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oboe v. piano

September 23, 2020

Ever since I started learning the piano I’ve become more interested in the oboe. The oboe was my first instrument, and it’s for sure the instrument I’m best at. It’s weird being good at the oboe and then starting to play the piano. Looking back, I feel my oboe education was strictly set up as a path that, if followed, would increase my likelihood of getting hired for oboe jobs. Especially in college, my oboe curriculum involved studying orchestral excerpts that are frequently required at auditions, standard solo repertoire, and technical work like scales and arpeggios. The focus was on producing a beautiful sound and learning to play expressively and with intentionality, regardless of what music I was playing.

Now that I play the piano, I have realized something strange. All those years playing the oboe, I was never learning Music. I was learning to play the oboe. Of course, there is nothing about the oboe that isn’t related to music, so it sounds crazy to say what I’m saying. But I believe it’s true. I was learning the oboe, and I wasn’t learning music. I think it’s possible to be so focused on one detail of a complex system that you can become great at executing that detail without understanding how it interacts the other parts of the system. I once met someone who worked for DreamWorks as an animator. His job was to supervise the animation of the dust in the movie Kung Fu Panda 2. He worked with a whole set of tools to render dust realistically, so that whenever Po landed a punch, the dust wouldn’t look weird. He also worked with a small team who knew more or less what he knew, so that together they could make sure the dust was on point. He didn’t have to know how to direct a movie, or how to draw a fighting panda, or even how to animate water so that it splashes realistically. Those were all other people’s jobs. But his dust was seen by millions on screen when the movie came out, and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.

The way I feel now about my time as an oboist and only an oboist is as if I had somehow become a dust animator without ever learning how to draw anything but dust. Sure, I loved animated movies, and I thought it was fun to be around people who were making movies, and I even felt like I somehow had this strange affinity for dust animation, and some famous dust animators from the older generation saw my potential and felt I could possibly make it myself as a dust animator, and it didn’t really matter so much to them that I couldn’t animate anything else because, wow, I could really animate some good dust. And besides, we have a need for dust animators.

Now that I’m learning the piano, it’s like finally learning to draw a landscape. Sure, my landscapes aren’t gonna wow anyone into giving me a job at DreamWorks Animation, but they are definitely more fun to draw than dust was. And the more landscapes I draw, the more I realize how important it is to have realistic dust.

How do I think about music?

September 21, 2020

Did you know that Michael Jackson never learned how to read or notate music? I’m always surprised when I learn stuff like that. Musical notation is a very black and white thing, a clear and restrictive code for communicating on paper information that is supposed to be communicated through sound. I’m curious about the ways musical notation limits a person’s ability to think about music. I wonder how I would think about music if I never learned to read notes. My grandfather, for example, knows hundreds of pieces of music on the accordion and he learned them without ever reading music notes. It doesn’t make sense to compare my own musicianship to his or Michael Jackson’s, but I do think it’s interesting that I was set on a path early on that very heavily relied on note-reading. As a result of my years of oboe playing, I’m a proficient reader of the treble clef. Though I’m not sure how accurate a statement that is. I’m a proficient reader of the treble clef as applied to solo voices. That ability was helpful for my start on piano, but it is still challenging for me to read chords in the treble clef.

That was a strange tangent. What I meant to talk about today is a particular piece of music that I learned to play on the piano, and how it fits into my brain. It’s called “Morning Prayer”, and it’s the first short piece of music in Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. I love playing it because of the way it starts quietly and swells to a loud climax in the middle before drifting to its conclusion on the repetitive driving bass notes. It feels in my hands like a piece that’s perfect for the piano, because the range of sound from low to high spans more space than most other pieces I had learned up until this piece. Here’s a recording I made of myself playing it today:

I’d give this performance a B-. I played a wrong note at the end of the opening section, and I made a mistake with the pedal toward the end. But overall I think I played pretty “musically”.

I play the piano usually from memory. I’m able to read music, but I’m not able to read music at the same time that I’m playing. It’s not that I’m a bad sight-reader (which I am). It’s that I can’t move the information fast enough from my eyes to my hands when I’m playing piano. I have to use the sheet music as a reference to refresh my memory, and then when I play, it’s from memory. Goal: I want to improve at playing from the sheet music.

Below you’ll see the sheet music for this piece. It’s funny for me to look at it now, because I spent so much time reading it when learning the piece, but now for the last year or so I’ve just played this piece from memory as a warm up now and then. If you would have asked me this morning what key it’s in, I probably couldn’t have told you. I guess that’s one way I can describe how I think about music: I don’t think about music in terms of key. I can tell you now that this piece is in G major. I only really use a key signature to know which black keys on the piano I should anticipate playing. I think about playing oboe music fairly similarly.

