May 06

Some Interesting Piano Pics

Had these piano related pics sent on to me recently.  I love the effort that people make when doing these kinds of things, it’s not something people can do in five minutes.  Take a look at these two

 

BIG STEPS

BIG STEPS

And on a smaller scale…………..

Little Steps

Little Steps

I also saw this photo recently of a Steinway with the case made from solid marble.  Not by any means a portable instrument and a one off special.  I’d love to hear it played and attend the exhibition it is being or has been displayed at.

 

Marble Steinway

Marble Steinway

 

These photos are on the Solid Senses website in an article about Milans 2014 Design Week. Have a look and read for yourself.

Feb 24

Laurel & Hardy dance Santana

Laurel & Hardy dance Santana

I had to post this bit of mashup genius, don’t know why they make me feel so good watching them.

 

Feb 17

An English Boy Abroad

An English Boy Abroad

(When “Abroad” is the UK)

 

Man Boy and Hire Car

Man Boy and Hire Car

A few years ago my eldest lad asked me if one day it would be possible for me to take him to my home-town to see where I was brought up.  The occasion arose at the end of June this year and we set off on a 5am flight out of Arrecife into Leeds/Bradford Airport. His list of things to do mostly composed of food. He’s a healthy 14-year-old with a keen interest in cookery and seems to never be out of the fridge at home, so this was unexpected. It turned into a very enlightening experience for both of us and something I am grateful we had the chance to do.

All of my sons hold British passports, but none of them have ever lived in the UK.  They were born here in the Canary Isles three years after their Mum and I moved here. I have always loved Spanish culture since my first trip to Spain in 1985 whilst playing a gig at an Air-force base in Rota, close(ish) to the southern border with Portugal.  It was a very different Spain at that time and my first memory of it was not the springtime sunshine, but the food.  The salads were sensational, the fish were deliciously lovely and I fell for the diet immediately.

Permanent blue skies take a little getting used to but I knew as we drove up through Madrid, into France and through Paris and then across the channel back to the UK that I would be coming back, as each kilometre north we travelled turned the sky a bit more grey.   A year later we were contracted to spend a winter in the Canaries and I was smitten again. Young Lanzarote was very quaint and the ex-pat community quite small so I was once again thrust into the local cuisine and culture.  Also, living a winter staring at the beach/sea/sky view from our local bay just cemented it, although I was contractually obliged to go home and back a few more times before setting roots down here for good. Being away just strengthened my love of the country.

Once settled my wife and I pushed ourselves to learn the language and do our best to integrate into the local community.  Unlike many ex-pats, I have never had English TV in my house and before digital TV, everything was in Spanish apart from the odd VHS tape and DVD sent from “home” so the children began being immersed in Spanish very early.

They then attended “guarderia” or nursery school from just a few months old and as they began to speak they had our English accents and the local vernacular in Spanish as usually happens with truly bi-lingual children. They actually mock my Spanish accent and I have been speaking it ten years longer than they have been alive.  They attended local Spanish schools until a few years ago when my wife and I moved them to a private Bi-lingual school with a decent reputation for turning out university graduates, and as my wife also works there as an English teacher – it makes for a convenient situation in our house-hold.

For years the kids attended birthday parties and social occasions at which we were often the only English family there and I believe this was a fantastic way of helping us all integrate that bit further. I am aware though that despite all of this my kids have holes in their Spanish culture.  They don’t have Spanish grandparents or cousins, aunts and uncles to learn from as the other local kids do so they lack cultural aspects in that regard.  Who can forget the stuff we all learned bouncing up and down on our grandparents knees. The rhymes – “diddle diddle dumpling…”. The expressions our parents used, like ” you daft a’peth…..” – terms my kids don’t hear as the ex-pat community is still relatively small here.  Of course they get some from their wonderful English grandparents – “the Galloping Major” was my favourite that I learned along side my kids while they bounced on Granada’s knee – but there are obvious gaps in their Spanish personalities.

Luckily for us they all read a lot and have some lovely friends and they are fully accepted as just kids, not English kids or foreign kids.  They have been brought up smack in the middle with questions about both cultures they are part of. This really struck home with me as soon as we landed.

