Posts that are music-ish

Finally lost inside a concert: remembering “Blessed Unrest”

It’s been 3 months and I am starting to forget. I told myself that when I started to forget, I’d write it down. I want to remember this one time I saw a concert. This is not unusual. I see concerts; I have glasses.

But this time, I listened to the concert. I had adjusted to the hearing aids I wore, and had a month before Sara Bareilles stopped at Radio City Music Hall (that link has a setlist and videos of all the songs; I wish I could put it in a box and save it forever) during her “Blessed Unrest” tour. The same time I’d be in town guest-teaching at Hacker School. So I prepared.

My mom was puzzled in September when the envelope arrived. “It’s too small for a book,” she said. “But you don’t buy CDs.” Nope, I don’t generally purchase music; what’s the point? I’m deaf. But for the next month, “The Blessed Unrest” would constantly be on, whenever I could stand it — this is what aural training is. You listen to noise, over and over, until it turns into music. I was determined to go to the concert and understand it, not just feel the drumbeats and muddily hear the bass.

So I memorized the lyrics, and I played the songs on 2.5-hour loops driving between grad school and Illinois; hearing aids on, volume as loud as the minivan speakers could possibly blast them, ripping my hearing aids out when I was driven mad by all the sounds I didn’t understand, putting them in again. Repeat.

It took a while to realize the scratchy sounds at the beginning of “Brave” were probably piano chords; when I did, I took apart the bass line in order to guess at what chords the piano was playing, and held my memory of what those chords should sound like on a piano in a quiet room against the skrt!-skrt!-skrt! faintly echoing behind Sara’s voice, until the scratches and my memories could blend enough that she was singing over something that was music.

I’m used to this. It’s how I learned pieces when I was younger, doing piano competitions and accompanying choirs and playing cello in orchestras and keyboard in my (short-lived) college band; read scores over and over until you have the music in your head, your mind mentally playing every part. Rehearse, hope you don’t piss off all your bandmates. Hope that the occasional faint strains you hear during performance are enough to stitch the real music to the soundscape in your head. I had a perfect simulated orchestra inside my mind, when what I really wanted was to hear the out-of-tune fumbles of the real one I played in.

Hours of that single CD inside the car, at my computer, in the kitchen. The cymbals thwacking over “Little Black Dress” drove me mad. Listen over and over until you can at least predict them even if the sounds still don’t make sense, and you can listen to the whole song, pay attention to the other sounds in it; a coping strategy.

And so on. There were easy parts, small bits of songs I would immediately fall in love with — the kick drum on “Chasing the Sun” sounds like a literal heartbeat under the lyrics of a cemetery in Queens — and lyrics that annoyed me when I learned them: “1000 Times” is basically “The Doormat Song,” and I groaned when I discovered my favorite song was actually titled “I Choose You” (of course it had to be the sappiest title on the album — but boy, does it sound fantastic!). I started out enjoying “Little Black Dress” but after weeks of listening to “here is how you get over a breakup!” lyrics the snappy polka chords started to grate on me. Also, the cymbals.

After a month, I could listen to the entire album at one go and felt like I understood it — could tell when guitars would start, knew how bass lines went, sort of sometimes heard the piano. I started branching out to other Sara Bareilles albums; I’ve got “Between the Lines: Sara Bareilles Live at the Fillmore” which has awesome pieces and confusing silences and background noises. (Later on I realized the silences were quiet playing or applause. And that the roar of static that crackled through several songs? That’s people cheering. They do that at concerts. But I didn’t make the connection.)

And then the concert.

I don’t know how to write the concert. No matter what I put down here, it’s never going to match the feeling of hearing a concert — hearing, understanding, making sense of, not just slamming through a loud noise. How do I write down what this meant to me? I’m a musician, love music, love music — and I settled for this crappy thing that wasn’t worth going to concerts for. I had settled for this crappy thing, and didn’t go to concerts. When you’re deaf young enough and long enough, you figure this is all there is and all you’re going to get, and then you get hearing aids and sopranos show up on the radio and you start crying in the middle of the highway. You know?

