Friday, December 31, 2010

For Now

"For Now" from the musical Avenue Q contains not one, not two, but three key changes up a half-step - the obligatory musical theater modulation taken to extremes.  It's the finale of the show, though, so they deserve to milk it for all it's worth. 

So here we are at the finale of my own little project.  My sister and brother-in-law took the boys to an indoor play area so I could have some much-appreciated quality time with the keyboard.  I almost succeeded in holding in a meltdown last night after my sister suggested, in a subtle way that belies her non-Japaneseness, that the rhythmic thumping of the keys when I practice with headphones might potentially be loud enough to elicit a complaint from the neighbors downstairs.  I was ok until she came to apologize because she felt bad we hadn't made enough time during Normal Waking Hours for me to practice.  I wasn't upset with her, I was just frustrated, and I hadn't had my US RDA of alone time for a while, and -

Well, frankly, it has nothing to do with her or Japan or anything like that - I'm just a little frightened for next year.  I thrive on simplicity, like 12-bar blues, or learn-a-song-a-day - but now it's time to rebalance life, priorities, how I budget my time.  Which is a complicated, ever-changing equation.  I need to subtract song-a-day in order to add important things like write-a-book and find-better-paying-work, but I don't want to lose the traction I've gained this year.  I have a project planned for next year that's more abstract than the simple but time-consuming directive to memorize a song every day, and I'm worried that my little monkey mind won't be able to stick with it. 

Sigh.  Speaking of monkey mind, it's customary to do a sort of year-in-review at this time, is it not?  Let's swing over to that branch now. 

In honor of High Fidelity, I'll start with some Top 5 lists:
5. The Best is Yet to Come - great, interesting form.
4. Friends in Low Places - Vocal. Range. Well done, Garth.
3. Theme from Rocky - nice development of musical ideas.  Dig the combo of fanfare and electric guitar solo in the same song.
2. All I Want for Christmas is You - Discovered to my surprise that I like Mariah.  Won't spoil it by trying to explain.  I just do.
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit - awesome melody.  No wonder this is so coverable.

5. The Story - Brandi Carlile - would like to hear it sung by a man, suspect the melodic range would sit better than in a female voice.  And Brandi Carlile has no business singing about lines on her face, even if she sounds like she's giving herself nodes on her vocal cords by doing so.
4. If It's Magic - Stevie Wonder - don't know.  Maybe I'm jealous of the harp for taking over any of Stevie's repertoire.
3. Foolish - Ashanti - that piano riff really gets on my nerves after a while.
2. What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life - Bergman/LeGrand, various recordings - I prefer my schmaltzy lyrics and slow tempi not to occur in the same song.
1. Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman: - Bryan Adams - Worst. Lyrics. Ever.

5. Summer, Highland Falls (and a lot of other Billy Joel stuff)
4. Honky Cat (and a lot of other Elton John stuff)
3. Lullabye (Ben Folds - for the piano solo in particular)
2. Great Balls of Fire
1. Ribbon in the Sky (and other Stevie Wonder stuff)
0. honorable mentions... too many to mention! Ray Charles, Alicia Keys, Paul Smith (Ella's accompanist)...

As you may have inferred from that last list, doing a song a day had its pros and cons.  One pro - I am familiar with a lot of songs.  One obvious con: I didn't have time to absorb much more than the form and chord progression, and maybe a riff here and there. 

So did I succeed or fail?

Well ok, if you asked me to sit down and play (and sing! that was part of the objective! ack!) from memory down the list of 365 songs, we'd come up with a colossal fail. 

But I would remember some of them.  Maybe even a lot of them.  And I suck less than I did, which, you may recall, was the other objective.

I still wish I could beam myself to where I want to be, literally and musically.  But a journey doesn't just begin with a single step, it continues with further steps, little by little, sometimes assisted by wheeled or jet-fueled vehicles.  Songs: 365 sticks of dynamite (well, maybe a few M60s snuck in there) to blast Perfectionazis out of the way, bridges to connect people who may have nothing else in common, gemstones to decorate my life, companions when my kitten doesn't suffice and real humans are frustrating or unavailable. Three hundred sixty-five stepping stones to help me go, little by little, toward the seemingly-inaccessible town of Less Suckness.  Musical Omniscience is a mirage, like water ahead on the freeway, always out of reach, but Less Suckness is actually as accessible and common as Springfields -it's everywhere along the way! 

Process vs. Product.  We live in a product-oriented culture.  Humbug.  In the end, aren't our lives made up of a consecutive series of Nows, not products-that-we're-buried-with?  I still haven't found what I'm looking for, no.  I'd like to learn actual notes, not just form and harmony that I fake my way through with varying degrees of competence.  I'd like to review what I've learned, so I can retain it.  I'd like to suck less than I do today.  If everything in life is only for now, I'd like to spend most of my Nows playing with words and music (with breaks for family and friends, travel, and shoe-shopping).  Which is what I did this year.  So I'm calling it a success. 

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year's in Japan!

My sister has lived a total of about fifteen years in Japan, between study abroad, work and marriage.  The work program she took part in after college determines where they send people based partially on language ability - people with less Japanese skill will be better off in cities where there is a relative abundance of English.  My sister, being the badass that she is, got sent to the booniest of boonies: a small farming village in Kyushu where she was the first foreign resident, like... ever. I should mention, my sister is 5'10", blond and blue-eyed, about as non-Japanese as a humanoid can get. 

My sister's best Japanese friend, Chieko, is the only child of the sake brewers of that village.  My favorite New Year's ever - and it will be hard to top - was spent at her family's house in Kyushu nine years ago.  New Year's is the big holiday in Japan. Sort of the reverse of the U.S. - Christmas is the date holiday, and New Year's is the go-home-and-get-fat-with-your-family holiday.  Stores close, business associates exchange gifts.  My sister's friend's family had mountains of mikan, and platters and platters of traditional New Year's food from their business associates.  We basically sat around the kotatsu and ate for a couple days.  Everything was closed. Granted, it was a small town, but you could've heard a pin drop anywhere in the village.

On New Year's Eve, my sister and I went to the local Zen temple.  They have a giant bell there that is rung with what is much like a suspended railroad tie with a cord to move it.  The bell is rung 108 times on New Year's (see here for the significance of 108).  Since it's such a small town, I got to smash the railroad tie into the bell a couple times.  Some little kids were keeping count of the rings.  Then my sister and I hung out, drinking green tea and eating cakes with the priest and his wife, who remembered her from her time working in the town.  At midnight, the priest went to the altar (?) and chanted.  We returned to her friend's house, where it was a few degrees warmer inside (no joke, we could see our breath when we were brushing our teeth - I'll have to talk about Japanese houses another time).  We slept on futons under super-warm futon comforters, then got up and had sake for breakfast.  Er, with breakfast.  I'm pretty sure there were few cessations of eating that week. 

Japanese kids usually receive gifts of money at New Year's. I was very surprised to receive such a gift from Mr. Yano, one of the townspeople who had come to New Mexico in a tour group organized by my sister.  My sister's local government job was basically cultural exchange, so why not get to take a trip home by bringing her Japanese country mice to check out Southwest America and its country mice?  Fun was had by all, even Mr. Yano, who put up with an abcess tooth with typical Japanese don't-want-to-trouble-anybody stoicism until it became unbearable and had to be removed in my hometown - imagine having emergency dental work done in a language you don't understand!  Anyway, Mr. Yano gave me a generous New Year's give of 10,000 yen (almost $100) instructed me to get something for myself and for my parents, whom he'd met on the New Mexico trip.

