Friday, July 03, 2015

Modal Disempowerment: Get up (get on up)

That's me back into English Language Assessment, full time. And escaping at last the allurements of the Common European Framework of Reference to explore the way they do things in the USA, on the basis that when America has an educational paradigm shift, the rest of the world starts writing lesson plans. I've quickly learned that not only the US but Canada, Australia, The Philippines and many (most?) International Schools are using the PreK-12 structure.

A good starting point is a paper by the TESOL International Association (motto: "Advancing Excellence in English Language Teaching") entitled Implementing the Common Core State Standards for English Learners: The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher, from April 2013, (which reminds me, I'd better start to learn to write references again, like, today). A sentence on p2 caught my eye: "TESOL International Association believes that ESL teachers can and should play a critical role in the success of the CCSS." [Emphasis supplied]. 

"Can and should". One evening a few months ago, whilst still toiling under the desert sun, I watched a BBC documentary about James Brown. It showed a recording of an American talk show he participated in during the late 70s. Another participant was an older, well-dressed white man, who was not identified. He adopted a rather embarrassingly matey attitude towards the Godfather of Soul, several times using the vocative function (to the man who almost everyone else addressed as Mr Brown), "Jimmy". 

If this was getting on Brown's nerves, he didn't show it straight away, but when the older guy said, adopting a pained look, of Brown's equal status in America, "You should be, Jimmy...", Brown just lost it. "Should be!" He stood up as if to walk out, controlled himself somewhat and sat down again, (this is James Brown we're talking about). The balance of power in the discussion shifted from the WASP to the Godfather. 

So what we're seeing here is the use of modals can and should as a get out. ESL teachers PLAY a critical role in paradigm shifts. Everyone in America IS equal. Let's just look out for mealy mouthed modals delivered by old men with facial expressions of theatrical regret. 


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Back to Nature, Not Necessarily in a Good Way

Getting to the top of the waiting list at the Kennyhill Allotments in Riddrie coincided nicely with getting back from Saudi. I've been almost every day since. I've got half of the plot held by a gardener who's getting on a bit. He clearly knows his onions: the soil is beautiful. One side is fruit bushes which had overgrown and were straggling onto the main bed, and were besides getting choked with nettles, so I've been clearing them, and cutting back the bushes, even though it's really the wrong time of year for pruning.

It was nearly job-done tonight, just a few feet and one more bush, a few dozen stinging nettles and couple of brambles to sort out. And then I saw a nest in front of me. Two listless looking chicks, one dead one discarded to the side. I swore and stepped back. I'd cleared the whole area of stinging nettles and feral fruit bushes, pausing as I'd been going along this thirty yard stretch, happy that it was starting to look like a garden. And I'd nearly finished, so here was this nest, wrens, exposed, nowhere to hide. I thought briefly of covering them with cuttings... daft idea. Nature. Natural selection. And then I saw a pair of magpies land on the roof of the dilapidated shed, watching me.

I went to the shed, it was pouring with rain anyway, so a good idea to take shelter. An adult wren appeared and went towards the nest, which I couldn't quite see now from this angle. And then wee jenny wren flew to an old table right by me, and looked at me. "I know," I said. She flew off. And then one of the magpies headed for the nest. I heard no noise. She reappeared, flew to a post a few yards from me. She looked me right in the eyes, and wiped her beak on the post, looked at me some more, wiped her beak again. I thought about how obvious it is that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

I didn't go back to examine the crime scene. That was enough gardening for today, I got on my bike and headed for the Lea Rigg and my customary post-gardening pint. Be nice to be amongst humans. But we're weird. Tonight was "Psychic Night".  Seven quid entrance fee, and it was filling up with middle aged ladies, so I took my pint to the side room, finished it more quickly than usual, and got back on the bike.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Safe Back Home With Mrs Kemble

Got home last Friday. After nearly four months practising on the semi-weighted Yamaha, the Kemble felt "rich and strange". Eccentric, even. My first thought was, "We're going to need a better piano". This was especially so with regard to sensitivity - getting a wee pianissimo note out was really difficult. So on Saturday when I happened to be in Biggar's in Sauchiehall St anyway, I had a shot on all of the pianos in the showroom. The digitals, mostly Yahamas, were fine, very touch sensitive, but of course soulless. But the acoustics, even a Broadwood baby grand, weren't appreciably better than my Kemble at home.