 

We had hired a car and set off  “up north”, despite the protestations from the girl behind the counter at the hire car desk quaintly informing me (incorrectly from my point of view) that we were indeed already “up north”. Being June, the weather was as nice as it could be for England, a 1950’s summer day with just occasional fluffy, white clouds in a perfect blue sky as we drove out of the airport and into Poole in Wharfedale. It was mid-day and as we headed into the country side and got comfortable with the car and eventually found the switch to open the windows, he recoiled in horror of the smell of the slurrying that had been going on.  It took me a second to realise this was a completely new smell to him, where we live has very few green fields and after explaining what was going on he wrinkled his nose up; “they spray it on the fields?  Uugg!”  I hardly noticed it despite not having been in the UK for several years myself.  Then he spotted a cow in a field and he looked genuinely worried. “Dad, there’s a loose cow….” He wound up his window – and so it had begun.

What's That Dad?

What’s That Dad?

On the short drive up the A19 he took photographs of articulated lorries and car transporters and almost every road-sign that had the name of my home-town on it. Then his tummy rumbled so I told him we’d stop for a bacon sarnie and a brew.  His face, when I pulled up to a scruffy little port-a-cabin in a lay-by, was a picture in itself but when I opened the door and actually went in, he followed with the trepidation of someone being lead into a lions cage. He actually thought I was playing a trick on him leading him into an abandoned old caravan by the roadside. He soon came round when he smelled the food but I found him scanning all the certificates of food hygiene and qualifications of the staff while we waited for our foil wrapped sandwiches and mugs of tea.

On arriving at my Aunts house we were greeted by hugs and kisses and food she’d prepared before heading to another Aunts house where she had done the same.  We made arrangements for the next few days, turned down another slice of cake and finally left for our “Hotel” for the week. My good friend Rich, from school had kindly offered to put us up.  No sooner had we got there and dumped the bags we were whisked off to a local pub for yet more food and a few beers for Rich and I to catch up on.  My lad was splitting at the seams when we finally got to bed.

Our Genial Hosts

Our Genial Hosts

Next morning after a very light breakfast, unusual for him, we picked up one Aunt and drove into town to meet the other and headed straight to the parish hall for morning coffee and biscuits. An old boy was playing the piano, quite good he was as well but looked awkward propped on three stacked chairs – the original stool looked long gone.  My son was collecting the drinks and told me he’d just paid less for 4 coffees and cakes than he did for a single cup of tea on the plane.  Lesson learned?  I hoped so. As we headed into the local market, a shadow of the market I remembered, I went on the hunt of a bag of winkles and some whelks, which I eventually found. He’s quite used to sea food and this would be more or less normal to him, he actively sniffs out places that serve octopus back home.

Then he spotted it, or at least his nostrils did.  A pie shop was close by and one whiff caught him like the Bisto Kids to their roast dinner and his wallet was out.  He could not believe his eyes. Pies as far as the eye could see.  “What’s in ‘em Dad?” he asked scanning the display like a pilot checking his instruments. He finally left the shop with scotch eggs and sausage rolls and quite a few kinds of pies which he grazed on for the next few hours.  We visited the riverside and I marvelled at the view of the new white water rafting course and watched seals flopping in and out of the calmer water up river.

My mind tried to remember where the factories had been and how the skyline used to look whilst the chimney stacks had still stood. How the scene had changed, even the water had changed colour, you could actually see a few feet into it. Stockton-on-Tees has changed an awful lot since I left there in 1983-4.

It was the same – but different.  I could find my way around the streets, no problem, but the aspect of almost all of them had changed. There were, of course, familiar sights, bridges across the river that are never easy to alter. The corporation hall and almost all of the churches still held on but most of the pubs had closed and the high street market less than a quarter of the original busy Wednesday market day I had left behind.  We drove past my senior school, boarded up and ready for demolition.  Young ones eyes could not grasp the size of it or the playing fields attached.  I didn’t miss running round those at all, especially in winter, so I drove on, shuddering at the memories of the biting cold rain hitting bare legs and twenty or so other kids pumping out steamy breaths as they jogged around the perimeter.

