Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Luke's Guide to Christmas Music on the World Wide Web

Overwhelmed with the hustle and bustle of the holidays? Take a break from shopping, or from decking the halls, or from stuffing stockings/turkeys, and listen to some Christmas music instead.

What follows is a list (I checked it twice) of audio & video links which I recommend to anyone who's looking for some new Christmas music to enjoy.

You can't go wrong with classics like good ol' Vince Guaradi or jolly ol' Bing Crosby... but you've heard those before!...

...So here are some that you might not know about yet:

My Christmas Stuff

When I have time around the holidays, I love playing and recording Christmas tunes—usually not without adding some sort of quirky twist to a familiar song. E.g. "Christmastime is Here" in 7/8 or this arrangement of "People, Look East"

Sometimes I leave out the quirky twists, and just play the stinkin' song as it was intended(!), as in this video of "The Christmas Song."

>Featured video: "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
>My Christmas (audio) tracks on Bandcamp: 2013 | 2014 | 2015

Seriously Good Christmas Stuff

If you ask me what my favorite Christmas album is, I'd have to say "An Oscar Peterson Christmas" takes the cake. My other favorites include "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (of course), Sufjan Stevens' "Hark! Songs for Christmas," and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' "Jingle all the Way" (the only Christmas album in my library that features Tuvan throat-singing).

Funny Christmas Stuff

Step aside from the serious side for a moment, and dive into the silly. If you want to laugh, you ought to check out what it sounds like when a 7th-grade trumpeter plays your favorite Christmas tunes using only notes from the blues scale. Or if that doesn't quite strike your fancy, Jacob Mann's tongue-in-cheek re-harmonization of "Deck the Halls" might make you chuckle. This Mr. Bean clip, though, might be my favorite Christmas-flavored comedy thing:

2016 addition: Bob and Doug's 12 Days of Christmas (how have I not heard this before?)

What did I leave out?

Comment below with your favorite Christmas-season song, album, or video (funny or otherwise!).

Monday, September 14, 2015

Dominant inner-voice shift

Voices in blue are the ones that move. Notice that the outsides
of the chord stay put, while the inner voices make small changes.

Here's a way to add some extra crunch to a dominant chord, with the 13th on the top.

A few reasons I like this harmonic shift:

  1. It all happens in the middle of the voicing. The outter voices stay put.
  2. The shifts are small (half steps), but the harmonic effect is big.
  3. The top two shifting voices in the right hand move in contrary motion, which is great.
Handwritten break-down of this shift.

May your dominant chords be prolonged and extra-crunchy. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Bluesy Oscar Peterson Lick ("Blues For Stephanie" ending)

LISTEN: Original Recording:

LISTEN: Original Recording, Slowed Down:

Transcription (click to enlarge):

Try it out for yourself!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Music on TV: Kimmy Schmidt VS. Gilmore Girls

When a TV show goes that extra mile and depicts musicians accurately (especially by means of hiring actual musicians--go figure), that show gets some extra brownie points, in my book. So, just for fun, I've selected a couple scenes and shared my observations.

WINNER: Kimmy Schmidt.

Better luck next time, Rory and Lorelai.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reflection: Music as a teacher

In the past months (and years, really), I've been intensely reflecting on what it is about Music that so captivates me. Why do I keep coming back to it? Like with anything else, there are failures and successes. (Failures: feeling discouraged/inferior/uninspired) / Successes: conquering a difficult piece, sharing a special musical moment with an audience, creating and debuting a new work.) And like with anything else that we find worthwhile, we find the energy to return to the challenge with even more determination and discipline than before. So, what's worthwhile about music?

For myself, Music is the lens through which I view life; the prime sensory mode. For other folks, it might be math, or medicine, or woodworking, or culinary arts, etc. Music can express hard-to-express emotions; it connects people together in an instant; it can be intensely personal, yet at the same time, it is undeniably universal.

Especially after having earned a piece of paper that tells people I studied Music seriously for 4 years (i.e. a music degree), I'm frequently asked "So... what's next?" or "What are you going to do with that?" As you might suspect, the more I'm asked these questions, the more bothersome they become. I know people mean well, but the questions still irk me--I think because these questions are primarily concerned with career- or money-based outcomes (rational, prudent concerns, for sure).  I think this belittles music's actual power; I would much rather be asked, "What music has moved you recently?" or "Would you like to make some music with me?"

