Life According to Piano

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“When I am composing, I don’t necessarily hear music inside. Instead, I experience a subtle dissatisfaction until the sounds my hands create match the deeper emotion I feel within.”

Kathleen

Welcome to my blog, Life According to Piano.


Now with comment capability, so talk back!


There’s a first for everything

First (only) time in digital and now available everywhere:

Invocation cover


The final single that I plan to release from my very earliest recording, Invocation is actually my first true piano solo. It grew from an improvisation I created for the dance class I was accompanying way back in pre-history. The dancers’ movements were to challenge their balance, so I improvised music to challenge my balance.

Nearly a decade later I thought, “That was cool music, I wonder if I can do something with it?” 

Invocation is the result. It is theme and variations, matching the phrases of the movement, and it becomes more challenging to play on every variation. 

Invocation is just tricky enough that I haven’t performed it in years. Please don’t request it! But I do love how it sounds, so when it’s available, do take a listen.

PS: I am practicing it now, mostly so that I can notate it, but it’s possible I will program it in the future. Possible, even if not probable!

Now available everywhere!

Old Joe Clark can be purchased/heard at  iTunesAmazon, Pandora, & Spotify,. 

Old Joe Clark

I haven’t performed this piece in probably 20 years (you’ll see that the copyright on it dates to 1988!) and listening to it, I am amazed at the tempo. So, I have some practicing to do. (It’s not the first time I’ve had practicing to do!)

But this arrangement is just so fun — fun to hear & fun to play too. Please check it out & let me know what you think.

PS: Its sheet music is here, so you can play it too.

Coming soon!

A little something that has been stranded for a long time, waiting patiently for its return to airplay.

Old Joe Clark


My (appropriately) very energetic arrangement of Old Joe Clark was on my very first recording, which was only released on cassette way back in the mists of time. However, I’ve had it in digital format for quite a while. And I have finally realized that I can release singles!

Music very soon now, to all the places you expect to hear music.

The music that made me #6

Ha! I’m back!

So there I was, an undergraduate music major, summering at the Aspen Music Festival. The very best thing about that summer was all of the concerts, and the concert that impacted me the most was Lili Kraus playing a Mozart piano concerto with the festival orchestra. * 

In case you don’t already know (and if you do know, then skip this paragraph), a concerto is a sonata for solo instrument plus orchestra. In the opening (sonata form) movement, usually two themes are introduced in what we call the exposition; and then the exposition is repeated. In a concerto, most often the orchestra plays the first time through the exposition, without the soloist; and on the repeat, the soloist takes up the melodies and the orchestra primarily accompanies the soloist. (Please note all the wiggle words I put in, since the music does what the composer wants and therefore concertos don’t always follow this pattern. But Mozart’s concerts do.)

So the soloist has to sit there for a while. **

Maybe: doing nothing.

The music that made me #5

I’m still on a Brahms kick. Today, Piano Concerto No. 2, in Bb, Op 83.

This is simply some of the most beautiful music ever created. Such passion & power!


So, okay, it’s long. But every note & every moment is so exquisite. (And I love Marc-André Hamelin’s playing. Did you notice I had his performance of the Gershwin Concerto in F posted the other day?)

Funny story: I’ve never realistically planned to perform this concerto in this particular lifetime. That’s not really my path. But I did purchase the piano part when I was post-graduate school. I got home to the piano, opened the book, played the first notes, and thought to myself, in great surprise, “Oh my gosh, it sounds just like the Brahms piano concerto!!!”

Apparently I had always believed some special magic must be invoked to create these sounds.

[The special magic required is, of course, boatloads of effective practice. And the heart of a lion.]

PS: an intermezzo for encore waits for you at the end.

The music that made me #4

Today, at last, classical music appears on my list. (Well, assuming that we call Rhapsody in Blue and the Concert in F jazz music, which I’m not sure I do.)

For years I’ve had a story about this music, a myth I told myself. While I’ve been preparing this series of posts this week, I’ve realized that the myth isn’t very likely. So I’ll tell it the way I think it really went down, and not the way I tell it to myself.

When I entered Duke University as an undergraduate, I had no major in mind. And I really did not have a music major in mind, as I’d quit my piano lessons a few years before (after achieving my life goal of playing Rhapsody in Blue!) and had just been making up songs since then. On a whim I took a couple of teensy credit music courses my first semester, which turned out to be the dreaded-by-music-majors-but-nonetheless-required Ear Training/Sight Singing and Keyboard Theory.