A note on Mr. Yano: had WWII lasted any longer, had we not dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would never have gotten to meet this kind, humble man.  He was training as a kamikaze pilot when the war ended.  He got to see the yards of the Pima Air Museum near Tucson, AZ, and he said something to the effect of, "What were we thinking?  These were your leftovers," about the giant machines.  The Japanese were prepared to fight until every last one of their young men had gone down in a paper airplane.  So, while I think that the museum in Hiroshima should be required viewing for every single 8-year-old child on the planet, so that we impress upon them before puberty how very stupid and fucked-up war is, I also think that there are at least two sides to every story.  Before Mr. Yano said it, I never thought there could have been any upside, at all, ever, for any individual anywhere, to dropping an atomic bomb.  And even with that slightly conflicted view of that particular sad event in history, I couldn't smile for several hours after leaving the museum in Hiroshima when I visited with my then-boyfriend last time I was in Japan.  Ugh.  Imagine all the people, people, please.

Meanwhile, back in the Kansai area where my sister now lives, my sister and nephews and I went to visit Chieko.  Chieko married a sake brewer from this area, so my sister very conveniently has a friend nearby.  We had okonomiyaki lunch with Chieko and her kids, sent her son to cram school with a packed dinner (6+ hours of cram school on vacation, ugh!), and went to her house via the sake brewery.  I got to have a quick little tour of the brewery, proof that even when I am almost-studiously avoiding tourism, I still get to do cool stuff.  Tamara and Chieko and I drank tea and ate little yummy things like good grown-ups while the kids ran around and played their noisy rambunctious bilingual play.  Chieko's daughter can definitely keep up with my two nephews.  I'm pretty sure she's a superhero. 

I wasn't sure where I was going with this when I started writing.  I probably wanted to talk about food.  That's usually where I'm going when I start - food or music theory.  But my natural gravitas strikes again, and I can't help but notice something non-food-related:

My grandpa, who earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe in WWII, often referred to "Japs", at least until my sister moved to their country and seemed to be happy.  Mr. Yano got his tooth extracted while visiting America, a tooth he wouldn't have had in a lifespan he wouldn't have had if WWII had lasted only a few more days.   My sister was doing a summer internship in Florida between years of grad school when one of her assignments was to interpret for a Universal Studios Japan team that had come to study the park in Orlando prior to building the park in Osaka.  One of the few young, single Japanese men who is taller than my sister happened to be on that team, and he is now my brother-in-law.  They have two little halflings, who live in Japan but speak English much of the time, and who live in appropriately-neutral Switzerland for several weeks every summer while my sister works in-house for her main client in Geneva.  Chieko's daughter picked up more English yesterday while playing with my nephews - (kids learn so fast - I heard her correct her pronunciation of "sneck king" to "snake king" after hearing it a couple times from my nephews... goodness knows what a perennially-useful phrase "snake king" is, but it had something to do with whatever game they were making up). 

When the bomb fell on Hiroshima in August 1945, it killed everything for miles around - tens of thousands of people, and all the vegetation.  No one knew when spring might come again, or if it would come, in a stark wasteland peopled with grievously-injured survivors.  In the museum, there's a photograph of one brave little flower coming up out of the barren ground the following spring.

Every culture seems to have a winter solstice observation of hope and light before the darkest and coldest time of year sets in.  This has been my Blog Post of Hope and Light.  Thank you. 

Anyway, Centerfold

Today's songs:
"Centerfold" by the J. Geils Band, and "Anyway" by Martina McBride.

"Centerfold" now belongs in an ever-growing medley I call "Songs in the Key of G".  The medley includes but is not limited to "Blackbird", "Wake me Up When September Ends", and "Chasing Cars" (which is in A, but playing "Wake Me..." makes me want to play it).  I managed to peel myself away from ebay long enough to listen to a few of the surprisingly numerous covers of this song.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised, because that opening riff is really catchy. 

"Anyway" - to be learned after dinner (do-it-yourself sushi here at my sister's place).  This song belongs to a small set of seasonal Songs that Pertain to Important and Meaningful (if Often Tedious and Annoying) Life Lessons Learned This Year, or SPIM(OTA)LLLTY for... short?  Hm.  Well, anyway - unintentional pun - I'll list those songs with short explanations:

1. "Crystal Ball" -
a. Pink's songs are formulaic (my exploration of Funhouse album in early spring was how verse-chorus-bridge form really sunk in - went from knowing-it-in-my-head to ah-ok-so-that's-what-that-is), but I like them anyway.
b. I-IVsus2 = instant pop song
c. There are a lot of lyrics in this song that resonate with me after this year.  I don't think I can sum it up into one pithy sentence, so just go listen to the song.  That's why they exist, after all.

I'm sure I will have geeky musical thoughts about these songs too, but I haven't worked on them yet, so no conscious observations...

2. "Anyway"
I don't know if my career is ever going to take off to the point where I'm being paid to be creative, or if I will remain a respected-in-my-circle but unknown accompanist/music director.  I intend to cobble these posts together with other journaling and writing I've been doing this year into a book, and I intend to record an album that includes some of the songs I've worked on this year, but who knows if it will reach beyond those who already know about it.  I put so much time into things that may never pay off.  But what am I gonna do, not try?
Again, the song says it better.

3. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
There are so many more songs in the world!  I still need to suck less every day!  Ack ack ack ack ack!
I will study music my whole life.  Hopefully I will have the good fortune to make my living at it too, since that's just a more efficient use of my time - on-the-job training.

4. "Only For Now"
Avenue Q is one of my favorite musicals.  It is so expertly crafted, in addition to being funny and irreverent, which entertainment should be if it possibly can.
The bitch about live performance is that you have to get it right time after time, not just once so you can hand it over to the editing team (TV/film actors = sometimes a questionable casting choice for the Broadway stage, just sayin').  As my technique improves, I am beginning to sense that consistency in my playing might actually be in the realm of possibility.  That's exciting.  But I still have to pay attention to what I'm doing.  Because music is only for now.  Or something (go listen to the song).

And then I learn songs like "Centerfold" to crack myself up...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Playing Catch-Up

I seem to have two speed settings: GOGOGOGOGOGO!!! and crasssssshhhhhhh.  Clearly I'm in crash mode at the moment, because all I want to do is rot my brain with tv and internet, and I have no inclination whatsoever to practice.  Ah, vacation.  That time when your brain refuses to work, and it's kind of ok.  

Need to catch up on two things - song-learning and shoe-shopping.  One GO-related and one crash-related.  Song-learning: I discovered a grave Supergeeky Spreadsheet Error yesterday - I do, in fact, have five extra songs to learn before 2011 arrives, because try as I might, I couldn't squeeze in the rest of the make-up songs before I left New York, and I lost most of a day coming here that I won't get back until I return after New Year's.  So I need to double up these last few days.  Oh well.  At least I have plenty of time.  I'm beginning to suspect that Time and Motivation are the same person, since I never see them at the same time. 

