Tag Archives: Piano

To My Piano Teacher: Thanks So Much, TTFN

Someone donated this piano to MMU. It's in the lobby of Busse Library. I practiced at it once and felt very conspicuous.

Someone donated this piano to MMU. It’s in the lobby of Busse Library. I practiced at it once and felt very conspicuous.

I had a piano lesson scheduled this afternoon, but it conflicted with a Scholarship Day event I wanted to attend.

I could have rescheduled. But my year of living on the keyboard is drawing to an end, and I’m afraid the stress of the last few weeks of the semester wouldn’t give me much focus. Although it would be fun to continue, I knew I was stalling. My wife had agreed to a year of lessons, and I’m in my 13th month. So instead of rescheduling, I thought the time was right, with the end of the month looming, to face the music, or turn away from it, so to speak. My four seasons of piano lessons have come and gone.

You can’t learn to play the piano in a year, not if you are living any kind of other busy life or are not unusually blessed with some special musical gift (and I am not). But I do think the year of studying piano has taught me some lessons. Partly, I’m sure, humility and added respect for people who can pick out a tune.

I’m also a bit better at hand bells than I was—my timing and knowledge of other notes besides G and A have improved my bell playing.

Another view of the Busse piano.

Another view of the Busse piano.

My piano teacher, the gentleman who provides lessons to MMU students, was kind, patient and very instructive. I appreciate his insightful ability to make suggestions that would help an old dog like me learn a few new tricks.

If you are an MMU student or know some people who are, and you or they wonder if piano lessons are worth the time and cost, I would say “yes.” You’re far better off learning a bit while you’re young, rather than waiting, as I did, until my fifth decade. And you could not ask for a nicer teacher.

Well, I hope I’ve given my brain a good workout. I worry that all my keyboard knowledge will quickly atrophy, and I’m hoping it’s in the stars for me to again tickle the ivories in the future. I still have my mother’s piano, and it’s been good to have it make some noise. In a few years, if I had stuck with it and if I also had that piano tuned and fixed, I suppose “noise” might have turned into music.

Maybe it still will but just not now. Now is time to buckle down and battle my way to the end of another busy spring semester, and then start thinking about next year, which includes yet another fall faculty series.

Well, thanks, Tony, for all your help this year. I enjoyed our conversations almost more than the lessons, and even the lessons, which felt now and then like they were melting my brain, were fun.

So we fade out, trail off; let that note softly fall silent. Only for now, I hope.

Final look.

Final look.


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I Can Almost Play Just One Song


Detail of piano in our basement. It dates from about 1973 or so. My kids very briefly took lessons using this piano, and now it’s my practice piano.

Music update: I started piano lessons in March, studying with Mount Mercy’s own Tony Nickle.

How is it going? Well, I know very little about music, so for the first month I was pretty much just learning notes. Can’t say I can read them instantly—I probably need to go online and practice more—but I can figure them out.

Ebony and ivory together.

Ebony and ivory together.

Next came learning where the notes are on the piano keyboard. Tony said that would be easier than learning the notes on the musical staffs, and I guess he’s right.

Finally, I started practicing playing. I’ve played a total of three tunes so far, rather badly and slowly. The first two didn’t really sound like music to me, but Tony assured me I was making progress. Now, on tune number three, while it’s getting to be a bit of an earworm by now (I’ve been on it for about a month), it does at least sound a bit like music to my ears. I’ll post a sample. You’ll be underwhelmed. Trust me, it’s progress.

Frankly, I’m not displeased at all. It took me a long time to learn just G and A in the bass clef for my bell choir, so the slow pace of learning—while not what I would like—is not a surprise. And I don’t have hours to practice. I thought I would practice more when summer came, but so far summer has been passing in a busy haze.

Still, I can read music, a bit. I understand the notes, a little. I can’t read fast enough to play well, I hesitate a lot, but I’m learning something new.

And my mother’s piano, which was purchased in the early 1970s when we lived in the rental house on Kindler Avenue, and which was damaged in a move and also went through the fire in the Third Street house, is making music again. Sort of.

Give me time.

I don’t have any ambitions in taking piano lessons, other than self enrichment. My wife suggested I do it because she thought it would help me in the bell ensemble, and I suppose she’s right.

So far so good. I don’t exactly have the music in me yet, but I’m trying.

On the topic of music, here is a highlights video of the MMU bell choir at the hooding ceremony in May. I had to run up to the camera, start it, and run back to my place, and sadly no one was there to pan, so you don’t even see the full choir. For me, I enjoy the video because I don’t actually hear what we sound like when I’m playing—my own bells are too loud and drown out the tune.

I think we sound nice. Much better than a very novice student piano player, wouldn’t you agree?

