My annual update of my studio policy is complete! Read the whole darn thing here to see how this ship is run.
Have you ever dreamed of playing a Steinway grand piano? (I'm talking more than "Chopsticks".) Here are a few pictures from our spring recital where students got to do just that.
Infinite thanks to Pat Packard at the Old White Church and Saco River Theatre for hosting us! What a dream venue.
Listen up, and you could win a FREE KITTEN*.
How many times has a student declared somewhat sheepishly to me, usually at one of our first few lessons, "You know, I really don't have an ear for music!" And it's always the adults. The little ones, they don't even know what "having an ear" means. They see a super cool machine that makes noise (that's my piano) and they are IN. But adults, they get all apologetic. I could try to convince them that it's not true, that everyone has an ear for music, and probably they just never put in any time developing it. They won't listen, so instead of saying that, I like to say, "Play Happy Birthday for me." They look at me like I have two heads and say, "I don't know how to play Happy Birthday!" To which I reply, "Then figure it out. Start here."
"Here" is G. You can play Happy Birthday using only white notes if you just start on G. Don't know your G from your XYZ? Here is a picture for you.
So here is my CHALLENGE to you:
Get yourself to a piano or pull out that keyboard that has been in your closet since the 80s, find a G somewhere in the middle of the keyboard, and play Happy Birthday. You can do it! It may be slow going. You will hit LOTS of wrong notes (this is how you find the right ones). You are allowed to swear. But basically I am convinced that if you really try (imagine yourself at knifepoint if it is helpful) you can play this song that you have sung about a million times since childhood.
If you can't find a piano or a keyboard you can even do it online - search for "virtual piano" or "online piano" (e.g. virtualpiano.net). Now you have no excuses!
And if you TRY it and you DO it - I will take you at your word - then I will award you ONE FREE KITTEN*!
And then you won't be able to tell me you "don't have an ear". Because you do!
So come on, people! Take the Happy Birthday Kitten Challenge and let me know how it goes. I've got a lot of kittens here I need to get rid of.
* while supplies last
We had Piano Night last Sunday at my studio. This is just for my adult students: I lure them to my studio with promises of yummy food and drink (including wine and cheese balls), we hang out and shmooze a little and share some music. I want them to know that they are part of a truly amazing group of people - other adults taking piano lessons! It's weird, but they all happen to be brilliant and charming - coincidence, causation, or correlation?
ANYWAY. This Piano Night the stories started flowing. I would like to share one of those stories here.
At some point in her adult life, my student made the momentous move to get a piano. She was very excited. She went shopping, found a piano, and arranged for movers to deliver it to her home. Her two young children knew this was a big deal because she told them all about it, how this piano was coming to their home and how wonderful it was and how great it would be to have a piano in their very own home. Everyone waited with great anticipation for the day of its arrival. Finally the day came, and it was hot. I mean, it was HOT. Two gigantic men showed up with the piano, and as they struggled to move the giant instrument into its new home the two children watched wide eyed. Sweat poured off the men, but they finally succeeded with their task. "Mommy!" exclaimed the youngest child, as the men paused nearby catching their breath, "I didn't know getting a piano would smell so bad!"
I had an epiphany yesterday. I was playing a regular gig for a local senior community and realized why honky-tonk, saloon-style piano playing sounds the way it does.
What does this charming senior community have in common with a swinging saloon, you ask?
Well, at least this: it's hard to hear the music!
I don't bring any sound equipment for this gig - no microphone, no amplification. We're going for that "intimate" atmosphere. I saddle up the ancient upright and folks pull their chairs around and we're off. At the end of an hour I find I am hoarse from belting my vocals, and I play the heck out of that piano, worrying that the folks at the back won't hear me over the pleasant chatter of staff passing out drinks (not the saloon kind, as far as I know) and residents greeting one another. It's a memory care unit, and the residents are so wonderful I cannot even express it - but it is a bit noisier than most of my performances.
So I find myself doing the following dance to avoid dead air time at all costs:
(A piano player walks into a senior community...)
Hello lovers of fine piano music!
Here is a Spotify playlist I put together for January 2015. It starts out kind of rambunctious, dips into the dark and moody, and ends with a sweet finish. Give it a listen and let me know what you think: January 2015.
