Tag Archives: piano

A Million Little Pains

I have a really bad urge to write right now, but I feel like I’m taking my life into my own hands. Because I have tendonitis in my writing arm. It doubly sucks, because I also rely on that arm to, you know, play piano for a living.

This has happened before. A year ago, I was happily doing writing exercises every day in The Artist’s Way, the brilliant book by Julia Cameron all about reclaiming and discovering one’s own creativity. The number one thing out of that book that often makes the biggest difference for people is the morning pages, which are simply three pages of freewriting (stream-of-consciousness brain spill) done first thing in the morning. I did it for a good eight weeks and loved the opportunity it gave me to unlatch my brain after whatever kind of night of sleep I had. It gave me a chance to start fresh every day, and to even come up with some great ideas for creative projects.

But by the eighth week, I noticed with growing dismay that my morning pages had a constant theme – the pain in my right forearm. It was the result of an injury I got months earlier from wrestling with a sticky mic stand. The pain went from thumb joint all the way to elbow and sometimes a little beyond, and that was all my brain could express in my notebook. It was hard. I had to stop to pause several times and wiggle or massage my hand and elbow, even though I knew I was violating a cardinal rule.

My piano practice suffered too. I could only play short sessions and follow them up with an ice-down. I stopped playing at my favorite open mic for a while, reserving whatever I had left for paid gigs.

And then the morning pages stopped completely. After trying different kinds of pens and paper, switching to typing, writing fewer pages or more slowly, nothing relieved the pain. All I could do was stop.

That’s where I’m at now. After three days of trying to re-introduce morning pages to my routine, I’m once again stymied by another flare-up. I’ve had drugs, ice, heat, chiropractic, massage, reiki, yoga – anything I can throw at it. But no relief, nothing that will have me write comfortably every day.

I easily sound pretentious. There are a billion more things actually worth crying over. I’m not an NHL hockey player with a broken leg or a union electrician with a slipped disc and kids to feed. I’m not a military sniper who at any moment could step on a land mine.

But ask anyone whose living consists of millions of small movements how it feels to live with a small pain that won’t quit unless you do. And it’s the small pains that are the most sinister, because they could mask bigger issues or make you just pissed off enough to throw your commitment out the window completely.

It wouldn’t hurt my arm so much if it didn’t hurt my heart, my soul, my faith in who I am.

I have a friend who is a yoga teacher diagnosed with MS. She inspires me, not because she’s doing full-on yoga and teaching others in spite of her condition, but because sometimes she does have bad days and missed days, and complaints and annoyances like anybody else. She too is bothered by little pains.  And she doesn’t always have the answers to mine.

And I wonder if my drive to find answers to my pain is only making it worse. If only I can separate my mind from it, or not think so much about it. I don’t want to ignore my body and its needs, but my heart and soul are just as starved. If I can feed my heart and soul while giving my body the space to heal, that would be the best. It’s just that the things I normally want to do for that purpose require the parts of me that hurt the most.

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Anti-Piano Bias?

Please excuse me if this sounds like a rant, because it probably will be once I’m at least two-thirds through writing this.

I’ve been going to open mics around the Detroit area for a couple of years, and what I love about them is the chance to show off my stuff, test some things out, and meet new friends. It’s been an awesome experience. My favorite open mic is at the Black Lotus brewery, because you see the best variety of artists there with a lot of amazing talent. The hosts are also very sweet and the sound system and stage facilities accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

I’d love to play more open mics like this, but it’s frustrating because there’s hardly anywhere else I can bring my keyboard. It’s not an instrument I can just strap on my back and jump on a bike with. It has 88 fully weighted keys which makes for a 20 pound instrument. I’m in the market for something less unwieldy, but until then, this is what I got. It needs a stand, which requires me to make two loading trips to get everything on stage.

But it’s not just about me and my inconveniences. There’s also the issue of what kinds of music the venue wants to welcome.  Some may say they are truly interested in getting wide range of styles up there on stage, but they limit the kind of variety they’re getting by not having a keyboard – or at least a keyboard stand – available.

So what they end up with is guitarist singer-songwriter after guitarist singer-songwriter sharing their version of the guitarist singer-songwriter.

