Monday, September 23, 2013

The Keys to Musicianship

I'm asked a lot if my musical talent spills over into other instruments.

And with a dose of regret, I've got to say, No.

It's not for a lack of trying, though.

My grandfather played violin in a String Band as part of the New Year's Day Mummer's Parade, a Philadelphia tradition. Or at least that's what I've been told.

Sadly, I never heard him play.

On the occasional birthday party celebration at my grandparents' house, "the fiddle" would occasionally make an appearance.

But he had 103 different reasons why he could never scratch out a tune: No rosin. No A string. Bow was bent. Horsehairs had dried out. Etc. Etc. Etc.

When he passed away in the mid-1980s, my grandmother decided "the fiddle" should come to me (despite having a cousin who played viola, as I recall).

But hey, it wasn't my decision to whom this musical treasure would go.

And I tried valiantly to learn how to play it. Had it restored. Found a teacher. Took lessons.

Was terrible.

I managed to get through "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and that was about it.

So, yes, I've played Mozart on a violin.

My teacher knew the story of how I came to own a violin. And after reaching a point where it was pretty fruitless for me to continue, she had a heart-to-heart about my hands.

My big, beefy hands.

The ones I discussed here.

She told me how unsuited they were to the tiny spaces on a violin. Suggested a better fit for me would be either the cello or the string bass.

Given the size of my hands, maybe one of those washtubs with a broomstick handle tied to it would have been best.

So my violin career was snuffed a'borning.

For years, I also struggled with the piano. Having honed skills on the organ, I found them totally nontransferrable to piano, for some reason.

I couldn't master the touch; I had trouble maintaining consistent intervals when running up or down the keys; and I needed something to do with my feet that involved more than just three pedals.

Over the years, I got passable at piano. Faked and fluffed my way through as needed. 

I carry around exactly one tune on piano that I can riff through at a party or whatever, when asked: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in E-flat.

Don't ask for it in another key.

I have always wanted to play something like "The Maple Leaf Rag" on piano.

But haven't climbed that particular Everest yet.

Recently, however, I've been challenging myself to get better at the piano. Our church had a baby grand donated (!), and in an effort to keep it from merely gathering dust, I'm forcing myself to play the thing.

I'm still baffled by a lot of the technique, but I'm at least able to capably lead some singing sitting behind the 88s.

And if all else fails, our congregation may find itself singing a rousing chorus of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

In E-flat.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Ticket to Cried

I cry at the movies.

There, I said it.

I've cried in the movies for a long time, too.

I remember seeing Dumbo in its 1972 big screen re-release (I would have been nine then) and, of course, crying over the"Baby Mine" sequence, where the li'l pachyderm, unjustly separated from his mommy, finds solace the only way he can, nestled in the trunk that she's stretching from behind her jail cell.

And Bambi (1975 re-issue), searching for his mother.

And Old Yeller, on one of its revivals, too, because I wasn't born when it premiered in 1957.

And Brian's Song (1971), which, for some bizarre reason, our Catholic elementary school -- Sacred Heart Manoa -- decided to show us as a class (!), bringing us into the gym, where we sat on rickety metal chairs and tried to use the clatter of an ancient 16mm projector to hide our sniffles and snuffles.

Especially the guys.

I remember being so swept away in the story of The Elephant Man (1980) that, blubbering tearfully at the scene where he is tormented by cruel Londoners who don't see the beautiful soul beneath the deformities, I actually stood up in the theater and yelled at the screen, "You leave him alone!"

Not my proudest moment in a theater house.

Even Gone with the Wind (1939), which I've had the good fortune to see on the big screen a handful of times, gets me. If Clark Gable, the rough and tumble man's-man of the movies, gets washed out as Rhett Butler at the death of his daughter, how can I do less?

Let's see. Terms of Endearment (1983) reduced me to jelly. Titanic (1997), despite being overblown, knocked me over emotionally at the sight of the elderly couple holding each other as the water washes underneath the bed in their cabin. And the Irish mother trying to soothe her children in their bunk.

And I stupidly took our middle-kid, Claire, to see My Dog Skip (2000), unaware that it was a heart-breaker. So she and I reduced a pile of napkins, obtained for blotting popcorn grease, to a sodden mess.

Marley and Me (2008) was another toughie. Yes, being a dog lover makes me particularly susceptible to being affected by canine calamity pictures.

Which also came to light in recently watching Quill (2004), a Japanese docu-drama about a seeing-eye dog.

Not that I don't recommend these movies; I can honestly say I've enjoyed each and every one of them. 

They're just likely to send me reaching for a Kleenex.

It's not even like I can get over it by watching them repeatedly. No matter how many times I watch Travis Coates man-up and face the awful fate that has befallen his "ugly yeller dog," I am moved.

If I could shuck this emotionalism off by repeated viewings, surely I would have stopped reacting decades ago to It's a Wonderful Life (1946), a movie I have seen probably hundreds of times.

Matters not. When brother Harry toasts brother George as "the richest man in town"...


...suffice to say I may have to discreetly wipe away a mote of dust that has unfortunately landed in my eye around that point in the film.