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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.


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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Dim Memories From The ‘Erie Canal’ Era

You know what?

I’ve got an old mule, and as fate would have it, her name is Sal. She’s a good old worker, and a good old pal.

Besides that disjointed snatch of lyrics, I think the 1890s hit “Daisy Bell,” about the bicycle built for two, comes close to being the total of my elementary school musical background.

I didn’t do band or sing in the choir in my youthful academic days, and I only took up my first musical instrument (the G and A handbells in the bass clef) very recently, as in, I was already north of 50. But, I’ve been exchanging some e-mails with the piano teacher at MMU. As I noted in my blog earlier, I plan to start piano lessons this year. Well, it looks like it will happen.

The tentative launch date is early March–I could begin in February, but with a new semester and the ICMA convention, I just though maybe March would work better.

In the latest of his e-mails to me, Tony the piano guy asked, in a sort of off-hand, too casual, “God I hope so” way, whether I could read notes in both the treble and bass clefs.

I like the way he phrased the question, as if it would be a given that, of course, I could read oe_to_fne or the other.

That would be “no.” And “no.” I read four notes in the bass clef only: the high G, high A, G flat, A sharp. And I get easily confused about the flats and sharps (or tears and spiders, as I like to think of them) and want to dope slap the genius who decided flats and sharps aren’t confusing enough for aging musical novices: “Lets give each of thosegbdfe notes two names. Bwa Ha Ha Ha!”

Anyway, I honestly answered back that I only read two notes. He hasn’t responded to that piece of cheery news. But some ancient memory from the Erie Canal era bubbled to the surface, and I came face to face with FACE. And was a good enough boy to recall that Every Good Boy Does Fine. In other words, I recall mnemonic devices learned, for some reason, in elementary school music class. FACEface, read from down to up, are the space notes in the treble clef. EGBDF—Every Good Boy Does Fine—are the notes on the lines, bottom to top.

Recalling that ancient bit of lore, that merry musical mnemonic trick from 4th grade, doesn’t mean that I read music, but at least I have a starting point to jiggle my neurons in the treble region. The irony is that the only musical notes I truly do read now are upper G and A in the bass zone.

There, in the bass, the notes are AECG for spaces and GBDFA for lines.aceg

What do I try as a mnemonic to recall the bass clef notes? “An Egg Creates Gas?” “All Elephants Cry Gaily?” “Asphalt Extracts Concrete Governments?” What about the lines? “Gall Bladders Dogbdfan’t Fart Aromas?” “Good Bouncers Do Fight Anytime?” “Great Buddies Deny Feverish Antiquity?”

Help me out, blog pals. If you, unlike me, went beyond Erie Canal in your musical education, how did you remember what all those quick dots on the bass lines and spaces mean? March will be coming soon, and I have a sneakig_to_ang suspicion that learning the notes might be an early part of this whole piano thingy.


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Be It Resolved in 2011:

OK, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s itself is arbitrary (I was disappointed that Vietnam began to celebrate the western New Year this year—that country is on the lunar calendar and usually celebrate a completely different date, which is fine with me).

I guess I’ll accept, however, that the concept of “year” is a natural and useful one, and even if New Year’s Day is a totally arbitrary date, it’s still an opportunity to look back, look forward and think about change.

What does Joe resolve in 2011? Let’s see:

• I resolve to enjoy more travel with Audrey. We got a good start in 2010—little trips to Omaha and Kansas City went well, Jon’s wedding in Puerto Rico was our biggest adventure in years. To be honest, I can be a stressed, grumpy travel companion, but when I relax and let myself “go with it,” I like seeing new places and people very much. We’re going to England in 2011—not exactly the dark side of the moon, but another sign that Audrey and I are getting to be more of a travelling couple. Since we are making more journeys anyway, my resolution is approach them with an attitude that makes them as mutually pleasurable an experience as I can. In 2010, we got our passports. In 2011 we finally start to use them. Fun be the journey.

• I resolve to make healthy lifestyle changes. I could articulate this goal as a 10 or 15 point weight loss, but one of the reasons that I naturally distrust New Year’s resolutions is that such a goal is both common and not commonly achieved. But I’m 52, I have marginally high blood pressure, I weight over 245 pounds and it is time for some changes. Rather than state the weight loss as the goal (even though it is), I want to focus on the steps. What life changes can I make that will result in weight loss? Well … 1) The law of seconds. Supper is one of the most dangerous meals for me, it’s often home cooked, yummy and I’m very hungry by the time it comes around. My “law of seconds” is an attempt to make a personal, enforceable rule that will reduce my calorie intake at my largest meal of the day—simply put, I can pick only one meal item to have seconds of, and the second portion can never exceed the first. 2) Related rule. No more than 2 treats at any Mount Mercy event. The law of seconds does not apply to Club Friday—only one time through the line from now on. I can have 2 cookies or 2 servings of whatever at a faculty meeting but no more. (I’m trying to remember a easily enforceable number that will help me make healthier eating choices while avoiding the “D” word—can you guess the number?) 3) I’ll change up and add to my exercise regime by starting to use some weights at the gym and by jogging at least 3 times a week when the weather allows. Before the weather allows, I will use my Nordic Track at least 3 times a week for 20 minutes each time.

