Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tilting at Ivory Windmills

  1. Running a 4-minute mile.
  2. Breaking the sound barrier.
  3. Laughing out loud at a Jay Leno monologue.

These accomplishments once thought impossible, were achieved by preternaturally driven individuals who kept their feet on the ground and their arms outstretched starward.

Now another such individual has reared her head from the swamps of mediocrity we’re all slowly drowning in to utter this proclamation:

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and do impossible things…  And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

When those face-down in the aforementioned swamp made confused sounds and grunt-bubbles, she sighed and clarified:

“I will teach Cline how to play a musical instrument, more specifically, a piano.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you…

The Salieri to my Hulce…

The Escalante to my LDP…

The Pfeiffer to my Coolio…

And the lady who puts the “Ho” in “Don Quixote”…

Miss Samantha Wittchen


God Has a Decidedly Cruel Sense of Humor

Some examples:

I love being outdoors in the hot summer sun, yet am blessed with a complexion that can best (and charitably) be described as “Brando in Dr. Moreau-esque”. 

I’ve always loved sports and playing them, while Daryl Stingley has mocked me for being slow and uncoordinated.

My passion for music runs deeper than both of those. 

Yet if you’ve seen me do karaoke, you know that I rely almost entirely on over-the-top performances rather than any ability to sing in order to entertain my drunken friends. Even when I sing karaoke with my favorite band, Marah:


And since my earliest concert-going days, I’ve had to look out of the corner of my eye to stay in rhythm with the other people clapping.  My internal metronome is almost entirely missing, though I have gotten moderately better at this in recent years.

Curse you, unseen bearded chick in the sky!

Why I Chose to Start This

Despite all those limitations, I have a long-held desire to be able to produce music that is neither comical nor wince-inducing.  It’s a quiet desire as a rule, but that ember occasionally will smolders brightly.

A few years back, a friend even offered to buy me some musical lessons as a birthday present.  I passed, not feeling like I had the time to devote to it. 

But something got me kick-started a few months back.  Not even sure why.  I took the initiative of emailing a few musical friends and asked if they could recommend piano teachers.

Why piano?  Yes, it’s not easy to transport, but you do look slightly less douchy sitting down and banging at the keys, as opposed to pulling out an acoustic guitar.  And I have decent-sized hands, so I figured that could only help.

One of the jazzbos I emailed, Miss Wittchen responded to let me know that besides being a professional harp wrangler, she also taught piano.  Partially to make this more germane to a pop culture blog, and partially to keep myself interested, I told her I wanted to learn a pop song that I loved.  My goal was to find something that would be a “Medium Rare” on the difficulty scale. 

I brainstormed a bit to find the song that would fit the equation and after eschewing a Laurie Anderson performance piece, I settled on R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”.  It’s a beautiful song with a simple, fairly repetitive melody.  Her initial response was to make sure I knew my place:

I distinctly remember wanting to know how to play that in high school, and I didn't have any music for it, so I sat down and figured it out by ear.


But she was enthusiastic to try out a slightly unorthodox teaching style:

… a blended method of study that involves learning to play by ear plus some fundamental note reading work and a little music theory thrown in. I think it would be more similar to a jazz training than a classical training, which would certainly be fun for me.

There’s that ego again, being asked to help others, but ensuring that her needs are taken care of first. 

All kidding aside, it seemed to me like a great match, since the odds of my short attention span hanging in through a month of music theory and “Chopsticks” were slim and none.

And “slim” just died of pancreatic cancer.

Lesson #1

It took place 8/11 at Miss Wittchen’s elegantly appointed West Philly artist’s retreat.

The lesson focused mostly on the basics, hand position and such.  But true to the hybrid approach outlined above, we worked on the first couple of chords (correct term?) in the song.

It went by fast and she was good about writing down the things I needed to remember and practice.

The only problem was not giggling too loudly every time she said “pianist”.

I felt like I was not just scratching the surface of the world of the piano, but that I hadn’t even got into the cab which would take me to the airport where I would catch a flight to the small town where I would hire a guide to take me to the remote cave where I drop to my knees, shovel through 5 feet of earth, where I could finally see the surface and scratch it.

But I have every intention on seeing this through and then tackling other songs.  Wish me luck.


Getting a Piano

Sam recommended that I get a keyboard or piano from Craig’s List to practice on.  I put out the word that I was looking for one among the Twitter/Facebook hive mind.  Almost immediately, my friend Marie said that they were selling her grandmother’s house and getting rid of a baby grand piano.

My original plan was to get something smaller and less ambitious.

But you don’t get a chance to acquire something this beautiful that often.  Once, in Thailand and twice in Burkina Faso, I let objects of similar beauty pass through my fingers.  Never again.

Unless it costs too much to move.  Naively, I figured I could get several of my burly friends to help me move it and do it on the cheap.  But this fucker is as heavy as it is beautiful, kinda like Delta Burke.

So I’m pricing piano movers.  It helps that both the origin and destination are on the first floor and they’re only a few miles apart.  If you know anyone who works cheap and doesn’t resemble a bumbling comic duo or threesome from the golden age of black & white comedy, drop me a line.




I hope the movers don’t employ these methods, as cool as they are:


I hope they’re more like this:


Miss Wittchen's Q&A

I sent her the following questions to answer prior to the first lesson.

