The blog of Richard Thompson, caricaturist, creator of "Cul de Sac," and winner of the 2011 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Music, a dilettante's love story

Music is weird. I mean that literally; I think its effect on the brain is potent stuff, not easily measured. The neurologist Oliver  Sachs  wrote a book on it  called Musicophilia. Nowadays I can't listen to it with the intensity I used to; it's like drawing in that respect.

When he was about 11 my brother got a piano. He wanted to take lessons and he did for 6 years or so. And having a piano handy I started fooling with it. I had a friend who could play the German National anthem (Deutschland uber alles, from a string quartet by Haydn, then set to Gott erhalte Franz denn Kaiser) ( sorry). We had a children's encyclopedia set my mom bought in like 1960 and it had a chart with piano keys, notes of the scale and their names with dotted lines to each. So I figured out a C major chord. Pianos are just sitting there all tuned with every note visible  and they're easy enough to figure once the basic logic of notation's clear, and there're books for that. I didn't want lessons, I wanted a satisfying project, and I had the time to waste on it.

I was at Montgomery College then and the library had music books, opera vocal scores for piano in particular, and I got Wagner's Meistersinger and figured out the first page. It's great, real pompous and soaring, just what an 18 year old geek wants. It was an education in not just culture but history, but I just wanted to know how it worked. And keeping the radio on all the time just made it worse. It was sensory overload almost. I think I've mentioned that I've always found the point when you realize hey, I like this! you know, the aha! moment really interesting. I rememober getting interested in monster movies was precipitated by buying a poster of Bela Lugosi spreading his cape, and my wife got into Chinese culture big time after seeing a Jackie Chan movie.

It hit me how much I liked music after seeing a film in German class that featured Beethoven's fifth. And I wondered how it worked. For instance, how did I know a symphonic movement was coming to an end? There were these gears  shifting way down in the orchestra so you'd feel this change in velocity. That was the Coda, the tail of the piece. Brahms often overworked his, stuffing like 5 key changes into a few bars.

Anyway I got to the point where I could play the middle movement of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata, about ten rags by Scott Joplin and lots of chunks of things. On a good day I could manage the end of Wagner's Die Walkure (the magic fire music, it'll tear your head off) and several pieces by Ravel and Brahms. But I didn't have the patience to learn basics, scales and such. And then I got married and there wasn't a piano (my brother had quit his lessons after several years from the, ahem, spinster who covered her living room furniture with plastic to protect it from children. He offered his piano but that seemed wrong).

But in about 2005 I finally bought a piano, a  Charles Walter studio model, my dream piano, and started again. I decided lessons were necessary, which was brave I guess because I'm scared to death to perform publicly and I knew it would entail a recital. I took my first lesson the day before I first met Lee Salem, strangely enough, from Grace Chang, a delightful,, funny but no nonsense teacher recommended by friends. She had me sight-read a Brahms intermezzo, one of his (somewhat) easier ones except for a bit that has 2 against 3 crossrythms (dense). She was impressed and said my trills were good.. I knew I'd get along with her when we both liked a bit from Brahms' first piano trio; in the first movement; on the first page, the piano, playing in B flat, dips down unexpectedly to a chord with a bass in low E major, the polar opposite. When played right it's quietly seismic. Within two years I played in 2 recitals, once four hands with my daughter Charlotte who also took lessons and once with Grace.  

Then I started on the strip and didn't have time. I also realized most music was really beyond me (I still harbored delusions of playing the Meistersinger prelude). I was always a sucker for transcriptions; orchestral pieces arranged for piano and, thanks mostly to the internet, I had hundreds of pieces I loved,  all for piano, at my fingertips, if they could handle it. My piano tuner, a funny man,   said most self-taught pianists have eyes bigger than their stomachs and I knew what he meant.

Then it got harder. I couldn't wrap my head or my fingers around it like before. When we moved I donated the piano to Arena Stage, where my brother works . It was time to let that obsession go.