And so I got back down to it. Next mushqila, all of the white keys from B4 to G5 are liable to stick, making RH scales impossible to play. And not from want of trying: I thought maybe they just needed plenty of work, and they'd loosen up, but no. Meanwhile, (I was so pleased to get my fingers on Mrs K, I was for playing every note), B0 and C1 sound exactly the same, and the felts on the dampers for all of the lowest octave or so have a queer, fuzzy look. I got straight on to David Boyce, (who tuned Mrs K back in 2013 when she first arrived), to find that the conversation we'd had back then about working in Saudi had borne fruit, and he's still out there with his feet in the desert sand. He gave me the number of another tuner/technician, who's on holiday but back next week.

In the meantime, therefore, with C2 - C4 not sticking and being more-or-less in tune, I'm obliged to do LH scales and arpeggios, and LH Lincolnshire Poacher, whilst waiting for the non-Saudified tuner/technician. Which is turning out fine. I've been concentrating on the C scale. And for the first time I've started to practice with the metronome. The recommended minimum BPM for the Grade 1 scales is♩= 60, which turned out to be quite painfully slow, so I've got it now at♩= 72, andante, a healthy pulse, hot weather walking pace. C maj I've got down nicely, looking at the music or the metronome, fingers right up the keys. Just started today on G maj.

I watched a BBC documentary a few weeks back about restoring a war damaged Yamaha concert grand in Gaza. The technician said that all pianos have souls. Reluctant as I am to admit that even humans have "souls", I nevertheless know what she meant. Maybe "personalities" or "idiosyncrasies" would be a better way of describing it, especially in an older piano, where each instrument even if it's made by the same people from the same materials will have tiny differences manifest in the grain of the wood, and whether the vital work was done on a Wednesday morning or a Friday afternoon, say...

Khalas, I'm going back to G maj LH.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong."

There is no source for this quotation, which in itself is inspirational: pedagogue musicians have perhaps been saying it to their students for the last two or three thousand years. At work, we've been enduring "Traffic Week", (a colossal exercise in "teslik"), and everyone was given a kind of party bag containing colouring books and crayons, (dished out to grown men, mind), and a pack of cards to play some kind of Happy Families safety game. So I've given each of the cards a value from the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano syllabus scales and broken chords.

For example, the card "Follow The Speed Limit" on a red background = A minor harmonic RH. That was the first one I turned over, and I set about learning the scale, playing it again, again, again; looking at the music, looking at the keys, looking at my hands, looking out the window, slowly, quickly, pianissimo, fortissimo, again, again, again. The same mistakes kept coming up, mis-playing the F on the way up, or playing the G as a natural... slowly, slowly, it took shape. I could look out of the window and feel (for example), the F sharp brush against finger 3 but not sounding as I played the F natural on the way back down, hitting its sweet spot right at the top of the key.

And this morning I've drawn "Pedestrian Crossing Zone" on a blue background, which is D minor harmonic LH. That should keep me out of mischief this weekend. Hitherto, I was a bit snooty about playing these single handed scales, wanting to play them all two handed. But now that I've spent a week with A minor harmonic, I understand what the ABRSM syllabus designers have done: single handed scales and broken chords are the smallest building blocks at this Grade. One needs to get a really intimate knowledge of that scale or chord, how it sounds, and looks on the staff, and feels under the hand. Again, again, again.

It feels as if this is where the actual work starts, this is learning to play the piano in achievable wee chunks: scales, chords, pieces, grade by grade. And when I'm watching my hands and fingers as I play without any conscious input, playing as if I can't get it wrong, they are beginning to look like a piano player's hands.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Get your skinny white arse onto that piano stool, and don't get off it until you've learned The Lincolnshire Poacher!"

It's been Oscar Peterson, no less, who's gotten me back to the keyboard. Together with a final shove from my IRL teacher, Flora, who deeply impressed me last week by playing the first dozen bars from Chopin's Ballade from memory. Oscar is the new role model because he brought a concert pianist's discipline to jazz, which tells me I can play all the standards one day, but I need to work at all the scales and arpeggios first.

Although I've had a two month lull with not much practice, when I got back to it I realised that I've actually learned a lot prior to this recent hiatus.  Grade 1, after all, is NOT a beginners exam.  Flora was very impressed that I'm playing between the keys, and I was even more impressed to learn that my straight-line wrists are looking pretty good.