Old Family Home

An Old Family Home where my Dads cousin had lived

I drove him past my old haunts, clubs I had worked in, shuttered up and derelict. There were gaping holes where the Hills Door factory and other well known businesses had stood.  They appeared very frequently and put me off my stride when explaining something to him.  “Wait ’til you see this, just round the next bend – its called a gas-o-meter”.  I turn the bend and its gone, nowhere to be seen.  I took him past my primary school, which he at least recognised as a school, and was struck by that feeling most of us get, that it looks so SMALL.  How did we fit on those little chairs.  It wasn’t so far away for him so he didn’t get it, but he was impressed with the distance I’d had to walk each day to get there.

The House I Was Brought Up In

The House I Was Brought Up In

One serious aspect of his difference in cultured upbringing was hard to accept and set me thinking. He went to buy something and asked to borrow a “tenner” – “you have money, where is it?” -“I left it in the car, Dad”. He did this again and again even though he saw me putting everything out of view each time we stopped. We don’t encourage them to leave stuff in the car in Spain either, but they often do and we don’t tend to worry so much about it. Certainly not in the town we live as there are no shady looking back streets, a healthy police presence to reassure the tourists I suppose, and as we have to have important documents on us at all times, we would never dream of leaving a wallet in a car.

Rich, my school friend is now a banking big-wig and he had access to one of the original High St shops in which the higher floors stood empty.  The building was a bank and obviously they were not going to rent out the higher floors to anyone, but this had been a bank for a long time and the top floor had not been touched since the very early 1900’s.  We were shown up to find all the original gas lights still in the walls, some with intact mantels, the original fireplace and straw and mud in parts of the walls.  Of course it has all been fortified from the outside and a new electric system and sprinklers stuck on to the old walls. Even if you could get up there and hide until the bank was closed, I don’t think you would get past any of the thick security doors on the stairs on the way down, least of all come into contact with any actual money. But as I looked out of the window towards the town hall clock, which we were at eye level with, I couldn’t but help think that someone had sat at a desk in this room with this very fire lit while my Grandad and his siblings were wheeled up and down the High St their pram.  My lad seemed intrigued and even took a trip up the rickety steps up to the loft.

As far as High Streets go, this one remains largely unchanged for over a century going by archive photographs that are available for anyone to see in the Library or on line at PIcture Stockton, a web site run by the library. The feeling of bringing a further generation to walk the very streets my great-great grandparents had discovered as they searched for a place with decent work was a little overwhelming for me.  In fact just being among a street full of people who’s accent was my own accent again was a little too much and I found myself looking round thinking I’d heard my Mam, which was of course impossible as she passed on in the late 80’s.

To me it was a slightly uncomfortable feeling. For it to be complete, in my mind, I needed to get on the number 36 bus back home for “me tea” in a familiar house, probably pie, peas and chips, and put on the “telly” for a while before going and having a practice on the piano.  My Mam would fend off the neighbours who complained a lot at the endless scales and my Dad would lay on the sofa behind me for every single minute of practice, filling the room with Benson and Hedges smoke all the while, but he never missed a minute of it.

Here, with my lad, I was a tour guide to a life that didn’t exist any more.  Apart from the High Street, I found it really hard to get fired up about anything. Each time I told him about something, time had to contradict me and place a new school where a park was, or a supermarket in the pub car-park while the pub was now the “Bengali Lion – eat-in or take-away”.  I showed him all my Dads old haunts as he had shown me his own Dads playground.  Alleyways at the backs of rows of houses and becks and streams and enormous conker trees. Mine were all gone or converted to something else.  You get no satisfaction telling your lad you did a gig in this massive boozer in front of the full ‘Boro squad of 1976, and now, where the boozer was is now a branch of “Victoria’s Secret” and the concert room at the back has been turned into “Poundland”.

 

My boy was very astute and began to sense it was not how I remembered it at all and he smiled faithfully at every story and asked endless questions to keep my mind on the now, rather than let me wander back to the non-existent past. It was a wonderful time. He now informed me that he would have to do the same with his son – if he could remember any of the details – when that time came.  We took a final visit to Blackwells Family Butchers on the green in the village and he bought up enough stock to feed a small platoon “for the trip back to the airport”, an hour and twenty minutes drive back down the A19.  There we would inform the lady at the hire car counter that we had returned from our expedition, and that a bit more “north” did actually exist as we had photographic evidence and some empty paper bags with the address of the butcher’s shop on under a logo of a smiling pig (oblivious to his certain fate).  That particular part of “the north” though was definitely missing something for me.

