Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tell-Tale Hand

This is a pianist-oriented spoof of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart".  Many thanks and apologies to the author.

TRUE! –jittery – a very jittery, restless knee I have and always will have; but what makes you suggest I am mad?  Indeed, my senses are heightened; my hearing has become even more acute.  I can single out the pitch of any voice in a choir, and recall perfectly the notes of a melody learned years ago.   I have heard sounds straight from heaven, and many, many sounds from hell.  So how can you say I am mad?  Perhaps you need to hear my tale from the beginning, and you will understand.  You see, in the beginning it was that . . .

Snap . . . Snap . . . Snap.

I gritted my teeth at the damnable sound, flinching as it grated on my brain and echoed ‘round the choir room. My focus narrowed until all I was conscious of was the music in front of me and the source of the sound: the old man.  Tall and pale, his arms moved with a fluid musicality, as any conductor’s should. My acute senses missed nothing – my eyes fastened onto every move of his arms and head, reading nuances in gestures of the fingers and wrists.  The facial expressions, the posture, all broadcast his every musical wish – and yet still he would . . . snap.  A bark of laughter escaped my lips –not of joy.  It was at the audacity of the sound, at the diabolical torture I was undergoing, at how badly I wanted to stop playing, or beg him to stop making that noise.  But alas, it is not my place.  I continued to play, my pride in my skills brushed aside and bruised with each.  Additional. Snap.  

And yet, I loved this man, the conductor.  He was a kind coworker, competent and prepared.  But I detested his hand - his large, bone-thin hand, which produced a chilling, hollow ‘snap’.  My need for its silence had become an itching undercurrent of our every encounter.

You must understand – the conductor’s arms are meant to be silent tools, capable of expressing musicality with precision and artistry.  It is well known that a pianist will pride himself on following a conductor, pride himself on DOING HIS JOB.   Ah, I apologize if that outburst seemed angry, because I am not angry, not at all . . . angry. Nor am I insane, see how calmly I can relate this information; see how clearly I am to be understood? 

As rehearsal continued, each snap seemed to goad my heart faster. I inhaled and exhaled carefully, so as to control it’s pounding. I attempted to distract myself, ‘what shall I eat for my next meal?’, ‘the altos are nowhere near the right note’, ‘what an awful place to put a page turn’.  But my attempts failed, and my skin heated as I played an interlude, accompanied by snapping. “Truly?”, I wanted to ask. “You believe I cannot handle four measures without your time keeping?”

When the sound stopped, I felt capable of breathing again.  My shoulders would relax, my jaw unclench - but not for long.  The moments of reprieve were always brief, and the snap would return, seemingly louder.  I pulled my lips back into a wild approximation of a smile, a grimace I hoped nobody would notice.  The choir members had no idea what was transpiring in my mind, nor should they.  If they knew . . .

I was nearing a frenzied state - I needed to leave soon.  It was fortunate the clock was nearing the hour, and rehearsal winding down.  But then the old man decided there was enough time for one last run through.  Most of the song was blessedly free of that abominable snap - until a slightly misplaced finger hit an errant note.  Immediately, his blasted fingers began anew!  My rage blazed into an inferno, and I could hardly hear anything else.  I knew then what needed to be done: I vowed to end his life forever.

Now this is important:  you think I am insane – and yet look how cleverly I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight!  My coworker and I were always on good terms, but the week before his death I strove to be the most congenial, the most sane.  I carefully orchestrated our interactions– I showed no rage, even when those wretched snaps drove me beyond reason.  No one would suspect my motivation sprung from so deep a well of fury.  My hands itched to throttle him.  Pressing my fingers into the keyboard, I took my feeling of annoyance, the hatred of the hand and used it to fuel my playing.   I pushed my fingers into the keys, pushing, pouring all of my rage into an expressive accompaniment, while I imagined the joy of crushing him.  Soon it was more than the snap – it was everything – his voice, his occasional curtness would birth an irritation of a proportion I have never felt before or since.  His pet turns of phrases twisted my gullet.  I knew it had to be soon. 