• I resolve to resume some self-study that I’ve been neglecting. I started months ago to read a “How to Play the Piano” book, but have let that fall aside. I’ll try to get back on track by making myself work at it for 25 minutes 3 times a week. I also have neglected estudiar español, and intend leer dos libros en este ano para practicar mas. By the way, Word caught on that I was typing in Spanish, so now it’s marking all my English words as spelled incorrectly. When I punctuated with a period, it switched back. Interesting.

• I resolved to continue enjoying my minor photography hobby. It’s been a good creative outlet in 2010, and photographing my own plants is a way to enjoy my own gardens—the point of having a garden. Sorry, blog fans, if you’re bored by flower photos, this won’t be your favorite blog in 2011—but you probably already know that!

Well, that seems like a daunting enough list for me. We’ll see, looking back in 2012, how it goes. I hope for all of you is that you have a positive attitude, good fortune in 2011 and a happy new year.

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The bells, the bells, the bells …

Bell Poster

The poster I created to promote our Mass on Sunday. Note that the bells shown are G and A. Guess what I play?

Do you like the poster design? I’m kinda proud of it, I did it in a few minutes this week to publicize the Mount Mercy Bell Choir participating in Sunday Mass on Jan. 24. I am not familiar with this particular Bob Dylan song I am quoting, but yes, it is “that” Bob Dylan, the one who should never sing Christmas songs.

Y’all are invited.

After the fact Fr. Nick e-mailed me to let me know that “performance” is not a good verb since music is part of the liturgy and not really entertainment. Point taken, although the posters have already been printed, and he’s a cool guy, was just glad someone did something to try to get people to Mass.

Anyway, I’ve been in the MMC chimes choir since January of last year, and this January we put down our chimes and picked up bells.

It’s been an interesting learning experience. Music is pretty darn complex. It’s taken me a year to memorize that G is my left hand and A is my right hand, and G and A in the bass clef are the only two notes I know (I guess 3, if you count my sharp and flat). I’ve been marking our songs, writing an A or G under each of my notes, and Carolyn, our director, wanted me to try to sight read this January.

It was a disaster. The notes are just too darn fast and small for my middle-aged eyes and brain. Yes, I can “read” notes, as long as it’s only the A and G on the bass clef, but I can’t read as fast as the choir plays. If I have not marked my notes in advance, I quickly get lost (and I’m too prone to getting lost anyway).

Not me.  If I wear a watch (rarely do) it's on my right hand because I'm a southpaw.  And I have an old brown Yamaha, not whatever fancy pants black piano is shown.  This was just an imaged labeled for free use ...

Not me. If I wear a watch (rarely do) it's on my right hand because I'm a southpaw. And I have an old brown Yamaha, not whatever fancy pants black piano is shown. This was just an imaged labeled for free use ...

Anyway, since I inherited my mother’s old out-of-tune piano, I’ve started working on a “How to Play Piano” text book, mostly to learn more notes and how to read them. I’m only on lesson one right how, but promise I will practice more tomorrow night (not tonight, because tonight it’s bowling on an MMC team and then Project Runway—Thursday is our one night of TV and includes The Office, 30 Rock and PR. By the way, I think 30 Rock may be one of the best under-watched shows on TV.)

There are other bell issues I face. My G bell has a “wandering” clapper. The clapper has different settings, a soft setting and two loud settings that you adjust by “clicking” a dial from one setting to another. But my bell clapper, while I’m playing, mind you, will “unclick” and end up between settings, which leads to a horrible “claaaaaang” instead of a nice clear G.

Carolyn, and her husband Bob, both experienced bellers, have tried to figure it out and have contacted the bell maker. Apparently, I’ve caused a new unheard of problem—“Sheller Syndrome?”—that involves a mysteriously mischievous clapper.

Lucky me.

So, how have I enjoyed the year struggling to keep up and trying (but failing) to read music?

Quite a lot, actually. I really like learning weird new things, and this is just a fun group to be part of.

So, even if I have to wait for a pause to correct my G clapper, and even if reading the music is still a bit of a mystery to me, I say if you have the chance to join a bell choir, go for it.

Ring them bells.


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