Time and curiosity of what lies further afield, has stripped the town of all but remote relative traces of us. Both of my sisters have settled far away and only one remains in the far south of the UK.  Like our ancestors, we hit the road to find somewhere to settle.  Where they had found work and peace had not been enough for us.  I felt the circle of life on this trip back.  Luckily for me I have a painting that my Dad bought me just after I moved away which froze the High Street in a time I recognise. One look at it allows me a free trip back, in my head, and it’s all as I left it. I took a photograph of the same scene, from the same place while we were there, but this picture has my beautiful lad in it, leaning against the wall of the Parish Church scanning the local shops for one that sells pies.

Jan 16

Fun ways of training your musical ear.

korg thomann

Fun ways of training your musical ear.

20130209-155050.jpg

Fun ways of training your musical ear. Part 1.

I was thinking about music in general the other night as I realised that I have come to listen to background music more closely than ever.  I use every opportunity to keep my ear keen and every-day background music is invaluable in this. As an aging rocker, I will be referring to pop/rock music in this article – the same rules apply to any musician in any genre though.

I was at a gig – just about to start – and was switching on all my gear while the bar-goers were being treated to some warm up music playing on the sound system.  It was playing a song I liked, but have never had the occasion to play, and I began to play along with it on the still-silent keyboard in front of me.  I had taken a guess that it was in Gm and as I put my headphone volume up, found that I was indeed playing along with the song in the right key.  It had felt right before I put the fader up.  Was that luck? Or, was part of my brain doing the listening and processing before I started playing.  I’m not an expert, but I would bet that it was.  I was quite chuffed to have gotten it right, especially as I had no previous musical reference to compare it to.

Let me explain a bit about what I thought was going on. In my case, I use bass as my first reference, then the piano or keyboards for the chords and finally for details and clues I may have missed, I refer to guitar parts or lead lines.

Thomann Advert

  • I know that I am a closet bass player and I always listen to the bass very closely as I find I can identify the motion of a musical structure more easily this way. The intervals between bass notes are usually easier to pick up than on other instruments. (EG. The shift from C to Am on bass is a whole third down or a 6th up, whereas on piano you only need to move one finger in the right hand chord up from a G to an A)
  • As a pianist, I can see the chords being played in my head as I recognise the chords hand-shape and position on an imaginary keyboard that is instantly recall-able.  This comes from years of experience and many hours at the keyboard and as fortunate as I am to have it, its unfortunately not possible to switch off, (which can spoil some musical enjoyment).
  • I also “mess about” on guitar and those chord sounds become visual after a while too, recognising open strings and picking patterns for example.

 

These techniques can be learned and today I’m going to suggest a simple exercise that you can do when you are not sat practicing the physical technicalities of your instrument, a fun way of training your musical ear. Here’s a bit of background first.

When we are formally trained as musicians from the start, apart from the “hands-on” the instrument time we get, we learn “aural” tests.  These start very simply with the ability to hear one note (the musical reference I referred to earlier), then identify a preceding note played after as being “higher” or “lower” in pitch.  Most people can do this straight away.  From then on the exercises get progressively more difficult until at the top end, one can listen to an orchestral piece and identify each individual instrument and what it is playing.

It’s easier than ever to have some hind of musical reference on your person without too much hassle.  Whether it be a mouth organ or pitch-pipes or a piano app on your smart phone, which is more likely these days, is not important, just carry something with you that you can check easily.

When you hear background music playing and if it is safe to do so just close your eyes ( don’t do this if your current task relies on sight!!!!) and try to feel the music, think how your hand shape would be if you were playing it.  If you are a guitarist, think and try to identify open strings ringing.  If you are a bass player, where would you be playing? Is it high up the neck, or are there lots of deep notes sounding. Is in major or minor, can you hear the root chord of the song? The important thing is not so much guessing the correct key here, but check on the musical reference anyway (piano app for ex.).  If you got it wrong, don’t worry, forget about that and concentrate on where the chords are going.  (You might be able to find all of the chords with regards to the key you guessed, in which case playing the song in the correct key is simply a case of transposing what you visualised.) Try to “see” the music…think about the chord changes as linear, is it going up or down?

