The Piano Bug

I recently had a revelation, wherein I didn’t completely suck at the piano.

I’ve been playing keys in some form or another for over twenty years.  I had taken formal lessons for a few years toward the end of elementary school, but fell out of interest in the music I was given.  I played on and off in high school, lending my abilities to a smattering of events and jams.  After I graduated in 2007, I bought an electric piano for college, where the on and off playing continued, mostly due to the fact that I had to store my keyboard underneath my bed due to space constraints in the freshman dorm.

When I moved up the hill to my fraternity house in 2008, I set up my keyboard next to my desk so I’d had easy access to music at any time, and as a result my creative juices flowed like never before.  As school progressed, music took a backseat to my studies and other various activities, and once my senior year rolled around, I had once again stashed my keyboard under my bed.  My senior year apartment was (relatively) nice, but my cozy room had, again, no space for a piano setup.

Since I’ve lived in California, I’ve always had my piano out in full view.  In my first few apartments, I’d even set it up desk-adjacent, like the good old days.  My playing was relatively regular.  A few years ago, I started MIDI tracking some of my favorite songs as a gift to my mother.  It became an annual Christmas present… for two years; in 2015, after recording a shorter batch of pieces later in the year, I stalled indefinitely.  I’d moved to San Francisco and, thanks to the topology of my studio apartment, my piano was no longer within arms reach of my computer desk.  It’s ten feet away, directly behind it, which is a nearly intolerable distance when in the process of laying down MIDI tracks.  I’m only half kidding — the lack of immediacy did definitely kill some of my interest in the piano for a time.

That brings me to now, and the reason I’m writing this.  Suddenly, this summer, I’ve been bitten by some kind of piano bug and its effect has yet to wear off after several weeks.  It might have been seeing Hamilton that made me dive into the Hamilton sheet music book I’ve got here.  When you really get it going, the piano arrangements are extremely fun to play:

On the other hand, another catalyst for my new found addiction might be the time that I stumbled upon a new piano artist whose songs I found not only immediately gripping in their musicality, but seemingly simple enough that I could play them with little effort.

For example:

This is suddenly one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  It’s beautiful, the chords taken some unexpected and frisson-filled turns, and it’s not too complicated for my hands.  I bought the sheet music for this album from Germany on a whim not long ago, and I find it’s not that hard to play.  Granted, I’ve been playing it (and many others) over and over and over these past few weeks, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gotten better.  Funny that.  I am still working on that quick-chord part in the second half, though.

Between 2011 and now, most of my piano playing has been improvised, relying only on chord charts and my ears.  While fun, this doesn’t do much to help technique and skill.  It wasn’t really until this summer that I really cracked open my sheet music books and sat down to learn songs, slowly and painstakingly without shortcut.  I’ll tell you what, my hands got sore just from stretching and bending to previously unimaginable positions.  The fun part is, eventually some of these more difficult songs actually become possible for someone of my limited talent to play.  It’s a great feeling to finally nail a tricky bar or two, and an even better one to get through an entire song without a mistake or hesitation.  I don’t have a lot of those songs in my repertoire, but that number is slowly going up.

Additionally, I’d had another sudden revelation just this past week.  For years, I’d struggled with digitizing my playing due to the latency between the physical touch of the keys and the output of the MIDI-fied sound.  When you press a key and it’s a full half-second before the note is returned to the ears, it tends to make keeping tempo difficult.  However, for whatever reason, I stumbled across an, in retrospect obvious, fix that I would then quickly implement this past weekend.  I installed a new secondary sound driver designed specifically for low-latency musical input.  It worked (nearly) flawlessly right away, allowing me to play digitized tracks full of effects, backing tracks, without delay nor distraction.  I’m somewhat ashamed this idea never occurred to me in the last ten years, but it’s better discovered late than never at all.

The end result is that, beyond my rediscovery of the instrument, I’ve only managed to further strengthen my desire to play.  I’m even taking my newfound confidence to social media.  There’s nothing more motivating than putting my performances out into the public, where I’m not allowed to screw up lest I face the wrath of my fans.  Or, less dramatically and more realistically, I’m putting all of the pressure on myself to be perfect.  It works. (Especially when all you need is a flawless minute before you’re allowed to make a mistake again…)

Can't forget my favourite part to play! Only made a mistake or two. 🎹🎹🎹 #piano #thesims #jamming

A post shared by Jake Buckley (@jacobdbuckley) on

All of this is to say, I’ve fallen in love once again with the piano.  I can’t believe I let it sit idly for so long; I’m glad its back in my life.

Perhaps you could expect some new music out of me?  It’s been… a while.

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Spring

Early spring in Vermont
Early spring in Vermont

It’s that time of year again!  The leaves are budding from the trees, filling up the formerly barren branches, and soaring skyward toward the sun’s rays.  The mornings are cool and the afternoons are pleasant.  There’s an aura of warmth in the air, but its nicely balanced by the remnants of winter’s chill.  Soon the air will be full of the smell of flowers, of germination and pollination as the winds of spring begin to blow.  At least, that’s what it will be like across the country where I’m from.  Here, that actually started months ago and continues on today.

