if i’m wrong i’m right where i belong

I’ve been teaching about diminished chords in the last couple of weeks – they appear in a Grade 1 RIAM piece called ‘Lame Duck’ and also in the third section of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Here’s a quote from Barry Harris:

People react to a lot of things. What I’ve found they really react to is diminished notes. See, ’cause, if you play diminished notes with something, it’ll sound like it’s wrong. And people…the ears of people react to wrong. The audience reacts to wrong. And what you have to do, you have to throw that little ‘wrong’ in, then you make it right, that messes them up. But you got their attention; it’s real weird, too, it’s really true. They’re real funny about that. People can react to a wrong note, “now I say, do you hear that, he’s playing a wrong chord in that song”. But you make it right then they don’t know what to think. So you have to fool people and people will gasp.

from a Frans Elsen film of a Barry Harris workshop at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague

Title from the beautiful Beatles song, ‘Fixing A Hole’. Paul’s adlib vocal line over the last chorus hits all kinds of jazzy notes, there’s a harpsichord, George’s guitar parts are tasty tasty, and it has the breezy mood that’s so wonderfully prevalent in a lot of Paul’s songwriting.

Play smarter, not harder

Yesterday I was digitally leafing through Tobias Matthay’s book, ‘The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’. I picked up on a key motivation behind his teaching: people were playing too hard. It’s easy to imagine a generation of amateur musicians attempting to recreate the “loudness” of, say, Rachmaninov by simply playing harder. Matthay would rather that pianists learned to play much much softer.

I’ve been practising a lot in these first months of 2021 – mostly the first 5 Goldberg variations – on my Yamaha Clavinova. I tend to have the volume kind of low so as not to disturb the neighbours (and Jen, trying to work from the next room). It struck me after reading Matthay that I’m definitely playing hard. With lots of wasted effort. What if I turned up the volume and tried to play softer? (There’s also a sensitivity setting on the Clavinova – low, medium, and hard – which allows the illusion of more resistance from the keyboard itself.)

It occurs to me that the vast majority of my students don’t have real pianos at home. Most of the beginners don’t even have weighted keys. I’m interested to see what it will mean for my own playing and for my teaching to focus on the development of wider-ranging dynamic levels. We’re back into school and real-life lessons on Thursday, so my students (and I, too!) will be back in front of a real piano again. First lesson…let’s take the front off and see how this thing works…

Tobias Matthay was an educational writer, composer, and professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music from 1884-1925.

Chick Corea & Béla Fleck at The National Concert Hall, 10 July 2017

“What’ll we start with?”

“Let’s start with one of the tunes…”

The two musicians take it in turn to state the minor key riff of Señorita, before entwining together and leading us on the first of the evening’s journeys. Chick Corea and Béla Fleck are two of the foremost jazz players of our time and the pairing of Corea’s piano and Fleck’s banjo is a display of masterful musicianship. The sensitivity and technical ability they each possess is remarkable and keeps us enthralled for the duration of their performance.

After Señorita, a Corea composition, we hear Fleck’s Waltse for Abby and then Corea’s Children’s Song #6. Corea playfully throws in a nod to his best-known composition, Spain, as he begins the piece. There’s so much give and take throughout the evening as the duo trade solo lines, locking together occasionally in unison and worked-out passages that are thrilling against the backdrop of improvisation. A beautiful, shimmering chord closes the Children’s Song.

Fleck announces that next they’re going to play “…a top secret piece”. Corea coughs exaggeratedly and flicks out the back hem of his shirt, mimicking the gestures of a concert pianist. Two sonatas by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti follow. The pieces (originally written for harpsichord in the early 1700s) are constructed mainly in two-part writing, the left and right hands sharing the musical material evenly, joining together frequently in pleasing sequences and patterns. As such, they are the perfect vehicle of expression for this duo, and the sound of the two instruments combined is reminiscent of the harpsichord’s plucked, sparkling tone. They play with great finesse, adding in stylish trills and slowing together gracefully at the end of sections. Corea even throws in a jazzy little improvised part at one stage. It would be wonderful if Fleck’s comment about the pieces being “top secret” was a hint at a project involving this sort of material…

Introducing the next piece, Corea says he’s liking learning to play bluegrass piano. He steps to the side of the stage (looking very cool, it must be said, in his loose skinny scarf and purple and pink Nikes) and gives Fleck the spotlight. As he improvises a series of angular arpeggios, we are reminded that we’re far from traditional bluegrass here, but he homes in on familiar sounds and the opening riffing of Mountain begins with a rocking motif, spelling out a minor seventh chord. The pair take turns trading licks, going further and further ‘out’, before locking together in unison at the end and returning to the rocking motif. One final, shimmering chord signals the end – well, more than one, but the others are lost beneath the audience’s delighted applause.