No, you probably don’t know. That’s fine. I’m writing this for future-Mel because she knows — I know — and now we won’t forget.

The pre-concert was a rough time for me. I’m sure they’re a fantastic band, but this — I didn’t do aural training for their pieces, so it was all lights and noise and just too much, and rather than shut down and snap away inside my mind (because I’m learning not to do that; it’s a bad survival habit that I’m kicking) I ended up just stepping out into the lobby, wondering if I could make it through the actual concert. Because when you’ve counted on watching the hands and fingers of the musicians in order to match the realtime noises with the songs you’ve burned into your head, having colorful photons shunted into your face makes that… well, harder. Duck, because the light will blind you, and when you’re blind, you’re really deaf; you miss a second or two of the music, have to figure out where to pick up again.

But then she walked onto the stage, and people screamed and hearing aids were loud, and then — and then —  ”Chasing the Sun” started to play with that familiar kick-drum heartbeat I could latch onto, and there were sounds, and then my brain went yes, I know this song, and from my memory the gaps — the script — started to fill in, flesh out, make sense, and –

This is why people go to concerts, right? Because you lose yourself inside the music. You can actually immerse and swim in it, in all its detail, all this sound that swirls around and embraces, a million different things at once in harmony, and – and it doesn’t hurt. You’re inside it, not outside trying to get in, not standing there trying to imagine a Van Gogh from stick figures and a blurry photocopy.

And when they go off-script, you follow. During “Manhattan,” when the double bass and twin cellos took up the thread of harmony between the lyrics, it sounded so right – the auditory equivalent of thick purple velvet winding between threads of leather, the fragrance of a rich red wine — the I was surprised during post-concert CD listening to find there were no strings on the track. Whatever instrument carried the harmonies there, I’d learned it well enough to transfer to the strings during the concert. Inside the music, headed wherever it was going. Along with everybody else. Not an outsider in the concert hall.

I repeat myself and grow verbose and incoherent. That’s okay here.

She covered “The Way You Look Tonight” — which thankfully, I knew because my parents go for Frank Sinatra music. Well, mostly knew. The melody, a couple of the words; enough. I’m a sucker for jazz piano, and this was it — the instrumental, and the vocals, the tune that soars into the lyrics up and up on “There is nothing for it / but to love you / and the way you look tonight.” It’s music! Listen! Scratchy now, but patch that in your head with how the music must have sounded in that hall; patch it inside your mind the way I do, with memories and fabrications of how music should sound — I felt like I was soaring up there with that song.

Okay. The concert ended with my least favorite song (“Eden”) and then another not-really-favorite-song (“Once Upon Another Time”), but look; I don’t care.


Marathon of self-imposed aural rehab: worth it. Everything: worth it. Music. Like a universe unfolding and enfolding you within it; like a door you’ve knocked on, like a window you’ve peered through, finally opening and bringing you into a warm hall lit with fellowship and firelight; a wider world beyond my earlier capacity to imagine.

Months before I even knew this concert existed, Abbee asked me to explain how heaven worked. I’m not sure where my answer came from, but I told her it was like a concert; you’re deep inside the music you’ve been listening to on CDs and playing badly on guitar your whole life, except now the original band is playing, and you’re in the middle of it singing along, and your friends are right there lost in the music, right beside you. “Disclaimer,” I told Abbee. “This is from a deaf girl who has never really done that at a concert, but I imagine it’s something like that. The concert, I mean. Dunno about the heaven part.”

I can’t write this, really. I’m beginning to forget. But after the studying and listening and all those hours of preparing, and how that folded into the concert — and the being in the concert — I think… yes. That explanation, that poor pale analogy of heaven — works for me. I don’t know how long the concert was, but it was time that stopped, and time within which my faded little world of music — for a tiny little while — exploded.

There. Remembering. Grateful I have that memory to remember.

PyCon signal processing workshop materials

Here are the materials from my PyCon 2013 tutorial, Digital signal processing through speech, hearing, and Python.

