Various and sundry

1) The individual finger-sustains are slightly easier now since I had a minor revelation that I needed to think of them as a succession of multi-finger configurations, and not just a single still 4th finger, and the others moving. So it’s not steady 4, with 2-3-2-3-5-1-5-1 but 4/2, 4/3, 4/2, 4/3, 4/5, 4/1, 4/5, 4/1. Don’t know how else to explain that, but there you have it.

2) The five-sharp thing continues to progress technically, even if I can’t figure out where it’s headed. This has been a harder one since, similar to that C#m thing I mothballed, I don’t know where it’s headed going into it. It’s so hard to write things when you don’t know where you’re headed. I do adore this piece, but I think I’m going to have to figure out an endpoint before I keep going, or else I won’t know when I get there. The only reason I escaped that requirement for the CM canon-y thing was because … well, I knew it was a canon-y thing. I knew it would just go around and around until I got tired of it, adding complexity and then peeling it away. Which happened. I had a map in mind, even if I didn’t have a coda in mind.

And the organ continues to be facilitative of improv, which is a lot of fun. It’s a nice way to unwind for a bit after I’ve focused on those sustaining exercises.


I’m hoping I’ll be able to do this more thoughtlessly, but …

… for now, this thing is really, really, really facilitative of improv. The lightness of the keys, the fact that I have little baggage associated with “getting it right,” and the sustaining quality of it is enormously helpful. You can hit a “wrong” note, and then just flutter around until you realize where you are, and then act all “I meant that.” 🙂

A very large playground

And, wonder of wonders, it has a headphone jack. Heaven. Untrammeled heaven. I’ve got the old stereo speakers that the fellow I bought it from used with it, but I think I can basically get rid of them, because I’m never going to use them. I’d like to wait a few paychecks and then go to the Rodgers showroom out here and pick up a good, small speaker setup for it, with an amp, and get a tech out here to install it and take a look at a few things. One of the Gs in an annoying place is making intermittent contact, and a few of the stop lights are out. Other than that, it’s perfect.

I almost killed the movers, though. They had to take the lid off the top to get it into the apartment. Glad I had a set of screwdrivers. I tipped them heavily.

Best of all, my cat tried to walk over the pedalboard and was unsettled because she couldn’t get her footing. She should be content to leave it alone.

I need to get a set of headphones for just it, with a good bass response. I also need to learn how to pedal the major and minor scales properly.

Asking the wrong question

Can you teach improvisation?”

We’ve spent a century in classical music squelching the ability, and now we’re asking whether it can be “taught?” It would be like going to China back in the day and finding a bunch of footbound matrons, and saying, “We’ll teach them to run!”

You probably wouldn’t be successful.

And yet, you’d be wrong to conclude that running can’t be taught. Or … you’d be right to conclude that it can’t be taught, and wrong to conclude that it can’t be done.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to teach someone to run, because they wouldn’t have had that natural instinct repressed in the first place. Some people would run better than others; we’re not all Jesse Owens. But we can all run, certainly. Even people without legs find ways to move themselves and even climb mountains should the mood strike them. (And many people with two good legs simply don’t find it diverting to do so and don’t bother.)

We’re just looking at this wrong. It’s not a matter of teaching people how to improvise. It’s a matter of getting out of the way of the natural instinct to do so. The issue arises when the virtuoso manipulation of instruments becomes so challenging that kids have to devote all of their time to learning how to manipulate them … to the point where they are told that they shouldn’t “waste time” on improvising and instead have to practice Hanon over and over.

I guess it’s another way of looking at the question of whether one can be creative and also master thumb position. Maybe if there were 42 hours in a day (and maybe if the virtuoso demands on classical musicians wouldn’t predictably expand to fill all 42 hours), one could do both. But with the demands of virtuoso recitation swallowing all available time, and with competitions being the gold standard for classically trained musicians, any child who wishes to flex that muscle has to do so against an astonishing headwind. By the time that student reaches middle age, any innate ability has atrophied, and reanimating it becomes a serious challenge — especially if they listen to the many people more than willing to proclaim that it Can’t Be Done. Even Montero’s ability only survived many long years of repression only because she had acquired it so very, very young that it had taken root far too deeply.

There are people around today who have never acquired language, most of them deaf and born in areas of the world where there was no healthy signing Deaf culture to which they could be exposed. Many such people simply do not know what language even is, nor can they conceive of it. Some very few of them can acquire language. Most get a few pantomime signs down. Others never manage it, and go to their graves without acquiring that most basic of human abilities and all of the sharing that accompanies it. Can you imagine dying in old age without even having had one of your questions answered, even something so basic as, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do tree leaves change color?”

Would you conclude from these people that the ability to speak is something that cannot be taught? That is unnatural for the human mind, with the exception of a very lucky and very few gifted individuals? Of course not. The human brain is in fact wired to acquire speech of some kind, be it signed or spoken. The proper conclusion to reach is that, when people are free and properly nurtured, such things don’t need to be taught.

So the question becomes not whether you can teach improvisation, but how did we get into a situation where we think we need to? Sure, not everyone would be Gabriela Montero or would want to be; lots of people would be much happier chasing Owens down the track, dancing, painting, or otherwise following their own natural appetites. But out of the many people who like music and play instruments, more of us could than couldn’t. If only we’d get out of our own way.

Fascinating article about improv, music, and language

The Improvisational Brain — better than most of these sorts of articles

Yes on the comparison of music to learning a language.

Illuminates why Montero is so good at it — it’s not a second language for her. It’s her first. She began at 7 months, before she started babbling Spanish. This is her native tongue. No wonder she can do it like she does.

