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.

The Ash Grove

The Ash Grove is a traditional Welsh tune written in the 1800s, although I didn't learn it until I was in high school. I bought an album of traditional tunes sung by a duet team known for singing sacred songs, and it was full of such wonders that I would sit in front of the hi-fi for hours at a time until the lyrics seeped into my head. The Ash Grove was one of those haunting songs. I play it here on a tenor recorder: (if the media player isn't displaying, you can hear it here.)

Here are the lyrics, in case you'd like to let them sink into your head, too.

Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading, I pensively rove,
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely Ash grove.

'Twas there while the blackbird was joyfully singing,
I first met my dear one, the joy of my heart;
Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing,
Ah! then little thought I how soon we should part.

Still grows the bright sunshine o'er valley and mountain,
Still warbles the blackbird his note from the tree;
Still trembles the moonbeam on streamlet and fountain,
But what are the beauties of nature to me.

With sorrow, deep sorrow, my bosom is laden,
All day I go mourning in search of my love.
Ye echoes, O tell me, where is the sweet maiden?
She sleeps 'neath the green turf down by the Ash grove.

Stephen Foster

You know how I listen to Sirius radio's classical pops station? Well, from time to time the station airs a piano arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Annie." This arrangement floats and sticks to the simple style of American songs from the mid-1800s. It brings to mind the lush green of an Appalachian valley, the romantic innocence of country lovers, and the grief the lonely boy feels when his lover dies and is buried in the cold ground. Inevitably, someone must die in order to have a song as sentimental and sorrowful as "Gentle Annie."

I set out to find the sheet music for this piano arrangement, and I searched everywhere. I bought one book I thought was what I had been looking for, but it turned out to be schmaltzy 1970s arrangements of music from 150 years ago. A bad style combination. Then I found a song book with original editions of thirty Foster songs, "song book" meaning the melody is in the voice line. I was disappointed, but I have given up on finding the instrumental piece I have heard on the radio. I have now settled for humming through these old classic songs, and I have been shocked. My 21st-century sensitivities have been bruised and shaken after reading through these lyrics. I had no idea what Stephen Foster was all about and thought I was just buying some sentimental music–you know, like "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer," "My Old Kentucky Home."

In the 1800s, there were popular minstrel songs called Ethiopian songs, so called because white performers sang them in black face while shuffling their feet and pretending to be dim witted. It was their way of laughing at a festering sore that plagued the country—slavery and the impending divisions the practice caused. It turns out Foster was a premier writer of Ethiopian songs complete with degrading dialect and doltish emotions. Here are some lines from "Massa's In De Cold Ground":

Massa made de darkeys love him
cayse he was so kind
Now dey sadly weep above him,
mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow
cayse de teardrops flow.
I try to drive away my sorrow
pickin' on de old banjo.

I can't bring myself to sing that song, and now that I know more about the songwriter, I have trouble singing anything he has written. I read online that Foster tried to add dignity to this genre of music by eventually leaving out the artificial dialect and calling the music Plantation Songs, as if that helps. Some people might argue the need to put someone like Foster in the context of his era. He was a man of his times. But I have never understood that way of justifying bad behavior and wrong thinking. At some point, someone has to speak out and push the crowd beyond their times.

To Foster's credit not all of his songs were written to mock the slaves and free blacks in America. "If You've Only Got A Moustache" seems to be written for just about any race.

Oh! All of you poor single men
don't ever give up in despair,
for there's always a chance while there's life
to capture the hearts of the fair.
No matter what may be your age,
You always may cut a fine dash,
You will suit all the girls to a hair
if you've only got a moustache, a moustache, a moustache.

Well, I am no longer set on finding instrumental music of Stephen Foster, but while I've got the book open, you might as well hear a bit of "Gentle Annie." This stuff is way above my range, so I have had to take it down an octave. Linda Ronstadt has done a much better job, but she's not here.

No Tears In Heaven

I was sitting quietly in church on Sunday, minding my own business and picking fuzz from my sweater, when the choir stood up to sing their song for the day. Lately, the director who is a brass pal of mine has been choosing old gospel tunes from the early 1900s and having his choir sing them a capella. I like that he keeps the old traditions alive when they otherwise might be discarded. Their song this week was No Tears in Heaven, and when they started singing, I couldn't help but mouth the words. I grew up singing that song and remembered almost all of the lyrics.