I just saw a new “acoustic open mic” being announced at a local pub, and it begs the question: How acoustic is acoustic? Does that mean no amplification, or just no electronic instruments? In either case, it completely rules out the keyboardist, even if she only plays her Yamaha Portable Grand. If there were an acoustic piano on site, she’d have no problem walking in and playing an expressly acoustic show. I, for one, don’t play all these weird organ patches and stuff with loops and samples – 99% of the time, I’m playing my acoustic piano sound, because rare is the music venue that has an acoustic piano in house.*

It’s partly money, I know. But if you can afford to have a decent sound system, then how much of a burden is it to have a keyboard stand so that you don’t just get 14 Bob Dylan wannabes in a row?

And that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing – guys AND girls with guitars (though now all the girls have ukuleles), all doing the same kind of folk-rock in this angst-ridden, valium-induced balladeering which is all starting to sound the same. Or, they will get a whole slew of guys that play only classic rock and blues, and when the blues stuff really gets going, the whole stage overflows with 10 guys all playing solos on top of each other for 20 straight minutes – as if there aren’t any blues clubs at all in Detroit!

Don’t people know that songwriters don’t all play guitars, and that some of them play genres other than folk rock? If you’re a venue that’s committed to having a variety of music, then please make it possible for musicians other than those playing acoustic guitar come play at the open mics. It’s really tough to haul around keyboards, drums, pedal boards and other equipment just to share music and make new connections. If you make it easier for us, then you might just experience a blossoming of live music at your venue.

But if you’re just offering an open mic night as a way to throw table scraps to musicians you don’t want to pay, then all you will attract are table-scrap musicians, and you’ll wonder why live music doesn’t bring in the kind of money you want. If venues complain about the lack of variety they attract, they’re the ones creating it by not having facilities that accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

*UPDATE: I had a wonderful conversation today with a local artist/producer/consultant/man of many hats that got me thinking differently about this post. I mean, there ARE venues with pianos on site – they’re called piano bars and jazz clubs. Duh! So I wonder if maybe I just need to poke around a different scene? What if I’m the one who needs to think outside the box to connect with more listeners??

Also, I should add that I forgot to include Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak as a keyboard-friendly open mic – they supply a keyboard and stand for their Friday night event.

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The only music teacher a kid will ever have

I’m on the verge of teaching beginning piano. Some folks have asked me if I do that, and I’m ready to say yes. Here’s what happened.

I had a conversation with an upright bass player who supplemented his playing career by teaching piano to young beginners. Now, I have heard accomplished pianists say that they would never dare to teach piano even though they’d been playing for decades, because there was too high a risk for teaching it wrong and with poor technique. But this bassist was unperturbed. He said something about his experience that struck me: “You might be the only music teacher that kid ever has.”

Wow.

I had never thought about teaching music that way before. But it was true. When I was very young, my mother had me get piano lessons because she wanted me to have a firm grounding in music, even if nothing came of it. In elementary school, we had no regular music classes. Once in a blue moon we would have one, but by the time we got to it, I had already learned about scales and chords and stuff because I had been taking piano for some time.

Kids would be lucky if they even got half the instruction that I got in school. There’s no need for me to rant here about how school administrators and politicians throw music and art out of the K-12 curriculum with every budget cut. But as much as musicians and artists grieve over the loss of music in the schools, only some will take on the private teacher’s mantle to make up for what the kids lose. Others run the opposite direction, saying that teaching is only for those with just the right credentials and experience, someone whose heart is really in it to serve students in a responsible way. They say, just because you play good doesn’t mean you can teach it just as well.

That’s a perfectly sound argument, one that I have made many times. Then I heard this story…

When Gandhi was doing his activist thing in India, a woman came to him asking for help. Her young son was addicted to sugar and she wanted to hire Gandhi to teach him how to get off his addiction and eat healthier. He told the woman he’d be happy to do it, but she had to come back in a week before they got started. The woman was puzzled, but she obliged. She waited a week, then came back to him. Now would he help her son? Sure! They got right down to it, and Gandhi told her son exactly what do to.

Now, the woman became indignant and said, why didn’t you tell me all this last week? Gandhi said, because a week ago, I was addicted to sugar, and so I had to figure it out for myself before I shared it with you.

What did my bassist friend have to know to teach beginning piano? How to play beginning piano, and how to communicate with a beginning pianist. That’s it. He doesn’t have to be Horowitz. No parent looking around for simple piano instruction for their son or daughter is going to be looking for a Julliard professor. (If they are, then I’d like to know how they think their child is the newest incarnation of Mozart.) Nor is any adult student looking to enrich their lives with basic piano skills going to hire a Julliard professor just to get them started.