My date with the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano has been postponed to November this year. Procrastination over. Now I'm doing exactly what it tells me in the syllabus, that is the scales etc given (with hands separate, apart from contrary motion in C maj), and the three pieces, firstly The Lincolnshire Poacher:

I'm not blogging again until I can come back with a video of me doing that. I may be gone for quite some time...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Something Has Happened

I learned that grade 1 arr. of Imagine. Someone on FB pointed out my shockingly droopy wrists, and yes, they had a point. So I moved on to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, determined to get the wrists right. And I noticed the wrists took care of themselves if I played high up the keys. I got so absorbed in all this, playing G major scales properly, with the fingers right, and high up the keys... That was when I realised that those fingerlings enabled me to play high up the keys, and fit neatly into the gaps between the black keys, and that's why, perhaps, the black keys are arranged as they are in twos and threes...

After several years of being a little intimidated by the keyboard, its contours suddenly began to feel friendly, familiar, home-like. The hurried advice I had from Flora (my Sauchiehall St teacher) at last fell on fertile ground: it's actually much easier with your wrists high... It's ok to lean forward... Those two half hour lessons back in October have got me out of the barren place I was in during the summer, wondering, where the hell am I going with this? 

So I got online and ordered the ABRSM Piano grade 1 pieces for 2015/16, though God knows when they'll arrive out here. And tonight I went back to the scales in the syllabus, single handed and all the proper fingers, as required. I know I want to play all the 20th century popular classics, from Ivor Novello to The Pogues, and of course Tom Waits, but I need a bit of structure to get me there, so with a little help from the ABRSM and wee Flora, I'm going to do all of the grades, starting with 1 in June. Everything I've done so far has been leading to this - grade 1, I've read, is not for beginners, but I'm past that now, I can do it with an hour a day. And then a grade every six months, maybe a year, depending on how life goes. And once I get to Grade 8, I've also read, I'll be a good quality amateur, and ready to go where the fancy takes me, blues or jazz or folk. I might even try the accordion. But I need my ABRSM straight piano chops first. 

I have a road map, and I'm on my way. Whilst waiting for the ABRSM pieces to get here, I've got the Lynda Frith Grade 1 pieces to keep me going, and that feels like the right thing to do: learning as many as I can, but seeing them as steps on the road, learning devices, not really as pieces to be performed per se - though I will get them all on YouTube, to garner advice and bring an element of performance. And motivation. Now, I'm pushed to get We Wish You a Merry Christmas done (obviously) before Christmas, get it on FaceBook and show off my elevated wrists and high-up-the-keys style. 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Making the Grades

I had a couple of piano lessons when I was home in Sept/Oct. My fingers were all wrong, and I've learned to do C, G and now D scales with the proper fingers.  And I've got a book of grade 1 pieces - not ABRSM pieces, but grade 1 nontheless, - and I've started with Imagine. Really it more or less just follows the sung harmony of the original song, with some simple wee harmonies in the left hand.  

The plan is to learn as many grade 1 pieces as I can now in Saudi from this book, (Scarborough Fair, Greensleeves, The Sound of Silence, California Dreamin') whilst I'm here. I hope it gets easier as I go along. Imagine is hard work, though I'm getting here. 

Come February, (or thereabouts), I'll be home again, and I'll get the 2014/15 ABRSM Grade 1 syllabus pieces to learn in time for the Summer 2015 exams in Glasgow. I'm hoping that I can more or less sight read grade 1 pieces by then. I'm just focussing on that for now. Grade 2 et seq will have to wait for now. My notions of doing the jazz piano grades, and of learning proper ungraded pieces of music, were overambitious. I need the structure of the ABRSM system, and a good teacher, if I'm going to make good progress... and oodles of practice too. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Blogging Continues, Nontheless

I read somewhere, (The Guardian, probs, but can't find the link now), that personal blogging is about done with, that most of us have moved on in social networking terms.  Subjectively, that's probably about right - I used to post here almost daily. And now it's monthly. But it's coming up ten years now, and this does a job that FB and Twitter don't do.  Really, it's a place to note how things are getting along with stuff I'm interested in, but that will tend to make anyone else's eyes glaze over when I start talking about them: photography, gardening, the piano. 

