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    23 Sep 2011

    About Me

    Listen. Like. Love. Hate. It doesn’t matter. This is my music—composed over the last 20 to 30 years. I play piano and I compose—lots of stuff. It’s here now because I don’t want it to fade out of existence. You can stream it or buy it, if you like.

    Most of this music was created after I stopped being a working musician, but more about that later. No one plays the way I do—an amalgam of styles and textures I try to weave into a whole. When it works, it’s great; when it falls short, it may crash. But that’s what happens when you take chances.

    There are symphonies—altogether eleven. They exist and evolve by their own rules. I am the artisan that puts them together, but they know what they’re doing better than I. And there are a lot of individual pieces as well.

    I’ll be adding music over time. I’ll have something to say about it or other things from time to time.

    About Me? It’s all in the music …

     

    Musings on Piano Technique

    I want to explain this. To myself, mainly because I’ve thought about it a lot over the years, but it‘s been only a series of random observations or realizations. But also to others who might be interested about the thoughts of one who develops technique like this. What follows is pretty technical; it requires the pianist’s knowledge of playing the piano and a knowledge of jazz to understand.

    I don’t know of another instance in which  a pianist playing jazz primarily consciously sets out to develop new ways of playing. Now of course there are no new ways of playing. Still two hands, ten fingers, left and right mirroring each other. But there are new ways of my playing jazz.

    Aside 1. There’s irony in everything. I hardly was able to think about these things while I was a working musician. It wasn’t until arthritis sidelined me that I began to work seriously on the technical matters described below. And none of this started really until I was in my late 50s. Now I’m 69 and, while the arthritis hasn’t gone away, it hasn’t progressed as fast as it might have, for which I’m grateful. Aside over. 

    At first I was unsatisfied with the ways in which modern players played–from be-bop on. Fast single-note lines with a lot of melodic interest punctuated by percussive or sustained left hand chords, kind of fitting in the holes where the right hand lines might pause or stop. Some great music was made that way with Bud Powell, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and a few thousand others. And then there was Phineas Newborn who took playing those single lines with both hands to new heights, followed by Oscar Peterson, and others. George Shearing out of Milt Buckner developed the locked-hands style whereby the left hand doubles the melody that the outer fingers of the right hand plays, while the other fingers fill in the harmony. But this style fell out of favor as being too corny in the sense that that voicing became the formula for so-called schmaltzy string writing by Mantovani, Percy Faith, others. Most jazz players kind of avoided that style (certain notable exception being Bill Evans in his brilliant solo on On Green Dolphin Street with Miles in 1958. That solo I think is the high-water mark for that style! Also a high-water mark for him.)

    Then going back to earlier players, Fats, Tatum, James P. Stride–it was two-handed–you couldn’t bluff your way through stride. You played the tenths if you could and tried to get as close to Fats’s perfection as you could. Count Basie got as close as anyone. And of course, Tatum was another story altogether. One searches in vain through all of Fats Waller’s recordings to find a single wrong note or a note that doesn’t fit perfectly into his frame of pulse and swing–his ‘time’. I guess with a lot of booze in him, on certain occasions like a Carnegie Hall solo concert, there was a monumental failure. But everything he recorded negates that negativity.

    There are the boogie players with their variety of left hand playing functions: rolling octaves with the bottom note on the beat; with the top note off the beat–used a lot by Eubie Blake. Also other figurations in the left hand like Meade-Lux Lewis in Honky Tonk Train Blues and Jimmy Yancey in Yancey Special.

    So I’ve started this essay complaining about the lack of variety of jazz playing modes and I’ve listed what sounds like a lot of them. O. K.

    But I heard in classical music things that I thought could be in jazz.

    I learned several Chopin etudes and other pieces that spoke to me about adapting the textures to be found there with what I could already do and decidedly what I couldn’t even begin to do!

    Aside 1a. What follows is a detailed description of how I think and how I developed some new things. I always meant that these should augment the tried-and-true ways of playing that I already knew, not to replace.

