“If you play this piece fast, I will hunt you down.”

I think that would have been the last step in Scott Joplin’s progressively more and more impatient tempo markings.

The reason I’m thinking of this is because my head has finally and inevitably been hijacked by a ragtime demon that insists on playing rags in my brain 24/7. It was bound to happen. This is the piano style that my dad got obsessed by after “The Sting” came out, and we listened to it constantly when I was a kid, especially after he found out that Joplin had written an opera. I love this stuff, and it means my childhood and time spent with my dad, and I was bound to finally get taken over with it. I thought it would come as a result of a few Haendel arias, but it seems to have sprung up of its own accord. (I’m still planning on doing the Haendel arias in ragtime style, though.)

Fun, but tiring.

And as someone who likes ragtime and tends to dislike stride — “I played the whole piece in 14 seconds! I r smrt and gud peeAAAAAAAAnist!” — I’m cringing at the thought of how these pieces could conceivably be brutalized by playing them at the typical egotistical breakneck speed of stride, which is how Joplin’s music was mangled by East coast pianists within his lifetime. (Fast boogie? Fine with me. Fast stride? Please, you’re just playing ragtime at the wrong tempo.)

I may have to use Joplinesque tempo markings on my own pieces. “Play this piece at a leisurely speed, or I will trank you personally.”

So STEM folks don’t have a Plan B, huh?

Yet again, this whole don’t-have-a-Plan-B horseshit continues to stink just as much as it ever did.

If having a Plan B is good enough for an astronaut, then having a Plan B is good enough for you.

And here’s another one from Chris Hadfield, who went into the same career just as clear-eyed as Seddon about the need for a Plan B.

This bullshit belief among Ahtists that no one else has a Plan B in their lives, and that the constant exhortations to them to have a second choice in place reflects some kind of lack of confidence is … well, a bullshit belief. Every successful person, even in the most demanding STEM jobs, has a Plan B. They generally have Plans C, D, E, F, and so on.

The only people who don’t have Plan Bs are people with Grandpapa’s railroad investments behind them, or who married wealth — or both.

The next time someone exhorts you to “live your passion!” and “take a risk!” by not worrying about how you will pay your rent with your art, I want you to do the following thing:

Ask them how much money their parents are worth. Ask them their spouse’s net worth and annual salary.

Then, you wise up and you do what Rhea Seddon and Chris Hadfield did — you get yourself a Plan B. Never stop moving toward your goal, but make sure you can pay your bills and put food in your stomach on the way there.

I know I keep harping on this, but it is never pointed out anywhere else, and needs to be. I’m not saying there is anything morally wrong with being born on third base, but it sure does seem to make one fairly clueless about the value of the life lessons they can teach other people. The rest of us cannot learn how to hit a triple from listening to their earnest advice. And if you do not have family wealth as a safety net beneath you as you leap off that cliff, you will get destroyed if you try to apply their advice to yourself.

And possibly the worst part about this is the damage it does to art itself, by ensuring that only a very narrow and privileged slice of humanity will do it for any significant period of time. :-( The rest of the world will end up having to sell their instruments and give up — and not because they didn’t have “passion” or “dedication,” but because they didn’t have someone else’s money to prop them up while things gelled.

Eew, yucky boo-boo!

If I never hear the following comments again, it will be too soon:

“Eew, I heard an [insert instrument of any kind here] made out of [any non-late-19th century material]. Why, I just thought my delicate golden ears would melt right off my head! How could anyone stand to listen to it! I may faint.”

I especially love it when they are subsequently unable to tell the difference in blind tests. :-) That part is better than butterscotch cake and Beethoven’s 3rd symphony.

Before you start whining up a storm, please check to see that you have carried out this small preliminary step:

1. Make sure you can tell the difference in a double-blind test.

Until then, I don’t want to hear it.

Two steps to improv: Nursery rhyme + six notes

Okay, so this isn’t for a piano; there, we have to anticipate the chord changes, which is a pain for improv. Well, for me at least. I can improv on a piano with one hand or the other — melody, or chord changes — but doing both at the same time is just beyond me for the moment.

This is an exercise for single note instruments, on which I can improv even at such a low level of play, mostly because it’s like just using the right hand on a piano. One note at a time is like humming to oneself, a natural way to improv.

However, I know that a lot of people still have problems with it, especially if they formally studied the instrument. That may in fact be part of why I can’t do it on the piano, because I studied it formally. At any rate, if you play a single-note instrument (strings count) and would like to try to develop some ability to improv, I have an idea that seems to do nicely:

  1. Pick a nursery rhyme that you like, or a poem. Be careful not to pick one that has a tune associated with it, like “I’m A Little Teapot,” or else you may try to reproduce that tune. Pick something rhythmic, simple, and that you know by heart. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is just fine, but just pick anything you know by heart and loved as a child.
  2. Take six notes anywhere on your instrument that you feel most comfortable — the first five notes of a major scale, plus the half-step below the tonic underneath. So if you are on a viola, you might pick the first five notes of D Major, plus the C# underneath. On brass, it would be the base Bb-C-D-Eb-F, and the A underneath the Bb.

So, you have a limited number of six building blocks, and a rhythmic framework that you know by heart. You’re ready to go.

Now, pick up your instrument and begin to recite the poem silently in your mind, and choose from between those six notes only, playing any note one per syllable in the rhythm of the poem. (My favorites are the poems by Eugene Field: “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.” I love those.)

Using only those six notes will enable you to sound good — it’s easy to make a simple melody with them, and one that sounds good. Using the poem will keep you from getting lost and give you a good sense of phrasing and rhythm, and natural places to breathe if you’re playing a wind instrument. And using a child’s poem that you love will let you connect with it emotionally free of the perfection that you may have gotten chained to after starting to study your instrument in a serious way. Furthermore, that emotion will come out of the instrument in one way or another.

Just keep at it, go slowly if you feel the need, and slowly introduce new poems. Anything is good — Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot (Prufrock would be great on a french horn, I think), Field, Chaucer. Anything.

Don’t be too anxious to Get Better™ or Gain Ground™. Just let yourself noodle and relax. This makes a nice cool-down after practicing.

So there you go, two ingredients for improv exercises:

  1. Nursery rhyme
    1. One you love and
    2. know by heart
    3. that doesn’t have a tune associated with it, and
  2. Six notes.

Give it a whack.