Friday, September 24, 2010

Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

I should write more often when I'm happy, lest I go down in history as more crotchety than I actually am. 

Things that suck about being single: filling out emergency contact forms with the names of friends who most consistently check their voicemail (but being grimly satisfied that I have many friends, even if I'm nobody's top priority at the moment). Things that don't suck about being single: drinking milk straight from the carton, not having to shave your legs.

In less-random news, I have learned "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here" and "I Was Made For You", two cute, fun, hand-clappy songs by Zooey Deschanel's band, She & Him. I have kind of an enormous girl-crush on her, and am determined that she will play me in the movie about my life (based on this blog, natch.  Just puttin' it out there, people). 

So... She & Him songs are not exactly standard pop song repertoire, nor did I know and love them before I decided to learn them.  How do I get to count these songs?

Let's talk about cheating for a moment, dear reader-enforcers.  You know that Alison Krauss lyric I quoted a few weeks back - about "playing and winning/playing and losing"?  I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and how it pertains to career and love and stuff.  Ok, so playing and losing is better than not playing... but I wanna win! 

And it struck me.  Winners cheat.

That's it!  Let's cheat!  Well, actually winners just break rules when the rules are stupid.  And right now, in the midst of transcribing/learning/rehearsing a show, preparing for an audition, and doing all my usual gigs, I have these two songs I need to learn for a cabaret show.  There's no sheet music for them, so I said I'd learn them (I could have said no, I won't do them, but the singer is nice and smart and well-prepared in general, which works wonders with pianists). They're still good musical exercises, and good songs, even if they're not well-known.  I will break my own rules in favor of streamlining my to-do list.

You think I freak out a little about breaking the rules, huh?  You should see my parents.  My dad won't cross against the light, even in New York where it's sometimes safer than crossing with the light, and my mom launches a 25-minute verbal rationalization when she thinks about bending a perceived rule.  Slight exaggeration. Slight.  (Sorry, Mom, but it's true.)

A moment for geekery before I go take my nightly nap. 

Both these songs have elided cadences; in other words, the 8th bar of the 8-bar phrase (the tonic, in these 2 songs, and often the case in others) is also the first bar of the next phrase.  This is actually not uncommon; I've seen it before but can't think of other examples off the top of my head. ...I don't remember if they're actually called elided cadences.  But that makes sense to me, and I'm a winner, so I don't really care.

Speaking of cadences, in the category of Key Changes That Don't Suck: behold the end of the instrumental  break of "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here", where instead of going to tonic C, it goes to Am (I love me a deceptive cadence!), then A - which becomes the V in the key of D et voila, we are a whole step higher.  It's not that obscure or unusual, but I get pretty excited about any modulation that doesn't involve a flat-VI pivot chord. 

These songs were really fun, and I'll get to play them a few times in the next couple weeks.  I'm getting used to my new phone and my new ipod and my new contacts, and the new jobs have started and are going well so far, so the Doubts are shutting up a little bit. 

Tomorrow: in honor of my sister's birthday, "(I Just) Died in Your Arms", a favorite of hers and one that always reminds me of her.  Happy Birthday, Tamara!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training: I am learning songs that are similar in style to the ones in the show I'm music directing right now.  Most recently: "Kate" (rhythmically tricky - you really gotta know where the downbeat is) and "Song for the Dumped" (flag for follow-up on the piano solo) by Ben Folds; today "Take it to the Limit" by the Eagles.  

Transcribing a lot this week: the score for the show, two songs for a cabaret show next week, a musical number for another group I work with.  I'm pretty swamped, but I'm trying to keep my chin up by reminding myself I'm getting to chip away at my Mad Skillz to-do list: become a Finale speed demon, do some transcribing/arranging, play some rock & roll with people for people.  Yay!  Sleep is for babies and people with no ambition.
The chatter in my head tonight is pretty negative. I have so much new stuff going on right now - exciting, mostly, but the Doubts hate new stuff and they've been screaming at me all week.  You don't know what you're doing!  You can't even figure out how to use your damn phone!  As a freelancer, I am constantly starting new jobs, and filling out paperwork is one of the lesser-known glamorous parts of being a musician.  My favorite are the emergency contact forms.  These are extra fun when you're single.