    Chopin etude op. 10, no. 1 is an interesting place to begin. The arpeggiation in the right hand, stretched beyond the octave suggested to me that using that as a practice, study could improve my playing ability. It also suggested to me that, if I were to apply that to improvising, say, using the chord structure of All the Things You Are, through all twelve keys, would likewise help. I soon found in doing that, that there was no reason to limit the exercise to extending past the octave as Chopin had done, but I could also stay within the octave, and begin to use apreggiation that wasn’t limited to straight triads (d-e-g-c, c-g-a-c, c-d-g-c, etc. Then I also applied a technique I had used to help me with playing arpeggios as a technical exercise–that was playing the two middle fingers in the arpeggio together. (The reason for doing this was to enable the middle fingers to get into proper position quicker.) So instead, for instance of playing c-e-g-c as four sixteenth notes (or in Chopin’s case c-g-c-e–spanning a tenth), I would play c-eg-c or c-gc-e, as a triplet or as an 8th and two 16ths, two 16ths and an 8th or just as even 8ths or 16ths.  I continued to practice this over chord changes of tunes like the above-mentioned All the Things You Are, Just One Of Those Things, The Song Is You, and so forth. I soon expanded this to playing the same things in both hands. Then two developments: 1. Moving the hands not only arpeggiating the chords, but moving them melodically, using passing harmonies, and 2.,having the hands move in contrary motion, and then, independently of each other.

    This took a while to master as one can imagine–the mastery is still pursued. But this texture of playing the two middle notes in a pattern simultaneously became the preferred one for me. I never use Chopin’s original tenth-span arpeggio.

    I learned that my right hand has a much better chance of nailing good time with figuration than my left did. If I had been more diligent with practicing when I was younger this might not have been an issue, but it became and still is, to a lesser degree, something I struggle with.

    Now to the relation to Chopin Etude in D-flat–the “double-sixths” and its relation to double-third scale exercises. In the etude, I noticed Chopin applied a similar idea to the etude mentioned above–that of figuration extending beyond the octave. This time with a triple division of the beat, he has the hands doing, e.g., DbAb-Fdb-Abf–two notes at a time, spanning a tenth, in a triplet within one beat. I guess I missed the fingering suggested by Chopin or one of the editors of the Etudes: that the hand position shift before the final triplet. I did the full triplet by rolling my hand forward. The same thing in the right hand. This was more possible when I didn’t have arthritis which has made extending my reach painful. Still, I never really got that together to play the etude well. But it did suggest to me that I could extract this texture from the etude and use it to practice over chord changes like those mentioned above. I then proceeded to expand the use the same way.

    I soon realized that if I reduced the span from the tenth to an octave or less, there was a connection to the basic double-third exercise that pianists have done forever. Double-thirds (yes there is a “double-third” etude of Chopin) are a way of playing scales  in which each hand plays not single notes, but in thirds, e.g., not c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c etc, but ce,df,eg,fa,gb,ac,bd,ce, etc.) Since there are only 7 notes within each octave, one needs to adapt the fingering so that the overall pattern can repeat into the next octave. So the fingering for the double-third scale exercise is:5-3,2-4,3-1,5-3,2-4,3-1,2-4. That’s for a single octave. After the final 2-4, one continues with the 5-3,2-4,3-1 etc. Black key scales require that one starts on a different place in the pattern, but once begun, the pattern repeats the same way. The only white-key scale exception is F which requires that 2-4 “2-4 adjustment” be placed in the middle of the scale, which results in 5-3,2-4,3-1,2-4,5-3,2-4,3-1. The way I realized this connection between the etude and the double-third exercise was through the fingering, which was what basically I had used in the Chopin D-flat etude; (remember, I wasn’t using the suggested fingering!) I figured I could use the basic double-third fingering pattern to things that weren’t double thirds (on an F-major harmony: left hand cf,dg,fa/gc,ce,fa/gBb. The last diad to be fingered 2-4 helped me move the left hand into another position, but since I wasn’t limited to octaves, or fitting neatly into a musical measure of four beats (the figuration could span across the bar) it really wasn’t necessary, but produced some interesting results. Of course the above applies equally to the right hand. So what I  ended up doing was practicing both a technical exercise and an improvisational exercise at the same time: playing the pattern, and adapting it to the changing harmony–of course not being limited to direction up or down or even rhythm. It should be obvious that the rhythmic shapes could be anything–8ths, triplets, 16ths. And now I was working with both hands in similar and contrary motion, and finally mixing the two patterns together, the double-thirds and the adapted arpeggiation one! This became a difficult challenge and one that continues.

