Category Archives: Music

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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Les Misérables, sniff sniff

After the Oscars, in which the cast performance from Les Misérables nearly brought me to tears (I know, I know) I texted a friend to see if she wanted to go see it in the theatres. We’d gone to see The Hunger Games together and have a good cry, and it was tremendously satisfying, so we thought this would be great fun too.

Les Misérables

I’d seen the stage version, and while the music was good it didn’t really move me and I think I actually dozed off in some of the recitatives. I have not had a lot of luck with live musicals in general – I find the actors too far away for me to perceive any emotion in them, and in their efforts to project emotion they’re forced to the front of the stage to squall at the audience. I find this embarrassing. This is my fault; I love movies so much I think I’m conditioned to have expectations of close-ups and plots that move along with lightning speed. Also, when I was in my first year of university I bought seasons tickets to the opera with my cheap student discount. The opening night opera was a modern one set to a novel by Dostoevsky (if memory serves) and took place in a Siberian prison. I was in my first year of university and exhausted all the time from the course load and working to pay for it all – so my response to being warm, and in the dark, and in a Siberian prison – was of course to fall asleep. That set a pattern. I think I spent the entire season snoozing in the plush velvet seats of the Orpheum. I think I slept through The Marriage of Figaro, which is a great opera, but let’s face it, it’s four hours long.

The advantage of course of live stage productions is that there is an intermission so you can go pee – if you see the movie, it’s also 3 hours long and so gripping you don’t want to leave for the bathroom. Also the entire theatre is weeping so it’s fun to be part of that. Anyway, we were bursting by the time the movie finished. I’m amazed there was any water left in our bodies to excrete as we were weeping so copiously but there was a mad dash for the loos as soon as it was over so we weren’t the only ones. When you have a jumbo pop in a three hour movie with no intermission what do you expect?

Obviously, we loved the movie, and I did prefer it to the stage productions I’ve seen – sorry! I know it’s not very purist of me, but there you have it. It makes a big difference when you can see the actors’ faces close up, and they don’t have to do “big” emoting because of it. They can sing more intensely and passionately because they don’t have to project so far. I’m impressed that they recorded the singing while filming, so they weren’t dubbing in later, and they all managed to imbue the songs with so much emotion and feeling that it was all very touching even to a cynic like me. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway have amazing voices and they sounded trained to my admittedly not professional ear. Russell Crowe’s voice is as furry as he is himself, and while he sang well he didn’t have the same clarity and precision as the others. However, he is such a forceful presence that he made an amazing Javert. Hugh Jackman made a powerful, sensitive Valjean and he emotes like a madman. He, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway all have these huge liquid eyes that they’re able to fill with pain, and sorrow, and joy and every other required emotion. It looks really easy when  you have those enormous eyes. All the actors (excepting the comic ones and they just didn’t have the opportunity in this category) have the quality of vulnerability which came across in film and I think would have been missed on the stage. Is Eddie Redmayne the most incredibly vulnerable-looking actor or is it just me? I spent half the film wondering how he makes his lips tremble like that. Amanda Seyfried’s clear blue eyes and even clearer soprano can melt you like chocolate in a toddler’s hand. You just want to put them all in your pocket like so many kittens.

Sacha Baron Cohen was such awesome fun in his role as the innkeeper Thénardier, which I expected, but it was surprising nonetheless, because he was so good. I liked him better in this than I did in anything else I’ve seen him in (I don’t like his films in general). I thought it was brilliant casting but he was so good it was still a surprise. Helena Bonham Carter is fabulous in everything she does (I’ve loved her since A Room With a View) and she really sucked the marrow out of this particular bone. I love the actors with the versatile faces, who can look beautiful, but tweak their hair a bit, fleck them with makeup and they look totally insane. HBC is definitely one of these and she brings it on in this role. Hugh Jackman was also good in this respect – he is empirically good looking, everybody agrees, but in the opening scene, when Valjean is an enslaved prisoner, he’s almost unrecognizable. He seems to physically manifest pain and agony. It can’t just be the makeup; it’s a gift. His unbearably poignant death scene unleashed a fresh torrent of tears from our audience; you could hardly hear the singing.

