Monthly Archives: May 2013

Seven Annoying Things People Say to Pianists

Emily says it so well…..I have a sad memory about being asked to play something at the last minute: when my great-grandmother died, my father asked me – 1 hour before we were to leave for the memorial service – if I would play her favorite song, “Beautiful Dreamer.” I had some music for it, but I just couldn’t prepare it quickly enough so I refused, and my dad was really mad at me that whole day. I’ve always wondered if I should have just blundered through it, but it felt really wrong.

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I was talking to one of my friends recently about the problems with being a pianist.  She plays the piano like I do, and we are often asked to accompany people at our church when they sing or play another instrument.  We came to the conclusion that it really is a thankless job, even though we enjoy doing it.

This conversation prompted me to think of seven of the annoying things people commonly say to pianists.

1. “I wish I could play as well as you do.”

Well, you can.  You just need to start practicing.  Begin taking lessons, and then practice for an hour or more a day for at least ten years.  Then you’ll be as “good” as me.

2. “I’m just not blessed with that talent.”

Neither am I.  See my response to comment number 1.

3.  “Can you accompany me tomorrow?  The music has four sharps…

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Fleetwood Mac

My parents were children of the ’50s and ’60s – mostly the ’60s, and their musical tastes reflected this fact. My dad had the Stones’ White Album, and I grew up listening to Elton John and Iron Butterfly. In the ’70s, my mom bought Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Dad bought Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album. I still know all the words to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Just the Piano Player – the albums, not just the songs, and I can identify a Fleetwood Mac song within the first bar. My dad’s taste was particularly eclectic. I never could figure out the parameters of his taste, and he had odd limits. For instance, he had all the Elton John albums as long as Bernie Taupin was John’s lyricist. After Taupin left, no more Elton John. I guess Bernie Taupin was The Man. He had all the classic rock, but as we moved into the ’80s, his taste started to range far and wide. I remember eating Sunday brunch on the patio to the strains of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville album. He had Steve Winwood’s album, the one that was hard to get hold of, before anybody else. He also had Dolly Parton and Billy Ocean. “Caribbean Queen” is one of those songs that will stick in your head and drive you to insanity. Dad used to wake me up in the mornings on the weekends by blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. (My mother favoured Van Cliburn and Itzhak Perlman.) Saturday mornings were about housework, in our house, and although Dad did the brunt of it, he hated to work whilst others lazed around. And we had to get up early on the weekends, too, as though we were farmers and had cows that needed milking.

So my musical taste, too, is whimsical and hard to pinpoint. I love classical music, but nothing too obscure, and nothing too popular. I like a tune I can whistle, but not one everyone can whistle. When my sister got married I recommended the Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – forestalling the inevitable selection of Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m glad she went with my recommendation. Sweet, wistful, with Mozart’s inevitability, and familiar enough to most of the congregation, the Adagio went perfectly with my sister’s entrance and walk down the aisle. My favorite classical playlist includes the Adagio, Bach’s Air on the G String, and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. I have a lot of piano music as well, Mozart piano sonatas, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus. Also some opera arias – I’m not an opera buff but I like some of the more famous arias. I find that iTunes is great for finding obscure classical music, but “shuffle” is not meant for your classical playlist.

When you look at my pop playlists, there are definitely some odd selections, I’ll admit. I have a weak spot for one-hit wonders, like Jermaine Stewart’s We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (To Have a Good time) or Ace of Base. I have a little bit of country in there too: Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and John Denver. Amy Grant and Peter Cetera’s duet “Next Time I Fall”. The B-52’s “Roam.” I have a ’50s playlist, and an ’80s playlist that runs to hundreds of songs. Yes, it’s far out. It takes me a while to catch on to new music nowadays, as I don’t listen to the radio the way I used to when I was young. So, lots of old stuff, and LOTS of Fleetwood Mac.

So, we went to see Fleetwood Mac last week! They played Rogers Arena and it was sold out. This surprised me as I asked some friends if they liked Fleetwood Mac and they responded diplomatically, “Um….not really.” It was like I’d asked if they liked liver. It was not easy finding people to come with us to this concert – and we had access to box seats! We ended up going with one other couple, and our kids.

I don’t go to rock concerts in general. They’re always too loud and it’s not comfortable. People get excited and jump on your toes. I think I can count the concerts I’ve been to on one hand. Let’s see: Lionel Richie, Rolling Stones, George Michael, Lady Gaga, Fleetwood Mac. Yep! I may have missed a few but I don’t think so. The last 3 were in box seats else I wouldn’t have gone to those either. I don’t like crowds.

