Tag Archives: music

Open Letter to the Brown Upright Piano in Our Living Room that I Played for Eleven Years and then Abruptly Abandoned Upon Graduating from High School

an actual photo of a piano drowning in heartbreak

Hey you. It’s been a while hasn’t it? How have you been? You look good– I noticed your new picture frames; they go really well with the Bach bust and the fake plant, and I’m not just saying that. I mean it. I would never lie to you.

Well I guess there’s no point in avoiding the subject, so I’ll just come out and say it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry that after the thousands of hours we spent together over the years I just left you like you meant nothing to me, like you were something I was ashamed of and wanted to forget. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for those wonderful years we had, only to have our relationship ripped away from you without warning. All those days we spent frolicking in the sun, meandering through hidden forests filled with magical creatures, exploring alien planets, visiting ages long past. While the rest of my family was tortured with the endless repetition that is piano practice, we were somewhere else entirely, floating above imaginary canyons colored fuchsia and turquoise, never scared when we were together. You have to know I’m telling the truth.

And I’m sorry for all of those holidays I spent at home while visiting from college, when I would avoid looking you in the eye. I’m sorry about the way I would whisper of what we once had and act embarrassed when anyone brought it up. I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to deal with all of it, with the way my life was changing and the way it seemed you would no longer have a part in it.

At some point we have to admit these things to ourselves. You knew I wasn’t a brilliant pianist. Don’t try to deny the truth. Sure I practiced a lot, and sure I was “advanced” and perhaps my teacher’s best student, but I didn’t have the shimmering gold talent it takes to be a real concert pianist. More importantly, I didn’t have the passion. I tried to tell myself I loved playing, and I think I believed it. Sometimes it felt so real, as we were tramping through the villages of Eastern Europe in a mythical spring, stars falling around us as we twirled upward into the night.

But at the end of the day, it was a ruse, a lie I was telling myself.  I didn’t have the passion it took to be excellent, and the love I had for playing came from a love of being the best. I know all this now, but at what cost! Oh my dear piano, you have to know it wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing you could have done. But know this: we still had everything, for a time, those beautiful early mornings in winter, the world dark and frozen outside but us warming ourselves with the glow of quarter notes, the quiet afternoons when I was alone at home and could play as loud as I wanted in front of the only audience that truly mattered: you and me.

I will always remember you, even if I forget how to play entirely, even if my parents sell you to a lady named Fern without telling me. I will always remember you and me, a girl and her piano, and how life seemed better together. I can’t forget something that’s a part of me.

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Country Music: Proud of Itself

wranglers at Deer Valley Ranch, the former vacation destination of our family

In many parts of the country, a fondness for country music brings a plague upon one’s career and friendships. Country music, outside its native habitat, is as popular as pungent body odor in small vehicles. It is to be masked and not spoken of, its producer’s cheeks reddening in shame and the rest embarrassed to be in the presence of such a foul substance.

Despite the widespread prejudice, country music actually isn’t all that bad. While growing up in OK, I listened to and resented country music all the time, since most of my family members enjoyed it and would play it relentlessly on the radio and at home. Years later at Boston University, this caused the bizarre sensation of both revulsion and pride whenever I heard a country song.

The revulsion resulted from years of carefully practiced loathing, and the pride came from me belonging to something different than the rest of my mostly coastal colleagues. Eventually I came to appreciate the twang-infested music as something unique to the specific subculture in which my adolescence was submerged and an art form that can be quite beautiful in those rare instances where it is done properly. And when it is not beautiful, it is generally hilarious.

Mostly for the ha-has, I’ve been drinking in the country music as much as possible during these short weeks in Oklahoma, but I have realized that a lifetime would not be enough to fully understand the breadth and depth of the genre. Where else do you find such tender descriptions of trucks, tractors, and other vehicles of labor? In this modern music wasteland, what other than country music will dare to describe innocent love in barns, hayfields, and blue jeans? What about all the myriad ways whisky, Jesus, and America are intimately connected with the problems one has while courting the farmer’s daughter?

What I most admire about country music, however, is its ability to admire itself. Since the dawn of the genre, it has been lauding the country lifestyle and the country way, in small towns full of simple, country men and women that like to do country things.

