Momma didn’t raise no fool

Despite the title, this will be about the author – though, as will become clear, any lack of foolishness only applies to a very limited arena.

When I was a wee lad, of only some 5 or 6 summers, my parents sent me to have piano lessons with one Mrs Heath – who at the time seemed an unbelievably elderly crone and I now hope was not in her forties (I’m fairly sure she was actually old).  This did not take and I swiftly gave up the piano for many years.

In the mid 1990s, I returned to the piano having watched the film Groundhog Day and been inspired by Bill Murray’s fictional progress with the instrument.  I took regular lessons and even practiced between them on somewhat regular basis.  I have some reason to believe that I reached the dizzy heights of a poor Grade 4 (without any theory) at this time.  However, I then moved and a 200+ mile commute for piano lessons seemed impractical.  It was clearly time to find a new piano teacher!

At this stage, some time passed.  A mere two decades or so seem to have elapsed.  In this hiatus between teachers, I will admit that my application to regular practice has been less than exemplary and I would have to further own that my skills have at best stagnated – and, if I’m honest, deteriorated.   However, I think even my harshest critic would struggle to claim that, like a fool, I had rushed into selecting a new master to take me as his disciple.

As those unfortunate enough to have befriended me on Facebook – or, worse, had my friendship thrust upon them – will know, this past Tuesday I finally had my first piano lesson of the bright new/only mildly tarnished millennium. Many lessons were learned!  Some of which I will share with you gentle readers…

To avoid annoying the neighbours (and more publicly embarrassing myself) with the relative poor and repetitive nature of my piano practice, I have for many years listened to my piano playing only through headphones.  The instrument sounds rather different when its vibrations are allowed to interact with a whole room before hitting my ears.  I say this not to excuse my performance, merely as an interesting side note.

It has also been many years since I have had an audience for my piano playing.  It would appear that, much like events in the quantum domain, my piano playing is affected by the presence of an observer.  Were I to know the precise location of any finger, I would have absolutely no idea as to which note it should have been playing and vice versa: curse you Heisenberg!  There was also a small issue of my left-hand, in particular, coming down with a nasty case of the hippy hippy shake – to the extent that my teacher inquired whether this was a pre-existing condition.  Luckily, that evening I bumped into a friend who is also learning the piano later in life and who suffers from exactly the same symptoms – in her case, her teacher thought she had Parkinson’s – so I am not alone.  I do not have this problem with the guitar – perhaps because from the start I have played it to a small audience (my guitar teacher) – so I have some hope that I can recover from this nasty attack of shy competence.

Despite the prolonged car crash – as I perceived it – that characterised my performance during my first lesson, my teacher was surprisingly positive about my skills.  I think at one stage he accused me of demonstrating some musicality – or at the very least following the marked phrasing and dynamics.  This may, of course, by a cunning teacher’s trick to boost a pupil’s self-worth and if so, it has worked like a charm.

It was, frankly, amazing how much I learned in the course of this first 21st century lesson.  A lot of bad, or at best marginal behaviour, can become ingrained over two decades.  As can a worrying degree of blindness: I discovered the importance of the note D to a piece I have been playing – on and off – for 22 years.  Suddenly, the chords make so much more sense – rather than just being random jumps of the left-hand across the keyboard.  In recent blog-related news Hanon is out!  My route to the world of the virtuous pianist will not involve his sixty exercises – yay!  In their place come interesting new scale-based exercise that my fingers are itching to get to grips with (gratification has been delayed by travelling for work and the absence of a practice piano for guests at the Premier Inn).  I even have a couple of pieces to prepare for my next lesson: an actual, externally-set objective!  In bad news for my neighbours, I have decided to start practicing without headphones.  I feel this ups the ante for my concentration and may help with the audience issue: summary eviction will be small price to pay!

So, let’s raise a toast to old dogs revisiting old tricks and then (whisper it quietly) learning new ones!

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Board hubris

Robert Browning places the phrase that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” into the mouth of the Italian Renaissance Painter Andrea del Sarto.  Today, I have twice attempted to follow this indirect imperative from Victorian poetry: my primary go-to (or go-sub) resource for advice!

I have for some time possessed a copy of Hanan’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, a book I clearly acquired under false pretenses as I have never exceeded a rather poor Grade 4 standard at the piano.  As part of an attempt to reduce procrastination in at least a few areas of my life, I have decided I had better start making some progress or my death may pre-date my becoming a virtuouso pianist.

Hanon

Soon(ish) this will rightfully be mine!

Prior to today, I had never moved beyond exercise 2.  However, over the weekend I had played exercises 1 and 2 twice, back-to-back on both days.  I won’t say that my performance was entirely error-free, nor that the playing proceeded in line with any constant metronome mark (well, not unless some gravitational waves of unprecedented magnitude passed through my flat) .  It certainly wasn’t achieved without a fair degree of pain from my hands and forearms – but it was achieved!  So, bolstered with this modest degree of “success”, this morning I turned the page to exercise 3.  This starts by telling me that I should be aiming to play exercises 3 to 5 without a break – and not just once, but three or four times.  Each of the exercises contains basically the same number of notes, so this is three-fold increase in the physical endeavour required: I fear there is a whole world of pain to come!

Still, I am determined (at the moment) and a one-off attempt at exercise 3 wasn’t too tricky: so there is hope.  Virtuosity may be within my grasp before whatever replaces the telegram arrives from who (or what) ever replaces the Queen.