Such a teacher might not have the patience for them anyway.

“But you can’t just hang up your shingle and call yourself a teacher!” everyone says. Well, that’s why Gandhi waited a week, and taught himself how to get off sugar before extending the knowledge to someone else. Was it irresponsible of him to do it that way? Should he have become a licensed nutritionist before he decided to help just one child?

He was probably the only teacher that child was ever going to get.

Once you learn a skill, and learn how to communicate that skill, you can teach that skill. Teachers often scream “you can’t do that” for several reasons:

  1. They are jealously competitive with each other.
  2. They feel righteous and indignant about all the credentials they’ve received and don’t want to see a person with fewer do better than them, because that’s not how they expected it to happen when they were still in school.
  3. They worship their own method, or their own teacher, to the exclusion of everything else, and they think they have nothing new to learn themselves.
  4. They may still cling to the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” argument, so a person who teaches must be someone who can’t “do” music at all.

How do I know this? Because I’ve been busted on all of these points myself.

We put teachers on a pedestal on the one hand, but tear them down on the other, because of our own insecure egos running the show. On the surface, we say that teaching is too important to be left to the incompetent, and we think we’re honoring teachers by saying this, but we’re not. Underneath, our ego is saying, “therefore only someone like me should be doing it,” or, “therefore that idiot over there shouldn’t be doing it.” Or, “Look at me; at least I have some sense to stay out of the way, unlike that guy.”

There’s some version of “I’m too smart to teach” going on, and that’s ego. That’s ugly. The way you honor the teaching profession is to teach, not to run away from teaching.

What if you were the only music teacher that a kid will ever have?

I never questioned the competency or credentials of the woman who first taught me piano out of her home when I was a fussy child. She had the patience of an oak tree, even when my parents didn’t. She gave me something that no one else did, without which I wouldn’t have lasted in high school choir and gone on to become the musician I am now. Her gift lasted me a lifetime, and that’s all I need to know. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go knock on her door like before, only this time I’d show the kind of patience for myself that she had for me.

But instead of going back in time, I think I’ll go forward and offer beginning piano lessons at SoundSorceress Studio. I’ll pay it forward on my teacher’s behalf, because I might be the only music teacher some kid ever has.

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When goals get in the way

Could it be that I’m in love with practicing piano for the first time in my life?

Oh, I’ve done a lot of regular practicing in my lifetime, but never like this – gingerly floating through Hanon exercises and pages upon pages of beginner’s pieces without a care in the world, just enjoying the discovery of what my hands can do, and how good it feels.  It’s enjoyable and happy – what the hell?!

This happened after I read The Practicing Mind by Thomas M. Sterner. I bought it because I was convinced I had a perennial self-discipline problem. I always hated practicing at the keyboard; I resented it, it was frustrating, and I couldn’t keep my attention on it. Oh, I had absorbed a ton of musical knowledge from my piano teacher when I was young, but I couldn’t sit still long enough to play and master something and feel good about it. I would start and quit and start and quit and start and quit. And the last time I quit, my parents said, “Ok, but this time, it’s for good.”

Then after a few years away from music, I discovered the joy of singing in high school, and all I had to do to get up to speed in Chamber Choir was remember all those theory bits from my earliest days at the piano. It worked; the knowledge stuck with me. Then in college, once I decided to become a professional musician of some kind, I decided to try piano lessons again. I figured, “I’m an adult now; practicing should be easier and better because I know what’s at stake here.”

Yeah right.

I was back on the start-and-quit program, which was to last me throughout my young adult life.

Here’s the thing. Every time I’ve decided as an adult to seriously take up the piano again, it has failed, but not in the same way it failed for me as a child. Back then, I had nothing at stake; but as an adult, I had everything at stake, and that was the killer. My thought pattern was, “I’ll never be as good as I’m supposed to be. I’m a fraud and a fake because now music is my profession and it just seems like hypocrisy for me not to play well. I’ll never be able to sight-read. I needed to learn this years ago; I’ll never catch up.” You’d think that having a goal of being a competent enough player to sight-read at the instrument and accompany singers in most situations would be a great motivator to spur me on to practice, but it wasn’t. Those thoughts derailed me every time. No matter who was my teacher, no matter what method I used, it just wasn’t going to happen like that. I would always be stopped by this unattainable goal.