But Fleetwood Mac is special to me. It reminds me of my father. It reminds me of being young. I used to do border runs for my boss when I worked at a classical CD store, and I would play Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits because it was a CD that I could play straight through without wanting to skip songs. So there I was, 21 years old, driving down the highway on a sunny Friday afternoon….listening to Fleetwood Mac. I was geriatric even then! But how can you not love Christine McVie’s cool alto, Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar licks, Mick Fleetwood’s demented drumming, Stevie Nicks’ raw honeyed voice…..John McVie’s….bass playing? Unfortunately, Christine McVie did not join this tour, which was a major drawback as she sings my favourite FM songs. You can tell what she’s saying, unlike when Stevie sings. I love her but her enunciation is worse than Alanis Morrissette’s. It makes them difficult to sing along with, no?

I don’t know what the median age of the concert-goers was, although I suspect my parents would have fit right in. My children being there must have lowered it a bit. We gave them earplugs and one sat on my lap, and we hugged and listened to Stevie Nicks sing “Sara.” And I was overcome with emotion, remembering my father, and thinking about how much he would have loved to have been there, and how much he would have loved to be my girls’ grandfather. I miss him so much sometimes, and at this Fleetwood Mac concert I was hit by such a wave of grief that I was thankful for the darkness and the din. I pressed my face into my daughter’s head and her soft hair soaked up my tears. You never get over losing someone, though you carry on, and live, and function. It’s been 14 years and sometimes the pain is as sharp as it was the day he died. Most of the time, I keep myself buttoned up, because the show must go on, stiff upper lip, no use dwelling, etc. Also because I’m frightened by the abyss that grief opens up inside you. I’m afraid that if I give in to it, I’ll never return. And this is after I’ve had therapy! Anyway, this one time I let myself feel the pain and loss. I felt a sense of safety in the darkness, with the music playing and my daughter in my arms.

So, it was a good concert, even without Christine McVie. Stevie Nicks has cornered the market on black velvet dresses, methinks, and her voice is still the same and I won’t hear anything rude about it. Mick Fleetwood played with such vigor that we just hoped he remembered to take his medication, because, damn. My kids mistook him for Santa. Lindsay Buckingham’s voice and guitar playing – eternal. The energy and talent of these people is truly astounding, and they don’t give off waves of dissipation the way the Stones do. The children sat patiently through it all and didn’t complain once. I cheered up and our friends sang along with me to the easy-to-sing-along-with songs like “Don’t Stop” which brought the entire stadium to its feet. (It’s hard to sing along to “Tusk.”) If Elton John comes to Vancouver I’ll remember to bring a box of tissues. (Although not if he’s going to play a bunch of post-Taupin stuff.)

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My eclectic reading list

I can’t post any more Internet pictures of books because I heard about somebody being sued for that. And the following were library books and they’ve already gone back to the library so I can’t take a picture myself. Sorry!

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran: I was expecting a lighter take on feminism when I picked this book up (actually had it on hold for ages, it’s popular) but I was surprised and pleased to discover that Moran is quite serious about her topic. She has a self-deprecating, aggressively funny way of making her point so the book is fun to read, but she made me think hard about my own definition of feminism. Her definition? “If you have a vagina and you want to be in charge of it, you’re a feminist.’ In a nutshell! What I remember most about this book was the difference between “being” and “doing” – she points at the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of professional athletes) and people like Katie Price (this woman is famous for having a topless photo of herself in a British tabloid – it’s a British thing – but that is it, and she’s parlayed this into a major empire of self-promotion) who are “being” various things: famous, photographed, having reality shows made about them. I think a good North American parallel is Kim Kardashian. I’ve been irritated before with people who are famous for…nothing! They’re good looking, but seriously? Why pay any attention to them? Then Moran points to Lady Gaga to illustrate the difference. Unlike Katie Price, who has nothing to say for herself, Lady Gaga has lots to say, and she’s come up with original and intriguing ways to say it. Lady Gaga is “doing”, not “being.” It’s an important distinction, boiled down into two words, and I’m remembering it as the kids grow up.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn – I don’t know who recommended this book, but whoever it was, Thank you! There is an identifiable style of writing coming from the UK nowadays that I particularly enjoy. I think it’s becoming its own genre. The language tends to be plain and relatively simple. The words chosen are precisely the right words and convey the exact nuance that the writer intends. The subjects are usually fairly matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. For all that that sounds so boring, the results are incredibly charming and addictive. There is amazing depth of emotion, and all kinds of nuance, and it’s clearly conveyed yet not obvious. There are no signposts, but you find your way anyway. How do they do it? Mark Haddon writes in this style, as does Kate Atkinson, and now William Kuhn. I would tentatively put Alan Bradley in this category as well. The details provided are the details that enhance the story and add interest, not long paragraphs of description that go nowhere. No flights of fancy here! The dialogue is very real and sounds like people talking. I know, when I describe it it doesn’t sound thrilling but it is, it is. If I can’t properly express how wonderful these writers are this is my fault. Anyway, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a prime example of this minimalist – but not – style that I love so much. It’s hard to believe that it’s fiction, even with the bits about the Queen taking up yoga, as it’s so realistic. Basically, the Queen borrows a hoodie from an employee, gets routed out of the palace grounds by workmen by mistake, then decides to take a train to Edinburgh to see the decommissioned Britannia. She manages to get there incognito – with concerned staff hot on her trail – and is taken for a cleaning lady by the guards at the port. She actually does the washing-up in the galley – my favorite part. Charming and fun. I’m a bit of an Anglophile so I was particularly enchanted but I think anyone would enjoy this book.

