Being brave!

It’s been a few months since I last posted to this blog.

I had always imagined that I would post some clips of my playing. A few years ago I experimented with audioboo and didn’t realise it was tweeting the recordings. I only realised that when, four songs in to my recording experiment, I noticed a flurry of tweets saying things like “lovely!”. Oh oh! The pieces weren’t too awful, I suppose, at last they were proper attempts to get all the way through a song in one piece. Someone even shared me back their version of one of the songs back, which made me feel a lot better about it all (thank you David🙂 ).

I’ve been meaning to have another go. The other day I suddenly found myself questioning my motives: would I just be attention-seeking, scouring for compliments? Neither my piano playing or my singing are perfect, I know that, but it’s the closest I come to making something: just me, no-one else to take the credit or blame. A brief discussion on facebook later and I think I’ll go for it. It’s in that spirit of just enjoying expressing myself that I sat down to record some pieces for this post.

Technical aside: this time instead of audioboo, I’ve been trying some different android recording apps on my tablet. I just balance the tablet on the piano and start recording, nothing fancy. Then I send the files to google drive. Then on my laptop I download them back from google drive. My playing wasn’t so fluid last night, so I’ve just edited some clips in audicity😉 Then onto soundcloud. Be warned that because I play from the music I have to turn the pages sometimes so its very low-tech.

Autumn Leaves by Eva Cassidy
https://soundcloud.com/amber-thomas-31/autumn-leaves-by-eva-cassidy
One of the songbooks I love to play from is Eva Cassidy. I like the slower ballady ones best: songbird, autumn leaves, I know you by heart, somewhere over the rainbow. I played this too fast because I knew I was recording it and my nerves sped me up. I also messed up the piano towards the end, hence the abrupt finish! But I don’t get bored of this, and I particularly love the start.

I Know You By Heart by Eva Cassidy
https://soundcloud.com/amber-thomas-31/know-you-by-heart-by-eva-cassidy
Again, just a clip because I have various bits to work on. I need to memorise the second and third verses for this.

One and Only by Adele
https://soundcloud.com/amber-thomas-31/one-and-only-by-adele
I am working on some songs by Adele, from “21”, the more ballady ones. I enjoy playing them more than listening to the originals, perhaps the production is a bit too poppy for me. But some of those songs are very well crafted, as a songwriter I think she’s created some great stuff and I do love her voice.

Almaz by Randy Crawford
https://soundcloud.com/amber-thomas-31/almaz-by-randy-crawford
I only recently discovered that lots of songs I like have been written and/or performed by Randy Crawford. I have “last night at danceland” on a jazz compilation and it is so distinctive, I adore it. I’ve played Almaz so long now that I’ve probably lost the essence of the song, but it’s one I feel confident with. Needs a fresh approach and some polish. Next on my to do list from her catalogue is “One Day I’ll Fly Away”.

Blue by Joni Mitchell
https://soundcloud.com/amber-thomas-31/blue-joni-mitchell
Herein lies a story. My mum introduced me to Joni Mitchell’s Blue when I was about 14. Probably at the same time as reading Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar. If that paints a picture of my teenage years you’d be right. There’s a sparsity to this song that has such an amazing melancholy, it is one of the best songs for piano and female voice that I have ever heard. I searched for the sheet music on and off, but it didn’t even appear in her sheet music compilations. Then a month ago I treated myself to a new piano songbook, £10 on amazon, I just glanced down the contents online and ordered it. It arrived, I randomly opened it, and here it was! I’d been going through a few weeks that felt like swimming upstream, and it felt like an omen that this had turned up. The words, by the way, should be essential listening for any overthinking teenager like I was. Thank you to my mum for sharing it with me in the first place. An amazing song, I plan to memorise it, which I always struggle with, but it would be worth it.

Readers, do not feel obliged to comment! I’m just putting this all out there warts and all, it’s neither brilliant nor completely dreadful, but I feel slightly embarrassed by my desire to share. I have done a few singing performances over the past 5 years or so, including a rather strange gig at work (some of you will remember that😀 ), and three years of the Warwick folk festival choir. I am loving finding out that some of my relatives are into making music too, in a bigger way than me (waves at Tamara and Kris!). I’m in good company, if a little rough round the edges. So, yes, there we go. I’m being brave. End of post!

 

How I play

In my first post I described the history of the piano in my life, and in this second post I want to describe how I play.