After the interval we hear Continuance, which Corea had put aside for years until Fleck heard it. “You were just waiting for a banjo to come into your life!” The resulting composition has sounds, to my ear, of French composer Francis Poulenc, and so it’s interesting to hear them play a piece by another French composer, Henri Dutilleux’s Prélude en berceuse. This melancholic, serious music is followed by Fleck’s recounting of the story behind his charming piece, Juno, written as he was delayed in an airport while rushing home to meet his new baby son. Someone calls out “Happy birthday, Béla!”, and Corea strikes up two choruses of a latin-tinged singalong. It perhaps illustrates the difference in the two men’s personalities that Corea is loving this moment – offering a fraternal fistbump across the piano afterwards – and Fleck is less enthused. Juno’s main motif is a little descending two-note phrase preceded by a glissando that perfectly renders his son’s name into music. Corea’s soloing during this piece is extraordinary – streams of semiquavers at one point and some playful, intricate two-hand figurations.

A standing ovation and a selfie, they go off for a few moments, and then back on for an encore, Armando’s Rhumba. Corea starts this by reaching inside the piano and dampening a few bass strings, coaxing some moody harmonics from the instrument. Fleck picks out a wry, minor-mode version of Happy Birthday briefly before we’re launched into the familiar tune (now forty years old!). Corea smiles as he improvises around the chord changes. Fleck throws in the air of The Irish Washerwoman, and we revel in one last display of musical symbiosis from this brilliant duo before they amble off stage.

setlist

Señorita
Waltse For Abby
Children’s Song #6
Sonatas in D minor K1/L366 & K9/L413 – Domenico Scarlatti
Mountain

Continuance
Jerusalem Ridge
Enchantment
Prélude en berceuse – Henri Dutilleux
(Happy Birthday)
Juno

Armando’s Rhumba

Zingalamaduni

One of my very favourite bands when I was forging my musical tastes as a teenager was Arrested Development. They were a multi-generational hip hop group whose first album was packed with memorable, funky songs. Their second album was called Zingalamaduni, which means (so one of the interstitial tracks on the album helpfully informed the listener) “beehive of culture”. I just got John Mortensen’s new book, ‘The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation’. The first print run is sold out already, so I’ve impatiently downloaded the Kindle version. In the introduction he recommends students keep a zibaldone — an Italian word that means “heap of things” and, in this case, refers to “a personal notebook, sometimes known as a commonplace book”. I’d be interested to know if those two words have a shared etymology. They certainly seem to, and this kind of stuff fascinates me! Favourite track from ‘Zingalamaduni’? Probably ‘Shell’.

Just a shell until you decide to rebel

That funny feeling

Jacob Collier talking to Eric Whitacre about creativity. (Everything that follows is a quote…)

How do children learn how to be funny? Well, a child doesn’t learn how to be funny by reading a book, or watching a tutorial, or even necessarily planning very much of it. I think that children learn to be funny by observation and experiment. And so you look around as a child and you think, “that makes me laugh – I don’t understand why but I’m gonna follow that because I like that feeling, I’m gonna follow it”.

I think that humour is one of the things that has lasted longest in the world without trying to be understood. It’s gone so far without people trying to understand it. Because you feel it and it’s difficult to understand humour because it’s so multilayered and it’s so ingrained in our past. And so I think that, when it comes to delivering a joke, for example, how you deliver the punchline, the amount of time you take before you deliver it, what you do with your body, where you’re looking, whether you’re looking the person in the eye, or whether you’re being sarcastic when you say it, or whether you’re being strong…all these nuances. It pains the brain to think about the amount of nuance in how to express something, but it’s so intuitive in children when they watch and learn.

