Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Oscar goes to...

..."We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3, words and music by Randy Newman.

Yay!  The up-tempo won!  I have to confess I was rooting for this one to win.   

I play for a singing competition that is basically drunk-live American Idol, and one week the contestants had to sing a song that had won the Academy Award.  

It. Was. The. Longest. Night. Of. My. Life. 

That is how I learned that ballads are often favored for Oscar songs.  I guess there's something cinematic about a deeply-moving ballad? 

Anyway, I like Randy Newman's quirky voice, and I like the bass riff and the horn arrangment, and I'm more than thrilled that there's one more up-tempo to choose from in the realm of Oscar-winning songs. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Medley VIDEO!

Here is my Oscar medley - unfortunately I haven't had time to write my geekery about/analysis of it, so please check back later in the week for that!

The four nominees are (cue suspense):
"If I Rise" from 127 Hours
"Coming Home" from Country Strong
"I See the Light" from Tangled
"We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3

And the Oscar goes to... ???

Friday, February 25, 2011

Medley-Makin' Time

With Mom, who is responsible for my language-nerdiness. She is also a pianist.
I nearly misspoke (miswrote?) just now, when I was about to call this post "Mashup-Makin' Time", trying to be cool and hip and preserve my youth as long as possible by using Glee-speak.  Then I googled "mashup", because I'm a giant nerd.  Here is what I discovered: according to the interwebs, the word mashup actually refers to an electronic mix of two (or more) pre-recorded songs.  It is not a clever arrangement of parts of two or more songs cobbled together cleverly (we hope) and live.  No, that would be a medley.  They are two different things. 

You know what I love about the English language?  That it has so many words that we can distinguish between a mashup and a medley.  You know what else?  I love that it is a living language, flexible and constantly evolving.  So I could be pedantic and correct people when they refer to a medley as a mashup, or I could just be cool and hip and go with the flow.  Anyhow, I surmise that "medley" comes from the same root as "muddle" (meaning to mash, as mint leaves with simple syrup in the bottom of a glass). Furthermore, I surmise that 1) I need a drink that involves muddling and 2) my language-nerd mom (who deserves the blame/credit for this tangent) is going to fact-check the etymology of the words medley and muddle.

I'm hedging, really.  I should be working on my Oscar medley right now, since the only time I have to record it is tomorrow around noon.  I almost gave it up earlier today.  My heart's not really in this particular Wish anymore, I thought.  I should use my time for other things.  Then, just for the heck of it, I started noodling around with the Oscar songs for a few minutes before I had to leave for rehearsal.  And of course it was fun and satisfying for my nerdy brain to experiment with muddling (ha) these songs together.  So I'm going to do it, and tomorrow around noon I'm going to B.S. a medley for my videocamera for my next vlog entry.

Know what else I love about English?  How nouns can be verbs.  Like hedge.  And noodle.  And B.S.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black Coffee: Weekly Wish VIDEO!

Drumroll, please!

Presenting... my first Weekly Wish video!

The Wish:
I wish I were a better jazz accompanist.
I wish I could play for a jazz singer the way Paul Smith played for Ella Fitzgerald.

The Means:
Study what Paul Smith played for Ella Fitzgerald on "Black Coffee" from The Intimate Ella, which is a whole album of just the two of them.

The Video:
I was thrilled to have singer and actress Brooke Ishibashi join the on my trial-and-error process of recording my first video. It's always nice to have another good sense of humor in the room when I'm working with electronic devices.

Behind the Scenes:
I learned what Paul Smith played, but I didn't ask Brooke to sing exactly what Ella sang. I started out planning to record the notes I had transcribed from the recording, but that didn't always make sense with what she was singing. So there are deliberate changes from what Paul played, and then there are parts where I meant to play what he played and didn't (I think that's called "still-need-to-practice"), and then there are parts where I did play what Paul had done and probably could have listened more closely to what Brooke was doing.

So, onward! My friend says that every CD is a record of what he wishes he'd done better. Put that way, it kinda just makes me want to hide out and eat chocolate. But then again, it's a fun way to figure out my future Wishes, so it's perfect for me!

