[ Original published online May 1st, 2014 by Mike Cook, Pro Drummer –on Tumblr ]
You probably thought I spaced out on your request, but I’ve actually given it some thought nearly every day since you suggested it. I had some false starts, and some technical glitches, but I wanted to show you what I have so far. Please let me know what you think—
Thursday, April 17, 2014 5:32 PM –thru- Friday, April 18, 2014 6:18 AM
The Story of My Video-Making Video
Mike, a percussionist friend emailed me in February saying, “I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing your knowledge for composing piano pieces and recording them.” I agreed to try and make a quick video, an off-the-cuff, how-to video in which I imagined myself both talking and playing examples at the piano, etc.—nothing to it, I thought.
So then I turned on my camcorder and tried to talk extemporaneously about music, music-making, and the ins and outs of creating a video to be posted on YouTube (or wherever).
First, I started talking about the technical steps of shooting a video, uploading it to a hard drive, using special software to edit and polish the video, insert titles, credits, etc. Then it occurred to me that shooting, producing, and posting a video is no technical marvel nowadays—and was probably the last thing most people would want or need to learn. I should be talking about making my music.
But where to begin? Well, starting forty-something years ago, I had a roughly two-month period of actual piano lessons from a well-known pianist and subsequent piano-teacher, Muriel Brooks—she taught me how to read sheet music, she taught me the basics of fingering, the shape of the hand, touch, ornamental figures, sharps, flats, double-flats, naturals, key signatures, tempos, dynamics, phrasing, and so on. I began with scales and some Bach Preludes. She had bad news for me—and lots of it.
Firstly, fifteen years of age is way too late to begin piano. Single digits are required, the smaller the better. Worse yet, my fingers were stubby—making them too wide to go between the raised black keys (something one must be able to do). Lastly—and this one I figured out for myself—piano requires a discipline that I never had. So I quit my lessons—they were expensive, and wasting her time and mine—as with school, in which the only books I didn’t read were books that were assigned reading—the only time I didn’t play piano was when I thought about my obligation to practice every day. I’m contrary that way—I can’t explain it, but there it is.
So from then on, I continued to play the Bach pieces, but not the scales—I was never going to slide up and down a given key-signature’s scale with the grace of swans gliding across a mirror-smooth lake—that stuff is for virtuosi, not for the musical hoi-polloi like me. And fifty years on, I still can only play a scale unevenly and slowly. I also had problems with my left hand—I hardly noticed I had one before the piano—I am right-handed with a vengeance. Piano requires the player to send his or her left hand, without looking, to a far-down bass note—this, to me, was like trying to land a Tomcat on an aircraft carrier at night. This has improved with time, but will never be the unconscious motion of a capable pianist—and it saddens me especially because the ‘walking bass’ is one of my favorite things about jazz and rag-time piano.
The other thing that came to me right from the beginning was a desire to improvise. Once I realized that I could play chords and bass-notes in a one-four-five progression, I began to do that, over and over. And over—no one who lived with me back then could bear the sound of me banging on the same chords day after day. I was playing (and enjoying it) but I wasn’t listening to myself. I tried to put new chords in; I tried to play in a key other than C major—it was slow going. Then came cassette recorders—suddenly I could hear myself—and I did not like what I heard. Thus began my long journey towards listen-ability—an unfinished journey still—but one I will never stop traveling.
At the time, Keith Jarrett’s “Live At Köln” album was released, I happened to hear it—and I knew what I wanted to do with the piano. Subsequently I was also enamored with George Winston’s earlier LPs. I was, then, not aware that Keith Jarrett was tripping his brains out at Köln, or that George Winston wasn’t exactly improvising his performances. And it doesn’t really matter now, either, now that I know—their sound was what I was working towards, not their techniques (although, of course, the two are usually one and inseparable).
And there was another, more basic, drive behind my piano playing—I decided that, if I couldn’t be good at it, I could at least be original. So my improvs have only one iron-clad rule—they can’t sound like any other musician’s music—they would be ugly and clumsy, but they would be different from anything you’d ever heard. In that sense I succeeded long ago—nobody sounds like me—but I’m still working on that listen-ability factor.
In a world that has gone copyright-crazy, I am a producer of original content—no small thing—and if I could get anyone to listen to it, I’d be in like Flynn. That is the only discernible value my YouTube videos possess—but I don’t use it—I post everything into the ‘Public Commons’ part of YouTube, which means anyone can use them without threat of lawsuit. I should be so lucky that someone thought my music worth ‘stealing’.
