Sunday, November 13, 2011

This one's about a piano and a song

I gave a brief history of me and the piano way back when, but I figure now's a good time to give the full version.

Music runs in my mom's family.  My Granddad was one of only 2 trumpeters (out of many many many that auditioned) to make the Army band and travel the world playing music instead of fighting.  He could play the trumpet like nobody I'd ever heard, and played big band jazz in the Sounds of Music Orchestra well into his 60's. My Grandma majored in music education in school with the piano as her instrument of choice. Her music repertoire could eat mine for dinner and still have room for dessert.  They had 3 kids that grew up with music.  My Uncle Brett was an accomplished trumpeter in high school; my mom plays the piano, flute, and handbells (although not at the same time...that's an act I'd like to see); my Uncle Barrick is skilled on many instruments and has made a successful career out of music--he has arranged music for Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston, Garth Brooks, and others that have seen their share of hit music charts (sorry Uncle Bear, but I had to name drop at least a little).

So there's a bit of a pedigree in regards to music.  When my mom encouraged me to take piano lessons, I did as any kid would do.  I resisted.  I felt like playing piano was girly, so if she could find a male teacher I'd start.  Finally, I caved in when she found a teacher I liked.  Ben directed the flute choir my mom played in at church, and I thought he'd be okay.

Naturally, we got started with the color-sequenced music books.  I guess music is like karate--you can't have numbered books or belts,'s gotta be by color.  Although there is slightly less kicking, punching, and screaming in piano lessons.  In fact, the book/belt similarity is where the analogy ends.

Back to music.

I was trudging through the first book just a couple of weeks into lessons. I was learning to read music and had just started playing with two hands at once.  Then my mom decided to play a prank on Ben at the next lesson--now there's an extracurricular activity I can support.  She had the sheet music to the Pink Panther theme song.  It looks more intimidating than it really is, if you can handle the jazzy rhythm of the right hand.  She set to work teaching me the song without reading the music.  I knew how it was supposed to sound, so I picked it up quickly.

I think you know where this is going.

At the next lesson, I sat down, plopped the Pink Panther music on the stand, and started playing.  If Ben's jaw hadn't been on the floor, he may have noticed that my occasional glances towards the music were only for show.

I was 11 when I started lessons with Ben
As it turns out, if you pull something like that off--regardless of whether you can really read the music--you get to skip ahead in the color progression.  It wasn't long before I was into real music. After a year or so of lessons, Ben left for Spain for missions work.  I started taking lessons from Vicki soon thereafter.

Vicki was just an interim teacher until either Ben came back or I found another teacher I liked more. The lessons stopped for a couple weeks for Christmas break; we'd resume after Christmas.  It was during this time that I was playing "Bumble Boogie" after church on the grand piano.  The music director asked if I had any Christmas music I could play in the Keyboard Christmas concert a week later.  As it turns out, I did not. At home, my mom went hunting through music and found a jazzy rendition of Deck the Halls.  In six days, I learned it, memorized it, auditioned it, and played it with only a single wrong note in front of 1200 people.

My first lesson back, Vicki asked how I enjoyed the Christmas break.  That was a fun game of catch-up.

After about a year with Vicki, we found Jim Harmon through a friend of a friend. He'd played piano as an opening act for both Liberace and the Johnny Carson show.  So I guess he'd be alright.

One of the first songs I learned with Mr. Harmon was the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Franz Liszt.  Many people recognize it as the concert piece played by Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry on their respective shows. It was a fun song to play, especially when imagining the cartoon playing along.  When I perfected the piece, Mr. Harmon made an off-hand comment that if he showed me the real Hungarian Rhapsody #2, I'd die.  When asked what he meant, he said, "what you learned is the simplified version" and left it at that.

Over the next several years, Mr. Harmon continued to challenge me with tougher and tougher pieces.  After establishing myself in church, I began playing more and more preludes and offertories there.  To date, I'd guess that I've played a few dozen times in church (keep in mind we're talking about a Baptist church in Texas--it's not a little church).  To mix it up, I started playing duets with my mom.  Piano-flute duets.  2-piano duets.  1-piano-4-hands duets.  Yeah, we were pretty much awesome.