Songs like “I Got My Country On,” by Chris Cagle, “These Are My People,” by Rodney Atkins, “Where I Come From” by Montgomery Gentry, and “Where I Come From” by Alan Jackson, among many others, celebrate a rustic problem free, healthcare free lifestyle. In this highly fictionalized country world, there’s a lot of front porch sitting (AJ) with preacher men in cowboy shirts (MG). It’s where people do things with their own two hands (CG) and give this life everything they have and then some (RA). It’s a wonderful, wonderful, place, and anyone listening to this music would probably imagine a haven of small town goodness, unspoiled by the modern world.

While modernity may not have touched it, the world in which country music lives and from which it sprouts has unfortunately been spoiled by high divorce, obesity, diabetes two, and poverty rates.

However, I am confident that a genre with such hits as “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” “Jesus Take the Wheel,” and “Somethin’ Bout a Truck” will have the creative energy necessary to face this rampant decay with some great ho-down tunes that will get knees a poppin’, heads a bobbin,’ and boots a stompin’.

If you have any other winning country music titles, please feel free to pass them along and I’ll see you down at the barn for the next line dance.

Picture Credit: Trip Advisor

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A Brief Treatment of Common Singalong Pitfalls

Our program has been blessed with incredible musical talent, including guitarists, one percussionist, and someone who plays the spoons. Though all of them are gifted, only one has compiled, of his own free will, an entire songbook full of songs he transcribed, printed, alphabetized, and then put into a binder. This songbook is accompanied by a mini-me spiral bound version that looks as professional as anything you could buy from a Christian bookstore.

Because of the abundance of musical talent, at many of our gatherings we have had the great privilege of huddling around his songbooks, flipping through them until some loudmouth sees a song they like and then calls out, “Hey can you play _____”, a question that deserves a swift slap in the face since he was the one who transcribed every song himself.

Obviously the singalongs are wonderful, especially since we have able bodied players, a songbook, and people who are literate. One would even think we had the recipe for seamless, coordinated singing that anyone would be overjoyed to hear. Unfortunately, my friend, it is not so. Despite that fact it is always fun, our singing often misses the “enjoyable for others” mark by a long shot. I have outlined below some of the causes of this phenomenon, one that also plagues buses and campfires the world over. First of all, however, let me state that I am one of the most egregious singalong offenders, and have committed every possible singalong offense hundreds of times over and look forward to doing so again in the future.

Factors contributing to less than perfect singalongs:

a. It’s hard to think of songs everyone knows on the spot. Inevitably, the first songs thrown into the mix are the national anthem and “Amazing Grace,” both of which are impossible for most humans to sing. The next ones are songs that people only think they know, “Sweet Caroline” or “Don’t Stop Believing” for example, which quickly sour as the majority realizes they only know one line that comes halfway through the song and lasts for brief 5 seconds of exhilaration.

b. No one knows all the words to almost any song, unless they’ve memorized it like a freak. One cannot live on choruses alone, yet the compulsively memorized songs are also the ones that others are most likely not to know. These are the personal favorites, the songs played on repeat in the soft darkness of one’s room during most of junior year in high school. Alternatively, the song reminds one of summer camp or an old crush, also experiences no one else will share. They will not like the song as much as you.

c. People choose songs that are inappropriate for group settings, suggesting their favorites which, as I’ve already pointed out, the entire group will not instantly love. Songs that people enjoy for their easy pace, wistfulness, and deepness will almost never carry over well in a group because they are, above all, slow and sad. Do you go to parties and try to make friends by talking about the long and drawn out death of your next door neighbor? No, you tell jokes. This is the singalong equivalent of a Lady Gaga song.

d. Famous singers generally have beautiful and/or distinctive voices. Singalong companions often do not and are also unaware of this discrepancy in vocal ability.  There are not many people that can sing like Kelly Clarkson. She won a nation-wide contest that captivated America and if people of her skill level were present at any Chuckie Cheese’s, then obviously things like American Idol wouldn’t exist. Therefore, we should not be so surprised that we do not sound like her when we sing her songs and indeed that we cannot sing her songs very well.

e. Singing along with a guitar is different from singing with a YouTube video or your car radio. For the unexperienced,  it is always difficult to find the key in which the guitarist is playing. Some never find it and continue to blissfully sing in the key they are most used to hearing while they are alone in the kitchen cooking and singing. Since they are not vegetables, everyone else notices.

f. Similar to the above foible, everyone likes to sing the song just as they hear it in their head. If they’ve sung the song many times on their own without backup music, it’s likely they’ve added cute dips and improvisations to the normal cadence, all of which the rest of the group is unaware and cannot follow along with. A group of 6 people each singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” as they have developed it in their personal repertoires sounds surprisingly similar to an ax sharpening contest.

g. Invariably, some  participants exhibit a severe lack of personal awareness while they are singing. Though you feel you are pouring your heart out during a rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” staying true to the original intent of the song, to others you look like a maniac that will soon be in need of a defibrillator.

h. And, as always in groups intent on singing, the silent majority is forced to listen to the louder minority. Sorry, everyone else, even though all of you had a better song suggestions, because you couldn’t speak up in time you will be forced to listen to this really long, slow song that we don’t know very well since someone yelled it out a second ago and said it was their favorite even though it turns out they don’t know most of the words.