They were a blast! I decided that I would major in music after all. (When I was 12, everybody knew I was going to grow up as a musician. By the time I was 18? Not so much.)

The music that made me #3

So there I was, pre-teen & all, enjoying sappy pop/rock love songs, when I joined a record club (now there’s something you don’t hear much about anymore!) and I had to pick out a certain number of records each month. And one month I thought, “I’d like to hear something different.” And on a whim, I chose Robert Johnson.  About whom I knew nothing.

Wow!


I love that so much, I created my own crazy piano arrangement of it. (On Drivin’! of course.) I love that so much, I’ve made up bunches of my own blues songs.

(I do have the complete recordings of Robert Johnson on CD. So this music actually fulfills the terms of the original challenge.)

Classical music is underrepresented so far in my list, isn’t it? Well, that will change pretty soon.

The music that made me #2

Or, more precisely, #2 through #umptyzillion.


It it no exaggeration at all to say that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is why I am a pianist & composer today. I’m pretty sure I’ve written that on my blog before. [UPDATE: yes, and not even that long ago.]

At ages 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—and even now!—when I hear it I want to dance to it, conduct it, play it, inhabit it, be every instrument in the ensemble, shout it to the heavens.

Some funny things regarding me and Rhapsody in Blue:

  • When I started piano, Rhapsody in Blue was what I wanted to play “when I grew up.”
  • I have a distinct memory of working out the first page of the piano solo version very soon after I could read music notation. 
  • I played it in one of those multi-school music evaluation/contests when I was 13. I did not play well, as it was my first encounter with a grand piano and I couldn’t handle the action—way heavier than our upright at home.
  • I quit piano lessons just a couple of years later because I could play Rhapsody already, and really, what could be better than that? (I started up lessons again in college, having met Brahms finally. That will pop up later in this series.)
  • And, in one of fate’s little ironic gestures, when I was invited to perform a concerto with an orchestra back in the 80s, the conductor wanted me to play Mozart (which I did. More on that later too.) Because at that time I had a reputation as a classical pianist (because Brahms got me back to piano & I had degrees in music). But the very next orchestra concert after mine was a different pianist performing… Rhapsody in Blue! (Because he had a reputation as a pop musician.) 
  • You will be pleased to know that I kept my gnashing of teeth secret until this very moment.

Enjoy!

PS: I also love love love Gershwin's Concerto in F. In case you are looking for something more.

PPS: More about Rhapsody in Blue and me, here.

The music that made me #1

This is my version of the Facebook challenge of sharing my 10 most loved recordings.**

What can I say? Most of the recordings that I have loved were actual true records, and were lost in a move several decades ago. Oh well. And unfortunately in most cases I have only vague memories of who the performers were; the music itself was always the attraction for me.

But in thinking it over, I’ve remembered quite a lot about the music I grew up with, so I’m going to do a series of posts with YouTube performances of “the music that made me.”

And amazingly enough (you will find this hard to believe), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is not first on the list. But that’s only because I’m trying to go somewhat chronologically through my memories.

Happy listening!

First up:

Lili Marlene


My parents had this on a 45 (remember those?!) and I remember listening to it quite a lot when I was toddler+ age. I think the version they had was this one by Marlene Dietrich (but not totally sure about that).

Anyway, this is the first piece of music I remember listening to over & over again.

Good Friday

Here’s something very simple that I put together for you, with my arrangement of Wayfaring Stranger. May  you find comfort in these difficult (and indeed, in all) times.

Kathleen


The perfect song

I have this thing about perfect songs: sometimes I want to create my own arrangement of a perfect song, but it’s already perfect, so now what?

Silent NIght is a perfect song, and I had been hoping to include it on The Rebirth of Light, only…the carol is perfect as it is. What could I do that was unique to me but did not impose on the beauty of the original? One evening, alone at a friend’s house and playing her piano, the arrangement came to me in a sweet simple flow of sound. How? I have no idea. Why? Because I wanted it to, and I accepted each sound that came through my hands and kept going. (Does that sound like a “how” to you? It’s not. There was no “how” involved, because there really wasn’t any thinking involved. I love it when that happens!) (And also when I can remember what I played when that happens. That’s the best.)