The Song Plan:
Today (the 27th) - "Go Your Own Way" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" (as soon as Mary Poppins is over)

The Rest of the Year (I can't believe we're nearly at the end of it!!):
Crystal Ball (Pink)
Anyway (Martina McBride)
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (U2)
Only For now (from Avenue Q)
Centerfold (J. Geils Band)
Sleigh Ride
It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want To
Blue Suede Shoes

I had grand plans of planning a clever curriculum for myself at the end of the year, to highlight my growth over the course of the year blah blah blah, but 1) I'm allergic to waxing toooooo philosophical (sometimes, like when I'd rather be shoe-shopping) and 2) I just didn't have time (I had motivation, though - see what I mean?).

The past few weeks, I've had the same feeling I get whenever I reach the end of a trip - excitement/panic and a sense of "Oh no!  I haven't done this and this and that!  I have to come back!" - only I rarely do go back to these places unless I have family there.  I've decided to handle this existential panic by trying not to do too many things I don't want to do (hence the state of cleanliness or lack thereof of my apartment), trying to make sure the things I bother with are things I want (hence the prevalence of cookies in my diet), and not worrying too much about the rest.  So I try to avoid stupid songs that I hate, and pick songs I think I'll like, and not worry too much about the ones I haven't had time for.  And I keep reminding myself I can continue to learn songs after this year... though I seriously need time for, like, a boyfriend, and occasional shoe-shopping...

Speaking of which... auctions await (shoes, not boyfriends).

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Theme from Rocky

I have just learned my song of the day, and I will take one further brief moment away from gorging myself, looking at clearance shoes online, and watching my nephews play in order to post this brief log. 

Theme from Rocky (or, How to Impress Your Nephews)
So far, in Japan, I have played legos, watched Star Wars, and eaten the tamales and cookies that are a holiday tradition in my family (props to my sister for making the tamales - I picked up corn husks, the one ingredient that's impossible to find in Japan, and the proprietors of the Mexican grocery near my apartment asked if I was making tamales.  My response was along the lines of, "hell no, but my sister is!"). 

it's really loud in here right now - my nephews are playing with my brother-in-law and their new toys.  They are as brainy as they are loud...
I don't really feel like spending any more time writing this when I have family to hang out with and cookies to eat and shoes to find, so I'll just take notes:

WHY Rocky: it was playing in the car, and my nephews like this song, and I realized I'd never really learned a mostly-instrumental well-known song.  Also, it appeals to my oft-ascendant inner tomboy. 

HOW: ipod, keyboard, 2 sets of headphones (one to cancel out external sounds like excited nephews), one headphone/jack adapter we finally found yesterday at the third electronics store we tried.  Repetition.  Handwritten chart. 

THOUGHTS: would be fun to take more time to transcribe more specific horn/string lines and make a more detailed piano arrangement.  But my younger nephew looked suitably impressed when I took the headphones out of the keyboard and played it for general consumption. There are few parts that repeat exactly in this song - it's more through-composed than most pop songs with lyrics.  Usually it's only a small change - it sounds more repetitive than it is, because the fanfare thing keeps going and unifies it. 

Ok.  Back to family, food, and shoe-shopping, the Kat-on-Vacation Trifecta of Happiness.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Christmas Song

My computer has caught on that I'm in Japan, because all the links on the browser are in Japanese, which makes for interesting surfing.  I learned The Christmas Song (you know, the one about the chestnuts) this morning on the keyboard here at my sister's house in a suburb of Osaka.  I listened to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Diana Krall, and played the song in a few different keys.  Then we all went, my sister, brother-in-law, two nephews and me, and did some shopping and ate some amazing conveyor belt sushi for lunch.  A little more shopping, and now it's about 1 a.m. in New York, and siesta time here, so I'm about to crash for an hour or two.  My sister has been combing through her CDs of 80s music and making song suggestions for the last few days of the year, but has asked to receive neither blame nor credit for my choices.  Yay vacation and family time!

Recent songs: 

"Feel" (Robbie Williams)
"Ev'ry Time We Say Good-Bye"
"Tempted" (Squeeze)

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
"Oh Darling"
"A Child is Born"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm

I just want this effing gig that provides less than 5% of my income and has taken waaaaaaaay more than 5% of my practice time to be freaking over already.  Jeez.  (You know I'm cranky when I go full circle from fake swearing through real swearing to fake swearing again.)  One more day.  21 hours from now, I will be pouring red wine down my gullet to decompress a little, because all the gigs requiring major prep will be over. 

Anyway...New York English: "happy holidays" is what we say to wish someone a pleasant December/January celebration.  It's politically incorrect to wish someone a merry Christmas here, because, well, what if they're Jewish or something?  So cocktail and background gigs this time of year can be awkward, knowing some people want to hear holiday music, some people are offended that their minority religion is underrepresented by holiday music, and some people are sick to death of the same damn songs being forced up their eardrums by our capitalist pig consumer economy boombox since mid-October. 

And that's where songs about cold weather come in.  Today's song - written by a Jew, like many good cold weather songs and in fact many popular Christmas songs (money moeny money...side note: these songwriters are savvier than I - see 1st paragraph regarding 5%) - ahem, today's song is a lovely AABA tune... with a twist.  For all my worshipful praise of 32-bar AABA form, none of the standards I've picked recently have been that clear cut.  "Embraceable You", "A Foggy Day" and "Moon River" are all ABAC: question-answer, question-different answer.  "Moon River"'s C is fourteen bars long (the rest of the sections are a more normal eight).  "I've Got My Love..." definitely has a discernible bridge, new key and everything ("off with my overcoat) - but while the bridge is Ye Olde Normal Eight, all the A sections are sixteen bars long - two eight-bar phrases each, a question and an answer.  Best of both worlds.  So, if you were really, really nerdy like me, you could, if you had nothing better to do, analyze it as (AB)(AB)C(AB). 

Or you could just sit down and play it like a normal human.  I've played this one from the sheet music many times.  It's one of those handy holiday season songs where, if I'm doing a little improvising over the form to stretch it out and it's gone on rather long enough but then I see a couple guys in suits and yarmulkes walk by, I'll take another chorus.  And now I know that the long A sections have collectively given me an extra twenty-four bars to stall with. 

Fun with standards: tonight I listened to the Ella and Billie versions I already own, then looked on youtube and playlist to investigate other versions.  Listened to Dean Martin's, part of Frank Sinatra's (could only find a snippet), and a dance remix of Kay Starr singing it.  New discovery, Kay Starr.  That track, which I ended up downloading, will be handy for days when I decide to prance around my living room for my cat's entertainment because I can't get it together to go to the gym.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Embraceable You

It occurs to me as the year draws to a close that, in doing a song a day, I might have been better served by really sticking to the traditional definition of a standard song -  one that has become standard repertoire of many musicians and has been covered a zillion times. 

Standards are about structure - what does a given arranger or performer hang on that same structure?  Strings?  A clever intro or tag?  A face-melting guitar solo?  (Yes, please, if only because then I can say "face-melting guitar solo").  Structure is the first thing I take note of when I learn a song, at least if I'm trying to memorize it.  Specific notes of a piano part, not so much.  There are a few iconic piano riffs that stick - some of the Billy Joel and Elton John stuff, some 80s piano-based power ballad stuff - but the main thing that sticks is the harmony and the form.  Guess specifics will have to wait til another year (more on this anon).  All I can really hang onto, since I'm not just learning to play but also memorizing, is the form and chord progression of a given song - the bare minimum that I need as a pianist to fake along with a singer.  I guess it's good to learn how to do the bare minimum, since my natural instinct is to do everything the hardest, most complicated way possible! 