Music to me is more a way of life than a means to an end. It involves:
  • Listening
  • Constantly learning
  • Collaboration
  • Improvisation
  • Being open to new ideas
  • Attention / Intention
  • Being present 'in the moment'
  • Discipline
  • Problem-solving
  • Creation
  • Beauty
Again, I'm not claiming music is the only medium that promotes these skills/ideals. It's just the one that has most resonated with me, personally. It's what's been at my side for the larger part of my life. Music is the thing that has taught me several lessons, which I'll share here as a snapshot of some tweets I posted a little while back:

What does music mean to you?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rhythmic Interplay Between Hands

Being a former drummer, I sometimes approach the piano with a bias toward rhythm. Instead of going crazy with harmony, my preference oftentimes is to explore the musical statements that can be made by breaking up a voicing into chunks and altering rhythm.

Let's look at this chromatically-descending set of chords to help illustrate how this might work. (Click images to enlarge. Click orange and white 'play' button below each example to listen.)

Boring quarter notes = Potential for some rhythmic fun

Since each chord-type is the same (and thus, the shapes of each chord are similar to one another), more attention can be given to the rhythms. I can break the chord into 3 'nodes' and play around with triplet rhythms:

OR, I can break the chord into 4 'nodes' to come up with busier 16th-note ideas:

To play these, my brain—I suspect—is thinking more as a drummer, in terms of "stickings" or drum rudiments, like diddles.

(E.g. Low bass clef notes followed by higher treble clef notes? Think L - R (left hand, right hand)
Two repeated notes? Think: diddle )

Listen to each variation and notice how each gives a slightly different musical effect. Play around with different interpolations of the chord/rhythms and see what you can come up with by thinking like a drummer!

For the full PDF of ideas contained in this post: Click here

Monday, June 1, 2015

DIY Music Flashcards

While rummaging through old junk drawers the other day, I came across a stack of unused, blank photo-paper. Since I don't have a photo printer, I was somewhat confused about how I came to acquire the paper in the first place. In fact, I was just about ready to toss it into the 'recycle' pile.

But then I started doodling on them with a dry-erase marker, curious to see if the paper would act like a white board and allow me to wipe off the marker and re-write something else. It did not. Instead, the ink dried fast, and was quite permanent.

Getting further carried away, I decided to re-purpose the blank paper into slick, glossy music flashcards. Why the heck not?!

Here's what I came up with (click to enlarge):

Noticing that I had a big stack of blank cards still left over, I brought them, and some markers, along to my piano students' lessons later that day.

Click to enlarge

As part of their theory assignment, I tasked them with making their own cards. They had fun using different colors to make their own unique set of flashcards.

Here's what one of my students came up with:

Click to enlarge

I'm glad I didn't toss the paper in the first place!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Comedy and Music of Hans Groiner

Niche genre: Jazz piano comedy

The ability to look inwardly and poke fun at yourself or your craft, I think, is vital in order to stay sane and to keep from becoming deathly serious with your work. ("All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy...") After watching the antics of his character, Hans Groiner, it is clear to me that pianist Larry Goldings possesses this aptitude for humor.

Austrian pianist, Hans Groiner

Hans, in my mind, is the Victor Borge of jazz piano. He misinterprets and oversimplifies musical concepts with such conviction and seriousness that you might almost believe he isn't joking, until you are reminded by his ridiculous wig that this all must be a charade. Which it is, of course—a hilarious charade. For your entrance into the world of Hans Groiner, his jazz piano lesson is the best place to start:

Monk Expertise

Hans is a self-proclaimed expert on the music of Thelonious Monk (although he thinks Monk could have made some better note-choices in his music.) He flattens out all chromaticism from Monk's compositions, and in so doing, in his mind, improves the music a great deal. "[Monk's] note were very--some of them--very, uh, wrong-sounding and dissonant." Although Hans freely admits to disliking Monk's music, he could see "potential" in the music. Check it out:

Hans Groiner at Work - Live at Smalls

Seeing Hans talk to a camera in a YouTube music lesson or documentary is hilarious, but seeing him in action, performing his own concert at a legitimate jazz club constitutes another level of humor. This hilarious performance features Groiner on the accordion/piano, Jeff Ballard on drums,  and Joe Martin on bass. (Pretty good band mates for little old Hans!) The performance is split into three parts; here's the first part:

What's your favorite Hans Groiner quote/song?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Walking Bass Lines on the Piano - Rhythmic Concepts

A huge benefit a piano player enjoys is the ability to play several musical lines simultaneously. Therefore, in the jazz idiom, it's possible for one piano player to fulfill the roles of not only the melodic/harmonic instruments (typically with the right hand), but also the bassist (in the left hand).

In the following video, I focus in on these left hand bass lines. These lines serve as a strong harmonic and rhythmic foundation. In and of itself, too, a bass line constitutes its own independent melody. (The harmonic progression used in the video is a simple C bluesprimary chords: C7, F7, and G7.)

Being an overall foundational component, bass lines are most often constructed with not much more than four well-placed notes per measure. That is to say, quarter notes are the rhythmic bread-and-butter of a sturdy bass line.