It is hard being alone.  But it's hard being with someone, too.  The lyric from today's song: "you can spend all your time makin' money/you can spend all your love makin' time" - the first line, yeah, everybody gets that.  But the second line really hit me this time, in a way it didn't hit me the last time I heard it, pre-seismic breakup.  I don't want to make time for anyone else right now.  I want to learn my freaking songs, and focus on my career.  I'm making that choice right now, and it's fine except for the nagging feeling that by doing so I'm dooming myself to growing old with no one but seventeen cats and my own crazy mind.

I can have cats in this apartment.  That's good.

The Doubts are not allowed to have the last word, so I will close by saying that the work I'm doing now would be impossible without my song project. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bad Day

Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore. ...Or are we? And if we aren't, what's up with the tornadoes? A lot of people had a worse day than I did yesterday because of the storm that tore through the city, but my phone and ipod both succumbed to water damage that even a night drying them out in a bag of rice couldn't cure. They were in my bag and I had an umbrella, and I was only outside for about 5 minutes - it was raining that hard. I was in midtown Manhattan, and I can't imagine what it was like in hard-hit Brooklyn and Queens.

Well, actually, this being the age of youtube, I can imagine, and can in fact watch what it was like. These guys got one of the best videos I've seen, by virtue of them being completely fearless and/or CRAZY in their documentation of the storm. It's kind of Blair Witch meets Twister meets Animal House. I recommend mute for the expletive-sensitive; rated R for Language.

I started today feeling a little blue, and I decided to learn Daniel Powter's song "Bad Day".  Misery loves company, and sometimes it helps me to remember I'm not the only one who has bad days.  I felt gratified to see that the music video for "Bad Day" involves rain and an umbrella, and wistful/melancholy observation by single people of happy couples on public transportation.  And a happy ending.  So there's hope. I guess.  I could be convinced.

I've been geeking out a little less on here lately, ... I think?  If I'm right about that, it's because I'm just not verbalizing a lot of stuff I used to be conscious of with the form and chord progression and arrangement - it's sort of automatic now (well... semi-automatic; if it were really automatic, I wouldn't notice... so I'm a semi-automatic, is that it?).  I'm sort of a semi-automaton from lack of sleep right now.  Heading into another busy period and don't have time to think or analyze - just do.  Analyze on the other side of the madness, assuming you make it. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hand In My Pocket

I was afflicted with indecision today - could not decide what song to learn.  All the songs in the universe, and I couldn't just pick one and go with it.  There are too many!  First I thought I'd learn "My Cherie Amour".  Or maybe "Halo" - I like the piano part in the intro.  Well, I forgot to update my ipod before I left my apartment this morning, and by the time I got home, I... just didn't feel like learning either of those songs.  I coached a guy for an audition, and he sang "Superman" by Five for Fighting ... ooh, maybe I'll learn that one.  ...Nah.  "Ain't No Sunshine." "Philadelphia Freedom." "Tears In Heaven." Maybe I should learn a Celine Dion song.  Arghh I can't make up my mind!  There must be one perfect song out there for today. 

I took my copy of Rolling Stone's book of Women in Rock with my to my neighborhood cafe for some much-needed inspiration (baked goods.  I always look for the elusive answers in baked goods).  The book just added to the too-many-choices problem.  Finally, in desperation, I asked facebook.  Help, facebook.  What song should I learn today?  Apparently, all I needed to do was ask for help, because I was able to choose right away when I received suggestions from three of my friends.  I decided on another song entirely, when I glimpsed Alanis Morissette's name in my book: "Hand In My Pocket".

I bought Jagged Little Pill back in high school when Columbia and BMG had those music clubs where you'd buy one CD for $17.99 and then get like five for 25 cents, plus some ridiculous shipping rate.  This was right around the time when the boys in my sophomore music theory class were teaching me how to swear artfully, and naturally one of my favorite parts of this angsty CD was "are you thinking of me when you (*turn volume down abruptly*) her..." from "You Oughta Know". 

"Hand In My Pocket" wasn't one of my favorite songs then.  I didn't not like it, but... it just didn't resonate with me the way songs like "Forgiven" and "Perfect" did (can you tell I was raised Guilt-Ridden Presbyterian?).  I just didn't give it a second thought, until I saw my friend Brandon perform it as an opening number for a late-night open mic he MCs on Friday nights in the theater district.  He and his brilliant pianist, Ray Fellman, have a really cool arrangement that gives Brandon leeway to ham up some of the lyrics (which you'll see, if he can track down a video... couldn't find it on youtube). 