Comments & Feedback
I'm only one set of ears - comments and feedback here and on youtube are greatly appreciated.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Weekly Wish: 2/21/11 - Oscar Song Medley!

Weekly Wish: I wish I were a better arranger.

Means to the end: Cobble together a clever (I hope) medley of my favorite bits of the Oscar-nominated songs.  Write out a chart using Finale. 

I'm breaking my own rules.  (As is my custom.)  I'm supposed to move on to another project today - it's good for me to let go and allow something to marinate, and I don't have any work-related deadlines for my Wishes.  I worked on Oscar songs last week... well, "worked"... I didn't spend much time, because it's hard to make it a priority with so much else going on.  Especially since I'm a little hazy about what exactly I want to do, and am not totally in love with any of the songs (although I'm fascinated by the production on "If I Rise", and "We Belong Together" is fun).  But I want to finish this Wish, and I don't see myself feeling motivated if I wait until next week when the Oscars are over. 

I need a plan.  I work well with specifics.  Yesterday on the subway (where I do much of my thinking), I made a plan for my little mash-up.  Now I have to see if I can make it work on the piano. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oscar Songs - If I Rise

I didn't learn this song very well the first go-round. I intended to learn it a week ago Sunday, and then ... didn't. I was busy, sure, and also cranky about the fact that I have no idea what this song is about. I couldn't understand a lot of the lyrics, so I looked them up on the internet and read them. I still couldn't understand the lyrics.
You know how I am with lyrics. So I "learned the song" in the same way a little kid "washes his hands" before a meal - I played it on my computer while I cooked lunch, and intended to learn it, and then I think I took a nap.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself kinda liking the song the other day when I took a second crack at it. The production builds into a really interesting and tone-clustery melange of sound halfway through the song. The underlying groove never changes, but it sort of gets painted over by the rest of the orchestration, so that by the time the children's chorus comes in, it's possible to lose track of the downbeat.

Dido and A.R. Rahman collaborated on the song, and there is all sorts of stuff in it that I know very little about: electronic sounds, Eastern influences. According to the comment-sphere (usually there is space for "song meaning" comments on the sites that post song lyrics), the song is about making the most of whatever time you have. (Hey, they stole my epitaph!) There are also numerous comments about how well it works in the film. Which I wouldn't know, because I haven't seen it yet. Score minus-1 for taking things out of context.

As for the medley I'm concocting, I think I'll use the little opening riff, and maybe pick part of the melody to throw in at some point. I don't have time to render large sections of the song, or the arc as a whole, for solo piano, so I'll pick and choose what I can do at this point.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Weekly Wish: 2/14/11 Oscar Song Medley

I wish I could take time to review songs I've learned.

Last year I always wished I had time to go back and review my daily songs.  I rarely did unless they came up for gigs.  Yesterday I was happy to discover that transposing "Open Arms" down a minor third is a cinch because I learned it last year. In a perfect world, though, I'd take more time to go back to songs I like, which is why I'm experimenting with taking things on a weekly basis this year. 

Last week was busy and stressful, and I found myself saying "I wish I had more time" and "I wish so-and-so would stop being a pain in the ass", etc., in place of the musical wish I didn't have time to make.  This week's not a lot less busy, but I need a fun wish, so I'm going to go back and review the Oscar songs and think about a mash-up (the irony that I was oblivious to the Grammys is not lost on me... hmmm...). 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"What We Play Is Life."

Astronomical Clock, Prague
-Louis Armstrong

I was talking to a friend this week, promising to get her some project material soon, really really soon!  She nodded and said, "In the fullness of time."   

Heh.  I forget that time has its own fullness when I'm not trying to cram it with my own.  Not a concept that comes naturally to me, this baby steps thing.  

No Weekly Wish this week, because I needed my scant practice time for other priorities.  I was cranky about it, but I took one look at my schedule last weekend and realized it just wasn't going to happen.  The week turned out to be even busier than expected: last-minute work, and a pianist whose maternity leave I'm covering had her baby early (not too early, though, they're fine!). 