My grandparents in Alabama in the 1970s

When my mother was a girl in the 1930s, her father was asked to lead the singing one Sunday afternoon for one of those all-day occasions with dinner on the ground and lots and lots of music. He agreed and decided to bring his family along as the special music for the day. They had formed a quartet with my mother and her siblings, and my grandfather on bass. The man had a booming voice that would scare the hound dogs out back if he wanted it to. They stood up front and belted out their first performance number—No Tears In Heaven. From then on, the family was a feature at tent meetings and church gatherings for miles around.

My grandparents kept a mismatched collection of old yellowed and mildewed song books, the kind with the shaped notes and four-part harmony. When we would visit them in the summers, I liked to plunk out some of those songs on their piano. It had a twangy sound to it, partly from age and neglect and dust and cigarette smoke and partly from humidity—those Alabama summers can be real soakers. I have a distinct memory of playing No Tears In Heaven one afternoon, and that song brought my grandfather in from the kitchen to join me. He stood behind me and sang with his aging but still strong bass voice, and I nearly cried, ironically. This was after my grandmother had died. Granddaddy never stopped missing her, often sitting in his chair with his head in his hands, and I thought he took the lyrics to heart.

So, when my yankee church that likes to sing contemporary songs and hardly uses the hymn book anymore listened to this traditional gospel tune, I felt a connection to the past, an important connection that needs to be kept alive for future generations. And I have been singing the sentimental old thing to myself every day since. I have sung it here for you—never mind my congested voice and lack of twangy piano and fiddle.

Moonlight Sonata

When I was fifteen or so, I was taking piano lessons from Mr. Stevesand, and he sold me a book of piano solos published by Carl Fischer, Inc. It was chock full of pieces at varying levels of difficulty, and we spent three years working through it. I loved that book.

I still love it. I love it so much I have kept it with me all these years, dragging it around in moving boxes and letting it sit in storage all those years when we didn't have a piano. The cover is gone, the glue in the binding has disintegrated, and the pages are crinkling like it's old or something. The other day Daughter No. 2 said, "Well, it is at least thirty years old, you know." "Shut up!" I said back. "It is not." She's right, though. My old Carl Fischer, Inc. solo book, what's left of it, is more than thirty years old, and it's time to replace it, although I will never dispose of it. I can't find the same edition, but I can find the individual sheet music, so I have been ordering them here and there. First, here is the old book:

Now, here are some of the newer individual pieces I have been collecting.

In honor of my growing collection of playable piano solos, the ones that aren't beyond my ability, here is the adagio from Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. This thing puts me in a trance.

More Minuets

A few of you—OK, maybe only one or two—asked for more harpsichord, so here is a J. S. Bach prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier book, well tempered as in well tuned. There are just a few things worse than a piano or harpsichord out of tune. A French horn out of tune, perhaps, or a saxophone.

What's the difference between a lawn mower and a saxophone? You can tune a lawn mower.
How do you get two piccolos to play in perfect unison? Shoot one.
How can you tell if a violin is out of tune? The bow is moving.
How do you get a trombone to sound like a French horn? Stick your hand in the bell and miss every other note.
What's the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play an accordion but doesn't.
What is the range of a tuba? Twenty yards, if you've got a good arm.
Why can't a gorilla play the trumpet? He's too sensitive.

Yes, I know these aren't funny. Nobody ever laughs at them except out of pity, but people keep writing them anyway. Let's put an end to these miserable excuses for jokes and promise never to tell them again.

Why did Mozart kill all of his chicken? Because they kept saying, "Bach! Bach! Bach!"

All right, that's the last one, I swear.

Bach Minuets

In the process of redecorating and remodeling our bedroom and bathroom, a piece of furniture was moved into a spare bedroom where it still sits. It's an antique music cabinet, and I had forgotten about it until I was in this spare room the other day trying to find a remote place to play my horn. I took a break from practicing to rummage through the old cabinet and found some delightful things. There were no fur coats in there or a portal to Narnia, but there was a book of piano music—Selections from Anna Magdalena's Notebook.

Anna Magdalena, a court singer, married Johann Sebastian Bach in 1721. Bach presented an elaborate notebook to Anna on her 24th birthday, and over the years she filled it and a second notebook with music composed by her husband, a few family friends, and some of her fifty gazillion children. They are delightful little pieces, and although they look very simple on the page, they can be difficult if one is meant to actually count the music and do as it says.