I’m creating arrangements of spiritual songs now—hymns mostly, but not entirely. To me one of the perfect hymns is Old Hundredth, what most people know as the Doxology, even if they aren’t into hymns very much. I love everything about Old Hundredth: its melody and its harmonies and its words. It is so simple, and it holds a universe in that simplicity. It’s simply perfect.

Where I work

Just so you know.

Studio JS 2


Roots, of a sort

I’m preparing repertory for my autumn concerts and yet again I came across a beautiful piece of mine that I had forgotten about. Well, there are many many pieces now, and I cannot keep them all in repertory all the time, so some are played less and then I forget that they are there. (This is why having published everything in print is so useful for me—I can re-learn my own music!)

Would I be a pianist at all if it weren’t for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? Possibly not. My parents had a recording of it when I was very young and it was my very favorite music. I would dance around to it! Then my older sister was learning to play the piano version of it, and that became my goal when I started lessons: to play Rhapsody in Blue. I still remember puzzling out the first page as soon as I could read the notation well enough to do so, long before I could reach octaves or really approach any of the technique required to actually play the music. I played the (clarinet) trill with the index fingers of each hand. I wasn’t deluding myself, I was well aware that I couldn’t really play the music yet. I just desperately wanted to!

Housekeeping

Since I blogged about Topaz the piece and Topaz the cassette earlier, I thought I’d archive where all the pieces from Topaz the cassette have ended up on my various CDs. I’ve linked to the pages where you will find their liner notes.

Also, now that I look at the complete cover for Topaz the cassette, I see that there is yet one piece to re-release. And I should have put it on Drivin’!  AARRRRGGHHHH

Anyway, here they are, in their order on Topaz the cassette:

Spare ChangeDrivin’!

Lazy KDrivin’!

What the Stars Saw on the PrairieA Handfull of Quietness

Nostalgia for Up = Wings on the BreezeUnder the Greenwood Tree

It’s Liquid, Tho’Drivin’!

TopazPassages

Topaz 1

The photo we used on the original run of Topaz cassettes. (I was just a baby!)

Topaz photo

The photo we used on the cover of the second run of Topaz cassettes. Because, as you can see from the list above, it was mostly a lively bunch of music!


A little piece about forgiveness

Once upon a time, I was the music director for a theater company in a smallish town in Iowa.

And, one spring, the artistic director and I were … umm… let’s say I was worried about what was happening in the rehearsal process of one of the productions (which I was experiencing as an actor, which we can all forget about now since I’m no kind of actor at all).

And he brushed off my worries, and then a few weeks later (the entirely predictable) disaster happened and the show wasn’t ready to open. Which was decided by the artistic director … after the dress rehearsal. About 18 hours before the intended opening night.

Oops.

I was SO angry at him for what we in the cast went through to get that show up.

He didn’t acknowledge that I had warned him several weeks in advance and therefore it might have been possible to avert disaster; I didn’t forgive him for ignoring my warnings.

That show had a shortened run, and we were already preparing the next show, for which I was writing some incidental music.

A Rant

My blog, my place to rant. And do forgive me! (Or just don’t read.)

So (universal beginning-of-story indicator), a friend on FB linked to a video of a talk by some famous musician in which the famous musician is inspiring his audience to love classical music.

I watched that video and I was enjoying it. The famous musician (from here on out identified as FM, since it’s unfair to name him when I can’t discuss all this with him directly) chooses a very famous piano piece, Chopin’s E minor Prelude, to entice his audience into loving classical music. He plays a few measures, points out some of the structure that is happening, gets the audience to sing part of the melody, summarizes the structure of the entire piece, talks about the intense feeling of the music, encourages his listeners to make a personal connection to that intense feeling by thinking of someone they have lost. It’s all interesting, enlightening, even inspriring.

And then he plays the prelude. And it’s horrifying.

Okay, maybe I’m just a snob. But I do think that when a piece is marked Largo, even intense feeling (espressivo) doesn’t mean that the upbeat-to-downbeat goes very slowly and then the rest of the measure rushes along four times that fast! On every measure. I’ve heard the prelude performed this way before, and every time it sounds anti-musical to me—disrespectful to the music, the composer, the listeners.