Also interesting are the comments about the right temporo-parietal junction needs to be turned off to do it. I’d say that this isn’t the part of the brain that “powers up when a new stimulus occurs in our environment, stealing our attention.” I’d say that it’s the region that fires up when a potential threat is sighted. It’s the Startle Cortex. That’s why our focus zooms in on unexpected stimuli — they could be dangerous.

And this is why improvisation is so scary to classical music students, and so hard. Fear is a dominant emotion when those kids are performing. You tense up, you feel fear. Fight-or-flight and improv don’t coexist comfortably, and most classical training will put a person into fight-or-flight, or at the very least get them so tensed up that improv is out of the question. I can’t improv; that juror might throw a knife at me. Improv can only be released when you stop worrying so much about how it’s going to turn out. But when you are auditioning and for most of your training, your life has been governed by how it’s turned out to the finest millimeter … of course improv is directly at odds with that culture!

Curious, but cautiously so

I found this book and an wondering what’s in it, but am not willing to buy it without looking through it first. Why?

The author is a horn player.

As I said below, I can mess around fairly pleasantly and nicely with one hand already. It’s the left hand — the entire rest of the substructure of the music — that is the hard part. That’s what chord you’re in, the mood of the piece, the rhythm of the piece … it’s everything for a pianist. The right hand is just the skin. We don’t ride the top of the music when we play — we’re on top and underneath. Unless we’re playing with others, we are responsible for it all, and pianists often play alone. Even when we play with others, a piano is not a hunt-and-peck one-note-at-a-time instrument. We don’t play things and effectively cheat by letting the ear of the listener supply any implied chord change. We have to do the chord change ourselves. Out in the open. While doing the right hand melody!

A whole `nother ball of wax of a different color. I don’t want to succumb to Special Snowflake Syndrome, or the making of an excuse as to why my situation is so special that I can’t learn from others, but I do think that the addition of all of the music theory, chord changes, and rhythm in the left hand creates a phase change on the piano that makes the situation much, much harder and very different from what you’d get on a single-note instrument, where the physical production of the note is the hard part. On a piano making the note is easy, which is why the grammatical structure of the gobs of simultaneous notes you can make suddenly becomes so much more complex.

I’d like to find out more about improv from another pianist. Montero has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t know how she does what she does, and I think she started so young that it’s like explaining a native language for her, like a fish trying to explain swimming. But I’d like to learn more about improv and a few tips and tricks from other pianists who do it, who play instruments that are big in a musical sense more than a physical sense, and who had to get used to the idea instead of doing it from the age of 7 months. There’s a dude named Robert Levin who does improv. I should check him out.

And I should approach improv from the left hand first. That might be interesting.

Happy noodles in F#M

Enjoyable evening last night. More to come. 🙂

I should elaborate — that D-maybe-Dorian thing that I’m piffling with is enjoyable, but that’s more just a nice phrase that I’m extending slowly. The F#M stuff was flat-out “just hit keys and enjoy yourself,” and it was fun. There were definite moments where things gelled very nicely, including one fairly long stretch of a few seconds where things just flowed out, and then a lot of fits and starts. I’m going to keep going tonight — who knows in what key. Just something that sounds nice.

I feel like a baby at the “ma-ma ba-ba poo-poo” stage, just babbling happily to myself and seeing how the equipment works. I wish I hadn’t internalized so quickly and neatly the attitude that playing by ear was bad, and that the way to do it right was to play other people’s notes correctly. I keep saying it, but I did learn a lot of good technique, and technique is a big part of what enables you to remove the physical object that is the instrument as a barrier between you and what you want to say. I just wish that “sit down and noodle for fun” had also been recognized and permitted as a vital part of one’s musical upbringing. Music pedagogy is really lacking.

More Dorian noodles

I can’t get over how pretty it is when you go into a major chord from the minor dominant 7th. It’s really quite pretty, although it benefits from being underlined a few times to get the ear used to hearing it as a resolution. Turns out I had stumbled onto that a while back when I misplayed part of the end of the intro to “Mormorio” (with the addition of a Bb that made no sense but sounded nice). So I’m fiddling around with that now.

What I’m not doing is physically connecting to any mental musical babble. If I’m not in touch with the mental babble away from the piano, I can’t turn it on like a light switch when I’m at the thing, either. I just get very compulsive about building something when I find that nice piece of sea glass. That may well be where my strength lies, but I think it would be worthwhile to see what happens when I shove at this other particular barrier for a bit as well. A month isn’t too long to ask, and is probably nowhere near long enough.

I just want to hear something in my head and know where I should be putting my hands to get that noise out. It’s hard — I can do it with a melody much more easily. Just hear something in my head and start aiming for it. But when the left hand comes in, I have to know what chord change I’ve done to aim for that. It’s not too bad in some places; when I seem to be dancing around a G and I land on an A in the melody that feels like a semicolon, I aim for the DM with the left hand, and that’s usually the chord change I’m hearing in my head that goes along with the A in my right hand. I can hear the chord changes in my head and usually (but not always) tell which one I’m in with a little picking around. Sometimes I’ve been wrong, and I64 has thrown me off in the past. But I have to pick around to verify them, and on top of it, I have to pick a general mood, is it octaves, is it triplets, what rhythm do I want, is this a rag or a waltz …

The left hand is hard when one is improvving. Improvving on a single-note instrument is a goddamned piece of cake! It’s the chord changes and the mood of the left hand that’s the tough part. That’s where all the scaffolding and structure is. Building only the surface of something is easy; building the underlying foundation and structure beneath it that holds it up and making sure it’s pretty there as well are really tough. The more I think about it, the less I get some first violinists and lead guitars who seem to think that music consists of them playing the melody and … some other junk. o_O Are they nuts? The melody is cake. It’s just the skin. It’s like thinking that doctoring consists of Dermatology and Miscellaneous.