Enter Sterner’s book. Now, reading this book did not seem like the huge revelation I thought it would be. I thought it would give me something I never had before. But not really; it was full of the wisdom of Eastern philosophies that I was already familiar with: enjoy the process, don’t get so hung up on the results, take a Zen approach to your practice, just be in the now, and so on. Reading that, I was thinking, “I know, I know! I’ve heard all that before! Give me something NEW!” But the new revelation did not happen while I was reading the book. I had read it all in one sitting and the lightning bolt never struck…until after I had set the thing down.

Many times I’ve touted having goals as a motivator for your practicing; it seems like such obvious advice, and it seems to work for a lot of people. But having a goal is one thing; keeping on the path towards it is ENTIRELY another.

After I set the book down, my thoughts drifted back to the time I took up singing seriously in high school. I was spurred on by the choir teacher telling me – prophetically – “you should be in choir.” I followed that out of curiosity, and with an inner knowing that I could sing and enjoy it. I wasn’t thinking about a career or winning contests. I didn’t formulate this big goal in my head that I would be a top-tier vocal student. I wasn’t thinking of being able to sight-sing or harmonize or build a whole skill set as a singer. I didn’t formulate a detailed picture of singing success and map out a plan to get there. None of that mattered. All I did was join the choir.

Over time, my sight-singing skills developed as a by-product of just singing a lot and following my musical curiosity. The only times I experienced disappointment in my singing abilities was when I set hard goals and didn’t meet them. When I simply followed my heart, the skills followed right along. I just kept on singing every day, because we had choir every day and being in choir with all my friends doing great music was just the best time I ever had in high school.

There was only the thought of “I want to do this.” There was never the thought of, “I have to do this,” except whenever I obsessed over reaching a goal.

And I never obsessed over goals more than all the times I clawed my way toward some upright Yamaha in a hot room the size of a closet with nothing but my sense of immanent failure.

The realization of all this hit me like a ton of bricks.

So what now – if all that goes away? Holy wowsers. I can return to the piano – I can embrace it again for the first time. I’m going to completely throw out my old goals, including that of sight-reading. Because I never learned sight-singing that way – why should I learn it that way at the keyboard? Every time I try it, I get frustrated and disappointed because I can’t do it all right now.

I get hung up on the product and think nothing of the process, as Sterner suggests time and again.

So I’m letting go. I’m going to think of piano practice not as a career-builder and something I should have done years ago, but as an opportunity to explore something new and see where it leads. I’m going to re-enter the Beginner’s Mind I had when I was in school, just discovering the possibilities of music and what I loved about it. I want to re-visit that place at the piano to just fall in love with the sound and the feel of it, expecting nothing.

It feels like a great weight has fallen away. I get to come to the piano with nothing, and expect nothing in return except just some quality time with the instrument and my little method books, like John Thompson’s First Grade Book. The first piece in that book is called Music Land: “Off I go to music land / Training ear and eye and hand.” It’s eight measures of whole and half notes, but that’s not all. Next to the grand staff there’s a line drawing of two children mounting the first step on a long, windy staircase. We don’t see the top of the staircase; we don’t know where Music Land is, or what it looks like, or if it’s even a place at all. Maybe in music there is no ultimate destination; there is just the path.

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“But I did it so well in practice!”

Good! I’m so glad to hear that your song is going well in practice! But you’re frustrated because you came into the lesson studio and bombed it four measures in. Not to worry: All that means is that you’re ready to practice differently. You’re ready to practice performing. Blogger Graham Fitch has this to say about it:

“[Practicing performance] is the conscious decision to build into our work routine opportunities to practise playing the piece or even the entire programme through in its entirety as though an audience were present.”

His blog is about piano playing, but this concept applies just as well to singing. What’s interesting, he notes, is that when we just practice – working trouble spots and running drills – we forgive ourselves for so many more infractions than we would if we were performing, and we often forget they ever happened. But the real test is how you deal with (or avoid) infractions on stage. So the solution is to practice being in performance.