Original description:

Why do pianos sound different from guitars? How can we visualize how deafness affects a child’s speech? These are signal processing questions, traditionally tackled only by upper-level engineering students with MATLAB and differential equations; we’re going to do it with algebra and basic Python skills. Based on a signal processing class for audiology graduate students, taught by a deaf musician.

I’ve pulled the code snippets and some graphs into the slides so that you can walk through the entire thing by working through the slide deck (below). You can also find all the code (with many inline comments, and some more details that didn’t get into the slides) on github.

Tutorial attendees will note that the vocoder demo is still forthcoming — I’ll make a blog post when that’s up and update this post to link to the vocoder demo when the time comes.

Weekend jam: my song choice

Going further down the road of music masochism, I made my pick for this weekend’s bluesy-rock jam session with DJ and Ginneh. Here it is.

“Change the World” by Eric Clapton – now, we’re not going to go nearly as ninja on it as his group is here, but the potential for coolness of bass line and vocal harmony is definitely there along with a relatively simple chord structure that’s certainly attainable as a first-time song. In my utterly uninformed, wild-guess-estimate opinion. I may be proven wildly wrong when we start playing this weekend.

This song pending +1 approval from the rest of the crew, of course. I’m looking forward to seeing what songs the others pick. If we get another rhythm section player and I fix my busted electronic drum kit, I might be putting myself through a percussion crash course (pun intended) and playing that instead of piano/guitar on a song or two on Saturday.

I think it is relatively safe to say at this point that music is my sprinting for the month of February. I’m going from “what is this?” on the guitar to “ooo, let’s arrange some fingerstyle pieces, this is fun.” (Without ever learning proper chords, too – but I’ll fill them in later.)


Blackbird: now with less suck

Huh. Comparing guitar practice recordings, I am now confidently able to say I’ve gotten better at playing “Blackbird” in the meantime.

For comparison, here’s the first attempt about a week ago.

All right, I’m still slipping up in little places, my picking is quite uneven… but I’m able to recover from mistakes inline, and my right hand isn’t going “AAH PANIC WHERE TO GO NOW?” any more.

I haz win. Also, I haz learned new barre chord last night, except I do not know what it’s called. I’m sure I’ll find its name at some point, but for now, I will think of it as the thing that enables me to play “Rodeo Clowns.”

Piano experiments: “The nearness of you” (take 1)

A few of the things I’m working on involve (1) being less nervous while I’m being recorded, and (2) playing around with music. In order to kill multiple birds with one stone, I’m recording practice sessions without worrying about whether something’s ”good” or not, and if it sounds recognizably like the song I’m trying to play and I can tolerate listening to it, up it goes.

This is sort of a “release early relase often” thing – this way I can actually get a better snapshot of how I play on a “normal” basis (not for any special event or without particular practice) and improve that. (I no longer want to play for competitions – I did that all the way through my childhood, stopped cold in 8th grade, and have no desire to have that sort of “LET’S ALL FREAK OUT ABOUT BEING PERFECT NOW!” experience again.)

So. You’ve seen a bit of guitar stuff from my “it is late and I am bored” time on the road in Raleigh last week. This afternoon, I felt like noodling around with this particular piece, “The Nearness Of You” (I’d been listening to the Norah Jones version and going “yeah, I could do that” – then found the sheet music in my aunt’s house). I simply sat down and started playing, using the music as a rough fakebook and improvising slightly from there. No practice, no warmup, just sightreading and throwing in some stuff on the fly.

I have a few false starts here – the reasonable all-the-way-through take starts at about 27 seconds in.