Tonight I'm doing a standard - finally getting around to "Embraceable You".  Can you imagine how much darker and drearier the world would be without the Gershwins?  I've listened to a few different versions: Art Tatum solo piano, Ella's Nelson Riddle arrangement, Judy Garland, Etta James, Rod Stewart.  My M.O. for learning songs for much of the year has been to put the most famous recording of said song on my ipod, but on my headphones, and learn it by ear.  I think maybe I'll experiment with twinkling along with a couple different recordings, and then figuring out my own little arrangement of this standard.  We'll see how it goes. 

Build Me Up Buttecup

VR: C'mon, Kat - all you have left to do tonight is learn your song.  Hop to it.

KG: What's that you say?  All I have to do tonight is get really, really hammered?

VR: No... even though that's what you want to do... just focus and work hard for five more days and it'll calm down a bit.

KG: Arrrghhhhhhhhhhh...

Ok, I'm glad that the voice of reason won out tonight, and I stopped at my customary two-beverage maximum while out with my old roommate who's in town - I have five more days of plowing through, and no time for a hangover.  More to the point, my song tonight was really fun.  I chose it because one of the contestants at my Stonewall gig sang it to a track a couple weeks ago, and I thought it'd be a good one to learn.  It has a I-III7 chord progression, one of my favorites.  It has other secondary dominants as well.  Secondary dominants... I have already paid my theory nerd dues today, teaching a pack of actors some klunky vocal arrangements (I got them to identify plagal cadences by ear, yay, can I get an amen?); suffice to say, secondary dominants are like briefly passing through another key on the way back to tonic. 

mmm... tonic...
I kinda miss having a social life, you know?  Stupid New York with its high cost of living and fierce professional competition and atmosphere of driven-ness.  I've been thinking a bit about what to do next year.  I want to keep growing as a musician, but I need to have a life.  And maybe a buttercup (not to be confused with a peanut butter cup). 

To be contemplated more later.  Now gonna catch some zzz's before I wake up and pull a beginning piano workshop out of thin air.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Recent songs:
River - Joni Mitchell
All I Want for Christmas is You - Mariah Carey
My Guy - Mary Wells
Baby, It's Cold Outside (used the Ella/Louis Jordan and the Rod Stewart/Dolly Parton versions)
Taking Chances - Celine Dion

I have had geeky thoughts about all of these songs, of course, but no time to record them in a way that is intelligible to other life forms, so you'll just have to wait until my book for recent geekery.  Been busy learning 35 mm by Ryan Scott Oliver for a pair of performances next Monday - love his work, love working on new shows, and it's great to play with a band.  Also hacking through as much of the Christmas section Handel's Messiah as I can before a singalong next Wednesday that will be, um, an adventure (in the sense that not getting to rehearse with conductor or soloists before the gig is an adventure).  'Tis the season.  Looking forward to a few hours to go Christmas shopping and maybe bake some Christmas cookies before I leave for Japan! 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Favorite Things

FAIL.  Every couple weeks I have a day where I am just too tired for ANYTHING.  In the morning, I taught three new classes at Circle in the Square - well, old classes, but new to me as I was subbing for my friend-the-usual-music-theory-teacher.  Then in the afternoon, in increments of an hour each: travel/break, rehearsal, travel/break, coaching with a new client.  Taught a lesson to a new student in the early evening.  Afterward, returned home and attempted to be productive with very, very limited success.  New classes/clients/students take extra mental energy, and I was a little fried.  The four-hour practice session was simply not to be. 

Went to bed early on the condition that I get up early to read through a musical score I have to learn over the weekend.  "Learned" "My Favorite Things" and "Edelweiss".  Quote marks around "learned", because I just sounded them out by ear, played through each a couple times, and called it a night.  I have heard these songs since I was little.  Downloaded them this morning (I did manage to roll out of bed before 6:30, which is not terrible since an "early" bedtime for me is 11:45 p.m.), will print the lyrics and analyze and listen to the arrangement.  Probably will only count one of them - I mean, how half-ass can I get?  Then again, I guess being able to sound out a song I know by ear but have never played from memory is an important skill too.  Rationalize much?

Today: Born to be Wild

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I Hope You Dance

I am very excited right now, because I had a double cappuccino to counteract my sleep deprivation, and because my first column for the website Big Vision Empty Wallet just went up - check it out:

Recent songs:
MON: Toby Keith, "Should've Been a Cowboy".  Love this song.  It reminds me of seventh grade.  It also makes for a really good androgynous facebook status update: "Kat Sherrell should've been a cowboy."  Not quite as good as "Kat Sherrell knew it complete when she wore a younger man's clothes", but not bad either.  China is definitely going to take over the world, because all the movers and shakers in the "free" world are sitting on their asses of an afternoon, thinking of clever status updates.  Anyway...

TUE: I earned back my political karma by learning "Not Ready to Make Nice" by the Dixie Chicks.  Listen to the bridge.  Go.  Go now and listen (in fact, if you download it from here, I earn 10c ... I just found out I've earned a single dime from one download!  ...But amazon won't pay in increments less than ten bucks.  It made me laugh to find this out when they emailed me saying I should finish filling out my contact info so they could pay me.  Gotta love automated emails.  The bridge to "Not Ready to Make Nice" (it could also potentially be analyzed as verse-two-on-feminism-and-steroids - the chord progression stays the same, and the bridgey-melody part interrupts at the midway point on the verse): ladies and gentleman, this is the proper way to respond to a death threat. 

WED: John Hiatt, "Have a Little Faith"
TODAY: Lee Ann Womack, "I Hope You Dance"

Outta time for writing!  Please check/share out my column (or this or any of my posts, if you feel so inclined and have more than three facebook friends ;)!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Friends in Low Places

A high school friend chastised me on facebook about neglecting my country roots, and I can't have myself being chastised on facebook, so here we go with a Garth Brooks song.  Realized that country is the popular genre in which my ears most instinctively know what to expect, and yet I've never really played it (another thing I avoided for far too long because the jazzheads thought it was uncool). 

I was gonna do some other song today, can't remember what, but realized I needed something fun, that would make me smile, and dance around my living room in a way that no one, but no one, will ever get to see.  Who cares if it's either an "up yours, ex-o'-mine" or a "yeah, I'm an alcoholic, so what" song.  This is country.  If the dog and the pick-up survive the song, you're in good shape.  So much the better if you get to stick it to an ex and then go drinking cheap beer with your ghetto buddies (gimme a break, I live in the city now - our low places are called the ghetto). 