My attention to detail was exquisite: each day before rehearsal I would carefully sharpen a pencil, gripping it ever so lightly (not as a weapon), then carefully raised and lowered the piano lid (no wish to slam) and I listened carefully to every instruction.  I gently moved the bench, even so softly used the pedals one would think I imagined I were afraid to break it! And every day that hand snapped again and again, so loud I imagined I may come to harm if it continued any longer.

Then the day came – and I was more than unusually cautious in my interactions with him.  I waited long after rehearsal, calmly biding my time until every last person left the room.  I eyed a mirror on the wall, wishing it were in shards – but no matter.  I had brought my own tools for the job at hand.  Calmly, I asked him if he had a second to listen to something I wanted to play for him.  “Of course”, he said and sat in the chair I had set out for him, as I encouraged, “Why don’t you close your eyes”.  With a quiet sigh, he settled into a chair that gave a small creak of protest. 

Never before that moment had I felt the extent of my own ability --of how clever I was. I could scarcely contain my feelings of glee. To think that there I was, seconds from revealing my weapon, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I almost giggled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he shifted in his chair suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back --but no.  Because at that moment I caught sight of his hands – the thin, spider-like digits that I focused on as if by instinct.  It increased my fury, reinforcing the inner knowledge that it had to be now – the old man’s hour had come! 

With a quiet need, I carefully unsheathed a machete I had spent hours sharpening to a lethal edge.  I took advantage of his trusting inattention, and wielded my weapon in a well-practiced strike, severing his head from the rest of his body in an instant.  It thumped on the ground once, rolled over and then lay still.  I smiled, pleased to find the deed so easily done – because now he was dead, stone dead.  He would trouble me no more.   But I had just gotten started - every imagined hour of violence was gloried in at that moment, as I hacked and rehacked the old man’s body into small, disposable parts. 

You cannot imagine me mad after hearing the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.  I worked hastily, but in silence - when I was finished, his bloody, dismembered carcass lay on the floor.   As I had worked, his hand continued to twitch, to produce its bone-chilling ‘snap’ - but the task at hand was so enjoyable that I didn’t care.  I then took a common plastic container, like every other storage box in the room and deposited the body.  I then placed it in the center of the storage area - so cunningly, that no one would know it was hidden in plain sight!   There was nothing to wash out, no stains nor spots.  I had been too careful - a bin had caught all - ha!

One day later, three men visited the workplace - police officers.  The old man has been reported missing, and the officers had been investigating the premises he was reported to have been seen last.  I smiled, - for what had I to fear?  I bade the gentlemen welcome.  The old man, I mentioned, was on vacation.  I took my visitors all over the facility.  I even led them to the rehearsal hall, brought chairs into the room and offered them coffee.  So confident was I in my deception, that I placed my own seat directly in front of the box that housed the corpse of the victim.

The officers suspected nothing; I had passed their test, apparently, and they ceased to tread me as a suspect.  I felt confident in my ruse, and chatted with the officers as they idled in their chairs, savoring their coffee.  But, ere long, my head began to ache and I felt myself going pale.  The officers were oblivious to my distress, and I chatted louder to defy the ringing in my ears that grew more and more distinct – until, at length, I realized: the noise was not from within my ears.

I am sure I grew paler yet – but I spoke more fluently, more loudly as the sound increased.  What could I do?  It was a low, hollow sound – much as a drum makes when stuffed with cotton.  I inhaled desperately – and yet the officers didn’t notice.  I spoke more quickly, more erratically; but the sound continued!  My jittery knee moved at a heightened pace, spurred on by arguments of trifles, until I arose and began pacing.  Why are they still here?  I paced with heavy strides, unable to contain my agitation, as the noise steadily increased. 

Oh God! what could I do? I shivered --I raved --I swore!  I swung my chair, grating it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder -- louder! And still the men chatted easily, and smiled.  Could they hear it? Almighty God! -- no, no! They heard! --they knew! -- they were mocking me! Anything was better than this agony, this derision!  I couldn’t stand those hypocritical smiles anymore! I felt that I must scream or die! God, no -- again! – hear it! louder! louder! louder! louder!

"Bastards!" I shrieked, "Stop torturing me! I admit it! --tear open the box! here, here! --It is the snapping of his hideous hand!"