My analysis:

  • This is a typical Mel habit: take a nice, gentle ballad with some flowing passages, sit down, and go AHAHA! I will play it VERY FAST! It might be better if I consciously tried to slow down throughout the piece, take more care with thinking ahead of what I’m going to play instead of splaying my fingers out where they will, haphazard.
  • I don’t have the chords memorized, but it wouldn’t be difficult to do so – this is a very simple harmonic structure. That might free me up to do interesting things that aren’t page turns.
  • One thing I wouldn’t have been able to do a year ago is get past mistakes and keep going while staying on beat. It’s an old bad habit from classical piano I’ve been pushing myself past – instead of stopping cold and refingering it until the notes are exactly right, I move on with life. This means I’ve started making a lot more mistakes, yes (in the two-steps-forward-one-step-back vein) but it also means I’m better at coping with them. The sections at approximately 2:15, 2:25, and 2:37 are reasonable examples of this.
  • As is the entire ending. Which sucks (it’s a “uh… CHORDS GO HERE and um um um OCTAVE AT THE BOTTOM DONE!” sort of thing). And which I’d probably work on if I were going to work on this piece more.
  • Mechanics: I’m not unhappy with the way my hands are moving (the fingers seem reasonably economical in their articulation to me, especially since I was deliberately not paying attention to their sloppiness), but good grief my torso movement is ridiculous.
  • I don’t handle the inline page turns too badly – sightreading for the win!
  • …but really, I shouldn’t rush this much. I have this chronic inability to slow down in just about any area of my life, so… more slow ballads, more metronome. And MORE COWBELL! (just kidding.)

Early guitar releases

One of the things I’ve been starting to do while traveling is take a portable instrument with me. I’ve got two – a travel acoustic guitar and a travel 5-string fretless electric bass. And I’ve been teaching myself both. Slowly. From scratch. With no idea what I’m doing.

In the tradition of “release early release often,” I submit my first attempts at playing the guitar that resemble a recognizable song. Behold the crappiness! (If you actually like these songs and do not wish to see them butchered, do not play the videos below.)

The first song is “Blackbird,” by the Beatles.

And the second is “Diamonds and Rust,” by Joan Baez.

I learned both songs by watching the fingers of high school friends playing them, then eventually asking them to do portions of it slowly so I could watch, then hand me the guitar so I could imitate. Not long after this, they taught me to read tab notation. I memorized both songs, and then proceeded to go to college and not borrow a guitar for five years.

Every time I pick up my guitar, I try to get a little better at something. Maybe it’s just switching between the F and G7 chords. Maybe it’s having a less awkward pull-off in that one section of “Diamonds and Rust.” Maybe it won’t last into the next practice section, but maybe it will.

Learning is fun. Learning to learn is also fun. I’m context-switching between emails, guitar, and reading gstreamer tutorials tonight – and will continue to do so until interrupted by a trip to Waffle House. Life is good.

Piano practicing on the road

In short: how do you do it?

The frequency at which I travel has begun to rise, and while I’ve got plenty I could do with ear training and mental practice, there’s also the simple fact that muscles do atrophy, and if I’m to work on and maintain my physical technique at all, there’s got to be a way to do it.

I’ve taken to drumming Hanon patterns with my fingertips on the bus window, dinner table, and other random surfaces. I have an ear training book that I’m (very slowly and painfully) working through, and am thinking about one of those “yes, you too can have perfect pitch” training programs (which I’ve heard… mixed things about, but am willing to try). I could certainly try to spend a few evenings in jazz clubs while I’m on the road, soaking up some listening. I could also bring a portable instrument (for instance, take my guitar along) or try to find pianos where I am.

This seems to boil down to three questions:

  1. How can I improve on the piano without access to any instruments?
  2. How can I access a piano while traveling?
  3. How much would working on another (portable) instrument – likely guitar or bass – help my jazz piano studies?

Any suggestions or leads would be awesome.

Scripting my piano routine

Adding a music category, since I seem to be doing a lot of those posts lately.

This week’s piano successes are in large part due to my realization that, due to years of conditioned habit, my brain turns off when I sit down at the keyboard. All I do is run through a script – usually a script that some dead classical composer had written, “hit these notes at these times” (and now stuff like “play this scale”). While I was in Raleigh and didn’t have a keyboard, I sat down with my music and a notebook in the evenings and thought through the piece, actually imagining my fingers running through it, what kinds of sounds that might make. (It’s difficult; I can’t hold all that in my head yet for anything but the simplest scales and arpeggios. Not even all the chords.)