Photography is SO noughties, now. I use the iPhone to get photos - and that means I'm just concentrating on the image, no longer on the process and the gear.  And all that gear, like the Nikon F, I was going to put it all on eBay, but it was all purchased and taken so much care of over a decade, it seems a pity to part with it for mere lucre. So I'm going to box it all up and Molly or someone else can get the benefit from it in the future.  Ten years ago, I would have been overjoyed to get a treasure chest of cameras and developing gear and film, and I hope someone gets some joy, some time.

Gardening is back on the agenda.  I hope to be finished with Saudi next Spring, insha-bloody-lah, by which time I'll be advanced enough on the Kennyhill Allotments waiting list to get at least a raised bed, maybe a quarter-plot, which will be just right to ease me back into gardening. Hoping to get a full plot with a shed and a greenhouse, the whole bit, in a couple of years. 

Meanwhile, the old Kemble is settling in and growing on me. It's sticky keys have stopped sticking, (apparently Molly and her wee pal give it a good bashing once a week, whilst I'm away, which might explain that - it just needs plenty of use). It might be ever so slightly out of tune, but nothing hurtful on the ear, and I'll get it tuned to concert pitch when I'm home full time.  

Yesterday I walked across George Sq. There are a couple of pianos there now, I don't know if it's just for the Commonwealth Games or if they're to be a permanent feature, (and what happens when it rains?)  There were some kids plink-plonking as I passed the first time, but on the way back an old man was playing some boogie woogie - he was clearly an amateur, but competent. Quite a crowd had gathered, and they cheered and clapped when he finished.  

I'm still learning the keys. For each one, I do hands an octave apart, up and down, different tempos. Then contrary motions, then arpeggios.  I've got this routine down pretty well in C, D and E major, and made a start on F and G. In the last week or so, I've added the 12 bar blues to this routine, so far only in C, (two hands, octave apart) - I've got a feeling this is very important, though I'm not quite sure why yet. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Back to Basics

I've tried and failed now to learn three quite simple pieces, She Moves Through the Fair, Water of Tyne, and Down at the Old Bull and Bush, and it's been such hard work I've not gotten past a few bars on each of them.  So I'm leaving off the pieces until I've spent a whole lot more time with scales and arpeggios.  I was telling Chris at work about this, and he kindly pointed out that I haven't got a good ear - have to admit he's right there, he led us in some singing and he would have noticed.  

So I'm working with the scales, still C major, and now D major. I've got all the key's chords, scales and arpeggios on sheet music - an A4 page for each key, thirty or so in all. So I plan to be doing two at a time, until I get really good at one of them, so that I can play it all over the keyboard without even thinking about it, and then I'll move onto another key, always learning two at a time so that I don't get bored with it.  

And I've got a few apps for my ear.  Or rather for the bunch of synapses or whatever it is that deal with my pitch recognition, currently apparently grown from cloth. I've just bought an iphone, and can spend any idle moments listening to singing blobs, and identifying the note each of them sings.  

And there's another app with a keyboard, a bit advanced for me yet, but it's tutorial had an exercise which I've heard before, and so it's probably a well known practice drill, not until this week known to me however. I really like it. Two eighth notes in the tonic, then a quarter one key up, quarter back on the tonic, rest, two eighths, and then up one more, and back again. So in C it's C-C, D, C; C-C, E, C; et seq. I've been practising it today in C, two hands. It's good because you're getting across the octave in one hand, with the 1RH and 5LH staying on the tonic. 

Seriously thinking of investing in a lesson or two when I'm home in a month's time. I need a good teacher.  I'll probably need to shop around, find one I'm going to get on with long term, so I may as well start now, it could take a while. I need some advice on getting structure in practice, something to fill an hour - I'm just not doing the hour that I should be.  Some days only 15 - 20 mins.  

On the other hand a day never passes when I don't sit down and do at least a few scales. I need a teacher's advice on ways to measure progress, help with my day to day motivation. At the moment, it's a vague intention to be able to play all kinds of stuff in a band by the time I'm 60. But there's a mountain to climb before that, a massive one, and I could do with some milestones. 

I've also realised that I need some competence with the virtual keyboards on tablets and phones. When I tell my students I'm learning keyboards, they naturally whip out their phones and ask for a tune, so I need to learn a few one handed ditties on my iphone. This new wee scale exercise, for starters.