In your practice space, create yourself an environment as close to performance conditions as possible in which you then sing your piece front to back without stopping for anything. This is especially good if you’re a singer who struggles with getting your very first entrance right (like me). Sense the presence of listeners and visualize everything you would expect in the performance hall (or in the lesson room, if that’s where you get your butterflies for the time being). And let yourself feel all of it. Observe what’s happening in your body as your moment to sing approaches.

And then, in the middle of all that, let the breath drop in and go.

And keep going. Keep riding the wave, no matter what. Then you can repeat the process when you’re in the lesson studio with a lot less trepidation and fear.

Read more cool stuff from Graham Finch here.

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The Singer’s Soundboard

Every instrument has a resonator, and few resonators are more famous (or less known) than the soundboard of a Steinway concert grand. Part No. 81, as they call it in the Steinway factory, gives each instrument its unique and world-coveted sound. James Barron describes it in Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand:

Part No. 81 is a sheet of glued-together wood thinner than the ubiquitous four-by-eight sheets of plywood that weekend woodworkers jam into their sport utility vehicles on Saturday mornings…it is the largest single piece of wood in the piano….It will function as the piano’s amplification system, a preelectronic triumph of physics. Without help from a single audio cable or input jack, it will transform relatively weak vibrations of the strings into sounds powerful enough to fill a concert hall.

A much more ancient triumph of physics is the voice’s resonator, but what is that, exactly?

“Resonance” is one of those discussions in singing that gets just as much confusion as discussions of the diaphragm in breath support. It’s that elusive, hard-to-pinpoint thing that seems to straddle the boundary between physics and fairy tale. Some people say that the sinuses “resonate” when you’re in your head voice, and the trachea and sternum “resonate” in chest voice. Others speak of the larynx, pharynx and mouth as resonators, which is more physically accurate, but then how do you explain the other buzzy sensations in your head that accompany the “resonant” sound you’re listening for?

When I talk about resonance, I split the difference between pure physics and metaphor and compare the voice to a Steinway grand. The vocal cords correspond to the strings of the piano, which would not be amplified if it weren’t for a carefully crafted soundboard. And the soundboard of the singer is the hard palette, the roof of the mouth. I have students hum with their jaw gently separated, as if they were tasting something delicious, to access the resonance of the hard palette.

Singing originates in the larynx with the vibration of the vocal cords; from there, the sound travels up through the pharynx and hits the roof of the mouth before exiting. Vocal sound does not travel up into the sinuses or down into the chest; it cannot begin below the larynx or come out of any part of the head except the mouth. It would be just as useless to say that the sound of a saxophone comes out anywhere but the bell of the instrument.

When a singer feels buzzy sensations in the head or chest that feel like “resonance,” that’s called sympathetic vibration. Singers often monitor these sensations to make sure that their sound is free and open in all the right places. When they actively direct where and how the vibrations are felt, that’s called placement. You can gather a lot of good data about your voice when you work this way, but the pitfall here is when you confuse the vibratory sensation with the resonating sound itself. The two are not the same!

So I always try to be careful when using the word resonance; I always say when I’m using the word acoustically or metaphorically. If I’m speaking acoustically, I’ll talk about the hard palette and the vocal tract doing the work, with the lungs supplying the breath and so on. If I’m speaking metaphorically, I talk about the resonance of “the whole instrument,” which for me extends from the base of the pelvis to the top of the head and beyond, with sound coming out everywhere. But I make sure to say I’m not speaking literally!

It’s always good to remind yourself of what actually is resonating in the acoustic sense – what your voice’s sounding board is – and then distinguish all other vibrations from there. Then you can have all those elements working for you, however you perceive them, physically or metaphysically.

 

 

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Zen Piano

My Achilles Heel is sight-reading at the keyboard.

It embarrasses me, scares me, and makes me feel like the most clumsy human being on the planet.

I deal with a lot of inner demons with regard to this as well, and I’ve been determined to stick it to ’em. But the trick is identifying who they are exactly.

The ringleader of these demons is like Dug from the movie “Up”: he gives his full, loving attention to the task for a few seconds, and then-SQUIRREL!”

*?#%*&^*!

That’s how my brain tends to function when I’m trying to play a simple phrase from Czerny’s “First Instructor of the Piano”…you know, the stuff that sounds like a Goldberg Variations version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? These exercises have found their way into countless method books for the last hundred years or so; if you had taken piano lessons with books published before 1990, then it’s very likely you’ve run into some Czerny.

Anyway, I’m just playing along, even getting into it a little with phrasing and dynamics-“SQUIRREL!”