You will find time passes really quickly when doing this.  Short pop songs sound even shorter and if you are not in control of the music source, in a doctors waiting room for example, you will have to concentrate but it’s a great way to pass the time while getting some musical experience out of it.

After many years of doing this kind of thing sub-concisely I find I can score a new pop song from start to finish in just a handful of listens and in some cases can learn a whole song in my head without ever touching an instrument and be able to play it (at least its chordal structure if not the whole piano part) first time I sit at the piano afterwards.

Claude Debussy said “Music is the space between the notes.”  We are aiming to improve our ability to hear this when we do these little exercises.

 

 

 

 

Dec 19

A Nice Xmas Piano Song

A Nice Xmas Piano Song

 

This is a nice schmultchzy  xmas song done in a way that’s interesting to watch, even if it is pushing all their products at the end.

 

 

Dec 16

Piano Playing Police

Saw this on the BBC website, seems some pianists are hidden behind “proper jobs” more than you think.  Have a look, this Prague police officer is having a blast.  I love these public pianos, they always throw up surprises at some point.  I really enjoyed this, shame it’s so short really.

Dec 11

That piano is ALIVE

I had to share this I just came across on twitter just now. The most fun – I’d love to do this.

Interactive Piano is watching you.

Nov 26

The Loss of a Gig

The Loss of a Gig

 

About a month ago I was called and told that I was no longer required for a gig.  There was no problem with me, they said, just that their budget had been cut and I was the first thing to go.

It wasn’t that big a deal, they told me they have my phone number and if the situation changes that I would be called back.  On top of that it only affected one night of my weeks work, so as I say, no big deal.

Well I thought it was no big deal, but you see, it’s a venue I have played in since 1986.  Back then we were a resident band playing six nights a week. In fact, the gig is the very reason I am here on this island (I have told the story in an earlier post) and so, this last month I have felt a little sad and strange not going there.  I drive past the gig regularly and look to see if I have been sneakily replaced (I haven’t).

 

The thing about that gig was, apart from knowing so many of the staff members for a very long time, there was a grand piano.  I had the key to it for all of those years.  I broke strings on it and learned to replace them and pull them back in to tune.  I had to, it’s a very small island and piano tuners are few and far between. I am lucky to have a friend who is a professional piano tuner, and he lived and worked aboard the cruise ships working as a bass player and of course a tuner.  He would often get in to our port on the odd Canary Islands cruise and spend the day with me, drinking coffee and tuning the piano. He taught me the basics, told me what book to read, helped me get parts and gave me the tools I needed to keep the piano playable. I watched him like a hawk while he tuned and tried to emulate him. He didn’t turn me into a piano tuner, but I can keep a piano in tune because of him and in an emergency I’d have a go if there was nobody else to do it.

Piano

Two of my kids in my “office” at Los Zocos

The piano was revered by the staff, they protected it and it felt like they were in turn protecting me.  Woe betide any other act who rested even a glass of water on it, the restaurant manager would throw a fit.  If I ever needed it moving six to eight maintenance guys would magically appear and carry it like they were carrying a baby balanced on pool table.

I must have played many millions of notes on that piano.  When the band dissolved I played in a duo with the drummer.  With a synth on top for bass we played LIVE music,  just piano, bass and drums and vocals.  We attempted all kinds of songs that should never have been played this way.  When he eventually left the island I was lucky to be teamed up with a singer (Mila, who I still work with today) and again we built up a strong set, always finishing off acoustically, just piano and voice.  LIVE music.  We had quite a following.

Marc and Mila

Marc and Mila

The original manager who contracted us in 1986 retired two years ago and he gave excellent references to the new owners and recommended that we were kept on but as 2012 approached we began to lose nights until September of 2013 came, and the death knell sounded.

