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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bach for Beginners

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are over-played in every coffee shop and bookstore to the point that many people take them completely for granted, like some advertising jingle for a product they don’t buy. To keep yourself from being jaded by their ubiquity you only need to watch these performed to appreciate them for what they are: absolute genius.

I’ve chosen this movement because at its heart we hear the harpsichord although like in most of these pieces the violin and recorder do most of the heavy lifting as far as the melody goes. 

Most of my piano practice consists of making my way through the most modest pieces written by the great German composer and as simple as they are to play they all contain a profound music sensibility. Most of this music Bach wrote with the beginner in mind but it’s obvious that he wanted nothing more than to coax the uninitiated into his wonderful musical world. Instead of condescension Bach has the deepest respect for his students whom he treated like family because in some cases they were his family. 

Here is the full concerto:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sketches from Real Life

Conversation with a friend while watching Valencia Club de Fútbol and drinking a couple of beers.

Friend: You look good. Have you lost weight?

Me: Not really. I’m about the same weight as I’ve been for a while.

Friend: You’ve been fatter.

Me: Thanks, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

In another incident I was riding my bike along the beaches south of town when I passed a pretty cool electric mountain bike. He was going about 22 KPH without pedaling which isn't bad. I wondered why he wasn’t putting in any effort at all as I thought about why people would buy an electric bike. On the way back home I saw the guy taking a cigarette break and my question was answered.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

New Toy, New Obsession and My 1,000 Practice Hours Challenge

"It’s impossible to be arrogant when you’ve spent a lot of your life trying to get good at things that insist on keeping you humble"*

I say this without a shred of false modesty that I was never even remotely competent on the piano even though I thought that I went at it pretty hard for a good, solid five years or so, maybe even longer. I stopped playing more out of despair than lack of motivation on my part. I just felt that I wasn’t improving, or not improving fast enough. I’m older and wiser now (although I was kind of old when I began playing piano years ago). I’ve also learned a lot about mastering difficult skills from my years here in Spain learning Spanish. Learning piano and another language have many, many things in common.

First of all, there is never a finish line. There is no “Mission Accomplished” banner stretching across the bridge of your ship as you sail off to conquer new worlds. Another very important thing to consider is that if you are making any sort of effort to improve then you are improving, even if you can’t recognize that you are getting better. The message is to just keep plugging away.

I also have the added advantage of living in the world of the internet these days, unlike when I was starting out with piano. There are so many resources available to the student of the piano now that weren’t even thought of ten years ago. I’m talking mostly about YouTube where you can find tutorials on just about any aspect of this instrument that you could possibly imagine—and then a 100 more. I’ve been able to download all of the classical music that I used to play from free websites of open source material. It’s also really easy to find cool pieces to play just by clicking around on YouTube in the intermediate piano area.

So I’ve taken to heart something I picked up in a Malcolm Gladwell book about mastering a skill in which he explains that you need 10,000 hours of practice to achieve a high level of success in just about any discipline. I’m shooting for 1,000 hours of practice and I hope to achieve that as rapidly as I can. I figure that it will take me about 100 hours to recover the modest skills I allowed to slip away when I played before. I want to crank out these 100 hours in six weeks. Ambitious, but I have a vacation in March which I plan to use almost exclusively to practice piano and ride my bike. 
*I think the flip side to my aphorism above is that people with a “been there, done that” attitude usually haven’t been anywhere or done anything. 

P.S. I suppose that I'm pretty cocky when it comes to my tomato sauce because it’s the world’s best and I’m not afraid to settle that argument with a fistfight. I’m not Italian but is there any other way to end a discussion about tomato sauce?

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Historical Slander of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)

The great composer Domenico Scarlatti was an Italian working in the court of King Ferdinand VI of Spain. He was the music tutor of the king’s young wife, Maria Barbara. That is history. You can look it up. I’ve never read this anywhere else so you can say you heard it here first: Scarlatti was totally screwing her brains out. How hard could it have been for him to seduce his pupil? Domenico is a dashing and enormously talented musician...and he's Italian! Talk about shooting Spanish fish in a barrel!