Chord changes and melody, especially on the verse, are typical of old jazz standards, meaning they'd kinda work with any feel (hmm, my inner arranger starts to plot).  Two verses, no bridge, instrumental repeat of second half of the chorus before the beginning of the second verse.  Underlying rhythm on the verses syncopated; on the beat for the choruses.  Purposely rough back-up vocals on last choruses - presumably the friends in low places are singing along in the dive bar.  The thing that struck me most is that the vocal range of this song is over two octaves, from E2 to F#4.  Damn!  That's huge - most pop songs have a range of about an octave, give or take.  And it's active, which is show-people speak for "the lyrics make it possible to create a little scene that's interesting to watch", as opposed to most popular songs, in which the lyrics, even when good, don't go anywhere, and it's all about the voice and the sexiness of the singer and not the story.  Conclusion: this would be a kick-ass audition song for a guy auditioning for a countryish musical.  You're welcome, actors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I Got You (I Feel Good)

My definition of "standards" has been pretty changeable throughout the year.  It seems like I'm just fickle and inconsistent, but the truth is, I've mostly been sticking to the styles of music I'm most likely to run into in my work life.  For most of this year, I've gravitated toward pop, rock and r&b, because my most embarrassing work moments are when I'm playing auditions for some rock or r&b based musical, and I'm not familiar with the material the singers are bringing in.  I recognize song titles, and can maybe think of a snippet of the song, but don't actually know the feel or how I should play it on the piano.  The piano arrangements are useless - the notes they write for the piano part will absolutely not sound good if played as written: they don't write in any of the accents that any good pop player will instinctively include, and the notes themselves are sometimes suspect, especially in the arrangements of R&B stuff that include the vocal line in the piano arrangement.   It's better to stick to the chords and play the "feel"... but to do that, you have to, um, know how.  Which I didn't, at the beginning of the year.  I wouldn't call myself an R&B master now, but at least I can sort of play a groove if I am familiar with the song or the artist.  So now I complain less about crappy piano arrangements, and more about snot-nosed classical snobs who don't know what they don't know (formerly known as: me).

This is all to say, that's why I've been doing a lot of pop and R&B for most of the year, as opposed to 32-bar jazz standards and show tune favorites.   I think I subconsciously expected to gravitate more toward those songs when I began this project.  But the subconscious urge to be mortified at work less often trumped the traditional definition of the word "standard", and I think my personal definition has evolved to something like:

standard, n.: a song I'm likely to run into in the course of my work, which would be slightly embarrassing not to be able to play by heart, and absolutely humiliating to not at least know of and be able to sort-of-fake

Now I'm working more with some traditional musical theater auditions and the late-night cabaret circuit, and it's more useful to know show tunes and jazz standards, which is why I've been going back to that territory more often.  ...But I don't want to lose my groove, because we all know how hard it is to get that thang back.  So I'm learning a little James Brown this weekend - "I Got You (I Feel Good)" today, and planning on "Get up Offa That Thing" tomorrow.  I'm looking at these as an accompanist - not gonna try to play the melody.  How would I accompany a singer on this, say in an audition situation?  (Is it possible I'm finally learning to look for how to make the best use of my time!??)

I'm trying to do two-song days today and tomorrow, so I'll practice switching feel-gears by doing contrasting songs: "If I Loved You" tonight, and maybe "Embraceable You" tomorrow.  A little more ebb and flow in the pulse, a little more like classical music in the accents and articulations.  It's like switching back and forth between languages - it is, in fact, switching back and forth between languages. 

I finally brought my Super-Nerdy Spreadsheet up to date the other night, and I still have to make up six songs from the Dark Days.  Then there's the fact that I will be leaving for Japan just before Christmas to see my sister... I will actually lose a day going over there, but I still feel like it's kinda cheating not to learn a song for that day.  And while I'm there, I'm gonna want to hang out with my sister and her family, not slave away at the keyboard, feverishly learning my last few songs... so I want to do some of the prep here. 

Well anyway.  One thing at a time.  Recent songs (apologies for not staying up-to-date with the blog - have been doing more journaling, which requires zero editing as opposed to the minimal once-over I give these before I post): "Stand By Me", "Lean On Me", "All You Need Is Love", "Mack the Knife". 

Back to James Brown.  Groove now, worry later.  Or maybe not. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beauty and the Beast

Well, wouldn't you know it, today I woke up wanting to learn "Beauty and the Beast".   The other day, it was the last song in the world I wanted to listen to and play.  It's on my list more for Rule #2 than #1, though the movie was one of my favorite disney movies as a kid. My theory is that I want to hear it today because I'm sick - achy/tired, think I was running a fever last night.  "Beauty and the Beast" is nostalgic and comforting, and also pretty famliar.  I don't have the energy to start a song from scratch tonight.  I already spent a little time today on "Change the World", which was yesterday's song - I did work on it last night, but gave up and went to bed because I was feeling like crap.  I feel a little better after my 3-hour nap this afternoon but am still only about 70%, so I will learn this simple little Disney song and call it a night.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered


Do this to you?!  Are you kidding?  This learn-a-song-a-day thing was your harebrained idea, not mine!  I was all for something more reasonable, like a song a week, but you said "noOOOOooo, 'my gut says'  that learning one every single day for a year will fix my playing, and also my life.  You said that one a week wouldn't work, you'd get bored and give up.  I had to agree - you're not disciplined enough to stick with anything for a whole week, so I gave in and figured I'd let you sink or swim.

You're an asshole, Voice of Reason.  That's why she always goes with what I say in the end.  Maybe if you were nicer, she'd listen to you once in a while. 

It's hard to be nice when I'm stuck with YOU in HER SLEEP-DEPRIVED BODY!!!

(Long pause, fraught with tension)

C'mon, we're not getting anywhere.  Can't we compromise?  You have to figure it out, I'm no good at compromising. 

Ok ok, so we'll look at the music for your rehearsal tomorrow night, and we'll look at the music for that other rehearsal Thursday morning, and we'll learn one song tonight.  And we'll go to bed before 2 a.m., because we're working on a sinus infection. 

KG (not ready for an agreement):

...And we'll learn a song you really like.

Can I have another graham cracker?

VR (whatever works):

KG (munching on graham cracker):
What song?

"Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."  Truce?

(they shake hands)

This is the song that made me fall in love with the Great American Songbook.  I was... fifteen?  It was the middle of summer, the middle of Texas, the middle of a typically humid mid-summer, mid-Texas day.  My sister and I were visiting our aunt, our unmarried, artistically-inclined aunt with the canine children, the one who was stubborn enough to defy a father who was determined that none of his children would study art or any of that non-money-making nonsense (and one who was determined, lest I paint a man I never knew as a villain, that his daughters would have skills to take care of themselves financially).  Oh, and that all his children would be right-handed - two natural righties, two born lefties.  Dad caved, but auntie held her ground (Dad retained his natural stubbornness in every other matter, however).

I digress.  We were eating homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream and helping her around the house.  Ella Fitzgerald was on the CD player on repeat.  It was a languid afternoon; who knows how many times the song went by before the lyric "...and worship the trousers that cliiiiing to him" called my attention.    Ooh, this song is kinda sassy, I thought.  Oh my gosh.  Oversexed.  She said oversexed.  In a songWHERE HAS THIS MUSIC BEEN ALL MY LIFE!?

It was the beginning of an affair that is still going strong.  He is dirty and classy at the same time, this canon of popular song.  It took me a really long time - til this year, in fact - to fully own how in love I am and commit to the relationship.  My parents don't really get him.  Mom kinda digs him without really knowing why; Dad flat-out disapproves, but is beginning to come around because he sees how happy this music makes me. 