1. Give a brief musical bio of yourself.

I began studying piano at the age of 4.  In high school, I decided that I wanted to go to college for music but realized that there were a lot of pianists out there, so the competition was going to be fierce.  I switched my main focus to harp and attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where I studied with Kathleen Bride.  Since returning to PA in 2001, I've played harp with numerous regional orchestras, as well as studio orchestras for such recording artists as Olivia Newton-John and Connie Francis.  I teach piano and harp privately, and I am currently Professional Associate for harp at the University of Pennsylvania.  Along with my sister, mother and Dan Nosheny, a friend from Eastman, I make up the other quarter of The Wittchen Initiative, a musical group that performs an eclectic mix of music for the unique instrumentation of two harps, voice and tuba.


2. What were your initial thoughts when I asked you to teach me piano?

I did actually think twice before responding to your inquiry about piano teachers and telling you that I teach piano myself.  However, the main reason was completely unrelated to you, specifically.  I wasn't sure that I had time to take on another student.  But unlike my other students, who are mainly kids, you have the flexibility to take lessons at night, so I figured we could probably work it out.  My other concerns were that you might be uncomfortable taking lessons from someone you know socially and that West Philly would just be too far away to go for lessons.


3. Briefly describe your approach to these lessons, and how it might differ from your normal technique.

My approach to these lessons is definitely different than my normal teaching technique, and that's largely because your goals are different from most of my students (again, children).  Adult students also differ from younger students for a number of other reasons, with which I won't bore you by enumerating here.  Basically, for the beginning younger student, there's a well established pedagogical structure for teaching them piano.  The exact path a student takes varies based on which set of method books you use, but having used a range of different methods for different students, I feel like I can safely say that the overall structure is basically the same for the young beginner.  The student progresses through musical concepts and learns pieces of music that demonstrate those concepts.  These songs are often such chart-toppers as "Washday Boogie," "Buckin' Bronco," and the ever-popular "Camel Ride."  For most beginning younger students, their goal--or their parents' goal--is to become proficient at the instrument and play progressively harder music.

For adults, this can also be true, and for the adult with the goal of proficiency, there is also a fairly well-established pedagogical structure.  However, I find that adults are often driven by a more definable end goal (to play a particular song, to play for a specific event, to join a band).  I also find that since adults have often been exposed to more musical genres than children, they frequently have a specific style of music they'd like to learn.  (As a side note, I didn't have any idea that one could actually take lessons in jazz piano, instead of classical piano, until I was a senior in high school.)  Since that's the case here, I don't think a traditional structure will work well.  My plan is to take an approach that uses individuals songs that you're interested in learning as a point of departure to teach more of the fundamentals (note-reading, rhythm, technique), which is essentially the opposite of the established structure for young beginners, which introduces fundamentals and then makes up songs to go with them.
I think ear-training (listening) is going to play a much larger role in this approach, understanding harmony will be more important, and note-reading will follow as a support structure.  (Okay, so that wasn't brief at all.)


4. Do you think my non-existent musical skillset will help or hurt with the process?

I don't know.  Sometimes people with no musical training have very good ears, or they're able sing well, or they're really good at patterns or memorization.  And sometimes they're tone-deaf and hopeless.  It remains to be seen which category you'll fall into.  It usually takes a couple lessons to become apparent either way.  And if it turns out you're the latter, at least you can take comfort in the fact that you can still be quite successful if you're tone-deaf and hopeless.  But you might consider changing your name to Kanye first.


5. How many lessons do you estimate it will take before I can play a decent version of Nightswimming?

It'll depend on how much you practice.  (How's that for a patented music teacher response?)  I'm going to set the over/under at three.  Let the betting begin. (Cline - If I could have bet my house on the over, I would have.)


And these were the questions she answered after the first lesson


1. How did the lesson go?

I thought the lesson went well.  I forgot just how many terms there are to explain in order for me just be able to communicate with someone who is a complete musical neophyte.  But I am heartened that you were able to retain and play back for me the right hand melody in the correct rhythm and with the correct notes during the first lesson.


2. How uphill a road do I have?

I think your biggest challenge is going to be developing technical proficiency (finger strength and individual finger movement).  The good news is that's pretty much the easiest thing to work on, and the progress you make should be directly proportional to how much time you put towards it.  The second biggest challenge is going to be taking in and remembering all the information I'm going to throw at you relatively rapidly regarding rhythm, note reading, melody and harmony.  It'll be a lot, but it's not impossible, and as long as you take a relaxed attitude towards it, it should be relatively fun, too.


3. Would you like to adjust your over/under?

Yes - I'm changing it to 5.  I feel like I don't know which side of that bet I'd take, but I'm pretty sure I'd take the over with 3 at this point.

A 23% Less Goofy Picture of My Teacher

It’s the least I can do.


The Popcorn Trick’s fact-checking department has just informed me that no one has ever actually laughed out loud at a Leno monologue. Apparently, Eubanks doesn’t count.


keithwade said...

This is an awesome task and one that I can totally relate to. I love music, have been to over 400 concerts, can sing a mean backup for my friend's old band, but I have no musical instrument talent whatsoever...and it's always pissed me off.

So good luck! And great song choice with Nightswimming.

kgolrick said...

That's a sweet piano. good luck with your endeavor, sir.

- keg

Amy said...

The arm ratio for that contraption would have to be 13200:1 to sling a piano 3 miles, so yeah, better find a different set of nerds to move the thing.

This is a brilliant idea, and I love both your choice of song and the Sam Q&A! Lemme know if you need a documentarian... I'm in the nabe and could use a laugh ;)


Heather said...

I love Nightswimming, both the song and the activity. good choice.