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.

Bridge and Tunnel, Reversed

I think I love my new commute.

No really.  Aside from the fact that in the evenings it’s a slippery slope from an hour to ninety minutes after 4pm, I think I have to rank the route from my home to my new office as the best commute I’ve had in my professional career so far.

It’s quite simple why, and I’ll start with my old commutes.  My first was a 15 minute drive from nowhere Central Valley to nowhere edge-of-the Central Valley, through suburban houses, farmland, and grass.  It was short, yet depressing.  Eventually I reversed that one by moving across the hills.  I saw the sunrise every morning as I drove through wind turbines.  It was better, but life wasn’t great.  That only lasted three months anyway.

Soon I was driving from the East Bay all the way across to the Peninsula.  Like my current commute, it was long and traffic-plagued.  I made the most of it, but soon grew exhausted as the winter rain fell.

When I moved yet again, my drive-time shortened, but my scenery lessened.  There was one awesome spot on I-280 where you can see the Bay and SFO quite well, however 101 is no fun.  Besides, from north and east, there’s no good way to get to Redwood Shores.  But now that’s history.

Starting as before with a view of the ocean, I now get to drive across my home city, past the beautiful, shining glass skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco — some of them are rising higher every day, including the new tallest building in the city.  I’m privileged to then head across the water on two massive bridges; bridges that I sometimes enjoy staring at just because they’re there.  After this, I twist up the eastern hills into an old, Art Deco tunnel, from which I emerge (usually) into a glorious sunrise surrounded by green, forested hills.  In the dawns following a rain, a light mist floats among the trees.  And assuming I’m actually there for sunrise, there’s basically no traffic.  The second half of my commute, distance-wise, takes around a third of the total time to drive.

The best part, however, might actually be the ride home.  In the opposite direction I snake down four sparsely populated lanes of CA-24 through these pine trees and steep hills on my way toward the ocean.  It feels secluded and natural.  Soon, I’m into the Caldecott Tunnel once again.  Whereas the two eastbound bores are the original eighty year old tunnel, the westbound lanes are newer — the third was constructed in 1964, and the fourth was just finished three years ago.  The third has some fun ripples in the pavement that make the car bounce up and down, while the fourth is refreshing in its modernity.  It’s much wider, brighter, rounder, and has periodic exhaust fans above.

Upon emergence from this side of the tunnel, one is treated to a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay that shifts and changes as the road winds downhill.  You can see Angel Island and Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge, Sutro Tower in the distance, and Oakland, a big city in its own right, all laid out before you.  At sunset, this view is particularly spectacular.  And somehow, at this point, there’s still pretty much no traffic.

Heading westbound across the Bay Bridge is one of the first things I did after my first California job interview.  I didn’t know how truly giant the two halves are until I crossed them myself.  San Francisco appears like it’s right there, yet it still takes a good fifteen minutes just to get there.  At the time I get about halfway across the eastern span, cars start to fill in and the pace of the drive slows to a crawl.  Here’s the thing, though: I really don’t think the sight of these bridges can get old, especially from this close up.  In fact, bad traffic only enhances their majesty, as it develops a greater sense of scale.  Plus, not moving allows more time to simply gaze, either at the spans themselves or the surrounding views.  That is, while not moving, because safety.

When I reach San Francisco, there’s always this fleeting feeling of appreciation.  It’s been two years now but I still can’t believe I get to live here.  It was my dream from the beginning, and every day I drive home, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be living it.

Of course, there’s one more thing my commute that I love:

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That highway right there, flagged Hwy 24, is my way in and out of the Bay.  I’m one of the moving blue pixels!  Every day I pass by Lake Temescal and Highway 13, and head up through the Caldecott Tunnel to (and past) Orinda.  Twenty-five years later, it really doesn’t look all that different.  Fire excepted.

 

Chapter Three

Today I begin at my new job, the third of my professional career.  It’s a bit funny, looking back at how my chosen path has wavered and twisted.

In the beginning, I started with a desire to work in renewable energy (specifically wind), which motivated me to study power engineering in college.  In retrospect, there are other fields of study that would certainly open more doors in that industry, but nonetheless, I ended up professionally doing just that — working in wind.  And, naturally, my use of what I learned in college was minimal.

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Nevertheless, I did what I could to steer my work in a direction that could make better (read: any) use of my education, a near impossible task given the rigidity of my former employer.  I eked out just enough relevant experience there to land the logical next step in my career: straight power engineering, still within the renewable energy industry.

Soon I was living the dream; wielding my education, developing the skills that I didn’t know I wanted to have (working two years in school only to have them idle for another two years professionally only strengthened my desire to revive them), all the while continuing my overarching desire to be in the renewable energy industry.

Solar isn’t exciting to me though.  I mean, on a primal level.  With modern wind turbines, I could gape at the tall, lumbering, mechanical beasts dotting the landscape, ceaselessly harnessing the unseen flow of air to generate electric currents.  There’s a romantic ideal found in looking upon these works.  Solar, on the other hand, just is — panels in a field; a humming inverter, and no majesty.  The greatest solar fields can only truly be marveled at when they’re looked down upon.  From the ground, there’s not much to see.

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Of course, working in solar is the opposite.  It’s excitement every day; good and bad.  Maybe it was just my company that made the industry feel so… chaotic.  A decade or two into the establishment of utility-scale photovoltaics should probably have added a bit of structure to our business, but it was what it was.  And, all things considered, I think I’m done with it.

I took somewhat of a reverse path compared to many of my peers.  Many came from engineering firms to work in renewables — I’m going the other way.  Things are going to be very different than what I’ve become used to; hopefully, in a good way.  I’m excited to get to work on what I’d spent my college career, and the latter half of my professional career, building towards, with the bonus of leaving behind the distractions of living and dying by stock prices or government tax credits, among many others.

So I’ve come full circle with my studies.  It’s a bit sad to leave direct involvement the industry, but nowadays it’s hard to avoid — more and more of those electrons will continue to be provided by renewable sources.  Everyone needs electricity.  I’m here now to make sure it gets delivered.

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