Once a strong quarter-note groove has been achieved, though, certain variations can be thrown into the mix in order to spice up the music and add a heightened sense of excitement/momentum to the groove. Here are some of the main rhythmic ideas that I demonstrate in the video:
  1. Instead of 4 quarter notes per bar, try using 6 quarter-note triplets to fill up a 4/4 measure.
  2. Experiment with different groupings of these 6 notes. (e.g. Two groups of 3 or Three groups of 2)
  3. Eighth note or eighth-note triplets can be played to propel the line toward a target note that you'd like to emphasize. (e.g. Eighth-note triplets preceding beat 4: "1, 2, 3-na-ne, 4")
  4. Once the RH joins in with your LH's bass line, experiment with placing faster right hand rhythms (triplets and sixteenth notes) atop the LH's quarter notes.
These are only a few ideas to get the ball rolling. Check out the Application Examples and "Putting it All Together" clips within the video for some ideas on how these concepts look and sound on the piano. Of course, the joy of music improvisation is that the sky is the limit—see what other ideas you can come up with, and have fun making your own walking bass lines!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"West Side Score-y" Pt. 3: Tri-tones...They're Everywhere!!

Part 3

It seemed appropriate that Part 3 of this series was about the tri-tone. Even if it weren't for this numerical match-up, a post about the tri-tone seems inevitable when writing about West Side Story. Bernstein throws them into the score like I throw chocolate chips into cookie dough (excessively, perhaps, but to great effect).

Part 1 addressed something I called the "Smush Chord," and
Part 2 explored Bernstein's rhythmic stuff.
Part 3 continues, below... (read on!)

The Tri-Tone

Literally meaning "three-tones," the tri-tone is the musical interval spanning the range of three whole steps (6 half steps). Since our octave is most typically divided into 12 half steps, the tri-tone represents the octave divided exactly in half. The sonic result is a jarring, highly dissonant sound—so dissonant that history has given it the sinister nickname "diabolus in musica" (the Devil in music).

(More about the tri-tone and other intervals here.)

Melodic Appearances

  1. "Do" up to "fi." Of course, the best-known example of the tri-tone (at least, within the realm of West Side Story), is in "Maria." The interval, here appearing as an augmented 4th, is heard in the first two syllables: "Ma-ri..." 
  2. "Cha-Cha"
  3. "Cool" (pictured below)
  4. Basically everywhere.
from "Cool" (C up to F#, an augumented 4th)
Harmonic Appearances

from "Prologue" [C major over F#] and [Eb major over A]
  1. Polytonal-type chords (a la Petrushka), in which a major triad is coupled with a tone 6 half steps away from the root, appear in selections such as "Prologue" (pictured above), "The Rumble," "I Have a Love," and several scene changes. In fact, the very last musical sound heard in the show is one of these puppies, with C major up high, F# down below.
  2. Major chords, with #4 (a.k.a. #11). These bright chords, which suggest the Lydian mode, can be found, among others, in "Prologue," "Jet Song," and "Gee, Officer Krupke" ("Dear...")
  3. #ii°7 diminished chords (in 3rd inversion). Closely related to the previous chord, this one is just slightly crunchier in sound. It's featured most prominently in "Something's Coming."
  4. Whole-tone spots: "Tonight" m. 37 (pictured below)
  5. Again, basically everywhere.
Pitch inventory (F, G, A, B, C#) comprised of whole tones.
(Tri-tone appears on beat 2, between F and B.)

To sum up (clumsily, quickly), that there are tri-tones just about everywhere in West Side Story is perhaps "needless to say," but there, I said it.

Being such a grating interval, it certainly catches the ear, and the sound sticks with you. It's what helps make the lyrical "Maria" so beautiful ("Say it loud and there's music playing / Say it soft and it's almost like praying..."), and it's what makes the show's final chord so hauntingly dissonant.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"West Side Score-y" Pt. 2: Lenny's Got Rhythm

Part 2

This post is part of a multi-part blog series I'm calling "West Side Score-y" (A Score Study of West Side Story). Part 1 addressed something I called the "Smush Chord." This second post will delve (excessively?) into the nitty-gritty of what makes Bernstein's music so rhythmically engaging.

The West Side Story score is rife with rhythmic riches, so to avoid being overly ambitious, I will focus here on 3 big ideas:
  1. Syncopation
  2. Polymeter
  3. Hemiola
To do so, I'll share some song excerpts and discuss their relation to one (or more) of the above concepts. (All right, here we go!)