Frankly, I'm going into Brandon withdrawal - I've barely seen him all summer!  We get to start working together again on Wednesday and I kinda can't wait.  Anyway, his rendition of the song made me listen to it again.  All this paradox, all this indecision, all this stuff nobody has figured out just yet.  Do I put time into pursuing music directing and performing, or into writing?  Or do I get practical and try to build my teaching studio so I can have more flexibility?  I wanna be a billionaire, so f***in' bad (I learned that song the other day - fun!), I'm broke but I'm happy.  They're both true.  One hand in my pocket.  The other one playing a piano.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sunny Came Home

Ok... so I "scheduled" this to post last week, and just found it in the drafts folder... so here it is, better late than never.  

No matter how far you travel, the one thing you can't run away from is yourself.

I did not feel like learning my song today.  I had other things on my mind, like family members' medical results and undeserving menfolk and other anxiety-inducing stuff.  And I'm on vacation, so add to that a dose of resentment that I was feeling this way.  Yesterday was grand - I drank in the desert-rain-and-juniper-scented air, I drank tea.  I daydreamed about dividing my time between an ultra-modern flat in New York and a light-filled home on the edge of the forest in New Mexico (a home I actually found for sale during the time I idled away on the internet yesterday). 

At least I scheduled an easy song for today, I thought.  "Sunny Came Home" is innocuous enough, form-wise, and it's described as "folk-rock", so the groove isn't going to make me as crazy/inadequate as a Stevie Wonder song would.  So imagine my crankiness when I realized that the chords are slightly different on each verse (conforming to a variation in the melody she sings), and that there are a lot of what traditional harmony would call non-harmonic tones, especially in the bridge. 

Well, I survived, and I did not burn the house down like the protagonist in the song.  I think it's interesting how this song oscillates between B minor on the verse, and its relative major key (D) on the chorus, and heads into murky tonal territory on the bridge.  I wouldn't say any part of this song is particularly cheerful, but neither is it exactly angry, considering it's a song about a woman committing arson.  It muddles through, she muddles through, I muddle through - there's some happy, some sad, some downright confusing, and sometimes I just want to make a huge bonfire of it all and start over. 

Start over tomorrow, post-good sleep, sans bonfire.

Low Rider

Low Rider.  This is my hometown.  A place which, in my memory, is full of low-riders  following the cruise route that stretched from Sonic on one end to the turnaround point on the main drag at the other.  These cars might have had a crappy paint job, an obnoxiously bad sound system (loud and bass-y seemed to be the only criteria), and bumpers that were held on with duct tape, but the rims would be shiny and expensive. 

I am here now, in a patch of filtered sunshine in the corner of my favorite coffee shop, which itself is on the corner near the art district: art galleries that started popping up around the time I left for college. There are 30-some-odd little galleries here, not bad for a town of 10,000 that's an hour off the interstate.  Nothing of international import happens here.  Just people's lives, simple to the outside eye, plenty complicated to those living them.  The pace of life is a flat-line compared to the frenetic pulse of New York. 

Take Low Rider as an example:  It's all about the groove (which is why it's a September "back-to-school" song for me).   Lyrics: Two lines, one rhyme that takes up 8 bars, then 12 bars of instrumental with that iconic horn riff.  The singer doesn't sound like he's putting a lot of effort into the voice.  That's not the point.  The point is to look cool in your low rider.  The horn bit lays back on the beat, and there's even an effect (I think?) where it comes out of one speaker just a little behind.  I should mention: it's hard to create that effect on the piano - even without the effect, putting the triplet/backphrase rhythms of the horns in the right hand with the bass in the left is less laid-back than the lifestyle this song is about. 

I may check out the music video later, and listen to some cover versions.  Or I might succumb to the New Mexico pace of life and absolve myself of guilt for not doing any of that.  Take a little ride and see...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Country Roads and A Trains

Quick notes (I'm on vacation, people!):
Take Me Home, Country Roads.  Learned this one at Grandma/aunt&uncle's house in El Paso, where I stayed over after my parents and aunt picked me up at the El Paso airport.  This song was so easy to learn (it's a simple song to begin with, and I grew up on John Denver) that I decided it was high time for some transposition practice.  I was about halfway through the 12 keys when Grandma asked the room at large what in the Sam hill I was doing - composing? Reading sheet music?  I stopped and explained that I was playing the song in every key.  Every major key, she asked?  She was my first piano teacher, and her "forcing" me to play I-IV-I-V-I progressions probably contributed to my chronic music theory geekiness.  Yes, Grandma, every major key... Then I played it in minor and explained that this was West Virginia after a mining accident. 