*?#%*&^*!

Dammit!!

I’ve lost my place. I feel like giving up and stopping, and at this point I often start over.

But I’ve been determined to find out what’s wrong with this situation and how I can correct it, because I’m sick of feeling jealous toward the many accompanists I’ve known through the years who seem to be able to sight-read upside-down and backwards while doing a crossword puzzle on the side. (Seriously, that’s how it looks to me sometimes.)

And I’ve figured out what’s wrong with me: Nothing.

My brain has its own rhythm, as does everyone’s. Sometimes it flits around like a butterfly in a garden or a goldfish in a bowl. There’s nothing wrong with that. It has its own rhythm, which can get very flighty and fast sometimes. It’s not a defect; it’s just how I run.

But why does my brain run so erratically sometimes? Not just at the keyboard, I realize, but at the computer when I get distracted…in the comfy chair when I’m trying to meditate…when I’m reading a favorite book and suddenly biting my fingernails…

I sat with this question for a moment before going to bed one night, allowing my brain to slow down and open up to the answer…

Fear.

Of not measuring up, of not being good enough, of not being perfect. In the eyes of parents, teachers, priests, bosses, directors….

There was this deep-seated fear behind everything that made me inwardly frantic. And here’s the kicker: I actually drew energy from that fear so that I could succeed and win at everything in life. If I let up even once on that frantic energy, I was sure to die. So I ran with it, until it ran on its own; it became my auto-pilot.

Just noticing this has made me calm down a lot.

And knowing that I don’t have to choose to draw my energy from fear anymore.

It’s very Zen when you can just notice the machinery that runs you and acknowledge that all it is, is a machine. It’s not a demon at all, or an uppity dog that loves to interrupt.

And there’s nothing wrong. I’m not going to die if I blow it sight-reading at the keyboard. Roberta, my piano teacher, has praised me up and down for sight-reading work that I felt had too many mistakes in it. I was flabbergasted at her for that, but she maintained her position that I was ready to move on to more challenging exercises. I’m going to believe her from now on.

There’s nothing wrong.

Just let yourself do it. Let yourself jump in, fall down, get back up, and run and leap and stop dead and start again, in whatever you’re doing. It really is only the “monkey-mind” that objects, and it is not YOU.

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Maiden Voyage of Amy’s Travelling Piano Bar

I’m trying to recall any solo-gig experience that matched my night at Countryside Care Center for total, complete fulfillment on just about every level.

Haven’t found one yet, don’t care to look anymore.

It all started with a phone call to Martha, the activities coordinator at Countryside. I said I was Amy Saari, the daughter-in-law of one of their residents, and I wanted to share a glammed-up piano bar experience with him and his fellow neighbors sometime. She thought it was a fantastic idea but didn’t know if her area could fund it. After she got in touch with some of her people, they were able to pool some money together between a couple different areas of the site to have me there.

Once the booking was made, I got a call from Mom-in-law Marilyn saying she got the news from Countryside. When she told Dad-in-law Ray Sr. all about it, he started to smile and his eyes got moist, which is nearly impossible for a Parkinson’s patient, she said. The disease affects the facial muscles so that they can’t express emotion, and patients end up with a condition unsurprisingly called “the mask.” But Ray Sr. managed a smile and a tear when he heard I was going to come play music for him. Wow.

The night of the gig was pretty wild. True to the promise of my business, I got dolled up in a slinky red dress with heels and arrived at Countryside with Marilyn and my microphone gear. The main dining room was already set up for the concert, and even though their piano was slightly out of tune (they couldn’t get a tech in there), it felt serviceable. As the hour approached, the residents all wheeled in. I greeted Ray and a whole house-load of my brother-in-law’s family. Marilyn even had a couple of her friends come! I told her, “I have to hire you as my PR person out here.” She laughed.

I began the hour-long set by introducing the concept of Amy’s Travelling Piano Bar as a glam throwback to late- and post-Prohibition smooth: “Imagine the lights a little dimmer…the air a little smokier…” People started giggling. Then Martha dimmed the lights and I giggled right along. It was happening. I began with “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon, and it was immediately recognizable. Score! The whole point of choosing early-to-mid-20th-century standards was that they connected deeply with this older audience. As the set went on, weaving through “Crazy,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Cry Me a River” and “Stardust,” people started picking up on the songs more and more, and everyone even sang along to “Over the Rainbow.” The songs didn’t need introduction; in fact, it was more fun to scan the room for recognition when the first four bars were played.