1. Syncopation: It's where you'd least expect it.

Syncopation can basically be described as a rhythmic device in which notes are placed in unusual, unexpected spots within the bar. For example, instead of quarter notes on beats 1 and 3 (so-called "strong" parts of the measure), moving these quarter notes instead to 2 and 4 (the weaker "off-beats" of the bar) would result in a syncopated feel. This version of syncopation, in which 2 and 4 are emphasized instead of 1 and 3, is the foundation of jazz and rock grooves.

Another way to achieve syncopation is to shift a note slightly within a measure, from its usual spot to a less-expected spot. Take a look at this excerpt from "Jet Song":

When you're a Jet, you syncopate.

The time signature here is 6/8, which is a compound duple type of meter. This means that there are 2 main beats (duple) and each of these beats can be further divided into 3 (compound). This being the case, the notes which fall on the main beats are considered strong, and those which do not are weak in comparison.

In this example, the right hand is playing on weak off-beats, just an eighth note earlier than the left hand's strong-beat notes. This gives the song a slightly off-kilter, swinging feel. Cool!

*Note 1: Good examples of syncopation are in just about every measure of Lenny's score. That is to say, most bars of Bernstein's music are syncopated.
*Note 2: Do not confuse "Bernstein bars" with the ursine children's book series by a similar name. I apologize for this joke.
*Note 3: All three of these italicized Notes were added SOLELY for the delivery of that awesome joke and are  of ZERO educational value.

2. Polymeter: 2+ meters for the price of 1.

A polymeter (not to be confused with polyrhythm) is exactly what you think it means: literally, "many meters." In a polymetric piece of music, the beat is constant between the two meters (but each meter's measure size differ, resulting in periods of de-synchronization).

It's what's happening when your band is playing in 4/4, but at the same time, your goofball drummer is for some reason playing in 7/8. (We'll give him the benefit of the doubt here in that he's not just leaving notes out willy-nilly, but rather is showing off his polymetric powers...)

Although it might happen accidentally in your garage band, Bernstein uses it intentionally—and to great effect—all over West Side. That is to say, there are many polymeters (poly-polymeters?)

Example 2A: "Scherzo"

This scherzo is written primarily in 3/4, though it actually reeks of 5/8 (or 5/4, depending on your math) for much of its duration. Since we've got 5/8 and 3/4 going on simultaneously, we can say that we're dealing with polymeter here.

It's not a bad idea to do some arithmetic in such polymetric cases, to see how many repetitions of the odd time signature it takes to line back up with the primary meter. In this case we consider 5 eighth notes (from 5/8) and 6 eighth notes (from 3/4). Least common multiple = 30 eighth notes, meaning it will take 15 quarter notes (five bars of 3/4) before the first note of the pattern falls on the original downbeat again. (And this is precisely how Bernstein divides his beats in the scherzo. It all adds up, phew!)

Example 2B: "Prologue" bass line

This one's groovy. Here we have a bass line in 7/8 placed over a 2/4 meter. Essentially, it's just one eighth note away from being the bass line you would expect. So close. 

LH fingerings shown above. Note: The eighth rest
is not part of the repeating pattern.

The effect of this is two-fold: 1) The position of the accented first note of the pattern gets constantly shifted to the left (earlier) on each successive measure. That's pretty neat. 2) It's kind of gnarly to get your left hand to play it when your right hand is simultaneously playing syncopated stuff in the original 2/4 meter. Gnarly, but not impossible.

In order to solidify the pattern, both intellectually and physically, I broke the 7 notes into smaller groups (based on their chromatic proximity with nearby notes). That made it much easier to manage. From there I could go ahead and add in the right hand and begin thinking of the longer lines.

To see this longer line, I'm once again referring to the pattern being repeated x number of times, 'til the pattern's first note once again falls on the 2/4 bar's downbeat. In this case, it takes 7 repetitions. Here's half of that (click to enlarge):

Notice how the accent's position within each 2/4 bar changes as time goes on.

3. Hemiola: Not a scary blood disease.

The word hemiola represents the ratio of 3:2. With respect to rhythm, this ratio occurs by way of grouping 6 notes either in three groups of 2 or two groups of 3. An oft-cited example of this rhythmic hemiola is from none other than "America."

"I want to live in A-mer-i-ca" / "I want to subdivide quar-ter notes!"
The song alternates between compound duple (6/8) and simple triple (3/4) meters. I'll spare you any more needless math. The sheet music, I think, shows the alternating groupings rather clearly.


The big takeaway? Heck, I dunno.
  • You can always "count" (HAH) on Bernstein to jam-pack his music with rhythmically rich stuff. Lenny's got rhythm, indeed. And now you do, too.
  • Don't let the math of it put you off. Once you understand the basic numbers/groupings of a meter, you will easily be able to switch on a sort of "rhythmic auto-pilot." This is when you can freely and enjoyably just let the music happen.
  • Remember that "Bernstein Bars" joke? That was pretty funny.

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