    But it didn’t stop there. I stole several ideas from unlikely sources:

    Art Tatum, Sergei Rachmaninov and Fats Waller. I first heard the first idea of another different texture from various Art Tatum solos. In “Yesterdays” Tatum makes use of a pattern, that of alternating a single white note, played with the thumb, with a third, played with the second and fourth fingers. The third can also be white notes, but more often involves black keys, quite easily played with the second and fourth finger. The pattern ascends or it descends. Tatum also used it as a separate-note pattern, so that the third is played as two separate notes. This was usually played quite fast and hard to figure out. But it seemed clear to me. I began to practice this, again improvising over various chord changes. I started to use this in the left hand, too, and used it both in ascending and descending form. Then hands together. It was at this point that I became aware of a similar if not identical occurrence of this pattern in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. It’s in the third movement, at the end of the variation section. Very fast filigrees in both hands, quite high up on the keyboard, but the same alternating of a third and a single note. But Rachmaninov used it in a different way. Instead of going up and down the keyboard, it kind of floats in one place, subtly changing with the harmony, altering a note here and there. And it’s played with both hands. So I combined Rachmaninov’s and Tatum’s patterns together and either floated like Sergei or went up and down the keyboard like Art. I also shifted the pattern from where the single note is always on the beat  or half-beat to where the third is on the beat or half-beat.

    Aside 2: Some may wonder how can you practice something that isn’t set? How do you practice doing something you can’t yet do? Playing through the harmony of All the Things You Are or another tune’s chords without setting how these patterns are going to fit it? Piano practice with classical music involves music that already exists. Here we’re learning to play something that doesn’t exist! The answer is that you just bull your way through it. You play lots of wrong notes, lots of bad-sounding things. But over time, your brain manages to get the fingers going into the right slots and you develop muscle memory for a brand-new texture that can be applied in a truly spontaneous way. Aside over.

    Sometime in the 1970s I transcribed Fats Waller’s Russian Fantasy. There was a passage in that in which the right hand plays an intricate melodic pattern in two voices. It’s a classic piece of stride right-hand figuration. There are numerous others and can be found in Waller, James P Johnson. While it’s hard to describe them, they take advantage of the right hand’s physical shape, using the thumb and pinky to play white notes while the other fingers roam over the black. If you place your own hand over a piano keyboard, you can see that the fingers fit this way. I began to imitate this kind of figuration, and found that, over time, I was able to improvise and stay within the harmonic structure. There is considerable room for notes that don’t quite fit in. Even the Russian Fantasy example has many notes outside the chords. I found that this kind of figuration also incorporated the two basic Chopin things I adapted. Also it fitted in nicely with the way in which the double-third material described above was evolving.

    In listening to Tatum I often heard moments where his both hands attacked the piano in the upper register in joyous abandon–usually in the key of F. I also was enamored of the phrasing and timing of Eddie Lockjaw Davis. His saxophone playing was a marvel of original style and fierce swing. I created my own combination of Tatum’s piano attack and Davis’ swing with a rhythmical pattern with notes/chords or combination of them in the right hand with a free-form single note passage in the left. It always worked pretty well I thought.
    I wanted to expand this so I practiced playing rhythmical things in the right hand and non-rhythmical things in the left. Physically it was almost easy. Getting the left hand to conform to a harmonic structure was not, but I persevered, much in the manner listed in the Aside 2 and I was able to use this texture to good effect over extended periods in a solo.

    What would happen, I wondered if I reversed this? Had the right hand be a-rhythmical and the left playing in rhythm? It seemed impossible to me as I tried it. My left hand has a weaker connection to the time than my right. If my right hand is guiding the overall direction of a solo, my left hand follows along and the time is fine. But the left hand was not up to the task of taking on this role. At first. I had to force it, and soon discovered that the left hand responded with its own ideas, very different from the right’s. It was also an adjustment for the brain: usually in improvisation, the mind focuses on one hand–usually the right–as the hand from which the ideas spring. The left hand complements this and all is OK.

    New Note: As of today (9-6-2012), this kind of playing has been the most challenging and produced sometimes the most interesting results. Playing 8th notes in the right and a melody in the left is very difficult and requires immense concentration. It gets better over time, but it would have probably been better to have embarked on this when I was younger. A 69-year old is slower to learn new technical skills. But I am grateful that I can learn them at all!