So, really, I owe this song-jewel-paved path in part to Lorenz "Larry" Hart.  Judging from his life's troubled, truncated exterior, he must've had many inner conversations far more self-lacerating than the one I've been having tonight.  But oh, the lyrics he wrote.  And to Richard Rodgers.  Ever notice how the difference in musical language between what he wrote with Hart and what he wrote with Hammerstein?  The man knew how to set words to music.  And Ella, and her musicians, who knew how to bring words and music to life.  I send a special thanks to her pianist, Paul Smith, for giving me a 7-minute song that contains everything I will ever need to know about accompanying a jazz singer.  When he plays, and what he plays when he plays: as the lyrics get naughtier, the piano fills get bluesier.  Yes. Yes. 

My phone just rang - a friend, a fellow musician with whom I have a mutual agreement to call when one of us is having a hard time with life.  He will understand what I've written tonight.  Thank you, Larry Hart.  Thank you, Richard Rodgers, Ella, Paul, everyone.  Life can be hard, and life is long, or else tragically short; it's a real effing drag sometimes, a drag race in which you always feel behind, or about to wreck, or both.  Thank you for filling in the potholes so beautifully.


And by the way, Voice of "Reason", I've stuck with something for nearly a year.  It hasn't been perfect, but I haven't given up.  How do ya like that?  (flips VR the bird and walks away)

Sunday, November 14, 2010


This week's theme has been: crazy.  Examining the darker, stranger side of human consciousness.  This project, this year is definitely taking a toll on my body - sniffles, headaches, fatigue from lots and lots of hours going into non-paid projects (this one, and others that I do for networking/career-forwarding purposes, or at least that's the hope).  I've also been very fortunate to have had plenty of paid work this year, and lots of great friends in a city where there are always at least four of five things happening that I want to go to.  Trying to put a positive spin on "overwhelmed" - I'm overwhelmed because I have so many options, so many things to do, so many directions I could possibly go with my work.  One of my main money gigs is ending, and (again with the positive spin) I'm looking at it as a time to transition.  But to what, exactly?  There is no clear path.  I'm resisting the urge to say yes to every 10-cent gig that comes my way, because then I won't have time to do this or other things that have artistic merit and might pay off later... In fact, all the options that interest me most are invest-time-now-maybe-maybe-maybe-get-paid-later sort ...but the rent's due every month, and now I'm looking at going through at least a phase of a lot more freelance ping-pong - 1 hour here, 2 hours there - to make ends meet while I go after these get-paid-later opportunities.   It's tiring enough to make a person crazy.

Of course, crazy pop songs more often than not fall into the "unhealthy relationship" category:

Tuesday: "Crazy", Willie Nelson, made famous by Patsy Cline - crazy for loving a love-em-and-leave-em type (but ya can't help it, can you?)

Wednesday: "Crazy", Gnarls Barkley - a rare exception to the bad-romance-crazy rule of pop songs.  The perceived craziness of artists: there is freedom in losing your mind and following your "crazy" path.

Thursday: "The Closest Thing to Crazy" - Katie Melua - I have really good memories associated with this song from when it was on constant airplay while I lived in London.  Upon re-examination, I'd say this song falls pretty squarely into the bad romance category.

Friday: "Crazy", Aerosmith - I was really excited by the time this one rolled around on Friday.  Nice when I'm particularly excited about my song. More bad romance.  Why we gotta drive each other crazy, people!?  Geekery:  A lot of harmonic interest in the Crazy songs I chose.  Even in this one - a power chord rock song - the melody contains a lot of flavorful extensions or accented non-harmonic tones (don't know which way they'd be analyzed, frankly, don't really care anymore - they just sound cool). 

Last night's notes: (aka - times when I'm not so particularly excited about my song)
I am tired and i don't feel like staying up any later to learn my song.  Trying to put a positive spin on always having more to do than i have time for.  Really just want to skip learning the song and go to sleep.  At least it's a song i'm familiar with by ear - Crazy For You - Madonna
truth is, i'm not very excited about this song.  nothing against Madonna, and I remember liking the song before, just not excited about it in comparison to the songs i've learned this week. 
Enthusaism, the #1 most important ingredient - actually WANTING to sit alone in my apartment late at night learning pop songs. Nothing else would keep me awake, nothing else would keep me from hanging out more with my friends or doing other things with my time.
Am excited about Crazy ON You (Heart) tomorrow.  Gonna see if I can make that opening guitar solo work on piano. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rainy Days and Mondays

I was going to start a unit on crazy today, but when I peeked out my window this morning, I decided crazy would have to wait a day, because this was clearly the Monday to learn "Rainy Days and Mondays".  Rainy days are a big enough drag, and the fact that it's Monday just adds insult to injury (though with my schedule, it doesn't really matter what day of the week it is). I've played this song a couple times at my lobby gig - on rainy Mondays, of course - and the refrain is somewhere in my childhood memory, but it's not a song I knew very well before today. 

It's always nice to have companions who "get it", even if those companions are songs.  They're no substitute for friends who get it, but a song will do in a pinch (and is, in some cases, better).  The first time I really listened to the lyrics, the first line: yes.  Yes.  I talk to myself sometimes, and lately, I've been feelin' old.  A year without a single guilt-free day off will do that to a body.  And I certainly want to quit sometimes.  I love how matter-of-fact this song is - it doesn't sugarcoat or shrink away from the suckiness of being blue on a crappy-weather Monday.  It just acknowledges the situation.  Very vipassana-mindful Buddhist-ish. 

Funny thing about this song, the singer seems to have a companion, but she only refers to him in the bridge.  I'd be a little miffed if she were singing to me.  "Oh, so it's the only thing to do, run to the one who loves you??  And how is it funny?!  I just don't get you sometimes."  ...Ah, but there will always be those times, and that's when song companions come in handy. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Orange-Colored Sky

So wiped out.  Doing as little as possible today, which includes not working out, and choosing a short song: Orange-Colored Sky.  I was pretty indecisive about songs today... sleep-watched Chess in Concert and thought about learning "Anthem", which is a standard in my musical theater world.  I ran across Orange-Colored Sky sheet music while I was looking for something else and decided to learn it instead.  Downloaded Nat King Cole's version and used it and the sheet music to learn the song. Pretty quick work memorizing it - have played it for probably a half dozen singers in classes, auditions etc, so I was already pretty familiar with it, but as I've noticed, before I started this project, I could sight-read something any number of times and never remember it later.  I practiced it with a drum loop to work on my schwing... always and ever, working on the swing.

A 49-hour weekend - hooray falling back!  I am actually giving myself a weekend, sort of.  I found a stopping place in the never-ending stream of emails around 5 p.m. yesterday and took a 3-hour nap.  I have my church gig tomorrow, but other than that, it's a real weekend!  For those of us who live to work, the to-do list never really gets any shorter, but sometimes the tasks that have piled up in the "urgent" column are few enough that you can just refuse to deal with them for a day or two.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Will Always Love You

I feel a little blah about my song today.  It qualifies as a minor violation of rule #1.  I don't dislike the song, but I don't exactly love it, either.  ...but it's kind of a standard, and I admire Dolly Parton.  It's a fine song... but you know me and sentimentality.  This song is basically a long, drawn-out goodbye, and in order to get into it, you have to have a thing for long, drawn-out goodbyes.  So sometimes I bend rule #2; today, I bend rule #1 a little bit.  I have three versions of this song: Whitney, a dance mix of Whitney, and Dolly.  Last week I saw the very talented performer and celebrity impersonator Jason Cozmo do this song as Dolly, and it reminded me I should learn it.  I learned it this morning before my lobby gig, and opened with it.