Some tune descriptions:
1. Upright - Philip Aaberg: the whole album is very sweet, but this song, which opens the album, always, always makes me so happy I dance around the room. Try it.
2. Armando’s Rhumba - Chick Corea: I was lucky enough to see Chick Corea in concert some years ago and it was amazing, not just because he was wearing a mumu and playing a keytar. I love the playfulness of this little Latin dance tune and when I listen to it I wish it would go on forever.
3. Mandinga (Bilongo) - Ruben Gonzalez: Ruben Gonzalez is a tremendous Cuban pianist, featured on the breakout Buena Vista Social Club album. This tune is from his solo album that came out later.
4. Blackbird - Brad Mehldau: Brad Mehldau is a well-known contemporary jazz pianist. Can this Beatles tune get any prettier? You decide!
5. Hana (Spring) - the Christian Jacob Trio: More contemporary jazz piano. Every time I hear this I want to sit down and play it at the piano - it is simple somehow, but mysterious and beautiful and gentle - like spring?
6. Prehensile Dream - The Bad Plus. The Bad Plus are a ridiculously fun and brilliant jazz trio out of Minneapolis. Living in Madison I heard them perform twice and nearly passed out from happiness both times. Check out their cover versions of everything from the Pixies to Blondie. I do love this original composition, though - it winds around and winds around, on some never-ending quest that definitely has some mountainous passages - but oh the views!
7. Chopin’s Nocturne No. 19 in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1, played by Maurizio Pollini: I first heard this nocturne when it appeared in a movie version of The Secret Garden and I begged my piano teacher to let me learn it (she let me). Published after Chopin’s death, it is haunting and beautiful.
8. Satie’s, Gymnopédie No. 1, played by Frank Glazer: Frank Glazer was a wonderful classical pianist living in Maine who passed away just this month, just weeks shy of his 100th birthday. I heard him perform at a small concert on Peak’s Island this summer and he was wonderful. Here he is playing one of Erik Satie’s beloved Gymnopédies. What is a “gymnopédie,” you ask? It’s a name Satie made up! You can do that when you’re an eccentric French composer.
Do you have a piano?
Wonderful! You do!
You are a very lucky person to have a piano. Now that you've wrestled this beautiful beast into your home, it's time to take care of it. Here are some questions and answers to think about.
Q: Why should I tune my piano? It sounds pretty much kind of okay.
A. You should keep your piano properly tuned because it will sound more beautiful this way, you will enjoy playing it more and likely play more beautifully, and because regular tunings will increase your chances of keeping your piano in great playing shape when maintenance issues arise. Besides, why have such a wonderful instrument in your home and not take care of it properly?
Q: How often should I tune my piano?
A: About twice a year. The drastic changes in humidity that we experience in Maine as winter comes and goes affect the soundboard and all the wooden parts (there are lots of them) in your piano. So once the dry winter weather settles in, you should tune your piano; and once we're back to hot and sticky, you should tune your piano.
Q: Who should I have tune it?
A: There are lots of wonderful and highly qualified piano tuners out there. Some people prefer to opt for a piano technician - someone who can not only tune but offer a range of services from fixing that sticky A-flat key to rebuilding the entire action of your piano. Some people recommend selecting a piano technician from those who are members of the Piano Technician's Guild whose website you can search for a local piano technician (I only found four technicians listed within 35 miles of Westbrook, so the list is far from complete). As with many things, personal recommendations from those in the know may be your best bet. I have personally enjoyed working with Matt Guggenheim and have been grateful for helpful conversations with Joe Bacica and also Paul Rice. I also have a family who adores the work of Alexander Peppe, and I'm sure there are other great technicians and tuners out there in the Greater Portland area.
Q: How much will it cost?
A. If your piano has been well-maintained, a tuning will cost around a hundred dollars. I've paid as little as $80 and as much as $145. This may seem expensive but if you've already invested in a piano and are paying for piano lessons it's really a very reasonable amount to invest twice a year to ensure you are getting the most out of your instrument - and your time! Besides, compare it to what you're paying for your smartphone or cable TV on an annual basis... yes, I'm a bit biased, but just sayin'!
Q. Still have questions?
A. Just try calling a few piano technicians and asking - about price, about how often and when to tune, about that sticky A-flat key. In my experience piano technicians are very happy to share their knowledge and will be happy to chat with you. Besides, pianos are truly mysterious instruments to most of us and it's simply a pleasure to talk to someone who knows so much about these complex and wonderful creatures!
