gave myself permission to take it off the page and let it breath a little. I've always found that steady tempos just get in the way anyway (ha). Odd about this one—most of it is written with six flats with only a few lines adjusted to three sharps. I am much more accurate with all the flats than in the mid-section—you'll see what I mean here because I'm presenting it as is, flaws and all. I hope it helps you calm down a little:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Good Night Ladies

This is my flutish collection. I don't have an actual flute, but I have several things somewhat like a flute. The biggest thing is the tenor recorder I have played for you before. The smaller thing just like it is a soprano recorder. Then there is the Navajo tourist flute I bought at a shop in Colorado, and there is a tin whistle, and there is a fife from a gift shop in Williamsburg, Virginia. I have misplaced my antique tin whistle and the little horn pipe made from the ash shot out of Mount St. Helens.

The black thing is a tonette, a little doodad Daughter No. 2 picked up from Restoration Hardware. It's a replica of the preband instruments we all learned to play in elementary school. Elver Joseph Fitchhorn, a band director in a small town in Ohio, developed the song flute in the 1930s as a way to teach young kids the basics of playing music. The patent on his invention read "Design for a Musical Instrument of a Flute-Like Nature." Fitchhorn played the French horn in the John Phillips Sousa Band, which makes him notable even if he hadn't come up with the song flute. Our little tonette here is a slight variation made by another company.

I vaguely remember having to play the song flute in elementary school. My school was in a very old building, and the music and art rooms were in the basement (symbolic, I would say). The walls were dark brown, the windows were small and above our heads, and the lighting was yellowish. I don't specifically remember the teacher—just a patient, adult presence in the room. After listening to my song played on the tonette, you may wonder why, when having to lead an entire room of fourth-graders on these things, music teachers of the mid-20th century weren't all alcoholics. Come to think of it, maybe my early music teacher wasn't patient. She was just drunk.

Claire de Lune

Not unlike playing Debussey's "Reverie," playing "Claire de Lune" puts me in a trance. The steady motion and the nature of the chords and arpeggios are a recipe for dreamland, as far as I'm concerned.

I learned to play this piece when I was 16 or 17, and I suspect I was fairly good at the thing then. I used it to audition for a new teacher once, and she was very impressed. I was young then, and my brain could absorb new things without spitting them out like unexpected sour candy. Ever suck on a piece of candy you thought was solid sweetness only to discover the outer coating was a deceitful trick, and the inside was the worst of a lemon you had to spit out as fast as possible? I think the older brain spits out new tricks that way. So, at the tail end of my 40s, I can take in something I thought was solid sweetness—Claire de Lune—and then spit it out when I realize that I have misremembered a passage or tone so long that I don't even know the song anymore. It's a lemon.

Anyway, this is what Claire de Lune sounds like now, in my sour candy stage of life. It still inspires dreams, but don't expect me to learn it properly because I'll just spit it out.


I haven't played the piano for you in quite a while—I haven't played the piano for myself very often either, but sometimes I walk past the thing and remember that I like to play. I don't play in public because I'm mediocre at best, and what I really like is getting lost in old music I learned in high school. Make me learn something new or be concerned with accuracy, and I just get frustrated.

Mr. Stevesand, my piano teacher in high school, was an old bachelor math teacher who lived out in the country with two mangy Himalayan cats and a grand piano. He was a slob and left filthy pans on the stove, and the cats would eat what looked like old beans and tomato sauce out of them. His hair stood up on end, and his fingers were chubby enough that he had trouble playing as cleanly as he would have liked, but he was a great teacher.

As a teenager, I was drawn to melancholy pieces (which means I like to play them now), and Debussey's RĂªverie was one of my favorites. The notation in the first bar says "dreamily," and that's sort of what happens when I play the piece now over 30 years after I learned it–I drift off. Appropriate to the title, I get lost in the playing of it, and when I look up from the keys, I am sometimes two pages beyond when I last looked up. I don't count, so the notes aren't of equal value, and the tempo is anything but steady. Still, it puts me in a dream state.

I doubt my recording will do the same for you, though, so keep your expectations low. About one minute in, you'll hear No. 1 and Eustacia walking in from running an errand. They didn't know I was recording and were talking in full voice and rattling plastic bags in the next room. When No. 1 realized what was going on, she said, "You can't post that," but I feel like I have to. This is what you'd hear if you were visiting me on a playing day. A cat might try to jump up in your lap, the phone might ring or a daughter might giggle.

Mozart's Fantasia

The two things converged yesterday—a quiet day and a piano. So, I played through some music on the stand, and when I got to Mozart's Fantasia, I thought this is something I have to record.

What was I thinking? I suppose I was thinking that this music is fun to play even if you play it poorly. It varies from loud to soft and loud, and it slips into slow passages after some punky fast phrases. There are chords and runs and the satisfaction that comes from pounding on the keyboard now and then. It's got it all. Some of it is like stirring cream with a wooden spoon; some of it is like smashing something with a hammer; and some of it is like tucking in your arms and rolling down a grassy hill, screaming until you reach the bottom.

When I first learned this thing in high school, my poor old teacher had a sort of rickety grand piano, and when I used the sustaining pedal too ferociously, the thing fell off. I sat there on the bench apologizing with my teacher stretched out on the floor trying to put his piano back together, grumbling at my ineptitude and winded from the physical exertion. It's an image I'll never forget, it was so scarring.

If that teacher were still alive, this rendition of Mozart's Fantasia would kill him. It kills ME. Let's see what it does to you—and I'm sorry: NOTE: an error has occurred, and this recording is temporarily missing.

Sally Garden

A sorrowful tune I liked to hum to myself when I was a melancholy teenager, moping around my meager album collection that I stacked up on the hi-fi, was Sally Garden. I haven't thought of this Irish tune in years, but when I was looking for the lyrics of The Ash Grove for last week's sound track, I stumbled on this treasure. I remember feeling a bit cloddish because little feet seemed to be something a lovely woman should have, and my gun boats were contradictory. I wouldn't cross the Sally Garden—I would plod across it, and I would leave tracks in my muddy wake.

And just in case you'd like to be sorrowful for a few minutes, here are the lyrics:

It was down by the Sally Gardens, my love and I did meet.
She crossed the Sally Gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree,
But I was young and foolish, and with her did not agree.

In a field down by the river, my love and I did stand
And on my leaning shoulder, she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy , as the grass grows on the weirs
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

Down by the Sally Gardens, my love and I did meet.
She crossed the Sally Gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree,
But I was young and foolish, and with her did not agree.