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!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight

I'm tired and cranky and stressed (what else is new?).  Actually, I discovering that when I feel this way, it's usually because I have something coming up in the next 24 hours that I'm stressed out about.  I was a wreck before sitzprobe last week (by the way - sitzprobe: one of my favorite words). 

This time, I'm preparing for an audition that's tomorrow night, and I just want it to be over.   My technique has improved, as has my musical vocabulary, but I am only able to learn music a little faster than before, and my sight-reading is in the crapper right now.  Actually, it's not so much that it has gotten worse as that it hasn't really gotten better, while many other aspects of my playing have improved. 

There comes a point in practice sessions where it's more productive to take a break than to continue.  I took a break to wash dishes and put my laundry away (finally... I picked it up almost a week ago and it's been mingling with the growing mound of dirty laundry in my bedroom), and to learn my song.  Songs.  Two songs: "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight".  Yes, sort of cheating, since they're both shorter sections of the medley that ends Abbey Road.  But if I'm going to count epic songs as one, then I get to count these as two... still making up for a few days during the break-up/move funk, and am running out of time. 

Songs are comforting.  Tonight I put each song on repeat on my ipod and played along until I got it.  That's usually the most relaxing way for me to learn.  I've been doing a lot of half-assing lately because I've been so busy, so it felt good to just play for a little while.  I looked the songs up in the Beatles scores to check a couple things... I hadn't missed much.  There were actually a couple mistakes in the score. 

Pop songs don't often have many big leaps in the melody.  The better to sing you with, my dear.  "Golden Slumbers" has a descending 6th, which reminded me of "Smells Like Teen Spirit".  "to get BACK HOME-ward"... "Load up ON GUNS".  ...actually the melodic contour is really similar, except one interval, and "Golden Slumbers" is in major and "Smells" is in a minor mode and I really have to get back to work so I can't geek out on this right now...


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Put Your Records On

It's absurd that I'm awake at this hour, but I got a lot done tonight. 

A feel-good song.  Today was the kind of day where I looked for a while before I chose a song - something to cheer me up after last night's malaise.  There's a time to stop singing the blues.  Put your records on, let your hair down, don't worry that you haven't figured yourself out.  Self-medicating with music - yes.  Don't we all do this?  And it's one of the rare life-enhancing ways to self-medicate.

Perfect song - great lyric, easy form (bog standard verse-chorus-bridge form), easy tempo, lots of interesting stuff in the harmony, melody & arrangement.  Tonight for the first time I made a note on my lyric/analysis sheet of what I want to continue working on on this song... I'm quicker and better than I was at the beginning of the year, but also more aware of all the stuff I could work on that a part of one day doesn't allow.  Less worried about not having it perfect, but still want to come back for more with each song.  Infinity of music - never run out of things to discover even in one simple pop song.  My notes for this one: pay more attention to exactly what the bass is doing; transcribe the vocal arrangement for the last half of the bridge and beginning of the chorus right after the bridge.

Another case of I-write-more-when-I'm-sad-than-happy, but I really, really have to get some sleep. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ain't No Sunshine

Entertaining a guest tonight - an unwelcome bitch known as the Fairy of Godawful Loneliness.  Had I known she'd be visiting, I'd have gone out for a little while to avoid being home when she called, but I was exhausted, and my crazy-busy-need-to-prioritize-and-focus season isn't gonna be over for another week or so.  So I left rehearsal with a simple plan: go home, learn my song, catch up on 30 Rock, get a full night's sleep.  Somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and the Upper East Side, it came crashing down on me like a potted plant falling from a high-rise apartment window: I do not want to go home alone to my empty apartment this Friday night. 

Misery loves company, because misery is f***ing lonely.  But misery tends to prefer miserable company, because one never wants to be the one who is raining on the parade of people who are in a more cheerful place.  So in the absence (thank goodness) of miserable, lonely, pathetic people to be miserable and lonely and pathetic with, I turned to my song, which I had earlier determined would be "Ain't No Sunshine" (maybe I did have an inkling the Fairy of Godawful Loneliness would be visiting, after all). 

What is it about the blues that makes hurt feel so good?

Geekery, and my wholly unresearched opinion:

Structure.  When nothing else can be counted upon for support - no relationship, no job, no comforting habit - a simple chord progression is like a solid steel frame.  You can hang anything on it.  It is at once completely solid and reliable, and nearly unlimited in its scope for variation (in other words, the perfect spouse). 

The absence of the leading tone.  "Ti" in solfege - called the leading tone because it leads to the resolution to the tonic chord.  The leading tone is that perky friend you avoid when you want to wallow in a bad mood - you always know what she's going to say.  If she's an alto, she will resolve down a major third to "sol." If she's a soprano, she will almost invariably go up a happy little half step to "do".  Give me the flatted seventh any day of the week - it has to climb a whole step to get home.  For example: "she's always GONE TOOoo LO-ONG anytime she GOES A-way.  It's at once sadder (lower = sad, remember?) and more ... relaxed? than that perky leading tone.

