Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Playing the piano at the hospice

I guess without the habit of practice, some things tend to fade away.

As I looked into the repository of draft blog entries in my Blogger, I felt disgusted at their quality and analytical limitations. The sharpness is lost, so they're deleted. Or perhaps there is no more rage that would have inspired another 1,500 to 2,000 word essay.

The past 12 months has made me an empty shell. I left my job, although it would seem an irrational decision since I believe it is possibly the best job I could ever have.

During the 3-week lull period, I got to do a 7-day stint as a volunteer pianist at a hospice. It was purely by chance in my first visit I noticed the existence of the instrument sitting outside the wards. Besides, I thought it would be fun to do something different, while at the same time recharge my batteries.

Despite having only touched the piano for a few minutes every 1 or 2 years in the last 20 years, I wrote to them and asked if I could play for the patients and staff. Thankfully, they thought I was neither crazy nor incompetent, despite the lack of practice and familiarity with the piano.

11 years of formal Electone organ training. Played the guitar since 1996. Been writing and recording songs since 1997. I quietly believed I could do pull it off, although I was initially disappointed at the quality of playing.

Being at the hospice was a sobering experience. I feel there's love, and there's also sadness.

It was a 1-hour shift. My first shift was a difficult 45 minutes.

The lack of practice and conditioning was felt almost immediately. The weighted keys and sustain pedal weren't totally alien, but I knew I needed years of playing to reach the level I desire. My left hand was sluggish and occasionally played the wrong keys, while my right was heavy and a little too ambitious (wanting to simultaneously play both melody and chords).

It wasn't only the fatigue in the forearms and wrists but the choice of songs and the environment that made the first time difficult. Maybe I thought too much of it.

To make things easier, I had transposed most songs to C major key signature, after having listened to them on YouTube to make sure I got the melodies and chords right. Of course, there were the hours of practice.

At every milestone of a song, I would tell myself I was talented and "it" would come back to me. But of course, that would have ignored the reality of 11 years of grind that sharpened my aural abilities. Fortunately, that compensated for my lack of conditioning on the piano, and of course, the use of the sustain pedal to patch over the weak playing of the left hand and the use of arpeggios on the right - a piano hack? I don't know.

Tomorrow's the last of the 7-day stint. Been clocking 1.5 hours in the last few sessions although the soreness is there.

It's still a hospice, and I always have a heavy heart walking into the premises and sitting myself down by the piano. But as a volunteer putting in a 1 to 1.5-hour shift, I knew my role was to do my best to make the environment relaxing and enjoyable for the patients, staff and other volunteers.

Looking forward to playing tomorrow again, and will probably miss doing it after that.

Here's the whole set (in no particular order):

Malay Songs:
Di Tanjong Katong
Chan Mali Chan
Burung Kakak Tua
Rasa Sayang
Bengawan Solo

Chinese Songs:
小人物的心生 (or is it 声?)

Miscellaneous Singaporean Songs:
Count on Me Singapore
Stand up for Singapore
Singapura, Oh Singapura

Beatles numbers:
The Long and Winding Road
Across the Universe
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
8 Days a Week
Let It Be
Hey Jude
You Won't See Me
Imagine (by Lennon, of course)

Other Rock/pop numbers:
We are the Champions (by Queen)
Don't Look Back in Anger (by Oasis)
Yellow (by Coldplay)
The Wild Ones (by Suede)
Leave a Light On (by Belinda Carlisle)
My Heart Will Go On (by Celine Dion)
Let It Go (from Frozen)
I Do I Do I Do I Do (by Abba)
Shanty (by The Quests)
Julie Tearjerky (by Eraserheads)
Sabai Sabai (by Bird Thongchai)
That Thing You Do (from the movie of the same name)

Moon River
Love Me Tender
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
You Belong to Me
When You Wish Upon a Star
Don't Know Why
Dream a Little Dream

Theme from New York New York
Mack the Knife

Doodles and Fillers:
Theme from Super Mario Brothers
Young Men (by Suede)
Strawberry Fields Forever (by The Beatles)
Champagne Supernova (by Oasis)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chord variations

I have only in the last two to three years started paying attention to the technique of "jazzing" up chords. As an amateur songwriter, I was always oriented towards the British influenced blues-tinted guitar-driven rock for a good 8 years before accommodating in my songs shoegazer's heavy layering of guitars for a couple of years.

Although I am probably not able to identify the names/terms of the chord variations, my early songwriting already used the following: Major7, Major Add9, Minor7, Minor6, Minor Add9, Aug4, 7 Sus4, 7 Add9, Major9. They are like people whose faces we recognise, but whose names we don't remember.

Examples in C and Am minor key signatures, and in ascending order of chords:

C Maj7 = C, E, G, B.
C Maj Add9 = C, E, G, D.

A Min7 = A, C, E, G.
A Min6 = A, C, E, F#.
A Min Add9 = A, B, C, E.

C Aug4 = C, F#, G; or C, E, F#, G.

(Fifth chord) G7 Sus4 = G, C, D, F.
(Or if I'm going to move from Am to D7, I'll use D7 Sus4) D7 Sus4 = D, F#, G, A, C. 