Three hours of melodic revolution later, we staggered out of the movie, into the loo, and out again, our makeup smeared and the fronts of our shirts speckled with popcorn bits. Then we happily headed down to Hapa Coal Harbour and had a light post-show meal.

I’ve been on iTunes comparing the vocal performances with the original Broadway cast performances and overall, the Broadway ones are better, although Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are contenders. Interestingly, in comparing Russell Crowe’s “Stars” with the Broadway version I actually preferred Russell Crowe’s, go figure, because the stage voice seemed less masculine than Crowe’s – as anybody’s would, let’s face it – so the casting agents were definitely on to something. Conclusion: I enjoyed the film version much more than I did the live version. Close-ups and scenery pack a real punch and you just can’t do it all on the stage. I don’t know if I’ll purchase any recordings, mostly because I can’t hear some of these songs without crying and that would disrupt my day. There’s a time and place for everything.


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Beethoven, Schubert…and the tragedy of age

I’ve played the piano since I was 7 years old; I’ve kept it up, on and off, ever since. I love music, I particularly love making music on the piano. It seems like magic, to move your hands and have this great sound come out. Brilliant. Lately I’ve been going back to the piano in a big way; partly because I’m trying new pieces in an attempt to understand what it is like to learn new music, because my daughter is having to learn new pieces every week. I was being impatient with her, frustrated by hesitation and pauses in the music, but I started learning some new stuff and now I get it. I think there is a difference between Leila Fletcher and Beethoven but there is also a difference between 7 and 43, so it’s all relative. Now when she hears me pause at a difficult spot she shouts, “No holidays! TEMPO!” and thinks it’s great fun. It’s actually quite useful, though, and I’ve become more patient with her as a result.

The irony of all this (besides my 7-year old enjoying revenge) is that now that I appreciate playing (thanks Mom!) I am getting creaky and I don’t have a lot of time to practice. When I was a teenager I was supposed to be practicing two hours a day and considered it a prison sentence. The outrage! Shackled to the piano, the suffering. But now I take advantage of every lull in my day to sit down and practice a few more bars, trying to perfect this incredibly difficult music with my pre-arthritic hands, which throb after I’ve been playing for a long time, particularly the fifth fingers. It just feels so good when I get a passage right and can fit it into the song and play it through – it’s the best feeling.

What’s with Beethoven and all the octaves? I’m working on the Allegretto of Sonata 17 and I love it, but the octaves are a killer. When I’m diagnosed with arthritis I’m blaming Beethoven. I try to listen to recordings to help me along but the recording I have of this piece is by Glenn Gould who plays at breakneck speed and I think they must have transferred this at 78 rpm because there’s just no other explanation for it. If you cough, you miss it. He plays a 12-page sonata movement in about a minute and a half. It’s unreal! Yes, he was a genius and possibly autistic, but still. I’m exhausted after learning two pages at my snail’s tempo. I love Beethoven though; the inevitability of the music, the way it rolls along, pulsing, it could make your heart burst with the joy of it. Sorry, rhapsodizing.

I’m also working on Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, D537. It’s a lovely piece and only about 5 pages which is a relief. It’s played in A Room With a View, one of my favorite movies, which is one of the reasons I decided to try it, because it’s already so familiar. The tempo of the recording I have (Seymour Lipkin) is a reasonable tempo so this sonata actually feels doable. That said, I haven’t got past the third page yet.

I’m playing a Schumann’s Kinderszenen piece (Schumann, so charming) and some music I downloaded from movie scores (The Painted Veil, River Waltz) – for dessert and to rest the fingers. Like stretching after a workout.

Unfortunately our budget only allows for one of us to have piano lessons so resources have already been allocated but – I wish I could have lessons. I also wish I could effectively convey this feeling to my daughter so she would appreciate the lessons she’s having now. Why must it always be hindsight?  Why must we learn these lessons so late in life? I wish I’d appreciated the energy and time of my youth, not to mention my fabulous teacher, when I had them. (And when someone else paid the bills! My parents never talked about how expensive the lessons were, so they’re better people than I am.) Not to sound doleful about it, as I know how lucky I am to have a piano and a bit of time to play it and fingers still relatively dextrous (for now), but regret is a tough pill to swallow. If only there was some way to impart these lessons to my children.


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