Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I think I've been getting pretty good at learning to play songs by ear. Last night I figured out how to play the melody for "It is Well with my Soul" in about twenty minutes, adding it to a rapidly growing repertoire that also includes the recapitulation from the "Phantom of the Opera" title track, "Clementine," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Michael," "How Great Thou Art," "Amazing Grace," "Holy, Holy, Holy" and some less notable ditties like "Popeye" and childhood standards like "Row Your Boat," which I can play in three different keys. (Plus that pinnacle of praise music, "Majesty.")

I'm under no illusions that I'm a great -- or even a merely good -- pianist, but I'm pretty pleased with my progress. At the moment I'm pretty much just playing the straight melody line of these songs, sans left hand, sans chords. I still hit the wrong key at times because my hands aren't familiar enough with the keyboard; and of course I'm rearranging almost all the songs to start with C natural because I'm playing by ear and haven't a clue how to read sheet music for the piano. I'm not even sure I can play it on the tuba anymore, and that's an instrument I played for six years.

More dextrous fingers will come with experience. Chords and a clue about what to do with my left hand should come with the next few lessons. But considering I've been tinkering with it for only a couple months, I think it's pretty good that I can figure out a new song in about twenty minutes and still play it right the next morning. And I've done all this without spending six months of music lessons playing nothing but those frigging scales.

One thing I've started to notice that I don't think I ever picked up when I played tuba -- perhaps because the tuba almost never gets the melody -- is the relationship between a note and the notes that precede and follow it. I don't know if I can explain it, but there's a definite flow to the music in one- and two-steps between the notes. Many of the songs I've figured out how to play literally go up and down the scales one step at a time for several notes, stay in the same octave the entire time, and so on. It's almost mathematical. (The exception is Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" score, but that's not surprising, considering it's more of a concert piece, for professional musicians, than something most people are going to sing every week at church or with friends.)

The double irony here is that I took up the piano pretty much as a way of encouraging Evangeline, and she's lost most of her interest in it. She had been keyed up to learn piano, so I talked with a friend who agreed to teach her how to teach herself, and his first lesson was so simple and straightforward that I realized I probably could teach myself too. Now I'm playing it almost every day, and she's barely touching it.

Still, I figure if I keep this up, it's likely to rekindle her interest, and it likely will grab Rachel's interest as well. And isn't that how knowledge and skills are supposed to be passed on, from parent to child?

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