    Most of western classical music follows the idea that most music has main melodic material in the register from G below middle C to so-called high C, two octaves above middle C. And the vast majority of piano music has the left hand accompanying the right.  Some feel and I agree that this is because human speech sits in that register and our hearing is most acute there.

    It wasn’t until the 19th century that composers opened up the ways in which the piano can be used to present ideas that the left hand became more involved. (A quick example of what I’m talking about, apart from my own examples, can be found at the end of Rachmaninov’s B-flat Prelude op. 23 no.2. The left hand plays a slower melody and the right hand plays rapid decorative fills.) This texture I’m describing has been around for a while. Chopin also used it in his A-minor Etude. Practicing it produces a feeling of walking on a tightrope while the two hands try to find their way.

    More about stride. I came to this late. Fats Waller and James P. Johnson excited me a lot. I transcribed a lot of their music and played it as best I could. James P.’s Mule Walk, Keep Off The Grass, others. Fats’ Smashing Thirds, Handful of Keys, African Ripples and Russian Fantasy. My left hand is not quite big enough to make all those tenths with the security that Fats had, but I worked hard and did OK. But stride seemed to be difficult to incorporate into an overall style. It’s too much its own separate thing. Nevertheless I still work at it. It establishes such an exuberant positive tone!

    I loved to use it where the time gets turned around. This happens when the left hand moves things over one beat. From bass-chord-bass-chord, to bass-chord-bass-bass-chord-bass-chord-bass-chord so that the bass note is no longer on 1 and 3 but moves to 2 and 4. The right hand continues to do what it’s doing and the result is a very interesting, unsettling result.

    New Note: 5-28-2012—Have been varying the stride pattern from quarter-notes with bass either on beats 1 and 3 and the chords on 2 and 4 or vice-versa. New pattern is either: quarter, two eighths, or two eighths, quarter, but divided between the hands. This produces a fragmented effect, in which the 2d of the 2 eighths will be swung, but it will occur in both hands alternately. To this, I added an occasional tenth and/or a passing figure in tenths in the left hand. (Since the arthritis, spanning tenths is very difficult. For the most part, I have to use octaves.) Occasionally, I will interrupt or vary the pattern. This also works well with closed hands position—which doesn’t at all sound like stride. And (9-06-2012) now breaking up the stride pattern in the left hand as described above while improvising freely in the right on top, creates a new and interesting texture.

    Aside 3. In the late 1970s I discovered Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. Over the years I’ve studies parts of it. It probably is the most difficult of all the piano concertos. It’s not as long as Brahms 2, which is difficult, but Rachmaninov has the piano playing almost non-stop throughout. His genius for the piano is nowhere more evident than here. The piano writing is full of startling innovative textures. Some great works of art have the universe of human experience contained in them. War and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow, the Symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler, Wagner’s Ring and so on. The Third Concerto is among these. Aside over.

    While I would like to adapt all of Rachmaninov’s textures into my playing, I’ve found only two or three with which I’ve been able to do this so far. In the first movement, after the statement of the theme, the piano accompanies the orchestra playing the theme. Rachmaninov used this idea in his Second Concerto, where the piano doesn’t state the main theme until the recapitulation. His way of accompanying is full of wonderful ideas. Here the running 16th-note accompaniment is divided between the two hands. That idea has been fairly simple to adapt.

    From my perspective, it further releases the “spirit” of the left hand to produce some ideas of its own. From this idea comes letting the left hand off on its own–accompanied by the right adding harmonic material. Since the mind more naturally focuses on what the right hand will create in the way of melodic material, the left hand has to find its own way. Of course, one can consciously determine that a passage may begin on a certain note within a certain register, but, especially if one plays in a fast tempo, there isn’t at first enough time to focus on the melodic. But over time, more of the left hand becomes captive of the conscious and can be directed to follow its bidding. But not completely!

    To this first of the Rachmaninov textures, I added another wrinkle: that of overlaying a pattern of triple rhythm. Not triplets, but grouping the customary 8th or 16th note motion into 3s. The left hand would play one note, followed by the right playing two and so on. This pattern comes out on the beat on the downbeat of the third bar. Of course I reversed this so the the right hand plays one, the left two. This produced a texture that has primarily rhythmic content with some melodic elements emerging. I can better control the melodic material when I’m playing the first of the two patterns: left hand one, right hand two.