I think this was the last duet we learned....
I tried a couple of times to get into a young pianist competition but wasn't quite good enough to make the cut from auditions.  I just never had the discipline to practice as much as was necessary to perfect my pieces.

At one of Mr. Harmon's recitals during my sophomore or junior year of high school, one of his younger students played the Hungarian Rhapsody #2 that I had learned years earlier.  I had forgotten all about it by that point.  But now it was on the forefront of my mind, and I wanted to play it.  How hard could it be?

Mr. Harmon still thought it would be too difficult for me.  He even had doubts about his ability to teach it.  But I persisted; in the 6 years I'd been taking lessons, I'd only ever picked out one other song on my own.  All others had been suggested by others.  Some I didn't want to learn at first, but now I love to play them years later.  The only song I had ever put on the radio and said "I want to learn this" was Mozart's Turkish March years earlier with Vicki.  I was determined to learn Hungarian Rhapsody; put the dadgum music in front of me!

Finally, Mr. Harmon gave me the music as a present.  He handed me the music book.  As I was forming the question of which page it started on, I had the sickening realization that the piece was the whole book.  Ya'll, that music was as much a gift as is a pipe-bomb filled with money.  You'll get your money, but first it's gonna make a mess of your face.  The Hungarian Rhapsody #2 is 24 pages of finger-mangling arm-burning music.  It may have saved ink to print the music in inverse color; cover the page in black except for where the notes go.

In summary, I was having second thoughts.

Nevertheless, we got to work with Mr. Harmon's special technique of learning music in reverse.  No, not playing it backwards.  Learning from back to front!  Most music starts with some melody and then adds to it as the piece goes on; the end of the song is just a harder version of the beginning.  So by learning the end first (although it is a bit more difficult this way, to be honest), you're learning the beginning as well and your performances will get stronger as they near the end. Ta da!

To say I had underestimated this piece would be an serious understatement; I nearly quit the piano altogether because of it.  It took 2 full years to learn this song and get it in a condition worthy of performance.  There were periods of multiple months that I would get so discouraged trying to play it that I would go weeks at a time practicing 30 minutes or less in a day.  Sometimes I would forego practicing altogether. My mom threatened to stop paying for lessons.

Once I finally got it "learned", Mr. Harmon and I went in for a lesson with his teacher--oh, snap!--to see what insight he could offer for tackling this musical beast.

For your enjoyment (although I must say (for my own pride) that the cartoon is a simplified and shortened version of the full version):

When I started college, I stopped lessons.  For the past 5 years, I've taken pretty much every opportunity to play a piano so that I could brush up and keep my repertoire somewhat fresh.  Thankfully I can remember all of my songs well so the cobwebs don't take too long to clear.  But I definitely got tired of "re-learning" my favorite songs every few months.

Fast forward to this year, when Ian offered to buy me a piano in exchange for maintaining the lawn and garden while he was out of the country.  Well, let's see...I accept.

Fast forward to last week, when I delivered a tv from a craigslist sale to a sweet old woman.  She had a baby grand in her living room that we got to talking about, and when I said I was in the market for a piano, she showed me an upright grand in the other room.  I played it, and liked it.  How much, though...?  $100.

Well, let's see...sold.

Now, then, moving it. In this corner, weighing in at an estimated 700 pounds, standing a whopping 54" high, the 101-year-old (not kidding) Cable-Nelson upright grand! In the opposing corner, Chad and his roadie friends whose combined weight is barely half that of the piano!

Turn's out it's not that difficult with the right tools, which can be rented for a scant $60.  We had it moved in an hour.

But seriously, I'm so happy to have a piano.  Not that my life is all that stressful, but bruising your fingers on real ivory (sorry elephants, but you make some pretty keys) is a lot of fun.

Here she is:

Oh, and it has a feature that I very much enjoy:

That's right, it's a lid-propper-thingamajig to MAKE IT LOUDER! My piano goes up to 11, fer realz.

And now I can resume work on my latest endeavor.  I currently can play from the 2:30 mark on, although admittedly not as well as Rubinstein....