I played a few of these on a harpsichord at my sister's wedding years ago. Since I don't have an actual harpsichord, I have set my piano on the artificial harpsichord setting and have played two minuets for you—two because they were often played in pairs. So, sit back and enjoy your tea, and when I fumble over various notes and rhythms, especially during the second piece, applaud anyway as a gracious guest would be expected to do. Brava.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

It's time for another sit-down at the piano. On cruise ships, there is always some crew musician playing schmaltz on a baby grand somewhere on board, especially during rough seas. Last week on the roughest day at sea, I was in a gift shop buying a jacket (the Caribbean was not warm that day), and in the atrium just beyond the balcony rail was a guy playing Claire de Lune in the most peaceful manner. We hit a big wave that felt as if we hit something large and solid, and some ladies screamed, but the guy kept playing. It was so effective—calming schmaltz.

My Claire de Lune is in sad repair, so I have opted for a dreamy arrangement of Over the Rainbow instead. I have held onto this ragged piece of sheet music since high school because it was left to me by a friend who died when we were seventeen.

May your troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. How's that for schmaltz?

What Child Is This

This is the last of the few Vince Guaraldi arrangements I can play from A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you are new to my recordings, let me lower expectations for you—I don't record my music because I think I'm good. I record it because I like to play things like the piano and the recorder. I haven't figured out how to record the French horn yet, but when I do, look out.

I think more people should make music of some kind or another. Just because we all can't have degrees in music or we don't make a living from it doesn't mean we should shy away from enjoying all that it brings.

So, in the spirit of Charlie Brown, always searching for happiness and purpose, here is me being happy and purposeful while sloppily playing What Child Is This:

The Christmas Song

Last year around this time, after mailing out my Christmas cards, I sang The Christmas Song for you as a kind of blogpal holiday greeting. This year, I have played it on the piano in Charlie Brown fashion. It might be best if you don't listen to the Vince Guaraldi recording first as I have made a few mistakes...not to mention that I tend to make up my own rhythms and follow my own tempo. When my daughters and I sit down to play our horns together, they can never watch the "beat" I tap with my foot because it often has nothing to do with the actual music we are trying to make.

Merry Christmas anyway.

Christmas Time Is Here

A Charlie Brown Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday treat, and the music has a lot to do with that. In honor of today being December 1, and since I have already been listening to Christmas music for over a week, here is one of the easier tunes to play from the Vince Guaraldi sound track. I left in the sound of the page turn so you could feel like you're sitting in my music room while I play--I left in the odd notes for the same effect.

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year...

Wildwood Flower

I learned to play this old Carter family song years ago when I found it in a book in my mother's piano bench. The lyrics are mournful, as you might expect from folk songs of that day, the predecessors to the more current you-shot-my-dog country lyrics. The original lyrics were more refined, but the Carters customized and made it work for them.

Listen here.

And sing along here:

As recorded by The Carter Family
Written by Maud Irving, 1860

CAPO: 2nd Fret/KEY: E/PLAY: D
[D] Oh, I'll twine with my mingles and [A7] waving black [D] hair
With the roses so red and the [A7] lilies so [D] fair
And the myrtle so [D7] bright with the [G] emerald [D] hue
The pale and the leader and [A7] eyes look like [D] blue.

Oh I'll dance, I will sing and my laugh shall be gay
I will charm every heart, in his crown I will sway
When I woke from my dreaming, my idol was clay
All portion of love had all flown away.

Oh he taught me to love him and promised to love
And to cherish me over all others above
How my heart is now wond'ring no mis'ry can tell
He's left me no warning, no words of farewell.

Oh, he taught me to love him and called me his flow'r
That was blooming to cheer him through life's dreary hour
Oh, I long to see him and regret the dark hour
He's gone and neglected this pale wildwood flow'r.

Maple Leaf Rag

I was sitting at my piano, happily plunking away at Maple Leaf Rag, trying to find the notes and doing my best to keep a steady tempo, when I selfish of me to rob the blogworld of the joy I experience while playing this thing.

So, I have recorded my to-date feeble attempts to learn this piece--the first two of three pages with no repeats, because honestly, it's just too painful to have to listen to twice. Not only do I get to share the wonder of Joplin, but this very unpleasant recording will serve as incentive to continue working and improving--not just playing.

I warn you--this is not pretty. My left arm got tired soon after the page turn, and I found myself playing faster near the end just to get it over with. I promise to record this again if I get any better at it.

Listen Here

Maiden with the Flaxen Hair

The other day when I was tipping my hat to Chopin and griping about my faded piano skills, Lynn suggested I let you all have a listen, and then you can be the judge.

Well, I tried playing a Chopin piece, but they're all too darn difficult and sounded like my cat when he walks across the keyboard. But here is a simple Debussy piece, La Fille aux cheveux de lin. Since I don't speak French, I'll translate--Maiden with the Flaxen Hair. It's a short piece, so it should only take a minute or two.

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