When I was a kid, I loved spring, and not much has really changed since then.  I was born in the spring, right smack in the middle.  The cycle of my life started there and every year I’m reborn along with nature as it sheds what little is left of its winter stasis.  The intensity of spring has waned for me in the last few years as I now live in a place where the freeze of winter is non-existent and the relief from its chill barely registers.  I remarked a few weeks ago about how the seasons around the turn of the year work in Northern California: it’s fall in December, then two weeks after the new year– suddenly, spring.  It’s still weird to me that that spring feeling happens in February; when I started my latest job six weeks ago, it felt so much like spring that I felt obligated to tap into my music and embiggen that experience.  Like I have for fall, there are certain songs inextricably tied to the season (updated and expanded periodically):

Most of these pieces are linked to my waning years of high school and the lake in the mid-naughts, having a blast with my girlfriend at the time; the rest belong to my spring semesters in college.  A lot of them wash over me with a warm aura, especially when that first tangible wave of heat hits after winter.  Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve really imparted spring to anything I’ve listened to in California in my three springs here.  If I have, it’s not nearly as strong as it was back in New York.  This made a lot more sense before the spring of 2014 happened.  I’ve strongly imprinted California spring on several batches of music in the meantime.

Lake Erie in early May

A lot of wonderful things have happened during the spring.  My resurgence into hockey fandom was largely driven by the Buffalo Sabres playoff runs in the springs of 2006 and 2007.  I can’t believe how much I miss that 2005-06 team.  As I’ve mentioned before, the first time I fell in love was in the fall, but that led to my first real relationship the following spring.  I graduated high school that year, which previously held the title of best year of my life.  The next year was the end of my freshman year of college, the lovely period leading into one of my favorite summers ever.  Springs in college actually varied quite a bit, between good and bad relationships (seems like a trend…), the stress of the end of the semester, and time spent soaking in the sun, binging on anime (see above).

Tulips in Albany
Tulips in Albany

Spring is when everything comes alive.  The dormant creatures come out from their hibernation under the snow.  In college, the quads, plazas, and athletic fields became populated by students having fun, the soccer seasons turned bearable as the turf thawed, and the heat of the sun felt so damn good.  Moods elevated.

It’s weird that this period isn’t really a thing for me anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, it does get cold here too, just not that cold.  Spring hits early and quickly.  Right now it’s still around, mostly because it’s actually raining for once, but it’s soon to change to summer.  A few days ago I took a walk outside around my office.  It was cool, with somewhat threatening puffy clouds dotting the sky.  The wind was strong, yet slightly warm.  There wasn’t much sun and I thought I could have gotten drenched by a torrent any second.  Still, it was wonderful.

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The verdant hills of Northern California in March

Where spring back home is relief from the frozen tendrils of winter, here it’s the last comfort before the coming assault of the long summer.  Maybe that’s why I like autumn here so much too.  In any case, spring, while it’s probably only my second favorite season, certainly seems to usurp the top spot when it’s happening.  It’s a beautiful sight in the valley when the hills turn green.  I hope they stay that way for another six months this year.  That would be terrific.  Drought be damned, spring is here.

 

Broke Free on a Saturday Morning

On New Years Eve 2010, I went out late at night to grab Chinese food for my last meal of the year, as has been my personal tradition for some time now.  I drove the quiet, dark, and frozen streets of rural Western New York alone with nothing to keep me company but my thoughts and my mix-tape.  After having successfully infiltrated Chinese soil and escaped with my prized loot, I trudged across an empty parking lot mottled with craters full of ice water and slush, mountains of plowed snow rising in the distance.  As I lit the ignition on my car to head back home, this song began to play:

The timing could not have been more serendipitous.  In the midst of a calming voyage of several miles through the wilderness of East Aurora, my mood was ponderous and my thoughts were focused on the coming year and the challenges ahead.  In three weeks I would enter my final semester of college, where I would be enrolled in a few difficult classes, in charge of one of the most visible clubs on campus during its moment of glory (or disaster), and frantically searching for a career, facing grim job prospects with no luck up to that point.  I would graduate in five months without any idea where I was going from there.  Just five months into the year, I’d most likely be on my own, drifting through life desperately looking for direction and purpose.

John Darnielle is an amazing musician and lyricist, and I kept his words in my head all the way through to New Years Eve 2011 and beyond.  I aced my classes (except for one), guided Grand Marshal week to the most success it’s seen in recent years, had several job interviews during the year including an amazing two-day trip to California, graduated with honors, received a job offer from said California company, adventured across the country, settled into a new life on my own in a strange place, and at the end of 2011 things could practically not have been going any better.

I made it through, and it didn’t kill me. 🙂