905. Everybody Plays the Fool

Ziggy swore and folded his notebook open in his lap as we sat at the piano. “I going to write us an English version of this. I swear she did this just to torture us.”

I hadn’t been too bothered by the fact that Priss’s homework assignment for me was to practice these German hymns, but Ziggy, who took to doing them with me, couldn’t stand the German. And he took it personally (despite the fact the exercises weren’t for him).

“These aren’t supposed to be enunciation exercises, are they?” he asked. He was sitting on my right, at the high end of the keyboard. “It’s the notes that matter, not the consonants, right?”

“What’s wrong with German? If it was good enough for Mozart, it should be good enough for us.”

“Ugh.” He made a face. “At least one of them’s Latin.”

“Why is Latin better?” I genuinely wanted to know.

“Because Latin is better for singing. More of the words end on vowels instead of a pile of consonants like a car crash.” He made a sound like screeching tires and then impact. “That’s what German sounds like to me. Nicht. Mensch. Blechhh.

The Latin one was labeled “A German Hymn” but it was unmistakably Latin: “Da Pacem, Domine.” Which made me wonder what was German about it, but whatever. The main thing about it was that the hymn had a lot of the note runs and changes within a single vowel that you often get in carols and hymns–think of the way the word Gloria is dragged out in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with the Glo-o-o-o-o-o going on for sixteen notes before you hit the -ria. That was a big part of the exercise. It’s easier to change notes when you say a new word or syllable using your tongue and lips to start it, and it’s harder when all you’re doing is changing the shape of your throat.

“Da Pacem, Domine” was almost like a Gregorian chant, stately and even, but with a fair number of those runs. An opera singer I ain’t.

One of the hymns she’d assigned me was called “Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen.” I don’t speak German, so I had no idea what these words meant, but they were easy enough to pronounce:

Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen
bis an sein’ höchsten Bord,
trägt Gottes Sohn voll Gnaden,
des Vaters ewigs Wort.

Or at least Priss didn’t complain about my pronunciation. After about the fourth or fifth day practicing it I figured out “Gottes Sohn” probably meant “God’s son,” but the rest was a mystery.

The third was called “Mensch, reinige deine Sünden” and it had my favorite melody of the three, a haunting one in Dorian mode, that I am pretty sure she included in order to challenge my upper range. It had some high lilting notes that you could imagine were intended for a soloist in a boy choir. I liked singing that one with Ziggy because of course Ziggy’s upper register was one of the things that I loved most about him. God. What an instrument.

Anyway. I liked singing them with him no matter what language they were in. That day after practicing them, though, he went out for a walk while I worked on my hand exercises. He took his notebook with him.

I decided I should write a harmony. This was one of the exercises we did in music composition class. They’d give you a piece of sheet music with the melody from a Bach Chorale on it, and you’d go home (well, to a practice room with a piano) and work out the melody line and chords. The instructor was a brilliant sight-reader–man, I’m forgetting his name now–who could play whatever was put in front of him, even when it was in some student’s awful handwriting. (My own notation is pretty bad so I sometimes used software in the computer-music lab to create neatly printed sheet music for my pieces, but it was a lot of work for not a better grade. The software’s wayyyy better nowadays.)

It was in that class I got slightly jealous of the professor’s ability to sight-read that way. It was the first time I felt at all sorry that I had abandoned piano lessons all those years ago. Claire and I had fought about it and at the time of the fight I had felt absolutely great because it was one of the few fights, ever, between her and me that I won.

But I remember sitting in that classroom. It was one of the older classrooms at the conservatory, with molded wooden seats and desks, arranged like a small amphitheater of about ten rows of seats in a tiered half-circle around a grand piano with a chalkboard behind it. I always sat in the back where I could see everybody and–other than the professor–they couldn’t see me. He would take sheet after sheet of student music, plop it on the stand at the keyboard, and play without hesitation. Sometimes he had to back up and go over a few measures again, but within a minute or two he could go through the whole one-page piece without a mistake.

On the one hand it was validating. You might remember, leaving home was kind of a big deal to me. I had hoped and prayed that music school would show me people whose talents and abilities were far beyond my own, and it was thrilling to find out that it did.