At my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, there are shelves in which library staff arrange books according to a weekly or monthly theme, or just “staff picks.” Whoever they are, they have the best taste. I have found so many new writers just by trusting in their judgment. In a Foreign Country by Charles Cumming is my latest leap of faith and I was amply rewarded. I adore spy and crime novels, especially period ones, and this book sent me rushing back to the library website to find his other books. They all came in today and I’m gloating over the pile like Midas. Having a big stack on my bedside table makes me feel rich, rich, rich. And under pressure.

John Elder Robison is the older brother of Augusten Burroughs, who is famous for writing Running with Scissors, which was made into a movie. Robison has Asperger’s Syndrome, and has written two books already about his experiences, Look Me in the Eye and Be Different. Raising Cubby is his latest, and I only found it because the wonderful library people had set it aside in the “New” section. Raising Cubby is about his son, who also has Asperger’s – no surprise, as Robison’s wife also has Asperger’s. Cubby’s interest in chemistry led to his experimenting with explosives which led to his being charged with making bombs. The problem with a lot of gifted kids, especially those who are on the Asperger’s scale, is that they are so absorbed in their interests that they can’t imagine how they might be perceived and misunderstood by others and Cubby is a prime example. Combined with a DA who thinks convicting a teenager will boost her career, the situation becomes a nightmare. I am loving books like this, and also fiction that tackles brain disorders like Lisa Genova’s books, Still Alice, Left Neglected and Love Anthony (which I haven’t read yet but am saving). Robison is a spokesperson for Asperger’s and an amazing writer.

Selling the Dream: Ken Campbell is a sports writer with deep roots in the hockey community. Selling the Dream is about how hockey has become a rich man’s sport, with every parent whose kid can stay upright on skates having NHL dreams and sparing nothing to achieve them. I don’t want to say too much here, because this is a controversial topic and people can be crazy when it comes to kids and hockey. I don’t need nutters Googling Campbell’s book and coming up with this and then freaking out at me, which has actually happened already on another topic. I don’t even have a son, which, frankly, I’m almost grateful for as I suspect my husband would be just as hockey-mad as some others around here. It’s like I’ve dodged a bullet. Basically, Campbell is saying that you can’t manufacture a star player. But people are trying, by throwing money at coaches, trainers, elite hockey schools, spring hockey, summer hockey, you name it. Interestingly, he’s critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – Gladwell’s theory of the magic number of 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency has, in his opinion, given rise to much of this mania. This theory has misled many into thinking that if they can just get their kid enough ice time, enough training, enough games, that they will morph into an NHL player. It’s sad. There are so many stories of families who make incredible sacrifices in order to fuel this dream, and generally – like, 99.99% of the time – their dreams are not realized. People start putting money into their kid’s hockey, then put in more because of the psychology of previous investment, and then because they’re so invested the kids feel incredible pressure to perform. Even if they don’t want to play any more, they feel they don’t have a choice. What kind of childhood is that? Then, paradoxically, the parents are willing to risk this investment – and their child’s health – by often insisting that the child play with concussions and injuries. There is a whole chapter on this and it is heartbreaking. OK, I said I wouldn’t say a lot here and I’ve said more than I meant to already. Anyway, Campbell says sure, chase the dream, but have some perspective, that’s all. What kills me is that the people who really should read this book, won’t.

Eclectic enough for you? You won’t hear from me for a while as I’m just starting In The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland. 428 pages. I’ll be finished by the end of the week, insha’allah, provided I’m not distracted by the pile of spy novels calling my name.

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Dreams and Shadows by C. Richard Cargill

I’m exploring more fantasy fiction lately. (I’ve just downloaded a Terry Goodkind novel. If it’s good then apparently I’ve got loads to get through. I’ll let you know.) I did a post on Game of Thrones and fantasy literature and it got me thinking that I should do more exploration of this genre. But I’ve taken a sideline into the kind of fiction that has a lot to do with magic and the collision of worlds as opposed to outright fantasy. Lev Grossman’s The Magician and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are good examples of this trend.

Ten pages into Dreams and Shadows I was looking in the front flap to see what else Cargill has written because I was absolutely captivated and was hoping to find a long list of books. Alas, Dreams and Shadows is his first. I hope he turns out to be one of those prolific writers who produces a book a year at least. I’m sure his publishers are thinking the same. What kind of contract are we talking about? I’m hoping a 10-book contract! AT LEAST. Because Dreams and Shadows is wonderful and I just ripped through it.

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