The thing is ...

between R-T-G’s illness over the winter & spring, & a few other things going on in our lives, I had started to doubt that this would ever ever actually exist.

20180915 115809


Amazingly, Passages does exist — that’s a copy sitting on my piano. They arrived today!

Official release is still October 6, which means you can still purchase them at the pre-release price. They will be shipped pronto.

Oh, and it sounds very nice. I should think that of course! The music is just how I hear it & the piano sounds exactly like I think a piano should sound, which is: how my piano sounds. And we did record it on my piano, so that’s not exactly surprising either.

But I’m still surprised, in the very best way possible.

Passages

pathways

openings

turnings

phrases in music!

across the meadow, through the forest, over the stream

birth, growth, death, transformation

love, loss, grief

healing, forgiveness, joy

life

Draft31 Passages cover copy


Daily Practice: Forgive

A very long time ago (April 20, 2017) I began this post. And then I didn’t publish it; I mentioned that in the blog over a year ago. And now I have no idea why I didn’t publish it. So here it is!


Have I mentioned yet today how much I love playing Forgive?

I love playing Forgive!

Love love love love love it!!!

I think I have mentioned before that the 2 most lush pieces that I’ve ever composed — in my opinion of course — are Forgive & the arrangement of Londonderry Air. BOTH FOR LEFT HAND ALONE!!

I didn’t really believe that I could play Forgive at a performance level. It features arpeggios, which I’ve always considered the bane of my existence as a pianist. Poor training when I was a kid (no arpeggios at all that I remember; although in Mrs. Unger’s defense I must admit that I quit lessons just about when arpeggios would have been on the curriculum; so maybe she was or maybe she wasn’t avoiding them. I have certainly avoided them!)

[True, and marginally on topic, story: One of the pieces I performed on my master’s recital, a millennium & a lifetime ago, was Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80. Theme: very Baroque! 1st variation: arpeggios in RH. 2nd variation: very similar arpeggios, now in the LH. 3rd variation: oh hey, now BOTH hands are playing the arpeggios, in opposite motion! What fun!

Variation 1: I was good with that one. Variations 2 & 3 were more ... shall we say ... hit or miss. Not for lack of practice*, but for lack of confidence. I didn’t really believe I could play them accurately, and all too often that turned out to be true. 

There I was, playing my master’s recital, just about to begin Variation 2, when I suddenly realized that it was just as easy to land on the correct notes (which I had practiced & practiced & practiced) as it was to land on any other notes. So, I decided I would; and I did. I played variations 2 & 3 beautifully on my recital. I don’t frankly recall anything else about the Beethoven that night. (I recall only one other thing about that recital at all, which is its own story for another occasion.) 

Happily, I have carried that liberating realization with me into this new millennium: having done the practice and cultivated the ability to play the correct notes, it is just as easy to play the right notes as the wrong ones, no matter what else is going on. It is a decision on my part to do that and only that. I have tried to convey this to my students; I hope that it’s among the (probably very few) musician advantages I have been able to give them.

*yes, Vicki, I could have practiced them even more, that’s true.

End of marginally on topic story.]

So, I didn’t really believe that I could play Forgive beautifully, because arpeggios galore. But, those arpeggios are so beautiful! I wanted to get over my reluctance to try, and I used the occasion of the broken right wrist earlier this year to practice this left hand music.

Whisking

I mentioned (here or on Facebook) last year when my right wrist was broken, how it astonished me that I was so very clumsy trying to whisk the breakfast eggs with my left hand.

I am quite right-handed, everywhere except the piano, where both my hands match each other in ability and flexibility. (And thank you to Geoff, who insisted I needed lots of left hand alone practice, lo those many years ago. It worked!)

So I believed that something like whisking, which is just a wrist action, would be easy to pick up with my left hand.

HA!

So awkward. So clumsy. So slow. It was a touch mortifying. (Yes: first-world problem, for sure. I am very fortunate that unskilled whisking is the kind of issue I have in my life, and I do appreciate that.)

Once my right wrist was healed, I was happy to return to right-handed whisking; a more timely breakfast being the main consideration. But a stubborn part of me has kept up the occasional left hand practice of whisking. (Old voices: “Left hand practice! Left hand practice!” Thanks again, Geoff.)


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