    The second Rachmaninov texture was taken out of the Second Movement. Here the theme is stated by the piano many times, in different keys and each time arranged quite differently. When it occurs in B-flat, the right hand plays full chords with melody on top. The left hand has free arpeggiation. This sounds typically “Romantic” , typical of a lot of piano writing of the 19th century (This concerto was first performed in 1909, however!) As I looked at what the left hand was doing, I was surprised to find that what I had already worked on, deriving from Chopin first etude was right there! Even playing the two middle notes of a arpeggio figure together. The left hand here creates a full, turgid piano sound. This was great. I already kind of could do this. It fits nicely into a ballad tempo tune. It can sound shmaltzy if simply played along with a melody. But I could avoid that if I was careful. In faster tempo things, I could keep a steady 8th-note motion going with the texture and it sounded pretty good. It works best when the right hand melodic material isn’t so dense. I could also use the Chopin double-sixths-derived texture in the left hand as well.

    At the end of the cadenza of the first movement, Rachmaninov ingeniously has the solo flute play the recapitulation. The piano plays a delicate texture of the left hand playing an accompanying melody in double-dotted 8ths and 32ds, The right hand wanders over the upper register in rapid a-rhythmic fashion. I want to use this. Haven’t yet.

    I already mentioned a texture in the third movement I adapted. This was at the end of the E-flat variation section. But I was completely captivated by the theme of this section. The theme contains some truly innovative piano writing. Both hands are fairly high up on the keyboard. The melodic material is completely merged with the accompaniment material, or I might say they are one and the same!  The character of the writing is scherzo-like in the extreme. The somber emotionality of the harmonies move underneath this bright, playful music. Here are short double-third moments, and other two and three-note figurations. I had already been working on these, but hadn’t ultimately known what I wanted to do with them. Here, from this complex writing, emerges a clear, recognizable theme.

    Here was a blueprint for me! This I realized is what I need to do: use all I had developed with the two hands playing my various textures (although now I was beginning to think of them as “tools”) but now let them serve a higher goal–let melody emerge. I would have to become so proficient with these that my mind would eventually direct them to produce music that was greater than the sum of the parts!

    Aside 4. Music making is social. Especially jazz. Must have the interaction of the players bouncing ideas around, locking in the groove. Also must have the audience to drive the moment, to be excited by the music and to give their indescribable something back to the musicians. How is this ever going to work for me, where I play by myself, I am the bass, the drums (and in the other music, the entire orchestra)? It’s solipsism and will never produce anything of value. Answer: I have no idea. Judge for yourself. Aside over.

    Almost done here. One or two other “tools”. As I am able to play the very fast a-rhythmic things with either hand, while the other hand plays something in rhythm, I now combine the two hands together playing the very fast a-rhythmic things at the same time. And now, both hands develop muscle memory for playing notes that fit the harmony. Sometimes, in this texture I will stop abruptly on a single note in both hands and then resume, only again to stop on a a single note.

    So now, armed with these additional tools, I come to the music. This is new vocabulary for me and I am learning to use these words. But only time will show the success or not. Now, I find myself reminding myself: OK, use this texture–now that one, and on and on. Occasionally I don’t have to do that and the music flows. But just as in talking, “use your words” is a reminder we give to small children to talk rather than point, I need to have these “tools” sink down the the unconscious level so that they flow one into the other. That will take time, the kind of time that is determined by my own temperament, skill, and discipline. I’m 68 now (was!). I hope I’ll be around long enough to bring it together.

    I think a lot of something I heard as a teen-ager on the Jean Shepherd radio show. He was talking about art and age and he mentioned Hokusai. Hokusai was responsible for many innovations in painting and lived into his 80s. But the story that is part of Hokusai’s legend is that, on his death bed with his family around, he suddenly sat upright, and, in an excited manner said, “Ten years! I just need ten more years to become a really good painter. I know what I need to do! Allright! Five years then! Just give me five years!” At which point, according to the story, he sank back down on the bed and slipped away.

    What is interesting to me about what I am going through is: usually these developments come to a musician at an early age so that he can make his mark or not, sink or swim. With me, much of life is behind me. The career that I’ve had, with its spotty, intermittent successes, is over. The path I appear to be on is a path that doesn’t compare with those of other musicians. So what am I to make of it all? Well, apart from what I believe to be an incredible gift coming my way for which gratitude doesn’t begin to cover it, I have absolutely no idea!