Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Firey Truth

It's been a while since I've blogged about catching on fire. But, I don't think I can tell the story of my first time lighting up better than I did when I blogged about it three years ago. So, here it is again. The Firey Truth.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Music Videos

I've been experimenting with ways to make a music video without live action... mostly, I guess, because I don't have a good videocamera, but also because even if I did, I'm not really sure what I could do that would be interesting, given that I don't have money to buy costumes and sets. I have recorded a couple of videos of me at the piano using Photo Booth, but they are relatively boring. The stop motion videos I've been making are pretty simple and repetitive and also a bit bizarre because of how I have sometimes chosen to tweak the color, but they have been a lot of fun to make. I have posted a bunch (accompanied by original songs) on YouTube:

My YouTube Video Page

Check 'em out and let me know what you think! Thanks!

Saturday, March 03, 2012

I Love A Piano

Growing up, my family had a baby grand piano in our living room. It was usually cluttered with books and papers on every inch of it and it was not always well-tuned, but it was a constant during my upbringing and a reliable source of good entertainment. My brother and I both took piano lessons, so we practiced our scales, etudes, and solos there. We both enjoyed playing around, sightreading through new songs, and making up our own songs, too. My brother strongly identified as a songwriter/composer at a young age, so he played the piano a lot. My mother double majored in piano and violin in college, so although her main job was playing the violin in a symphony orchestra, she was eager and willing to play piano for me whenever I needed an accompanist, a luxury I've never quite become accustomed to being without. Some of my favorite memories from childhood are the times when she and I would read through books of non-classical songs together at the piano, with me singing and her playing. That's how I learned most of the jazz standards and ballads I know.

It's not that I didn't watch television or movies as a kid. It's not that I didn't read books or play board and video games or do my school work. I did a lot of other things than play the piano. But, having a piano in my home always was and continues to be a source of great joy to me. I love that I can sit down and play it anytime. It's one of my very favorite things in the world. And, whenever I go to someone's house or to a restaurant or bar or cafe where there is a piano, I feel drawn to it like a squirrel to a birdfeeder. It's hard to believe almost every home had a piano not too long ago, that people played music to entertain each other instead of watching TV, that people felt like music lessons were a necessity in a child's life partly for social reasons. I am always so glad to see pianos. I always want to play them or at the very least touch them gently like I would if saying hello to an old friend.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Songwriting, Piano, and Faking It

As a child, I took piano lessons on and off for many years with varying levels of commitment. I was also required to take piano lessons in college. I can still play many of the pieces I learned in the past (Bach, Bartok, Chopin, Schumann, etc.) and love to do so, but I lack patience when it comes to practicing new material and getting it up to speed. I sometimes sightread piano music just for fun, but I rarely have the patience required to polish it, so generally when I sit down to play something, it's something old.

As a voice teacher, I have had to accompany students regularly in lessons, and with the exception of "Caro mio ben" and "Vaga luna", my method has mostly been to "fake" it. The minute I realized that I could just arpeggiate the chords instead of actually learning the music, I was hooked. As a result, I became good at playing piano by ear, subsequently learned to transcribe some of my favorite pop songs so that I could play them myself, and then ended up writing a lot of my own songs.

Apart from about half a dozen exceptions, most of my own songs have been written on notebook paper. So, usually this means that there is one line with the words written on it, above each word the letter name of the note that goes with that word, and each chord change indicated above that and circled. The way I remember how each song goes is generally only by playing it over and over again until I can't forget it, or recording it right away. Otherwise, how would I know how the rhythm of the vocal part is supposed to go, or the particulars of the piano arpeggiation, dynamics, tempo, etc.?


When I first started writing songs, I was pretty pleased with myself. But, in time, I started to bore of them and realized that most of my piano accompaniments sounded the same.

Test Bunny (2006) and I can't hide (2005) are examples of the basic arpeggiation technique. The last one (2005) and Split (2009) are examples of an even more simplified block chord.

For many years I only wrote sparsely because my work schedule was too demanding to allow me much writing time. But, in the last year and a half or so, I've decided to try to tackle this issue more directly. The end result I've been looking for is more variety in my musical output, but enough continuity to maintain a fluid set of music.

My first inspiration for trying something different came in November 2010, when I was given the opportunity to perform "something" at an informal gathering hosted by my former voice student, Karl, who is a singer/songwriter and cellist. In looking through some compositions I had written in my comp for non-majors class in grad school, I found a piece for voice and violin I thought might work. I originally asked my friend Sid if he would sing the violin part (in his beautiful cello-y register), but he suggested I play the violin part myself. I hadn't originally intended for this to be sung and played by the same person, but I liked his idea and I gave it a try. I subsequently decided to write a few more pieces and performed them on a recital later that year. And, after that, I wrote some more.

In this song, I've been wandering, set to the poetry of Emily Bronte, I am indeed playing the violin and singing at the same time. What I learned from this experiment, though, was that I had to use my classical voice in order to project above the violin. Also, that playing the violin and singing at the same time is really, really hard and mostly because my violin chops require a lot more practicing than I actually do. In the end, I was looking to have a fluid set, even if varied, and didn't feel that the interjection of something this classical sounding would really fit with my vision.

In another attempt at variety in November 2011, I collaborated with my good friend Terri on a song written specifically for guitar. I had written one other song for guitar and violin with my cousin Annie and her husband Drew back in 2006 that we unfortunately never recorded, but I remembered it being a lot of fun and a very different sound from the music I normally wrote. I am the one who wrote this new song, but it's really Terri's talent that comes through, as she picked up her guitar and made up a harmony vocal and a lovely accompaniment on the spot. It's also her expertise with recording equipment that makes this the best recording of my music that's ever been made.

This is Come on by (2011) with me on lead vocals and Terri on harmony vocals, guitar, and shaker.

When I got back to New York state, I started fiddling around with Garage Band Loops. I did write some music I like, but it's very jazzy.

Here are Help me baby (2012) and Get Over Here (2012) which were undoubtedly inspired by watching too much Mad Men. They were created with Apple Loops in Garage Band with the addition only of my voice. Again, this was fun, but would require getting together a jazz band to complete legitimately, and it's a totally different genre of music from the other stuff I've written.

After that, I wrote a few more tunes back in my old style, including Making the choice (2012) for which I made a video that I put up on YouTube.

Then, I recorded a couple of piano-accompanied cover songs, including Doing it Wrong by the R&B artist, Drake, and Sideline by the singer/songwriter (and "Renaissance man"), Peter Broderick (sent to me by my friend Scott). These two songs were easy to play and made me realize that there is more I could do to add variety to my songs even at my level of skill.

What's next? Well, I think I need change some of my long-ingrained habits in order to take my songwriting to the next level. If I'm going to write music that's as good as the singer/songwriter-pianists I admire, like Tori Amos and Regina Spektor, for example, I need to be able to play their music as written and stop the incessant opting to simply arpeggiate chords. And, I just plain need to practice more. In 2003, when I submitted a request to sing "Little Green" at the NEC Joni Mitchell Tribute concert, I was rejected because my piano playing sounded clumsy on my audition recording. Luckily, I did get to sing two other songs with other ensembles, but honestly, I would have loved to be able to accompany myself. Maybe giving up "faking it" for a while could do me some good. But, habits are so hard to break.

In the meantime, it looks like my best bet for adding variety to my musical output is in collaborating with other musicians. I wonder if I really need to stick to one genre or if audiences would be more receptive to a variety show of genres than I think they would be. At any rate, I keep plugging. I've been writing songs since I was a young teenager. I doubt if I'll ever stop.