In a further attempt to move my piano playing up a level (or, at a minimum, reduce its rate of descent) I am also trying to spend less time watching my fingers and more time looking at the music.  This has the advantage that when something goes wrong I know where I am, the downside is that my fingers don’t always go where I intend.  However, on balance it has worked much better than expected: my fingers generally seem to know more about playing the piano than any higher level executive function available in my brain.

Buoyed by the vaguely success-related feelings arising from moving on with Hanon, I decided to tackle some new exercises on my guitar.  Workouts 1 to 4 were going alright, so I tried workout 5.  This went very well, and hubris may have got the better of me.  In my o’erweening arrogance, I turned to workout 6.  This requires each of my first three fingers (index, middle and ring) to reside on adjacent frets.  My little finger starts on the fret next to its ring brother, but is then expected to move another fret closer to the body of the guitar whilst all its friends remain where they were.  This is clearly physically impossible for any, except (perhaps) a few freaks of nature!  Or I would think that if I hadn’t seen a large number of apparently normal people doing it.  Given these sightings were at gigs, my sample may have been somewhat self-selecting but I think I am forced to conclude that this sort of stretch is possible for a baseline human: just not (current) me.   Somehow, I have to discover the secret to cutting the apron-strings that tie my little finger to my ring finger – Hanon is helping them act independently, but a different sort of independence seems to be needed for the fretboard of my guitar.

Should I be seeking some sort of finger yoga or Pilates for my left hand?  For not only do I have to move my little finger into position once, but I then have to allow my other fingers to join it and then cruelly leave it divorced from its fellows once more – and then repeat this process multiple times.  Once again, I see pain on the horizon – and before then a lot of experimentation with my phalanges to try and achieve the position even once and with the other hand (and possible some gaffer tape) helping!  Still I like to think that what I lack in other personality traits, I make up for in bloody-mindedness so I shall keep going.  How could I not?  Hanging out with young musicians I know just how profitable a career in music can be!

Duelling deliveries

When I were a lad, I don’t recall there being any option to have hot food delivered to one’s dwelling – well, it might have been available to the aristocracy but, due to an error of fate, I was born into the forelock-tugging classes.  Food was prepared and consumed in the home, except for very rare occasions: I think I now eat out more often in a typical week than I did in a typical year as a child.

I remember when fast food first came, in the form of KFC, to the provincial Kent town where the majority of my childhood was spent.  My mother did not approve; and I suspect still doesn’t!

So deprived were we in those far off days that fizzy pop was brought to the children (and adults) of Sittingbourne on the back of a small lorry by a man (or shadowy organisation) known as Mr Bacon, much like van-based ice cream continues to arrive in the summer months.  This seemed entirely normal at the time, but now I wonder if carbonated beverages were truly unavailable from the rather basic supermarkets of those days…

At some stage, the range of fast food increased and some enterprising providers would bring it to your door for a small consideration.  I remember working in Madrid in the 90s where a whole range of firms named teleX (for suitable X) would, in response to a phone call and the promise of some pesetas, deliver X via a young lad on a moped.  X could be any type of meal or snack: from a sandwich up.

The world continued in this way for another decade or two, with individual food providers organising their own delivery service.  But then, in the last few years, Deliveroo has appeared and attempted to consolidate the provision of food delivery and, one assumes, make a shed load of money by doing so.  Food outlets, or those not part of a major chain with the commercial muscle to resist this interloper, were forced to use its services, or risk losing sales to their competitors.  All was good for the shadowy figures pulling the Deliveroo strings, but history teaches us that an empire will often invite an upstart seeking to overthrow the current ruler (or be riven by internal strife).  Into the Deliveroo puppetmasters’ rosy world has come the young pretender: Uber Eats.  BTW: I’m not entirely sure that a brand name which loosely translates to “over eats” is giving quite the right message during a soi-disant obesity epidemic.

I like to imagine that the riders of Deliveroo and Uber Eats are rivals in the style of the Sharks and Jets from West Side Story, though I’ve yet to hear any music of the quality of Bernstein’s arising from this conflict.  In my mind, violence simmers below the surface of every encounter in food outlet or street: with tyres slashed and locks sabotaged.  I see each new rider as a “made man” (or woman or LGBTQIA+ equivalent) learning their lessons from Sean Connery’s unexpectedly Scottish (sorry, Shcottish) cop in The Untouchables, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

I became convinced that my fantasy may be close to the truth when I saw a rider in Deliveroo uniform carrying an Uber Eats delivery box.  Was he a a Deliveroo rider who had take out a rival and claimed his box as booty?  Or had an Uber Eats rider flayed one of the enemy and was wearing his skin, like a Scythian warrior, to boast of his prowess in battle?

xipe totec

An Aztec Uber Eats foot soldier (the bicycle had yet to be invented)

Despite the now deadly, if secret, war being waged between the ground troops of the two delivery services, I believe they will still form temporary alliances to tackle the common, four-wheeled foe.  The Domino’s Pizza delivery driver may only be able to offer one type of “food”, but he or she does come armed with a car.  I assume they have orders to pick off any enemy rider that is found separated from the pack – or certainly their driving when I try and cycle past one of their local nests strongly suggests they have standing instructions to eliminate any cyclist (regardless of affiliation)!