Thursday night was the opening reception for the new show "Chaos" at the Saccarappa Art Collective Gallery on Main St. in Westbrook, just down the block from my studio. The work in this show is so beautiful, it will knock your socks off, and I am not kidding. Not only that, but the artists are right there and they are such nice people and you get to talk to them while ogling their work, drinking wine, and eating snacky things. I was honored to provide some piano music for the event. I was at first a bit intimidated - what kind of music do you pair with a show featuring abstract art, when you don't have much time to throw it together? I started with some light classical music and then played some jazz standards, but the big hit was Satie's three Gymnopedies and three Gnossiennes. It turns out that stuff is *perfect* for an art show - lean and haunting, angular but subtle, it is the sound of nostalgia and dreams you have not had yet. Two Children's Songs (Nos. 1 & 4) by Chick Corea were also on the right frequency, and the same with Debussy's Reverie.
The show featured work by Michel Droge with guest artists Edwige Charlot, Robert McKibben, Russell Whitten, Fred Michel, and Jody Dube; it also included new works by Saccarappa Art Collective members Tanya Fletcher, Frank Valliere, Melissa Post van der Burg, Andy Curran, Jonathan Eitan, Mary Brooking, and Caren Marie Michel.
And the sweet coda to my evening was that I used the money from my tip jar to buy ice-cream at Catbird Creamery across the street! What flavor, you ask? Furious George: cayenne spiced vanilla ice-cream with caramelized bananas and dark chocolate chips. The best kind of chaos.
I am really looking forward to singing - and dining! - at the Frog & Turtle in Westbrook tonight. I just have to remember not to call it the Frog & Toad after the beloved books from my childhood.
I'll be making noise from 7 to 9:30. Stop by if you can!
Approximate setlist follows. (Can you pick out the six originals in Set 2? Hint: Pink Cadillac is not one of them.)
Since I Fell For You
Til There Was You
Fly Me To the Moon
Can’t Help Falling in Love
On the Sunny Side of the Street
There Stands the Glass
My Girl Josephine
Dream a Little Dream of Me
Deed I Do
Your Cheatin’ Heart
The Way You Look Tonight
It Keeps Rainin’
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
Georgia on My Mind
When I Was Drinking
Poor Wayfaring Stranger
Lakes of Pontchartrain
Bring It On Home
It’s Not Because I Love You
Hands on the Wheel
Three Thousand Miles
It seems to be the case that I have booked my first gig here in Maine that isn't at a senior home. I adore playing at senior homes, but I'm excited to play in a more nighttime/club/barroom/loungy environment. The haute establishment that was lucky enough to book me is Westbrook's Frog & Turtle, a very tasty gastro pub around the corner from my Main Street studio. When I was maybe ten years old my cousin Jackie and I would scrape our money together and eat lunch at a corner booth there - back then it was the Cornerstone Cafe and we could get clam cakes and french fries if we were living rich and grilled tunafish sandwiches otherwise. They still have booths there, but also nice tables with little candles flickering and fresh flowers, a great bar, and (my sister and I can vouch for this as of last Thursday night) yummy fried calamari.
If I can believe a very brief email exchange I had with James, the dedicated chef and owner of F&T, then I get to play there on Thursday night, August 28.
Here's where I need your help though.
First: What do I call myself? Just Bess Berg? Bess and the 88 Degrees of Freedom? Since I'm playing (and singing) solo I thought Lonely Woman Lounge Act had a nice ring to it. Please send suggestions, both reasonable and off-the-wall, my way.
Second: What do I play? I'll have a good core inspired by Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Fats Domino... but I think for this gig I need a little less Moon River and a little more whiskey-scented Tom Waits. I also want to include a few goofy (but awesome) covers - maybe a lounge version of a Justin Timberlake song (Mirrors?), or the mashup I've been wanting to do of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" with Imagine Dragons' song "Demons". I'm also going to sneak in some of my own stuff: My Money, Alligator Shoes, Starling Blackbird, maybe even the Boneyard Tango, depending on what I can get ready. So send ideas my way: What do you want to hear as you sip your cold microbrew and wait for your fried calamari to come out?
Come on out August 28 if you can! Your first beer is on me. (Unless more than two people come.)