The first thing to say is that I always have the sheet music in front of me because I really struggle to memorise music. I’d like to learn how to do that. To compensate, I am a pretty good sightreader: if I’m going to be able to play something at all I can usually hack through it first time. I’d like to get better at polishing pieces though. Because I rarely perform, and can’t opportunistically play from memory, I never need to perfect my playing. I’m very much an amateur. I might work up the courage to share some recordings of my playing in future posts.

Although I play on an electric piano, I don’t really take advantage of its electricness, apart from the ability to change the volume and plug my headphones in. I use the default voice, though I add a little acoustic echo, and I use the pedals.

At the moment I play in two main ways:

  • I play and I sing. I have quite cheesy taste in music at the moment: I love a good power ballad. Less embarassingly, I like some Adele, Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchell. I need to adapt to my vocal range better. Plenty of room for improvement but it does bring me joy.
  • Classical, preferably something melancholy: I’m currently trying to master Gounod’s Ave Maria, and I like a bit of Einaudi and Marianelli. I’d like to understand what I like about those composers, it’s something about the shapes in it. I plan to explore that in a future post.

When I’m content and happy, I find that playing comes easily. It’s always an indication of my wellbeing. The days my fingers don’t work tend to be bad days. Sometimes after a bit of a dry patch emotionally, on the way back up I am drawn to playing, and it’s often then that the third type of piano playing happens:

  • improvisation. I’m not particularly good, but I have enough understanding of the patterns of music to lose myself sometimes, to just find my own way. Those are good sessions. I think I’d like to get better at that.

Beyond that, there’s somewhere I’d like to get to, one day:

  • jazz and blues. I have light hearted jazz scores, but having been exposed to real, gritty jazz piano, real finger-stretching, heart-rending soulful stuff, I know I need to work to do it properly. I’d love to be able to play and sing the sorts of songs performed by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and of course, Nina Simone. Memorise them, adapt them to my voice. One day.

So that’s where I am with my playing. I’d love to read other amateur pianists talking about their playing. Recommendations of piano blogs would be very welcome!

Why blog about the piano?

I started learning the piano when my nana bought us a second hand upright when I was about 8 or 9. I guess it was partly to keep my mind off my parents’ divorce. I also learnt the saxophone for a bit, and as I recently read a tale of sax teachers in Eleanor Catton’s “The Rehearsal“, that got me thinking back to my past music teachers and to my relationship with the piano.

Over seven years I worked my way through several teachers in West Bridgford, Nottingham: Mary and Michael, Jim Pennycook and Mrs Caswell. My grade one exam was a milestone for me in many ways, but that’s a story for another time. I remember going to a huge posh house in The Park for those exams. There was plastic sheeting on the carpets and sofas to keep the house clean from grubby commoners. I think my grade 5 exam was when I was about 15. I didn’t want to go. I remember locking myself in the bathroom at home to avoid it. After that, (I passed, I always passed), I decided to stop grading. I wanted to play for fun. That’s when I switched to Mrs Caswell to concentrate on jazz. I’ll write about that  another time.

Then when I went to university a kindly music student that I met in a bar copied his music room key for me, and for two years I trespassed regularly. (No, he didn’t require anything in return, just a really nice guy). Then they changed the locks. And, for presumably unrelated reasons, he failed his degree. But what a nice guy!

The next episode of my life featured my boyfriend Jonny. Jonny had a big electronic keyboard. He knew how to play it: he could imitate Massive Attack on it. He was more into bass guitar though, it was the early days of his band Punish the Atom. I never did master that keyboard. When we split up I offered it back to him but he refused.

Fast forward to 2007, me in a tiny house with my husband Tim and our new baby. We’d moved the piano from my mum’s (she’d held onto it through several house moves) but now we were running out of space. With a heavy heart I freecycled it: someone came with a horsebox to take it away. Sacrifices.

A couple of years later I was yearning to play again and so we invested in a yamaha clavinova (CLP 320-M). An electric piano, but a good one, brand new, £750 I think. It felt like a huge investment in me and my happiness, and one of the things I love about Tim is that he talked me into buying it.

So here I am now, 30 years after I first played the piano. Two young sons, a full-time absorbing job, a moderate addiction to social media, and I feel a need to remind myself who I am, at my quiet core, at the centre of me. I think the piano is part of that me.