I didn't make a wish.  No one died.  I did the best I could with the time I had. 

Hey, I think I just stumbled upon my epitaph (this entry is becoming oddly morbid... I don't mean it...).

I hope it's a long time before I need an epitaph - I have a music to learn, cookies to eat - but I like it as an intention.  I'm going to do best I can with the time I have.  Way less stressful than frantically trying to do everything. 

The time I have: getting steadier, and my tempos are more accurate.  I'm familiar with more repertoire (thanks, last year!), which takes out the guesswork.  But also - remember last year when I was talking about habits and rhythm?  Like it or not, you perform with your practice habits, and life habits sneak in there too.  Now that I'm not trying (quite) so hard to be twelve places at once, it's showing up in my playing. 

Recording with Brooke tomorrow.  We postponed it a day because I didn't have time to practice.  My perfectionist nag is telling me I should have managed my time better,  not let personal worries get the better of me as they did yesterday.  I'm flipping that side a nonchalant L.H. 3-finger and signing off to practice a little "Black Coffee". 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Valentine's Day Gifts

Photo by Andrew Piccone:
Here is what I want for Valentine's Day, in no particular order:
1. a nap
2. chocolate
3. a dance class

Here is what I'm giving my Valentine:
1. a nap
2. chocolate
3. a dance class

That's right, you guessed it, I am my own Valentine this year.  I'm ok with that at the moment. 

Today I played for my friend.  I was relieved that he noticed improvement since he heard me play last summer.  I was even happier that the notes he gave me were pretty much the things I already knew I needed to work on.  We grow the most as musicians when we can take care of ourselves: we hear ourselves accurately and can troubleshoot what's not up to par. We know our strengths, and our bad habits.  And perhaps most importantly, when and whom to ask for help. 

When I started writing my Valentine's list, it was just another episode of Kat-writes-cathartic-blog-posts-in-the-absence-of-anything-else-to-say, but I just noticed it does tie in with my musical life-lesson du jour:

I've been single for over a year now.  It took a really difficult 7 or 8 months to figure out how to take care of myself alone, after having bartered that responsibility with a really decent guy for a long time.  Outsourcing is a nice luxury, but I'm glad I've had to learn how to get myself through the day on my own (and when and whom to ask for help when I can't). 

Life top 3 things I need: 
1. 6-7 hours of sleep a night (7 is better)
2. time and energy work really hard at music
3. friend-time almost every day (even if it's just a quick drink or a phone call).

Musical top 3 things I need: 
1. work on my phrasing/articulation
2. build up more power, especially in the left hand
3. keep working on my time (already much improved)

It's a gift, knowing what I need.  It's kind of a lameass Valentine's gift, but I'll take it. And, of course, naptime, chocolate, and a dance class for/from my Valentine.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Weekly Wish: Priorities?

You may be wondering what my wish is this week (I hope!).  Well, I'm sad to state that I don't have time for a proper wish this week; that is, a wish to learn something just because I love it and learning it will improve my playing.

The good news about being busy:  I will not have to sleep under a bridge, or subsist solely on the yummy food that sometimes appears at my gigs (Monday was a great day for gig food: leftover corporate catering at my lobby gig, and hors d'oeuvres at a cabaret benefit in the evening).  Also, I love what I do, so being busy makes me happy.

The bad news about being busy: no time for my own projects.  This year I find myself working harder for less money.  I love all my jobs, and am grateful to have them.  They each have their own set of pros and cons, but the simple fact is that I have to work more hours for less money than last year or the year before. 

Soon I will play for a friend who may be able to help me get some work on a Broadway show at some point down the line.  I am probably 20th on the list of people to be considered, but it's still a good opportunity.  So that's where my wish time is going this week.  It needs to go there for the next few weeks as well, to be honest.  I'm torn.  I love my wish project, but (as the horse proverb makes clear) wishes don't pay the rent.

