South Park Self

the spark is not within me

A student wandered into my office yesterday, and for a wonder didn't immediately get snarled at for interrupting, which is regrettably tending to be my default response of late. Instead I looked up, slightly cross-eyed, from my 35th replay of Arcade Fire's "Crown of Love" tinnily through my desk speakers, and said vaguely, "Oh, right, it's the same chord but they're not using the tonic in the base progression. Sneaky sods." Then I dealt with the curriculum question, which I assume, since I can't remember it, was trivial and routine and had nothing to do with contemporary alt music, and sent the student, slightly bewildered, on their way.

See, I sort of play the piano. Sort of. As in, I took formal piano lessons and did the exams at school, all the way up to O-level Music and the Royal Schools Grade 6, which I scraped a pass in after being heartily sabotaged by a nasty little modern Russian piece which featured enormous, merry, octave-and-a-half leaps in the right hand. Since I never practised worth a damn and it's bloody impossible to hit enormous leaps accurately without practising a lot, the whole enterprise should have been doomed from the start. What saved it was the fact that I have a fairly good ear, in so far as I'm reasonably capable of reproducing, albeit in truncated and simplified form if it's complex, pretty much anything I hear that isn't hard-core classical or jazz. I fumbled my way through most of my formal piano pieces on memory, a good ear and a reasonable streak of actual musicality, but I don't have anything whatsoever that you could identify as technique, and my stabs at sight-reading or correct fingering would make a piano teacher spontaneously combust, weeping.

All this notwithstanding, I still derive considerable enjoyment from noodling around on the piano. I am fortunate that I have mine lying around the living room courtesy of my amazing mother, who stuck it on the back of a truck and brought it down from Zim when she fled the country, and my amazing friends, who paid for it to be refurbished as a birthday present a few years back. I stuff around either with classical pieces (Chopin nocturnes!) or Cole Porter, or 80s hits, or, most often, whatever random song has caught my attention because of interesting chords, or has been floating around my backbrain and needs to be exorcised by reproduction (this is surprisingly effective). I do it when I'm depressed, tired, annoyed, have a spare moment when the EL's not in the house, or am waiting for the kettle to boil for tea.

Playing the piano is a personal, private and solitary vice; I do not care to inflict my stumbles and experiments on anyone else, because there's a lot of stumbling, mostly while I play the wretched song over and over again on the CD player, leaping at intervals to the piano with cries of illumination (see above). And this is in defiance of the fact that a lot of rock/pop/folk music is, in chord pattern at least, very simple. Yer gets yer tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, the basic triad which tend to define pop tunes, occasionally with a minor or seventh or key change or something flung in for good measure. (The very first thing I ever taught myself to play, when I was about 11, was "Michael Finnigan", which uses two chords, tonic and dominant. I hacked my way tentatively through it and the scales (hah!) fell from my eyes. The world opened up. Suddenly I could play anything. I still have an incredibly vivid memory of that moment. It also led, indirectly, to a gig playing light poppy background music at one of the five-star hotel restaurants in Harare while I was still at school; I also have a vivid memory of breaking into "Mama Tambo's Wedding" as a warm-up before any of the diners had actually arrived, and having the waiters all bopping in the aisles.)

Despite this innate simplicity of chord, it's actually quite difficult to make a single piano operated by an indifferent pianist (and if I practiced very hard for about three years I'd probably qualify as an indifferent pianist) reproduce the different strands of sound which make up a contemporary rock/pop number. You keep the beat going in the bass with your left hand, often in octaves, cunningly synthesising both the drum beat and the actual bass line if you possibly can. Your right hand reproduces the characteristic guitar riff (or, occasionally, piano accompaniment) which fills out the middle range. In the same range, and with your third hand, or possibly foot, you carry the actual tune, since if you're me you can't sing loudly enough to hold it and, besides, that's not the point. Your second foot is reserved for the embellished descanty bits that someone like Arcade Fire sticks in with a violin just to keep things interesting. The occasional cymbal clash you supply with your nose, or a passing cat. If you were a decent pianist, such as I ain't, you could play something like "Total Eclipse of the Heart", which has a beautiful piano accompaniment, by melding the accompaniment and the tune into one with your right hand, but I can't. That's high tech piannering, that is. I'd break a finger.

And there's the final Achilles heel. I try to play stuff in the same key the originators do, but it is my seekrit sorrow that I can't do flats. I tend to default to the keys of D, A or G, or related minors; I lack moral fibre sufficiently that I shy away from whole thickets of sharps, but flats bring me out in a cold sweat. This is not unrelated to the problem I have with the eight times table, which back in kindergarten days I for some reason never learned properly by rote. Sevens, fine. Nines, OK. (I like the nine times table, it's aesthetically pleasing). I wasn't concentrating when we did eights, and to this day I count on my fingers when calculating them. Likewise, I clearly skimped on F major and B flat major and all those evil flatty keys back in the good old days of scales, and it's haunted me ever since. Which is a bugger, because David Bowie loves the bloody things.

Things I have recently taught myself to play: the above Arcade Fire. ("Wake Up" is also fun, mostly because of the driving base). Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection". ELO's "Midnight Blue". A particularly bastardised and inadequate version of "Life on Mars", which really needs four pianos, a full orchestra and a death wish. Annie Lennox's "Into the West" from the LotR soundtrack. If you cherish any fondness at all for any of these tunes, don't for FSM's sake come anywhere near the house when I'm playing them. It'll make you wince, but worse, I'll have to stop playing in sheer embarassment, and you'll interrupt my ham-fisted happy.
  • Current Mood: artistic musical(ish)
  • Current Music: still with the Arcade Fire
And yet you'll still find someone envying you, vis: Me, because I am passable at playing melodies by ear but the harmonies make me cry. I look for sheet music online...

You could try a sort of halfway thing, and look for the lyrics with guitar chords? I revert to those when playing something like Bowie, who gets convoluted and atonal to the point where I give up trying to recreate it from the sound, and cheat. I can never find the sheet music I want online, otherwise I'd probably buy a hell of a lot of it.
I totally agree regarding Life on Mars. It makes my guitar cry, not "my guitar gently weeps" but "my guitar throws an enormous snot-filled screamy sobby tantrum".

It's not even easy to sing. Damn you, Bowie.
You can use many words to describe Bowie, but "easy" will never be one of them. And, ye gods, I can't even imagine trying to reproduce anything resembling "Life on Mars" on a guitar. Possibly this is because my guitar skills are significantly worse than my piano skills (I can just about manage the easier folkier bits of Simon and Garfunkel), but mostly I think "Life on Mars" is one of those quintessential piano pieces. See "four pianos and a death wish", above. Guitar is for things like "Quicksand" or "Queen Bitch", to which a piano does no justice at all.

Then again, it's the same magnificent hubris that leads me to try and reproduce Arcade Fire with insufficient skill on a single piano. I salute you, sir.
p.s. are you familiar with the acoustic covers of Bowie classics done by Seu Jorge for the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack? in Portuguese? They are bizarrely wonderful. "Life on Mars" here.

Edited at 2011-08-17 08:04 am (UTC)