I have always been a ham

I had been playing guitar for a few years, a fact which was known around my high school during my junior year. I was mildly famous at school having impersonated Ross Perot during a mock presidential debate which aired on the school’s morning video announcements, and my Wayne’s World Garth costume for Halloween was a hit as well. But it was my lead performance in Death of a Salesman that brought me to the attention of our schools drama and chorus teacher, who approached me about putting together an ensemble of guitar players to accompany the chorus during a presentation of carols during the schools winter dance, called the Holly Ball.

“After we’re done with our performances, you and the others will have a chance to do a few songs of your own,” she told me, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. Word soon got round to all my friends and we soon had more than enough players. The plan was to have several of us accompany the chorus with our acoustic guitars, then plug in and rock out for a few heavier songs. I remember there was a bit of fighting over what those songs would be, as several people, myself included, wanted to be the front man for their fave songs. In the end, I believe we settled on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Sprit, sung by a friend of mine, and also Today by Smashing Pumpkins, which was a fave of several others on the team. We chose Fire, by Jimi Hendrix, cause it was a classic that allowed several of us to show off our playing ability.

So we had several rehearsals the week or two before the show to work out the set, then we had the show. It was in the school’s cafeteria, with a small stage setup near the entrance; half of the tables had been cleared for a small dance floor. I don’t recall it being a big dance, but there were a few dozen people there in addition to my band mates and members of the chorus. I don’t remember much about that night, but I imagine that I was mostly focused getting through the choral numbers so that my boys and I could get to it.

Now I’ve never had the best stage presence when playing guitar, I tend to close my eyes, whether it’s from nervousness or concentration, but one memory that has stuck with me since that night was looking up during the guitar solo in Fire and seeing the crowd dancing. It was a brief moment of pure joy, seeing classmates losing themselves and tearing up the dancefloor while I busted out the music. Looking back at everything I did, music-wise, I think that was probably one of the greatest moments I ever had. And while it may sound sad to admit, I think it’s probably just a factor of nostalgia, childhood, and the familiarity I had with everyone involved.

I just happened to think about this memory when I was meditating earlier today, and time-traveled to that moment up on stage. I couldn’t help smiling.

Music like breathing

I just have spent over two hours today playing piano today. I must have been flow state for some time. I was learning a simple version of Canon in D, only about 40 or 50 bars, but I managed to get the music and proper fingering memorized, and really speed drilled it into my head today.

It worked a bit to much, cause I found the song playing in my head for most of the day when I wasn’t playing the piano, and I knew I was really deep in it when I starting singing Blues Traveler over it. I just did a 30 minute meditation session, and it was everything I could do to concentrate on my breath or on the crickets outside. But even my breath was betraying me, as I found myself keeping time with my inhalations and exhalations. I can still hear it in my brain as I type these words, and I know it will be driving me crazy tonight as I try to go to sleep.

A few years ago I got my hands on a copy of Chuan C. Chang’s Fundementals of Piano Practice, and it got me to the point where I could actually sit down and teach myself how to play Fur Elise all the way through. The premise behind the method is that it turns the standard practice regimine on its head. Instead of practicing scales and exercise, Chang recommends going straight into playing an actual piece of music. Granted, there are certain fundamentals that one must understand, (reading notation!) but there is enough to be learned from just practicing a score than there one can learn from ‘exercises’. And learning the performance aspect of playing is important.

I took a similar approach when I was learning to play guitar decades ago. I didn’t do lessons or study books, I just picked up a copy of Guitar For the Practicing Musician from 711 and spent hours up in my room learning to play whatever random rock tracks they had for that month. I had a collection of tab books that I would study and play through for hours on end.

Piano has been frustrating for me because tablature is so much relatively easier to read than notation, and I guess I’d lacked the patience to internalize the mapping between the notes and the keys. It’s not any easier now, it just takes practice.

An another of the things that I took away from Chaun’s method is the focus on practicing the hardest parts first. And practicing hands separate. I don’t know if the latter is really revolutionary, but one can really swap back and forth with the hands separate method, drilling the hardest turns over and over at twice playing speed until the one hand gets tired, then switch to the other.

Chaun’s book is very long. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it. But their site seems like a trove of resources for anyone wanting to learn piano.

And now for some emotional release

I’ve been pretty stoic this past week with what happened in Connecticut last Friday, however while watching this video the damn broke and I couldn’t stop crying. Ode to Joy is beautiful, and for some reason I find these kind of public performances the antithesis of what happened last week.