Take the "A" Train.  I could've done a lot more with this one - like transpose and improvise and transcribe - the whole infinity of music study, but I was pretty wiped by the time we finally drove into my hometown at 10 last night.  Doing nothing can sure be exhausting, especially when it involves a 6,000 foot elevation change.   I practiced it a little more this morning, and transcribed the lyrics from a Sarah Vaughan version (I learned it from a Duke Ellington recording). 

A note about Sarah Vaughan's version: I love Sarah Vaughan.  This is the first Sarah Vaughan anything I've heard that I don't like.  Not sure what album it's from originally because I downloaded it from a compilation.  It sounds plenty hip as long as you don't listen to the words, but it's too slow for the lyric to make sense.  Hurry, hurry... the quickest way to get to Harlem?  I don't know who had control of the tempo, her or the bandleader, but in any case, this particular A train is going local.  It's faster to take a cab to Sugar Hill in Harlem.  Oh well, we can't all be perfect, and Sarah Vaughan is pretty close. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Higher Ground

New York City is eating my youth.  Sometimes a simple matter like going to the bathroom is so freaking complicated!  I guess that's why people with fewer inhibitions just relieve themselves on the street.  There is a reason so many of us, myself included, reposted this Onion article online.  I laughed out loud in a stuffy, crowded elevator as I was reading it on my phone, my arm crooked at an awkward, acute angle.  They probably thought I was another crazy person (they may be right), and they probably read the same article and giggled out loud and reposted it.  It's so true!  Why do we deal with the critters and crazy people and ...bleh.

Well, anyway, I'm going to New Mexico for a few days to see family, eat some green chile to restore my depleted, waning youth, and remind myself why I live here.  I think it has something to do with higher ground (see!  It is related to today's song! Ha!).... I think New York is kind of a personality refinery.  Everything is magnified in the city - if you are a partier, you will party harder here; tri-state workaholics take the 'ism to a whole new level.  If you have a negative attitude, just paying rent and riding the subway will kill you, or make you want to kill someone.  There's no time for bullshit, and there's sure nowhere to put it.  Any bad habit, any addiction, any dysfunction or toxic relationship is twice the obstacle to reaching a goal it would be anywhere else, simply because getting through a normal day and paying a normal month's bills is twice the hassle, drop-off laundry and delivery notwithstanding. I'm definitely finding out what my bad habits are this year.

Most of us, I feel, are trying to reach some kind of higher ground - make the world a better place, better ourselves, find happiness, find the grail, something.  And some of us find that we, in a twisted, masochistic way, like to do so in a place whose opportunity and challenge are equal, and creature comforts are few/expensive.  I will leave the city for a few days, to my arid, starkly beautiful homeland where life is hard and easy in entirely different ways than here.  I will have turned my rabid workbrain off approximately four hours before I have to come back.  When I come back, I will be filled with excitement and joy and anticipation when I look at the buildings that are reaching into the sky, and with dread at all the things I have to do and decisions I have to make.  Decisions.  Because I have dreams and goals (more than I can ever reach in a lifetime) and rent to pay (more than I'd like to pay in a lifetime), and because if I've learned one thing from living in New York, it's that I cannot do everything.  This belief is a byproduct of growing up in a place where there's so little going on, it feels like you can literally do everything and have time left over.  Time is not money in New Mexico.  Time is just time, and nobody has very much money so it doesn't matter as long as it's cheap. 

I was relatively happy with my work today - it feels better than the last time I was working on Stevie Wonder stuff early in the year.  The rhythm is more consistent, I'm more comfortable with the choices I have to make in which parts to play in the right hand, I'm becoming more aware of the articulations in the bass line in the left hand. Playing funky music, white girl, is far from being my strong suit, but it sucks a little less today, which is the goal.