And so I find myself in a place with music sometimes where I think, well, it’s a bit like that process of learning how to be funny or learning how to be effective, you have to know the extremes before you learn the nuance. You can’t skip to the nuance before…you know…so, it’s like, okay, you’ve got one note [plays middle C], and then you’ve got all the notes [plays all the notes]…okay, well that’s fine, so now what? Now what is there? Well there’s a triad [plays triad], and there’s a bunch of triads [plays bunch of triads] and we can explore them and they’re interesting…and once you’ve got a triad you have a dominant chord, so you add a seventh [plays seventh] and that resolves [plays resolution]. And what other notes can you add? Let’s add every single note [plays cluster chord] and then try and resolve them all just so we know what happens. So the first time you try and do it you’re kind of guessing in the dark and the second time you do it you’ve learnt from the last time you did it so you’re guessing not in the dark but you’ve got maybe black and white figured out and soon you figure out grey because grey is the choices that you make between black and white. And then there’s this whole other spectrum of colour which I think comes really from…[sighs]…

Emotions are so interesting when they’re compound emotions and choices are so interesting when they’re compound choices so it’s not necessarily “I’m going to add notes” or “I’m going to remove notes” it’s almost like “I’m going to intend to add notes” and then I’m gonna not add them or I’m going to add lots of notes and then take out the ones that remind… that are actually the ones that are important so that all that’s left is this skeleton of a chord. But your ear…

the expectation matters and the intention matters a lot I think to the process of learning and composing and so I think that I find myself defying and re-fying all of those kind of experiences and thinking “how can I outgrow this choice?”.

New ukulele jig

I found this ukulele arrangement of an Allegretto by Carcassi and thought it was rather cool. I only have the original arranger’s title to go on, so I’m not even 100% sure it’s by Carcassi (I had a good look through quite a few of his published works but couldn’t find it).

UPDATE (5 July 2020): I got a nylon string guitar last week and a guitar playing friend recommended I study the Etudes of Fernando Sor. Well, lo and behold, there was this Allegretto – the third of his ’24 Progressive Lessons, Op.31′. It’s in a different key in Sor’s original and uses the guitar’s range, as you’d expect. I rather like the little ‘push’ in the last section of the arrangement (not a feature of Sor’s original, it turns out), so I’m going to leave that and the other few anomalies intact.

I made my own edition of the piece using the principle of ‘campanella’, a style of ukulele playing where open strings are used where possible to get a ringing sound. I wrote in some suggested fingerings, too. If you’re interested in giving it a go, use the link below to get a copy for just €3.

Sor Allegretto moderato tab

Notation and tablature (one page) of this charming piece.

€3.00

Think About Things

The Iceland entry for the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was this absolute tune – Think About Things by Daði Freyr. I thought I’d have a go at figuring it out on ukulele. Slightly tricky because it’s in the key of E flat minor. It’d be nice to have the low B (C flat, whatever…) but I didn’t want to retune.

Here’s the brass break that comes at 1’18” transcribed for ukulele. Have a go at it, if you’d like a challenge. I practiced at 0.5 speed on YouTube, then upped it to 0.75, before attempting it at Normal speed. (To adjust the speed, click on the ‘gear’ icon at the bottom right of the video window.)

Memory

Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through my dad’s old diaries that my mum gave me, but I’m in a sentimental mood. I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest Revisionist History podcast episode, too. It’s one of my very favourite podcasts, thoroughly researched (as you’d expect) and always interesting and touching.

Jen and I went away with Mum this weekend. I was driving and I usually prefer spoken word rather than music to keep me alert. We listened to four episodes of Revisionist History on the trip and this one I’ve just listened to, ‘Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis’, continues the theme of memory. In it, Gladwell explores an idea that’s very close to my heart and experience — how difficult it can be to perform songs that have a great personal connection.

There’s a moment near the end of the episode when he’s talking to songwriter Kaci Bolls (thanks to a reader for correcting my spelling!). She’s singing a song she wrote about her mother and gets choked up as she tries to recall and perform it. Gladwell doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable feeling, in fact that’s his whole thesis, and just as the other person in the interview pulls up out of the discomfort, Gladwell interrupts, ” wait, Kaci, could you play that song?”

I really admire that, because I know how very much she wants to sing that song in that moment even though it’s hard. And not in an arrogant way (people often think performers are just looking for a chance to show off), but she wants to sing it despite knowing she doesn’t know it that well. It’s an act of connection with the subject of the song, her mother.

I recently sang a song of mine, ‘Make It Home’, at a gig with David Rooney. It has lots of little references to my memories of home as a child and never fails to bring a lump to my throat. But I still love it and I want to sing it. I was encouraged by Gladwell’s empathetic conclusion that “a lesser person would’ve sung it perfectly.”

performance, teaching, composition & reviews