We were initially cut down to once a fortnight but by that time we had seen the writing on the wall. The last Wednesday in October I shut the lid of the old Yamaha grand for the last time.  I still have the key, for when I’m called up, but I’m doubtful it will happen.  The dynamic of the business has changed.

photo (12)

I go in today and I’m greeted as always by the staff as one of them, but now I am a customer, despite their homely treatment.

Luckily, the old manager decided he wasn’t ready to retire and has since employed us at another venue he overlooks. This is more comfort than you can imagine.  I must do something right in his eyes to keep me in some kind of employment for more than 27 years and I will always be grateful for his faith in me to turn up and do the right thing.

He had me play that piano at weddings of politicians, enormous cultural events including three World Tourism Day concerts hosted at the hotel, even the “get out of jail” party for a local disgraced politician. I just kept my head down and played on that old piano, with its resident lizard who would pop out now and then to see what the fuss was.  I never did catch him, he was too quick.

40th birthday

40th birthday

I never thought I would grieve for a gig, but I miss it.  I have so many memories forged in those rooms. I have the last photo I took of my Dad in there, holding my first-born son, only a few weeks old. I was tricked into going in there on my 40th Birthday where a surprise party had been organised by my beautiful wife and people from all over the world made the effort to get to.  I had my 21st birthday there as well, attended not only by my parents but two of my grand parents.  It’s hard to let go.

Tomorrow is Wednesday, the night I should be in there and this week I’m going to raise a glass quietly at home on the sofa, to Los Zocos, to Paco and to my Yamaha.

Bye Bye Yamaha

Bye Yamaha!

Nov 22

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Viola Organista”

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Viola Organista”

 

This instrument , Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Viola Organista” was invented by over 500 years ago and has been built and brought to life using his own plans by Slawomir Zubrzycki.  It has a piano style keyboard and sixty one strings, but instead of being struck or plucked by hammers or plectrum, there are four spinning discs covered in horse hair that graze the strings, almost like bowing them.  The spinning is controlled by the player who presses on a pedal under the instrument which turns a crankshaft and spins the wheels..

It took Slawomir Zubrzycki 5000 hours to make and it is believed to be the first completed instrument of it’s kind.  Da Vinci himself never built it and there are no records of him ever having heard the sound it made.  All the more remarkable then that it worked at all and it has to be wondered what it would sound like if he had heard it and refined it.  It’s very string like in sound, almost organ like too, hence the name and it certainly is an interesting hybrid sound.

 

 

 

Nov 13

How much of a musician are you?

How much of a musician are you?

 

 

Take this tongue-in-cheek test to find out.

 

 

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Nov 12

Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

Habit

Habit

My contribution to the WordPress Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

 

Nov 07

Special Pianos

Further to reading THIS ARTICLE about an aeroplane shaped piano on show at Pittsburgh Airport: an article I hilariously tweeted out

” Aircraft shaped pianos – do you think they will ‘take off’ ”

my cousins son in Costa Rica sent me this, just to shut me up.

Amazing, and I want one.

Nov 06

Lang Lang is THAT GOOD

Lang Lang is THAT GOOD

This is brilliant – I wonder how Chopin himself would have taken this.

Nov 02

Halloween Night

 Halloween Night

So, I decided to make an effort this year as I was in a public square.  It wasn’t the easiest costume to play in, but boy did it get my picture taken.  Halloween-1 And my eldest sister was even prepared to give me a lovely kiss – she’s scared of nothing.Halloween-2 And I did TRY to smile but the make-up was setting – stage heat made it supple again but the keyboard was really greasy after I had scratched my itchy cheeks and transferred make-up to my fingers.Halloween-3I had a great night, thanks to Mandy, Sally and Alfie in Mandy’s Wee Snug Bar for the beer and bar stool.

 

Oct 30

Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations

Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations

 

Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations live studio recording from 1981.

This video has captivated me for a while now.  It’s just wonderful to hear the man himself humming and grunting along with his playing.  He really does get into it in a way others don’t.  To watch a performance like this is a privilege and, for me at least, adds to the overall enjoyment of the piece.

Capturing the great man like this was an inspired idea.  There are so many great moments in it but I particularly love the sections at 7 minutes and 11.30.  Simply sublime.

Please take 50 minutes to watch it in its entirety, it’s anything but a waste of time.

 

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