I-vi-IV-V pop songs notwithstanding, I did decide to mix in a little classical for the benefit of the non-condescending classical music lovers who walk by me every Monday, and was rewarded for my efforts by a woman who was very appreciative of Fur Elise (don't judge, people like hearing things they recognize). Mr. Condescending P. Dude walked past me today just as I was finishing a Mozart slow movement.  I could have proceeded to the rondo, like any well-behaved sonata player would do.  But the triumphant smile he shot me upon hearing that final, intrinsically baroque/classical delayed cadence inspired me... to play a few schmaltzy-twinkly ii-Vs in the key of Eb (not the key of the sonata).  It was an instant, one-time standard I made up on the spot, called "That's What a Piano's For".

A piano is for hitting.  A piano is for hits - hits that are centuries old, hits that no one except the composer has heard yet.  Everything that stands the test of time has to be new at some point.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monster Mash

Aurghhhhh!!!  I am so freaking tired, I am having trouble concentrating, ALL of my bad habits are here tonight, along with the ghosties and ghoulies.  Even had a brief cameo appearance of the FoG-AL (she seems to be afraid of kittens, as I hadn't seen her for over a week until this evening).

I am contemplating sending myself to bed without a song, but when the hell am I going to make it up?  Discipline.  Try to be as disciplined as you look.  Disci - plan = disciple of my plan, I will follow my plan, stay the course, trust the process and all that crap that is not actually crap when I'm in a better mood.  I will make another bloody cup of tea and learn my damn song and practice my damn gig music.  Maybe I will meditate first so I don't take this homicidal energy back to the piano.

Common misconception among people who are not artists: that we feel like doing what we do every time we have to show up and do it.  I do not feel like practicing today.  I feel like eating obscene amounts of Halloween candy and half-sleeping through hulu'ed episodes of 30 Rock and Modern Family (I did a little of that this afternoon, and received an unequivocal confirmation from my body-mind that I could continue to do just that and nothing else, indefinitely, thank you).  I haven't had a full day off for about six weeks, and, because of this project, I haven't had that "nothing-really-needs-to-get-done-today" feeling for close to a year.

At least the technical exercises are out of the way, so the piano has been tamed from the black-and-white monster that hits back when I play with my erstwhile bad technique.  And my song is fun - "Monster Mash", a novelty song from the early 60s.  Where have these songs been all my life?

This year is a marathon.  When my body protests, my mind has to keep it going.  Disci-plan.  C'mon, SuperKat.  GO.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hard Times

OMG, I love this song.  OMG, I love this song!!!  OMG, I love the blues.  ack ack ack ack ack...

I can either write about it and where I first heard it and why I'm learning it tonight, or I can go back to the piano and learn some tasty Ray Charles licks.  So... um, bye. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tears In Heaven

Amusing sign from the bathroom of a studio where I rehearsed today
Disclaimer: this entry has nothing whatsoever to do with "Tears In Heaven", because I haven't learned it yet.  I had a really full day, and am going to learn it right after this.  See, I got something I gotta say, right here, right now - you feelin' me?

Today at my gig, I was playing my usual mix of mostly-jazz-standards-and-pop mixed in with a-little-lite-classical-and-the-occasional-rock-song-to-keep-the-security-guards-awake when, in the middle of "Golden Slumbers-Carry That Weight", a couple guys walked past me, and then came back so one of them could interrupt me to say, "Um, do you ever play any more classical stuff?  Like Mozart or something? ...I mean, do they tell you what to play, or do you play whatever you want?" I played the exposition of K. 545 for him (Sonata Facile - a philistine deserves no more).  He patted the piano and said, "That's what the piano's for."  I was aghast.  He said, "I mean, I don't know where your tastes run to, but... you gotta elevate this place, right?" I smiled my sweetest f*ck-you smile at him as he backed away.

I had to laugh - I mean, this guy doesn't even know how ignorant he is.  Interrupting the Beatles for "Mozart or something"?  20th Century pop music, 18th century pop music, whatever floats your boat, dude.

But clearly it annoyed me, because I still have a lot to say about it, which I will now list in semi-orderly fashion:
1. I play pop and jazz at this gig because that's what gets the most passersby to notice and smile.  Play classical, and I might as well be a really hot, oversized ipod. 

2. I love taking requests.  One of the reasons I'm doing this project is that I hate it when someone asks me to play something and I don't know it.  I like to play what makes people happy.  This guy wasn't making a request, he was making me feel like what I had been playing before was wrong.  He wasn't being an appreciative listener who wanted to hear something in particular, he was being a condescending prick who was telling me how to do my job.

3. Here are the people who are allowed to tell me how to do my job: other musicians (at any level - I have something to learn from anyone else who studies music); composers, directors, actors, choreographers, other arts professionals with whom I am collaborating; people who sign my checks.

4. Philistine-prick-dude, you do not fall into any of the above categories (the "Mozart or something" and other clues point to you not being a musician at any level).  I guarantee you I have invested a larger percentage of my life and my income studying and practicing to be better at my job than you have to be better at yours, so don't tell me how to do my job, unless you want me in your office telling you how to fill out your TPS reports. 

5. Oh wait, I don't have time to tell you how to fill out your TPS reports, because I have to get to my next gig. 

And now I have to get to my next song - "Tears In Heaven", by Eric Clapton, one of the greatest musicians of our time.  Not all musicians are men, and not all musicians play classical music, but neither gender nor genre disqualifies one from being a great musician (or at least sucking a little less each day). 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Undone (the Sweater Song)

Today's song choice is in compliance with rule number one (dig the song, want to learn it), if a little sketchy on rule number two (how standard is standard?). 

The other day, I was killing a half hour between appointments at one of my favorite bakeries, outwardly drinking tea and prepping for a rehearsal, inwardly waging a particularly brutal battle with the FoG-AL (pronounced FUG-all, like a drunk-slurred version of f*ck-all, which is about all the Fairy of God-Awful Loneliness is useful for).  This song came on, and it made me smile.  A quirky song-jewel.

"Undone" has three chords - you guessed it, I, IV and V.  I / IV / - V / IV / ... for the entire song.  In F# except for the guitar solo, which is in A.  There are very few lyrics, if you don't count the spoken bits. It is not a very pianistic song.  I played around a bit with how I might arrange it if I were to play a snippet of it at a cocktail gig.  I half-ass learned the guitar solo and noticed how it built and the choice of notes leading to the key change back to F#.  I learned the vocal harmonies for the second chorus.  I tried unsuccessfully to find online any info on what I believe is a prepared-piano outtro (anyone know about that?).  Maybe not the most educational song I could've chosen from a piano-playing perspective, but I always get something out of learning a song I like, if only because it keeps me more engaged than a song that I'm learning because I "should". 

