Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rhythmic Piano

One new thing that's been going on is that I've been exploring the piano as a rhythm instrument, as you can see by the very basic blues I've been posting (I've also been working on some more intricate composed pieces, but they're copyrighted so obviously I can't post them).

I'm finding that this rhythmic piano practice has been really awesome for cultivating my physical/kinesthetic/rhythmic relationship to the instrument, to where I sometimes feel like I'm dancing with the piano. It's also bringing out subtler issues with my sense of timing in general, getting the music to swing nicely, that whole thing about playing sub-beats which are not evenly subdivided like when you're playing straight 4/4 time.

This is something I had also been working on in my Irish music, where a standard double jig (in 6/8 time) has 3 unevenly-weighted sub-beats to each of the two beats per measure. it takes lots of careful listening and imitation of good traditional players to get it that uneven beat subdivision to sound authentic. Now on piano, I'm exploring the whole issue of playing with different amounts of swing, seeing what sounds better with which part of which tune, and also just working to control my degree of swing -- I tend to want to swing too much, or not at all, so I need to work on those subtler gradations.

I've also been doing some pure rhythm practice, working out of _The Rhythm Bible_ by Dan Fox (I wonder if that's the same Dan Fox that arranged the Beatles songbook for easy piano I just bought...). When I was working from this in the fall, I was working on the basic rhythms in the front section, but this time I've started working on the first section on syncopation. I'm not sure why, but I find syncopation to be great fun. As I mentioned in another post, I've been working by tapping a steady rhythm in the left hand and the syncopated pattern from the book in the right.

What I want to do at some point is to get the rhythm book in the same location as the piano, and work on turning some of these syncopated patterns into little snatches of (laborious) semi-improvisation (what notes might fit this rhythm?). But my habit is to do my rhythmic practice sitting in my comfy chair in my sunny nook, and my DP lives upstairs in my room, where I can practice in peace & privacy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Digital Piano!

My Casio Privia PX-120 developed a malfunction, but I was able to return it to Costco for a refund (excellent reason to shop at Costco). So I got a Casio PX-330 instead, which has most if not all of the features I'd been vaguely wishing the PX-120 had. I went with Sweetwater because of their extended warranty and reputation for good customer service, since Costco wasn't carrying Casio keyboards anymore. I don't know if Sweetwater's regular free shipping gives 3-day delivery (instead of regular ground shipping which would have taken 4-5 days to the west coast), or whether they shipped it faster because we had a irritating little snafu with our credit card, but anyway, 3-day service turned out to be 2-day service and my new piano arrived yesterday!

:^)  :D  :^)  :D  :^)

In the interim between the time the old DP went away and the new one arrived, I was playing my old semi-weighted keyboard, and the weird, springy touch on that had not only been irritating, but it had also started giving me hand pain, to the extent that for a couple of days my main music practice shifted to tapping out syncopated rhythms in one hand against a steady beat in the other, away from the keyboard. So it was a special pleasure when the new improved digital piano arrived.

I'm still exploring its many features, manual in hand. The touch and responsiveness of the keyboard is much improved over the PX-120, as are the main piano sounds. I've found some good built in rhythms to play my blues and ragtime with. There are many buttons with multiple labels & functions, which are going to take me a while to sort out.

I'm looking forward to being able load MIDIs into the piano. The plan is to scan in my scores via PhotoScore Lite into Sibelius, and then export from Sibelius to MIDI files, which, if I set them up right, can be used for hands-separate practice by the piano. This will be particularly helpful since I am working on pieces with syncopated right-hand parts, and it would be nice to practice the syncopated hand alone, but have the auditory reference of the steady left hand rhythm playing along. The manual says I can also loop parts of the MIDIs, which sounds like it will be very handy, since I do a lot of looping on troublesome phrases.

So today's goal is to figure out how to connect the computer to the DP and transfer files. But first I've gotta dig out an blasted USB cord...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More Basic Blues

First I procrastinated posting, because sometimes my brain can't handle words when I've been feeling musical.  Last night I wrote a summary of what I'd been doing all this time, but then I managed to accidentally quit Firefox and lost the whole thing (and why wasn't blogger auto-saving?). Very annoying. I shall attempt to reconstruct, yet again, what I've been doing for the last couple of weeks... but I may break it up in to a bunch of shorter posts

So back to learning basic blues. First I worked on this:

It took a while for me to get the left hand fingering smooth, then combine it with the right hand. But once I finally got it down, I found it to be lots of fun to play, particularly along with that "boogie-woogie" rhythm in my DP.

Next I started working on this:
This had a new fingering to figure out in my left hand, and it's a little tricky to get the pair of syncopated chords in the right hand timed just right within the long space between bass notes. I'm still working on that one, but it's also quite fun to play.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Starting out with Blues

So as I start out this project of learning to play some basic blues on the piano, I thought I should document my starting point, as your basic elementary pianist. I restarted my piano playing using traditional classical teaching repertoire, stuff around the level of the first half of Bach's Minuet in G, and this Telemann Gavotte. I'm pretty comfortable reading music, though I'm no brilliant sight reader. I enjoy studying music theory, and then seeing/hearing it enact itself in the pieces I'm learning.

I started out by learning the following left hand patterns, and just practicing keeping a steady grove in the key of C (swung eighths). I found a rhythm built into my Casio PX-120 called "boogie-woogie" which works well with this sort of practice.
It's kind of zen -- to get it to sound right, I need to get sucked into the rhythmic trance, but if I get sucked in too far some inner alertness goes passive, my beat falters, and my inner dancer stumbles and gets peeved.

For the first few days I concentrated on this stuff, and gradually worked up to repeating some very simplistic right hand melody patterns while my left hand played the first of the four patterns above. This took lots of work for me -- I am still quite challenged by coordinating differing activities between the two hands. The other night I had a breakthrough, though, where I broke my melody/harmony snippets down into sequences of three eighth-notes (both hands together), and learned each one (not hard) then moved on to the next (overlapping) one. After doing that, they all came together into a whole amazingly smoothly. Must remember that technique.

Yesterday I started learning the blues chord progression, played thus (more or less: I figured out a better ending, but haven't figured out how to write it down yet).

 I can play just the bassline at 105 bpm, but hands together I am barely half that speed, and I do still struggle to make the chord changes without losing my place with the piano's built in rhythm section.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I'm Back, with the Blues

I've been off playing the tin whistle for the past 6 months (Irish traditional dance music), but I seem to have recently wrapped up a phase of significant musical growth there. I had a sense of things coming to a natural resting point, perhaps a back-door intuition that I need to set my whistle aside for a bit, so I can forget some of the bad habits I had found myself struggling against.

It was an odd sensation -- I lost interest in music completely for a few weeks, while my brain spontaneously burped up a really nice plot arc for a fiction idea I had abandoned years ago (for lack of a coherent plot). So I worked on getting that outlined to the degree that my burst of inspiration had elucidated, clarified some logistical issues I needed to put on the back burner for my imagination to simmer up good scenes for, and looked around for my next project.

And that was when the piano started calling. It told me it was time for us to learn some basic blues piano, which was unexpected, but it makes a certain intuitive sense to me now that I think about it. I want to learn to improvise, and it seems appropriate to do so within the boundaries of a traditional structure. And there's something earthy and primal about keeping a driving rhythm with the left hand, which I feel I'm over-ripe to learn.