Last week, I was chatting with an actress who is a lifelong veteran of Broadway and the West End.  She has been on the professional stage almost constantly since she was about six years old.  She's a brilliant performer and a lovely person, but the economics of this business are reaching their tentacles even to people at her level.  "This business can be so unforgiving," she said.  "You have to invest so much time for opportunities that may never come through."

But what else can you do, if art is what you must do?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Wishes on their Way...

Brooke and I rehearsed "Black Coffee" this afternoon - we'll record next weekend after we've had a chance to practice what we worked out today. 

I love collaborating!

Friday, February 4, 2011

I See the Light - Oscar Songs

Following my mom's advice to remain quiet unless I have something nice to say, I will refrain from writing about "I See the Light".  Some things I just don't like.

Ok, maybe I'll say one thing:
The "here/crystal clear" rhyme thing has been done before.  It has been done on a melody of ti-la-sol, with ti ("CRY"-stal) on the downbeat.  Not, ahem, a whole new world of songwriting.  Definitely not a brave one.  Then again, brave, exploratory art rarely wins awards from established institutions.  That is the world we live in.

That is all. 

What I love about learning a song a day: I am forced to prioritize, look at the big picture.  What are the most important things about this song?  What do I need to remember?  Harmony, form, melody, feel.  When the day is over, move on to the next thing, and just see how much I can recall later. 

What I love about taking more time: Getting more in the details.  What is the keyboard player doing?  Why can't I play that one riff?  Coming back with a fresh perspective - oh, that chord has an extension I didn't hear the first time through. 

I played a game of schedule tetris yesterday.  Actually, it was more like music chairs, because with tetris, everything fits somewhere if you can get to it fast enough.  With musical time slots, there are always little tasks left running around with no hour to sit on. 

My Weekly Wishes aren't falling neatly into the weeks.  I'll learn my last Oscar song, "If I Rise", on Sunday.  I will make the medley another week.  Tonight and tomorrow, I need to practice "Black Coffee", which I'm supposed to record with my friend tomorrow.  Or I'll work on the Gershwin transcription, if she has to reschedule (I just texted to confirm).  Wrapping up this week's Wish is being pushed aside so I can finish up Wishes from other weeks.

Some Wishes, like learning to play accordion, aren't meant to fit into a week.  (Sorry, neighbors.  Sorry, kitty.) It's only a framework to see how much time I can find within a week to practice just for fun, because I still suck at time-management. To let it go and move on to something else, because I will need to practice letting go and moving on until the day I die.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Coming Home - Oscar-nominated song

Ok, if you read this blog last year, you remember about me and sentimental ballads, right? And how much they make me want to hurl? How did I forget that Oscar-nominated songs are almost always sentimental ballads?!

Oh well. I'm still having fun this week. Yesterday's song was "Coming Home", and tonight I've gotten started with "I See the Light".

In the category of unusual modulations, we have "Coming Home" (start about 2:45 on the video to check this out): it goes up a whole step after the second chorus, plays through the first two phrases of the chorus minus the patter lyrics, then it goes back DOWN to the original key of C major.  Who does that!?!? The song was written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey, so apparently they do. Or maybe some arrangers who aren't credited as songwriters were involved here.

"After the second chorus" is usually the bridge. I like bridges. I mean, I have to, if I ever want to get out of Manhattan (there are piles of dirty snow everywhere, and more freezing rain on the way - right now I'm thinking cross a bridge into Queens and get the next flight to Puerto Rico). Song bridges are great because they are your chance to get out, musically speaking, of the 'hood for a while. Then come back to Manhattan for the end, because you know you love it here. On the bridge, get a change of scenery: change the chord progression, the melody, the rhythm or rhyme scheme of the lyrics.

...Or maybe just the key. I can't say for sure, because I haven't seen Country Strong or how the song is used in it, but I'm guessing there isn't a profound cinematic reason for that key change up a step and back down. I'm guessing it's some songwriters/arrangers who found a cheap trick to "write" a bridge. Hm. I will steal that cheap trick and put it in my own bag for later use.

Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow's character has to cross a bridge to get back home. A bridge that's a step up. And then back down.