But, like I said, these factors in no way impede the enjoyability of a singalong, they only enrich it. The best part is that despite how much of a failure one singalong may be, there is always hope that next time it will be different, and that the person playing the guitar will know that one song you’ve been dying to sing even though it’s 9 minutes long and is about cat diabetes.

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This day is our day

Yesterday was the 4th of July, America’s main national holiday and the date on which the Second Continental Congress unanimously adapted the Declaration of Independence, announcing the colonies’ separation from Great Britain. I happened to be out of the country, but I could still smell the patriotism roasting from across the pond.

In celebration of America, I partook of my first McDonald’s food since I’ve been here: a chocolate sundae that cost roughly 99 cents. I had no regrets and I have a feeling I’ll be frequenting the McDonald’s 100 yards from my house slightly more often now that I’ve tasted the simplicity and reliability of soft serve ice cream and chocolate syrup. In addition, I and some fellow students sang patriotic songs like Born in the U.S.A. and God Bless America before another failed lecture on security that did more to anger and confuse than assure anyone. Later on that evening I savored some non-local beverages as well as non-local pork ribs grilled to perfection while singing more songs, campfire style, without the campfire. The night ended appropriately with tribal dancing on a carpet wall from a bedouin tent in southern Iraq.

One of my favorite moments of the day, however, was when I and 2 other CASA students were sitting on the shaded lawn inside the campus of AUC Tahrir having a boy scout/hippie dippy moment while singing “Such Great Heights” by Iron and Wine. Less than 200 yards away from us, on the other side of the wall, lay Tahrir square, the locus of current unrest complete with sit-in tents, non stop traffic, and general pedestrian mayhem. The two worlds could not have been more different, though it might not be impossible to mix them.

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What are songs we all know?

Al-Azhar park: I took this photo myself.

Today was full of music, more specifically, songs I myself was singing. It all began in the “Singing Club,” my attendance in which is regulated by the stipulations of the fellowship. In the club we listen to Arabic songs and look at the lyrics and try to understand them.

I think most of the people in the “club” didn’t know what they were getting themselves into and thus failed to realize that we ourselves are required to sing most of the songs after we listen to them. Since some of the students are shy/self-censored/or have quiet voices, our half-hearted attempts to sing along with the Arabic songs looks comedic/pathetic. There is some real talent, however, and one of the students brought his guitar along today and could play the songs after just listening to them once or twice. It only took me months of practicing a single piano piece before I could play it with ease….we’re equally gifted, right?

This same student brought his guitar to Al-Azhar Park today, a park on the outskirts of Cairo (I think) near Moqqattam where the trash collectors live and there are cave churches and exorcisms on Thursday nights. The park was beautiful….marble pathways, palm and other kinds of trees, fountains, grass, all of Cairo at our feet in a dusty, sweltering maze and us above breathing “fresh” air and being rejuvenated by green things.

We had quite the sing along in the park. The idea was to switch back and forth from English songs by the Americans to Arabic songs by the Egyptians….I’m not sure what happened but the vast majority of the songs ended up being American pop music. Among the songs we played: Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson. I have a tendency to be overcome by the music sometimes when a song has particularly poingant lyrics, so I may or may not have raised my voice to a shouting/screeching level at the line “You had your chance you blew it; out of sight out of mind. Shut your mouth I just can’t take it…again and again and again and again” while pointing directly at the nice student playing guitar. There always has to be a target or it doesn’t seem believable. I’m just glad we didn’t play Total Eclipse of the Heart or that would have been a real disaster. And by that I mean it’s going to happen probably soon and I’m not going to be sorry for the spectacle I make of myself.

One interesting thing about Al-Azhar park: it used to be a trash heap and some guy saw it and said “I will make this a park one day where it will cost each patron 5 pounds to enter” and so it was. I think there’s more to the story but I can’t remember all of it.

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