Speaking of destroying sweaters, I just acquired a Guard-Kitten.  I'm naming him Diesel, because his purr is loud and his farts stink (seriously!).  Diesel Boots McFerrin - McFerrin for Bobby McFerrin (a musical hero who rehearses without shoes on; Diesel has black fur and white-sock-feet); Boots because I keep hearing it when I say the name to myself.  Deez-Boots sounds like a good urban-musician-cat name.  He is the sweetest, snuggliest thing ever.  My friends Matt and Jess rescued him from the alleyway behind their house, and they already have a cat who was very insulted by this little upstart's presence in her castle.  I haven't had a practice session at home since I got him yesterday, but I played for a few minutes last night, and he was fascinated. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart

The hardest part is going to bed at night with no one to talk to, no one to hold onto, no one to dream about.

This Alicia Keys song spends much of its time on the subdominant (the IV chord Bb; the song's in F).  Not quite the throbbing tension and release of V-I, more of a nagging ache that isn't overwhelming but never quite goes away either.  The melody hangs out in the do-re-mi vicinity (F-A) for most of the verse - listen to the rising major 3rd cry on "near me", "told me", "lonely".  It makes a leap all the way to sol (eg 2nd verse "you'd never LEAVE me), then centers around fa on the chorus - "tonight".   Fa, the 4th scale degree: again, less pomp and circumstance than sol the 5th, but with a quiet determination of its own. Determination: the repeated syncopated uphill climb of the bass... I will climb this hill again and again, finding "a way to make it without you."

Friends ease the suffering of visits from the Fairy of God-Awful Loneliness and other indignities as I perform this seemingly endless task of learning how to be alone (now that too many boring, time-consuming, and/or disappointing dates have made me choose to be so for a while).  Who am I when I'm at home?  How far am I willing to be pulled from my actor neutral in order to be in a relationship?  Figuring out how to be my own source of emotional support (tip: Cookies are not lunch). How and when to be ok with asking for a little help from my friends. 

Songs help, too.  I went with my friend soprano/conductor friend Alison Davy to a concert of the New York Festival of Song.  Pianist Steven Blier, one of NYFOS' founders, spoke of collaboration as he was introducing the Vaughan Williams song "Silent Noon" (I am paraphrasing what I got out of what he said; I never remember things verbatim): A great coaching session is often characterized by twofold silence.  The magic of collaboration lies in the fact that both parties are able to have thoughts they never would have been able to think alone.  The program included songs by Schubert, Gershwin, and Bob Dylan - and many more, but just to give you an idea of the range.  This is my happy place, a hall where people believe that collaboration is sacred, songs are important, and good music transcends genre boundaries.  It was magical.

songs fill my life like stars fill the night sky
collect them, one by one, like precious gems
decorate my life with song-jewels

heights and depths and simple pleasures
that words alone cannot express
and music alone cannot articulate

a marriage of words and music
more successful than many human marriages
one augments the other

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Change Is Gonna Come

What I've been doing lately - the songs that have not been mentioned:
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window
If I Could Turn Back Time
Carry That Weight
Golden Slumbers
Proud Mary
To Make You Feel My Love
Love Song
Like a Rolling Stone
What's Going On
Blowin' in the Wind
I Am What I Am
A Change is Gonna Come

It's these last few (not in chronological order) that I've been wanting to write about but I just haven't had time recently.  Most of my time the past 5 weeks has gone into working on a show called Oklahomo for the New York Musical Festival.  No, that's not a's a rock musical satire about a gay superhero from Oklahoma. 

Before I came on board with the project, I had a chance to chat with the director and the writer, and they both warned me, in separate phone conversations, that the script they were about to send me was a little off-color.  I assured them I'm not easily offended, and to send the script on over.  Even so, I had to ask myself, fresh from a visit to my fairly conservative, religious family, why I was not offended.  It turns out that sexual humor and foul language do not, in and of themselves, offend me (much to my mother's chagrin).  Good to know.  (I should pause to acknowledge that while this play happens to be off-color, and to deal with homosexuality, I'm not saying that the subject of sexuality - homo- or otherwise - is itself off-color.)

So what does offend me, if not F-words and bawdy jokes about gay sex? 

Discrimination - allowing someone to suffer by treating them differently or by denying them basic civil rights, simply because they are different from what is considered the norm (or... um, female, slightly more than half the population).  Malice - intention to hurt another. Violence.  I'm sickened by the recent spate of attacks against gays in New York City, particularly the assault at the iconic Stonewall Inn where the gay rights movement was born four decades ago and where I play regularly.  I'm saddened by the recent well-publicized suicides of gay teens.  The ones we've heard about are sad enough; even worse is the fact that we all know there are so many more we never hear about.  I mean, come on, people, I don't care about your personal opinion of homosexuality, this is someone's kid.

Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying.

I'm in an interesting position - a swing state native living in New York City.  I have a lot of conservative Christian and Mormon friends.  They are kind, smart, creative people who want to live their lives peacefully and find satisfaction in their work and loved ones.  Many of them are married.  I have a lot of more left-leaning friends of various religious disciplines.  They are kind, smart, creative people who want to live their lives peacefully and find satisfaction in their work and loved ones.  Some of them are happily married; many of them are single, and some have reservations or downright aversion to marriage.  I have a lot of gay friends (I mean, come on, I work in musical theater, for heaven's sake).  They are kind, smart, creative people who want to live their lives peacefully and find satisfaction in their work and loved ones. Many of them are in long-term, committed, communicative, monogamous, loving relationships.  Many of them want to get married.  Most places in this country, they aren't at liberty to do so.  Liberty.  Justice.  For all?

How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?

It's really hard for me to talk about this stuff, because my friends and family run the gamut from Bible-thumping truck drivers to latte-swilling entrepreneurs, and I love and respect them all.  But you know what? 

1. Maybe the two sides should consider talking to each other.  "Picket lines and picket signs/Don't punish me with brutality/Talk to me so you can see what's going on."

2.  It really bugs me that some people in my country are treated differently based on their sexual orientation.  It boggles my mind that the Apostle Paul's - Paul's! - words about homosexuality have somehow become more important than Jesus Christ's point blank "second-most-important commandment" (Matt 22:37-40) - love thy neighbor, (the first-most-important being love thy God, not hate thine fags).  Stop being so obsessed with sex, religious people! 

What courage it takes to own up to who you truly are.  It takes a lot of guts for me to own the fact that I'm a non-baby-wanting workaholic, and I live in a place where that's pretty socially acceptable.  I learn rock tunes, when my dad would have me playing continuo for Handel oratorios.  Pop music: he thinks it's noise; I think it's pretty.  That's small potatoes - easy.  How much more courageous to be your own special creation when society at large guarantees discrimination and threatens physical harm against you.  If there's an upside to the recent violence (or the recent increased news coverage of the violence), it's that maybe it's a sign that change is around the corner.  Long time coming.

About Oklahomo - I chose to do it because ultimately it's a story about love and acceptance. We performed one of the numbers at the Stonewall a couple weeks ago, and we got a huge round of applause at the first chorus: "rainbows and rednecks, gun racks and gay sex, why can't we all get along?" Never try to convince me that financial institutions are more important than music.  The barter system still works great, and songs deal, quite literally, with matters of life and death.

So to my Christian friends, and to my gay friends, and to my many friends who are both Christian and gay - in the words of a character from Oklahomo: flame on!