Ok kids, I gotta pack, and do some triage cleaning on my apartment.  I am leaving it up to whim as to whether I write in the next week, so in case you don't see me, the songs I am planning to learn while I'm away are (note the home/travel theme): Take Me Home, Country Roads; Take the A Train; Low Rider; Sunny Came Home; Every Day is a Winding Road; Leavin' On a Jet Plane.  Yes, I'm aware there are two John Denver songs here, a departure from what I've been doing most of the year.  It's time for my own roots music, familiarity, rest, comfort, home.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I Wish

I wish a lot of things.  Mostly I wish I had more time, or more money, or more sleep, or less need for sleep. Judging by my consistently absurd, unrealistic to-do lists, though, I'd just fill up the extra time with more crap to stress me out.  I scheduled this song for today when it was supposed to be a day off... would love to have had more time, because I suck extra at Stevie Wonder rep, and because I want extra not to suck at it.

So... "I Wish"... I think I learned it to a degree I would have been proud of a few months ago.  So it's kind of cool to be aware that what would have been an acceptable imperfection then is not satisfying anymore.  Baby steps.

Musical theater, pop, opera.  Et cetera.  It's all vocal music, really.  Different priorities in performance.  In musical theater, it's all about the story.  You can have any type of voice, an awful voice, and succeed in musical theater if you are a superb actor.  This makes opera lovers cringe; in opera, the drama is still important, but higher premium is placed on the quality of the voice.  There's so much crossover in these forms nowadays, and anyway, we're talking about Stevie Wonder, in whose music it's the rhythm that's all-important.  Funk, R&B, pop styles - the delivery of the lyrics is more about the groove than about delivering a sentence.  That's why Alicia Keys can breathe in the middle of the word and make it sound right.  Stevie Wonder does it here: "why did those days e (wait)- ver have to go"...

I'm falling asleep writing this, so I'm going finish by linking to another music nerd's blog that talks about jamming on the 1 - "I Wish" is a good example of that. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Black Velvet

I really, really need a vacation.  Luckily, I'm leaving on Sunday for a few days in the flat-line pace of life of NM.  Slow.  Down.  A.  Minute.

Speaking of slow and sultry, "Black Velvet" was the song of the day.  A favorite for a long time, and a chance to work on bluesiness. 

Signing off - no time for geekery or introspection tonight.  Too tired, too much to do, too humid to do anything.  New York, not in the middle of a dry spell. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September Song(s)

The month got off to a good start this morning when I discovered James Brown's version of Kurt Weill's "September Song".  I also downloaded Ella's version from the album Intimate Ella.  In fact, I downloaded that whole album - just Ella accompanied by pianist Paul Smith.  A great discovery for me as an accompanist.  I once asked a fellow pianist I admired whom he studied with, and he nodded toward his CD collection - stacks of master teachers. 

I'm giving this month a back-to-school theme (further proof of my giant dorkiness).  This process is still really good for me, but I'm no longer taken by surprise by all the discoveries I'm making.  This year is flying by, and of the infinite number of songs I could choose, I feel like I should choose the ones that will help me most with my playing, or that fall into the uber-standards category of I-can't-believe-you-don't-know-that-song songs.  Or that I just really, really love, because if I didn't really, really love music, and popular songs in particular, I wouldn't devote such a chunk of my life to the study of it. 

(Lotte Lenya - Kurt Weill's wife and muse, singing "September Song")

So today - "September Song" - falls into the third category - songs I really, really love and just want to spend a little time with. I love this time of year - knowing that the beastly hot weather can only last so much longer, the sense of possibility left over from when my life revolved around the academic year. And there's something poignant about this time of year, too, something bittersweet. Another summer over, already? Life goes by so quickly. Before we know it, it'll be the holiday season, and then a whole 'nother year will start, only to fly by more quickly than this year. We pay taxes, we get old, we die, that's it, maybe we leave behind some kids or some art, maybe not. But damn if it isn't beautiful while it's flying by.

The IV chord, or subdominant, is the chord built off the 4th note of the scale.  In a major key, it's a major chord.  But it's a simple matter to lower the middle note of that chord to make it minor.  A minor chord where we expect a major chord, often, in fact, following directly behind that major chord, resolving to the major tonic chord - a little bitterness in an otherwise perfectly normal "Amen" cadence. 
So maybe it's not surprising that "September Song" and Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" both love their minor-iv chords (they're all over the form in today's song; and on the word "when" in "...September Ends").