I thought I’d address this aspect of my videos—I’d make quick cuts of me doing Vanna White’s arm-wave at my huge sheet-music collection, then my huge CD collection, then my huge LP collection (which, nevertheless, would have represented only a tenth of the LPs I once owned). I would explain how I had spent most of my adult life with classical-music radio stations playing in my office, in my living room, in my bedroom. As a tween, I became a consummate ‘stacker’—I could load a record-player with more LPs at once than anyone else I knew—this allowed up to two-hours-plus of hands-free music listening.
I studied music for a while, music theory, that is. I sang tenor in both high school and college choir. I have loved music all my life—but I did nothing but listen to it until Junior High School. That’s when I discovered the piano. The piano makes me happy—and boy, what a shot in the arm to music appreciation—no one can listen to and marvel at a great performance half so well as one who has tried to play the instrument. I thought Glenn Gould was very nice to listen to—but after I started taking lessons, his recordings practically made my head explode.
And it goes beyond that—even violin, which I have never played—and which I didn’t care to listen to as a solo instrument up until that time—just the knowledge that someone’s fingers are teasing these exacting sounds from an instrument changes the experience beyond imagining. I used to feel sorry for people who avoided classical music—the idea that they would exclude centuries of great music from their lives seemed terribly sad to me.
Nowadays, I save my pity for people who have never played music. As solely a listener, I had already grown to love the sound of music—to have it explode into an even greater thrill as a consequence of taking a stab at it myself, that was without question the greatest thing life had to offer—and the average adult spends his or her whole life missing out on that—it’s just unbearably sad. The stats for youngsters aren’t much better—unless you count Rock-Star Hero, that video game with the guitar-shaped controller.
So, long story short, I know music. And the advantage to that is in knowing when I’m playing something that someone else has already done. They say that twelve tones is a surprisingly small number of notes, considering that every song, symphony, or Mario Bros. background-track is comprised of nothing else but these twelve tones. But it should be remembered that this is only true of the Western Cultural music of Europe and the Americas. In the Orient there are instruments that allow for quarter-tones—which is why we Americans always perceive it as somewhat ‘twangy’.
Anyway, the point is that I was uniquely qualified to recognize bits and pieces of other people’s music whenever they came up, throughout my ongoing thrashing amongst the old eighty-eight (that’s slang for a piano—88 keys to a keyboard, you know). And as lackluster as my sound may be, it is no one else’s music re-hashed—or perhaps I should say it is all of music re-hashed—as the Beatles lyric says, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”
There are things I always do the same—I almost always play octaves with my left hand (if I can’t be left-handed deftly, I might as well give those notes power and substance). And I rarely play anything other than major and minor triads with my right hand. As the years pass, I make forays into melody, and base-lines—but I always come back to my comfort zone. For me the playing is a meditation—any time it becomes too much about making good music, it takes me out of my musings. In a way, my improvs are just extended lullabies, whispering comfort to my tautly-strung nerves.
You may understand by this point that any description of my video-posting ‘process’ is a matter of too much to say—and yet nothing much to say at all. How shall I describe how to make up your own music as you go along? You just do. There are some rules, I suppose, but not good rules in a musical sense—allow yourself to be bad, allow yourself to be repetitious, allow yourself to change tempo at will, to change key at will, and most of all, don’t listen too closely—it makes you more likely to play recognizable tunes (it’s that pattern-recognition thing our brains are so good at—it works against the piano-improviser’s best interests).
Finally, as with so many things in life, if you’re not having a good time, you’re doing it wrong. My piano playing technique is customized for a player without an audience—I could count the number of times I’ve played in front of other people on one hand. And stage-fright is no help when one is trying to plumb nirvana with a push-button music machine.
So, I finally realized that I needed a script—improvising music is one thing, improvising an explanation is quite another. Here I am now, writing this rough draft of my talking points—but there’s no hurry. My faithful old camcorder decided a few days ago that it would only shoot out-of-focus pictures and videos from now on—the audio recording is still good, so I’m okay with it—but I can’t keep posting blurry videos to YouTube, no matter what kind of music I’m making. The new camcorder is due tomorrow, so the world will not end just yet.