Speaking of relax/release - last but not least we have the fact that the blues is really a vocal genre, and everything descended from it owes much to the human voice and its ability to express both ecstasy and despair.  Spanish has one word that captures perfectly art's ability to express this quintessential duality of life - duende.  The closest English translation is "soul", but that doesn't quite get it.  The repetition of simple phrases with a little variation, the cry, the steady pulse and progression of the harmony providing a stable podium on which to have your say... 

I'm gonna have to geek out on this more later - I'm falling asleep.  I listened to Bill Winters' version and Eva Cassidy's - will have to remember to check out some of the billion other covers.  I played along with the piano solo on Eva Cassidy's version (trying to find a credit for pianist and can't...?), will do that again.  I feel better now.  Hooray D minor blues.  And now hooray sleep...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Autumn leaves

Beautiful fall weather, and though the trees are only beginning to change, I am inspired to think of sweaters and fall songs, and eat spiced, pumpkin-y things.
This is totally a cheater song. I've learned this before, back in the day when I was studying jazz. I am so, so, so freaking tired. I was gonna learn another Sara Bareilles song, but it's quarter to 2 in the morning, I just finished getting paperwork together for my tax appointment tomorrow (I filed for an extension in the wake of the break-up/move... wow, does 6 months go by fast) and I have a really long day tomorrow. And I played this song on Monday at my lobby gig, and was not happy with the results. How can I not remember it like... a piece of cake? (I never forget a piece of cake.) I learned it before I began listening and thinking more like a jazz musician, and it's in there the old way. And I just haven't played or thought about this song for quite some time.

Plenty to write about, but I am still set to "Plow". Things should calm down a little in a couple weeks. 

Here's Keith Jarrett playing "Autumn Leaves"...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Last Night on Earth

I listened to a podcast of WNYC's show Soundcheck today while I ate lunch.  It was an interview with New York music critic Alex Ross.  One of the threads of the conversation was about the descending chromatic line and its quality of lament in pieces as varied as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused".  Remember "Shadowman"?  It has a descending chromatic line... well, throughout much of the form, but I think I mentioned it in particular on the lyric "please, if you're coming down to rescue me, now'd be perfect"... in any case, it fits right into the lamenty-descendy pattern. 

Today I learned Green Day's "Last Night On Earth" (another song on the set list for tomorrow night).  Funnily enough, the first couple chords are the same as "The Last Night of the World" from Miss Saigon.  The first five chords are the same as the first five chords of "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret ...and almost the entire A section is harmonically the same as that of "Funny Honey" from Chicago ("Funny Honey" goes to a turnaround at the end of the A; "Last Night.." goes to the tonic).  Now that's a mash-up waiting to happen.  It's a common progression, this time with an ascending line to begin: I; I-augmented, I6 (or vi-in-first-inversion), I7,(and now we descend) IV, iv.  The melody follows a similar contour - ascend, ascend, descend. 

Ascent=hope, light peeking above the horizon: you are the moonlight of my life. Maybe this time.  (funny honey... i refuse to analyze.... sassy?)
Descent=lament.  Rescue me (now'd be perfect).  If I lose everything in a fire.

This doesn't seem to be an unrequited-love song ("if you dare to second-guess, you can rest assured that all my love's for you"), but it's not exactly happy.  They are separated.  Did you get my postcard?  If my house burns down, I'll still have what's important if I have you.  Aww, that's sweet.  But who thinks about their house burning down all the time?  Incidentally, ascending seems to be more prominent in the Saigon song, which goes with its hopeful lyrics (though something about it makes us nervous, knowing what is probably going to happen next).

Bittersweet.  Duality.  Something we humans - especially Westerners, with our boxy, linear thinking, have trouble accepting.  Hope and yearning, loss and lament, ascent, descent - flip sides to the same coin?  Cannot have one without the other. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

King of Anything

I guess the least I can give you is a list!
9/25 - "Dream a Little Dream of Me"
9/26 - "Yesterday"
9/27 - "Virtual Insanity"
9/28 - "The Lucky One"
9/29 - "All I Wanna Do"
9/30 - "Letterbomb"
10/1 - "Vegas"
10/2 - "King of Anything"

This is one of those weeks where I'll look back a couple months from now and say, "I grew as a musician that week" ... but right now I'm just plowing through.  All those songs are for shows I had last week or this coming week, except "Yesterday", which was a get-out-of-jail-free card (ie a song I already kinda knew before the year began), and "King of Anything", which I'm about to learn right now.  I first heard it on the radio when I was home in New Mexico.  I think I tuned in right around the lyric of the pre-chorus: "I hate to break it to you babe, but I'm not drowning...", and was hooked by the line "so you dare tell me who to be?"  How refreshing to have a pop song by a female artist that says "I'm sticking to my guns about who I am, no matter what you say".

It's getting late.  Off I go.