(Another variation of D7, following Am) D9 = D, F#, A, C, E.
(Fifth chord) G9 = G, B, D, F, A.

The variations in the chords (as opposed to your typical orthodox 1-3-5's/C-E-G's) allow more options for stringing chords together since the virtual counterline of notes that connect one chord with the next will be tighter. At least that was my take on it (and at least it explains why Canon in D "flows").

For instance, in the key of C major, let's use the example of C chord transitioning to F.

The constituent notes of C major are C, E and G, while F major is F, A and C. 

There are a handful of virtual counterlines that would connect these 2 chords:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. E to F (1 key)
3. G to F (2 keys)
4. G to A (2 keys)

For me, it is not the individual, but the collective set of counterline transitions that determine the extent to which one chord will "flow" to another chord. I religiously apply this principle to my songwriting because I always believe it makes the most sense for the style of guitar-driven pop-rock songs I like to make.

Now, when I "complicate" and "fuzzy up" the chords C and F to be, say Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B) and Fmaj add9 (F, A, C, G). I get this:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. G to G (0 key)
3. E to F (1 key)
4. B to C (1 key)
4. G to F (2 keys)
5. G to A (2 keys)
6. B to A (2 keys)

I would consider Cmaj7 moving to Fmaj add9 as something that's transits/flows well, because not only do you have a very small shift in keys (e.g. B to C and E to F), the second chord also retains components of its predecessor (e.g. notes C and G).

That explains the feeling some of us experience (well, music invokes different reactions) when we encounter the following chord sequence: C, Cmaj7, C7.

This is because each subsequent chord carries with it the essence of the previous chord, making the transition smooth-to-seamless, and in the case of C to Cmaj7 to C7, sounds like it's sliding smoothly downwards.

C = C, E, G.
Cmaj7 = B, E. G.
C7 = Bb, E, G.

You can get the above sequence in popular songs like Can't Take My Eyes Off You or Kiss Me.

So, for your orthodox pop song or old school rock and roll song, you can take a more direct approach by transitioning from C to C7 before you (very obviously) move to the fourth chord F major.

But if you're going indie rock or even jazz, Cmaj7 can be used in place of C. The major7 bunches up the notes in a chord, going against the grain when it comes to orthodox major and minor chord formation (i.e. your 1, 3, 5s), in which the notes in those latter chords have a somewhat comfortable separation from one another. The major7 compresses the notes, and serves to make the chord sound more like a "transition" chord, i.e. doesn't sound like the root chord, or sound quite like the equilibrium on which the entire song should be resting.

For example, in a pop song in C major key signature, we would know (and gladly take for granted) that all roads point back to C major because it is the root chord and equilibrium with which all chord sequences end. But when you use C Maj7 to open or close a line of chords or a movement in the song (e,g. verse, chorus), it doesn't immediately assure the listener that it is the main chord of the song and, I believe, would impress upon the listener that something is definitely coming up next, hence my labeling it as a transition chord.

Same case when moving from G back to C in C major key signature. Some use G7 (G, B, D, F), and others use G and transition it to G aug5 (G, B, D#). The destination is the same, i.e. C major (C, E, G), but it is all about finding the variation of the G chord that would make it a lot closer to its following chord.

In trying to return to C major chord, how am I going to make that journey back to the E note (which is part of C major chord)?

The closest the G major chord has to offer is D, which is 2 keys removed from E.

G7 has F, which is 1 key removed from E. So you could "fall back down" to C major from G7. Alternatively, G aug5 has D#, which is always 1 key removed from E. This allows you to "crawl back up" to C major from G aug5.

I don't know what's the accurate term that best captures the "jazzing up", "fuzzying" of chords, but depending on the effect you want to get out of the song, certain chord variations will help. This is especially useful for an amateur musician like me, who has in the earlier stages of songwriting, made chord sequences out of orthodox 1-3-5 chords, before adding variations.

Let's use "Count of Me Singapore" as an example. It's in the key of F. If you're an old school pop songwriter who loves clean and orthodox chords, this would be your chordwork.

You and (Fmaj) me
We'll do our (C) part
Stand to- (Gm) -gether (C)
Heart to (F) heart

We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (F) be
We can achi- (Bb) -eve (C)
We can achi- (F) -eve

The arrangement mostly relies of first (F), fourth (Bb) and fifth chords (C), comprising the clean and orthodox 135.

Now, let's do an extreme make-over with jazzed up chords to achieve a dreamier effect on the song, which it doesn't really need because it's already a very well-written song. That "Bb on C" chord in the original song alone, in my opinion, the genius stroke that at the same time holds together and defines the song.

(C7 sus4) You and (Fmaj7 add11) me (Fmaj7)
We'll do our (C7 sus4) part (C7)
Stand to- (Gm7 add9) -gether (C7)
Heart to (Fmaj7) heart

(F7) We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (Am7) be (Dm add9)
We can achi- (Gm7) -eve (C7 sus4) (C7)
We can achi- (F) -eve (F6) (F7)

For the heck of it, I'll put in the chorus:

(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me Singa- (Am7) -pore (Dm add9)
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (Fmaj7) -pore (F7)
(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me to give my (Am7) best and (Dm add9) more
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (F) -pore