And I Learn Musical Grizzly Bears Aren’t That Helpful


Carolyn Sternowski, our choir director, e-mailed me this photo. I think her husband Bob took it with a cell phone. Me at Hallmar shooting flowers.

Carolyn Sternowski, our choir director, e-mailed me this photo. I think her husband Bob took it with a cell phone. Me at Hallmar shooting flowers.

It’s mid-March, and I’m three weeks into my piano lessons. It’s also mid-March, and I just finished the longest hand-bell concert of the year.

March is the music month, apparently.

The piano lessons have been fun, but I have not yet been allowed to touch a piano. I first must learn all of the line notes, a process aided by a somewhat awkward, but functional, internet flash-card style series of exercises.

Tony, my piano teacher, says the pneumonic devices, such as “every good boy does fine” or “grizzly bears don’t frighten anybody” are not that useful, because when playing the piano, one must find the right note in a heartbeat. Tell me about it, Tony. I struggled for weeks to play the song “Ashes” on hand bells, and even with marking all of my music (something I know Tony won’t let me do with piano music so I won’t even try), it was easy to get lost. So easy. Like falling off a bike in an icy street. Like eating that fourth doughnut and giving yourself a tummy ache. Like, well, insert easy vice here. That easy.

musictheory

Screen shot of music lessons from http://www.emusictheory.com.

Anyway, I am pretty good now with reading G and A and D (bottom, top and middle) notes in the bass clef and E and F and B (same in treble). I’m just starting to try to engrave the other lines in memory, and it is a slow process. My 55-year-old brain takes some time to form new neural pathways and to make new pathways persistent.

But, I suppose that is partly the point. I don’t have ambitions to become much of a piano player, but I am learning and enjoying and hope to get to learn enough that I can at least amuse myself on the piano. As I said the lessons are going well, and with any luck, before the month is out, I will actually touch a piano.

This Sunday, I touched some bells. We had our annual concert at Hallmar, a nursing home located at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids.

It’s our biggest concert of the year. I like going there—the audience really appreciates us being there—but I mildly regret that we learn all these songs to play there and never perform them at MMU. Maybe a couple of Sundays after the Hallmar affair we should repeat the concert in the U Center—it wouldn’t hurt MMU to have a Sunday event now and then, if it’s family friendly and timed to not conflict with church services.

Anyway, about my solo—in “Ashes” I played a D, an E flat, an F, a G, an A flat, a B flat and a C flat. Those are seven bells, all in a row, all in the treble clef, which is alien territory to me. Playing a bell solo is a bit like learning a dance, I suppose, although I’ve never learned a dance so it’s a pretty poor comparison for me to use. Anyway, you have to learn a coordinated, ritualized set of moves to end up with the right bells at the right time in the correct hands.

Many things can go wrong, and in my case, do. One of the biggest issues is to put the bells down in the right place, because you probably will want to pick that bell up again later, and it’s harder to do when the bells migrate.

Another issue is “switches,” where a bell starts in one hand and you have to switch to the other, usually so that, for example, if you rang the C with your right hand, but soon need to pick up a B, you might have to ring with your right and then switch to your left to ring on the next beat. It’s not hard, but if you forget the switch, then you have a whole string of bells you’re playing in the wrong hands that you haven’t practiced with, and that’s just asking for trouble.

On Sunday, trouble came. I messed up a switch and ended up playing the whole last line of my song with the “wrong” hands. The good news is that it was the last line and I made it through, relatively well. If I had messed up in the middle of the song, there was no way I could have continued going to the end.

Or so I think. Probably that’s wrong. With enough practice and enough ability to read music, I would have found a way back from hands wandering wildly in the midst of a song.

I don’t plan to try that just to see, but I do plan to take, and am taking, piano lessons. My wife encouraged the piano lessons because she thought they would help with my bell ringing.

They probably will. It will take some time. I have to learn all those notes. I only have six so far, and four more will take me to 10, but that will only be the line notes and no spaces or sharps or flats yet.

There are many more notes to come. Still, a long journey has to start with the first step. And a baby has to crawl before she can walk or run. (Well, technically, as parents of toddlers know, no, because sometimes babies do all kind of locomotion that circumvent crawling and some never crawl much at all—but the saying still expresses a decent point).

I’m just starting to crawl. There is a lot of toddling ahead before I can walk, and in a musical sense, I’m not sure I will ever run.

But I might, if I keep at it. After all, I didn’t think I could play the final line of “We Rise Again from Ashes” with the bells in the wrong hands without missing a beat. And yet, I did.

Sunday was a pretty good day.

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