But I envied that professor’s ability. Was his name… Nelson, maybe? Ron Nelson? I could sight read guitar music, but whatever facility I’d had with reading the double staff for the piano back at age ten, I had completely lost by age eighteen. I might as well be trying to read a different language. So, flashback to that argument I won, about quitting piano lessons. I remembered Claire telling me, in that judgmental scolding mother way of hers, that I was going to regret it.

And I remember sitting there in the classroom, while Professor Nelson played a jaunty chorale, with my gut feeling like I’d swallowed something so bitter it burned. Dammit, she was right.

(Sorry for the delay on today’s chapter, folks! I was trying to finish and post it last night and I was literally falling asleep on the keyboard. It’s rare for me to be that far behind–I’m usually anywhere from one to four posts ahead–but this time everything caught up to me. I should be in better shape by this coming week! -ctan)


  • G says:

    I hate it when my mom is right. But as a mom, it irritates me when my family thinks I’m wrong. They always learn in the end. I totally understand, Daron.

    Get some rest, ctan!

    • daron says:

      What makes me think back on it and wonder is at the time when I was a kid it didn’t even occur to me to wonder if my mother actually played the piano. She never let on that she did, and pushed lessons on us as some kind of society-accepted/society-required training, like sending my older sisters to ballet class.

      Of course then I found out she was on–or on the verge of–Broadway, I suddenly have to wonder if she danced as well as sang.

  • s says:

    Still lol-ing at Ziggy’s description of German.

  • Aunt Muriel says:

    Well, one always regrets not being able to do all the things all the time, but who’s to say that if you had kept with the piano, you might not have lost the time you needed for something else. Also, if you do regret the piano thing, it’s totally not too late to work on learning it now — good to have new things to learn!

    • daron says:

      Musical genius though I might be, I can feel it like a wall in my head. I’ll never have the easy fluency with it that I envied in Prof. Nelson, even if I worked on it every day for the rest of my life. it’s been written over by other things relating to the guitar mostly, so it’s worthwhile sacrifice, but if I’d kept it up I might have had both. Lucky for me when I compose something I can have computers play it and I don’t have to rely on a pianist the way all generations of composers before me did.

  • Stacey says:

    Oh, I hear you on the sight-reading thing! I didn’t start piano till my teens, and abandoned it quickly in favor of voice lessons, and as a result I can fake my way through sight-singing a piece – if I have accompaniment and a starting note.

    My daughter, on the other hand, is a fantastic sight-reader – though she claims she can only read bass clef as she’s a bass player. So, again, I should have insisted on piano 😉

    I love to read these chapters that are full of daily life and musicianship – they’re some of my favorites!

    • marktreble says:

      Determine the lowest comfortable note of your singing range, and be able to produce it 24/7. Now you have relative pitch, and don’t need a starting note. I use “G” at 3.472m wavelength.

      I sight-sing with intervals tied to memorized pieces. For example, the tritone is in Pace Pace Mioe Dio from La Forza del Destino, repeated at the end with “Maledizione.”

    • daron says:

      Yeah, sight singing is much more challenging to me than sight-reading for an instrument, and my ability to do it fades faster if I don’t keep it up, too. (Guess what I haven’t kept up in recent years… I just don’t need to use it that much)

  • marktreble says:

    You’re right, it’s not enunciation.

    Ziggy’s right, even German lullabies sound horrific.

    English: Butterfly
    Spanish: Mariposa
    French: Papillon
    German: Schmetterling.

    It’s worse in Prussian. The “Sch” is elongated, the “r” sounds like gunfire, and the ending is pronounced “ling’k”

    Hauptbahnhofsgelaendesarbeitsplannungsamt is the office that plans work for the grounds of the main train station. There are far longer examples.

    I taught piano and organ, made my living at one time playing keyboard, and I still can’t sight-read for shit.

    “Sünden” Accurate pronunciation requires endless training of every part of your sound production system to have any hope of getting the vowel right. It’s easy if you speak French, there’s an equivalent. Otherwise, GFL.

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