He's spending hours a day alone with his lovely protégée. He corrects her gently on an intricate passage. He leans over her, their faces mere inches apart. He puts his hand softly on hers. “Your skin is so soft, like the feathers of a baby dove, but not when it first breaks out of the egg and it is all slimy and covered with yolk or whatever the hell that sticky stuff is inside the egg, but soft like when the feathers are dried out and no longer disgusting.” You almost feel sorry for her—she doesn’t have a chance against his incredible charm.

Her husband, the king, is too busy for her. She is supposed to look the other way as he dallies with every courtesan, chamber maid, serving wench, dress fitter, and stable boy in the realm. If the truth be told, the king is a disgusting pig and a miserable lover. He hasn't touched his wife in years. He’s the kind of guy who would rather watch Sports Center than pay the slightest bit of attention to his lovely and talented wife. I know that they didn’t have Sports Center back in the 1700s but you know the type. Did they have beer back then? If they did I’m sure that the king drank too much beer and often sat around in a filthy undershirt.

And along comes Scarlatti with his olive oil hair and his Guinea charm. He is like the Johnny Fontaine of his era, but chronologically he is way before the introduction of moving pictures, so a Godfather reference is inappropriate. You could say that Johnny Fontaine was the Scarlatti of The Godfather but I don’t want to stray too far off point. My point is that Scarlatti and Maria were getting their freak on right in the royal music room, probably on the piano. If they weren’t then they should have, considering what a slob the king was—at least in my version of the story.

Scarlatti wrote something like 560 piano sonatas. He didn’t name his sonatas; they are all just numbered. I haven’t counted them but I’m betting that one of those sonatas is numbered 69. My guess is that Scarlatti dedicated that sonata to Maria, if you get my drift. I don’t think that they were still using Roman numerals at this time because LXIX isn’t dirty and ruins this entire paragraph.

The queen is spending more and more time with Scarlatti. The king is becoming suspicious. Not only is the monarch a vulgar slob, he is also a jealous and possessive husband. “With all of the time you spend practicing the piano you must be a regular Billy Joel,” the king says to her accusingly. The truth is she can’t play a single tune since she and her teacher are so busy humping like monkeys. “I must hear you play.” The king arranges for Maria to perform a recital for the royal court.

Maria is terrified that the king will know that Scarlatti is pumping the royal foot pedals when he hears her miserable playing. At her next lesson she tells her tutor. She insists that she must start practicing. Scarlatti says that she can practice at their next lesson, today he wants to try out a few of the new toys he bought at the adult bookstore.

The date for Maria’s recital approaches yet she and her teacher can’t keep their hands off of each other long enough for Maria to peck out even a single set of scales. Scarlatti’s lust blinds him to the perils Maria faces. “Playing piano is easier than it looks,” he lies to her as he pulls her hoop skirt over her head with one hand, in the other he holds some fruit and whipped cream. “You have plenty of time to learn.” Maria tries to resist his advances so that she can get in a little time on the keyboard. In their compromise to satisfy Scarlatti’s carnal desires and Maria’s need to practice, the couple invents several positions not even hinted at in the encyclopedic Kama Sutra, perhaps its authors thought them too tawdry for inclusion.

The date for Maria’s concert approaches. Her fears grow that not only will she make a fool of herself exhibiting her pathetic music skills in front of a large audience, she is also terrified that her incompetence will be a confession that she and her teacher are making bacon instead of music. Scarlatti keeps a bag packed and sleeps with a flint-lock pistol under his pillow in case he has to make a hasty exit. He isn’t overly concerned. There are plenty of horny little tarts in other European courts who need a piano teacher.

The concert was never held. Maria was let off the hook because in a twist of fate not unlike a bad episode of “I Love Lucy,” along came a war or a famine and the king forgot all about the recital. The adulterous Scarlatti would go on to write more sonatas and debauch other young members of the European royalty.