Slowing that down made my actions dissolve into components, and I realized that I was taking and re-running these components in my head as a way to think about the piece, to learn it mentally – and to help that, I started writing them down – and before I knew it, I had a sequence of instructions that described what seemed like not-a-bad-practice-routine in pretty decent detail.

So when I got back to Boston, I took that script and sat down at the keyboard. Predictably, my brain turned off and started going into automaton mode. But this time, it was going through my script. And it worked! I’m going to keep scripting myself in advance of sitting down at the piano until I get comfortable enough to improvise how-to-practice on the fly.

Interesting things I tried this week:

  1. Wearing hearing aids while practicing. This is annoying, but I can at least tolerate it longer now. I go back and forth… it seems like some days my brain can process the additional weird sounds better than others. This makes me extremely curious about the cognitive basis behind retraining people to accept things like hearing aids and cochlear implants. I want to hear and understand cymbals darn it.
  2. Ear training. (This isn’t as new. I have walked down the street randomly humming tritones before.)
  3. Making my own play-along tracks for exercises, not just for songs. I’d press record, hit a sequence of notes, then play the recording back while trying to hit the thirds (or fifths or flat thirds or whatever) of those notes in time. My goal is to, when someone shouts “dominant 7 of Eb!” to immediately whack a Db without having to think or pause or count the intervals.
  4. Time-delay echoing tracks I’m hearing. Matt Ritter listens to strange Indian/techno/repetitive-in-general music, and one time when I was bored I started to play along with it, adding subsequent tracks to my hands as I figured them out – direct from ear to piano, which I haven’t done a lot of before. It was fun. I want to do it again.

Things I probably should have tried but didn’t and therefore will this week:

  1. Using a metronome. (Kevin pulled this one on me the other day when I was strutting my “and now I can play things!” results, and I was duly humbled by my inability to do so while keeping a steady beat.)

Watching videos of my lesson this week (I discovered that with my visual learning style, filming > audio recording) I was also struck by the difference between Kevin’s arms when he played and mine; his wrists slide levelly back and forth while mine flop up and down on each note. (And yes, I still throw my elbow out when passing my thumb.) I’ll have to figure out some things to try to give me feedback on those things this week. Maybe I’ll try playing with wrist braces on at some point just to see what happens, or belt my elbow to my ribs so I’m forced to bend from the hip joint instead of splaying out my elbow (and consequently, shoulder blade).

Temporary awkwardness leads to greater skill! (Well, that’s what I tell myself. And that even if awkwardness is over a decade in the making, it’s still a temporary thing and I’ll get over it because I’m working on it. Optimism and long-term visions tend to go well together…)

Cool Kevin Shortcut Of The Week: We’d previously talked about how a dominant 7th chord can be replaced by the diminished chord of the major third above it (so C7 can be replaced by Edim). So when going from a minor 7th to the dominant 7th up a fourth, you can instead go from the minor 7th to the diminished chord down a minor third (so D-7, instead of going to G7, goes to Bdim). Figuring out the intervals and fingerings for this made my head spin until Kevin pointed out that the inversion of the diminished chord was actually just moving the top 2 notes of your minor 7th chord down a half-step. My playing of Meditacao immediately improved upon the pointing-out of that particular isomorphism.

This is the kind of thing that works better in a video. Forthcoming. Edit: here you go.

What it sounds like to hear like Mel


After some exercises that resolved into increasingly dissonant (to me) chords (“you have to get used to it,” said Kevin), I mentioned the Other Reason I started learning jazz piano months ago; the type of cognitive dissonance it gives me feels like the same kind of mental pain I get when I put on my hearing aids, and maybe by learning how to deal with one, I can better deal with the other. He was intrigued. Now I’m trying to find better ways to explain the relationship between my piano-playing and my listening, and how my hearing affects that, because I’ve discovered that my explanations only actually work well for engineers (“so imagine a filter that looks like this…”).

I will someday have to make better, custom-fit recordings of this sort of thing, but here are some sound files from Phonak and a bunch of mp3s . I have a severe high-frequency sensorineural loss that’s noticeably worse than the “moderate” loss displayed by Phonak (as far as I can tell by eyeballing the audiogram), and I can’t hear the 2000Hz sample (and higher) with my laptop speakers cranked all the way up (…not saying much, I know), and beyond that I’m not sure how to give others a good gauge for this, because I’m locked inside my own head, my own cochlea.