-----Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tell-Tale Heart”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Contemporary Christian piano playing for classically trained keyboardists

The transition from solo pianist to playing in a band takes some effort – most of it mental, because the situation isn’t about chops.  It’s about playing a completely different role than we are used to.  With completely different music.

The good news: adapting the skill set is easy once you adjust to having band members and learn the piano’s role within this kind of music (plus getting over the initial shock of seeing letters instead of notes).  

The Keyboardists’ Role within the band
You are going from being ‘it’ to being one of many - leave some room for the other band members to play their role. Specifically, adapt to:
  • Bass player - your left hand performs a very similar function, so play less in the left hand in order to give them room to do their job  
  • Drummer - the drummer often picks up the busy rhythms on the high-hat, kick and snare.  Get used to ‘locking in’ with the drummer
  • Guitarist – Be careful about playing in the same range as the lead guitarist – adapt to what they’re playing: combine rhythms, you play low, they play high, you play chords, they play lead  
  • Keys player 2– with two keys, usually one plays on a lighter/synth patch (texture), and one is on a heavier/piano patch (harmony and rhythm)
  • Worship Leader - always have a visual on the leader. Signals and communication can be quick and unexpected– be ready to jump ANYWHERE in the song.

All this taken into account – now you can focus on: 

The Keyboardist's Role within the music
Because much of the rhythmic, melodic and bass line responsibility has been lifted off your shoulders, you now may play less than you are used to, and in a narrower range on the keyboard.  Previously, your keyboard had 88 keys; now you mainly live in the g2-g4 section of the keyboard.  One of the hardest thing for beginners to do is embrace simplicity - simple chords, simple rhythms and lots of repetition.

Simple Rhythms
Less is more in this situation.  Besides straight quarter notes, here are the two most commonly used comping rhythms in Contemporary Christian playing.  Embrace them:

Simple Chords
Again, this is mostly chord-based playing (often with the above rhythms).  You will almost never play the melody.  For this type of music, pianists use a lot of open 5th, sus2 and sus4 chords.  Focus on minimizing movement across the keyboard as you go from one chord to another (AKA smooth voice leading).  I like to think of it in terms of anchoring a thumb or pinkie.  For example, here's Chris Tomlin's "How Great is Our God".  The first 3 chords can be comped with the exact same notes in the RH (and incidentally, when repeated, gets you through most of the song)

Here is another example: Jennie Riddle's Revelation Song - again, see how you link one chord to the next with the closest voicing (and notice the added sus2s, the rhythmic simplicity).  Learning all of the inversions of the basic triads will help.

That's the basics: simple and repetitive playing, and be mindful of the rest of the band.  The quickest way to pick up the rest of the contemporary Christian musical conventions -i.e. going to higher parts of the keyboard during 'high points' in the music, using rhythms to increase the 'build' to a certain point in the song, etc - is by listening.  

Some online resources:
Worshiptraining.com has a lot of tutorials for keyboardists, covering specific songs from people like Kari Jobe, Lincoln Brewster, Reuben Morgan, etc


Just for kicks, here are links to some of my transcriptions.  For the most part, these songs were unavailable on normal sheet music websites, so I created my own music on Finale.  Enjoy!! :

Avalon's We Will Stand
Hillsong's I Will Never Be 
Juanita Bynum's God Is Here
Selah's It is Well With My Soul
Women of Faith's Come Thou Fount
Women of Faith's Revelation Song

Sunday, October 9, 2011

If pianists got citations . . .

Today after the Contemporary Christian Service finished I half-expected to be approached by a disgruntled officer, notepad in hand.  The expected interaction:

Officer:  Yes ma'am, do you know how many sus chords you were using in that hymn?
Me:  (slightly embarrassed) A couple?
Officer:  No, ma'am - 78 sus chords.  I was clocking you the entire way - you abused every chord you could with an added 2nd or 4th.  This is highly unnecessary, can shock a congregation, and worse-case scenario: sound like 'smooth jazz'.  I' m going to have to cite you for it.  
Me:  I'm sorry - I didn't realize how out of control I was.  
Officer: (hands over ticket)  Please be careful.  There are children listening.

Fortunately I haven't been caught.  Yet.