And I didn’t mince lyrics, either. There was no editing of references to smoking (“Black Coffee”), drinking (“Bewitched”), sex (“Bewitched” again), or angst (“Black Coffee” again) in my presentation. Why? Because these were adults! They LIVED that stuff! The thing that turns me off about a lot of entertainment for seniors (especially in assisted living and nursing home situations) is that it tends to be dumbed-down, like it’s a kids’ program. They’re not kids! Martha said to me afterwards, “You can only sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ so many times!” No kidding! Plus, we’re getting to a point where the music that today’s seniors grew up with contained exponentially increasing amounts of blush-worthy content, the kind of stuff that pissed off their own parents before they themselves grew up to rail against hippie rock and punk.

And how long will it be before hippie rock and punk form the basis of senior-center entertainment? Don’t hold your breath…

I saved the best for last: I dedicated the finale to Dad-in-law Ray, as I had learned from my husband that he was a HUGE Bobby Darrin fan. So I launched into “Beyond the Sea,” way fun and much appreciated. At the final curtain, Martha wheeled Ray up so he could present a bouquet of roses to me. It was the sweetest thing ever.

Nothing beats a night like that. I sincerely hope I can do the same thing out there again in a few months and keep spreading the love out in Jackson. In the meantime, I’ll be going to Pine Ridge and other centers in the Metro area to play, because few things connect us to our elders like the music they love, and it’s the least we can do as musicians to honor them.

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Simplify.

I had my first piano lesson last week, and it was a revelation:

Simplify.

You don’t have to play all the 7ths, all the inversions, or all the possible funky rhythms you can come up with. Just play major triads in root position: I, IV, V, I. You’ll actually find yourself playing the piece and not racking your brain on how to make it musical.

I tend to over-complicate things. I’m a music student who wants to have it ALL right NOW; I want to understand everything and get to the Promised Land today; I want to get ahead of the curve and leave everyone else behind in the dust on day one.

And because of that mentality, it takes me forever to learn the simplest things.

I learned this week that you don’t have to do everything now. You don’t have to have it all figured out after one lesson, or after a whole month or year of lessons. Take it one element at a time. It’s a very Zen way to practice, and I love it. I don’t need to play “Danny Boy” in a manner worthy of Carnegie Hall. I can just play it in a manner that has me learn the element that I need to master.

I’m in lessons to learn the skills, not the music. Of course I can’t help but learn the music, but some of us have a habit of learning and absorbing all kinds of music without learning skills. I don’t want to be that kind of musician. I already am that kind of musician, where the piano is concerned. And this is exactly why I’m taking lessons.

I’m perfectly happy to start my piano work where the yogis start their chakra work: in root position. So that’s where I’ll stay until further notice.

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Biting the Bullet with Piano Lessons

I’m really doing it! Meet my new piano teacher, Roberta Brown. She’s a licensed Simply Music teacher in Royal Oak who is going to take me through the next phase of my perilous journey through keyboard technique.

And it’s not going to be the same-old/same-old “Johnson’s Modern Course for the Piano”, no sir! Simply Music is an innovative teaching method developed by Australian educator Neil Moore to get students playing–and I mean really playing, not just doing some glorified typing–real contemporary and classical music in an experiential way. Students of all ages can develop a repertoire of over 30 pieces in their first year of lessons, pieces that run the gamut from blues to jazz to classical. And they’re often performing them that soon as well.

The specific course I’ll be taking is the accompaniment course, which has you learn to read lead sheets and chord symbols for the purpose of supporting singers and instrumentalists. This is really exciting because chord reading is exactly the kind of thing I have to do in my career right now–I have something at stake, which is something I never had in all the false starts I’ve had as a piano student before. I used to say, “Eh, I’ll just have my own accompanist wherever I go.” Nope, can’t guarantee that. That’s a college-kid’s thinking. We’re well beyond that.

So, yay! And don’t be surprised if I become some kind of lounge-lizard at the end of it all, playing jazz standards at an upscale Italian restaurant somewhere next year. But most likely I’ll be geared up for doing another round of accompanying for Torch This! which is definitely going to have its second incarnation sooner rather than later–stay tuned!

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