Incidentally, when I listen to the samples from both sites, I don’t notice any difference in sound quality – only volume. I hear all the same noises, as far as I can tell. They’re just softer. So I’m curious to hear what sounds disappear, reappear, transform, pop out, or otherwise sound different to you folks with normal hearing. I’ll also note that I’m listening to these on laptop speakers, not exactly known for their range and quality of audio reproduction.

Yeah, I’m spiral-learning on this. A lot. Forgive my repetition; these are as much for my present self to make sense of the world as they are for my future self to look back on what I used to wonder.

Scales and arpeggios

“What have you been working on this week?”

“Arpeggios.” I sit at the piano, bright yellow t-shirt slightly sticky from the rain.

“All right, let’s hear them. On the grid, diminished.” I begin a clumsy two-handed dance up and down, tangle the notes, and stop. “Um, I’ve, um, mostly been doing them with one hand, mostly in the up direction.”

“Ok, show me how you practiced then.” My right hand stretches out over a major C chord, soaring up, teetering on the third finger – and then my thumb sledgehammers sideways into the second octave, slamming my right elbow out as it goes. Da-da-da… WHAM-da-da… WHAM-da-da.. WHAM-da-da… a neglected pinky grasps tenously at a high C, and then it’s back down, third finger limping over the thumb. Da-da-daWHAMSPLAT-da-daWHAMSPLAT-da-daWHAMSPLAT.

We agree that teaching me how to work out fingerings for these might be a good idea.

I have a decent-sized classical repertoire… which all came pre-notated with fingerings. All I can do is cheat on pieces with fingerings requiring larger-than-Mel hands. So trying out chord inversions to experiment with different places to pass my thumb under is something new to me.

“When I play arpeggios,” says Kevin, running up and down the keyboard with a grace and ease I envy, “I try to move my elbow as little as possible. Especially when you’re playing fast, you get that extra millisecond.” My elbow continues to fly up, pinning my shoulder blade towards my ear. I grab my right elbow with my left hand and fight it as I crawl up and down on the diminished Eb, grimacing in concentration. After a while, it feels less awkward. I let go of my elbow, and my hand flies smoothly down the keyboard, starts upwards again, and rockets my elbow up to the ceiling. I mutter under my breath and grab it again.

After nearly an entire hour of working clumsily through fingerings for all the different arpeggios, I have a lot of notes and an intellectual understanding of what my hands and arms ought to be doing. The muscle memory is slower to arrive. (Keep your fingers close to the keys when passing your thumb. Turn on black keys with your 4th finger, not your 5th. Play them evenly spaced; don’t accent every third note. And so on.) It’s practice time for me. I’ll have to listen to plenty of Art Tatum for motivation. (Or maybe if I start going “CURSE YOU ART TATUM!!!” I’ll go back to listening to Monk.) This setting of muscle memory isn’t my favorite kind of work – I prefer the crazy intellectual “ooOOo, it’s math!” theory, but that’s also the imbalance that I’m trying to fix; less overthinking, more playing. And I have to learn how to love the plateau, and how to love the fundamentals.

Besides, there’s no way I’m ever going to play “Groovin’ High” at more than a poky tempo if I don’t get fingerings worked out. My current ad-hoc method involves fingers slipping and smashing into keys like panicky overgrown colts in inflatable sumo wrestler suits on a buttered ice rink and 10% more notes sounding than should actually be played. So… progress gauge: I have one.

This is fun.

In other news, I have to figure out how to get a rental car from the airport when I get to Raleigh on the 25th. I’ve never had a rental car before. (I didn’t think I was even old enough to drive a rental; apparently I was mistaken.) This will be an interesting adventure! I even get to stay at a hotel for a week! *is excited* Yes, I realize the glow of travel may wear off if I start doing it 200 days a year, but while it’s novel, I am darn well going to enjoy this.