I’m not going to try and analyze this music here in any depth. I will say that I think it’s interesting to see a G# played twice in the bass over the course of the piece. I never noticed that before until right now while writing. That seems significant all of a sudden, but I never noticed it being odd while playing those notes on the piano. I suppose a better pianist would notice stuff like that. I’m always impressed by people who can analyze a composition for the way chords move around and the harmonies interact, and how certain things make you feel certain ways because of the way the music is shaped. I generally feel very lost in conversations like that. So if I can’t have that conversation… what can I say instead? I’d say that “Morning Prayer” is a pretty, calm, satisfying piece of music for people looking for that “classic” piano sound.

My Musical Goal

September 20, 2020

I said my next post would be about my musical goals. I thought that would be easy. I could talk about my short term goals, like being able to confidently play all the major scales on the piano, or my long term goals, like being able to improvise together with another musician. Those are both real goals of mine, but they’re not what deeply motivate me. Those could be goals that anybody has. In fact, learning the major scales is a goal a guy on YouTube named Jonny told me I should have. I spent almost three years diligently learning piano without practicing scales at all. Now I’m doing what some might call remedial work, learning to play the major scales three octaves ascending and descending.

What deeply motivates me? I think I’m still trying to figure that out, and I worry I’ll never find an answer that doesn’t come off as selfish. The best answer I can come up with now definitely could be seen as selfish. I want to write good songs. I think that’s the central goal. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d like to be able to do, too, like to sit in a room with other musicians and make improvised music together. But I think really, the holy grail for me is to be able to write a great song. To write a song that someone hears and says, “oh I like this who’s it by?”

That’s my honest personal goal and I feel awkward sharing it. Glad that’s out of the way.

“Writing about Music is like Dancing about Architecture”

September 19, 2020

I decided to start writing as a way to explore and understand my relationship with music. More specifically, my relationship with performing and composing music.

For almost three years now, I’ve been learning the piano. I realized pretty early on in the process that it was changing how I think about music. I can understand now why piano is considered foundational in music education, a claim that I used to kinda resent. What makes the piano so important? Sure it’s beautiful, but is it really necessary to learn the piano to be good at music?

So much has changed in my mind over the last three years that it makes me wonder, how will I see things differently three years from now? I think by actively reflecting on my musical development, in the form of writing, I’ll better be able to process what I’m learning. I can be more intentional about how I spend my time practicing, and what questions I ask. I’ll use this space to record my achievements and realizations and frustrations and questions, and gradually it will become a record of how I’m coming along that I can look back on later.

I don’t know if what I write here will interest anyone but me. In fact, I don’t even know if it will interest me. My intention is to capture in words where my brain is at musically. Maybe I’ll throw in the odd picture or link or audio recording. I want to be able to look back on the process of getting “better” at music over time. I want more than just video documentation. I think the video documentation of someone’s improvement over time is interesting, and it can be entertaining to watch. But what really interests me is how my understanding of music changes as my ability to play the piano improves. If music is itself ineffable, as the quote I chose to title this post cleverly conveys, then thinking about music is, like, even more ineffable. Ineffable raised to the ineffable.

So I’m gonna go ahead and not think too much about whether what I write here makes any sense, let alone whether it’s interesting. My next post will be about my musical goals.

running 4/28

April 28, 2020

After a day off, today I ran just 1 lap again:

Tuesday: 1 lap | 7:42

They were a pretty painful seven minutes and forty-two seconds. My previous best time of 7:51 was tough enough – it was hard to imagine on Friday going much faster. But today, knowing that I had a couple runs under my belt since then, plus a full day of rest, it seemed reasonable to expect a quicker time. So I ran hard. I felt like I was grinding against my limit the entire time. I got off to a fast start, I felt stronger than ever going up the long uphill, but still I didn’t have any sense that I was going much faster. But I also worried that I was going too fast, and then I second-guessed myself for thinking that. Towards the end, I just wanted it to be over. Is that what it feels like to get better? I made it to the end, with a 9-second PR. I was glad to have beaten my time, but I think I’m done with this little project for now.

This last week was my first experience measuring my times without having any idea of how far I was running. I was hoping to somehow get to know my body more by not having any preconceived notion of what the “right” pace would be. I thought that by removing distance as a factor, while still measuring time, I’d get a better feeling for how I respond to relative distances.

I’m easily motivated by measurements. But I also don’t believe that’s a good way to look at life or to judge success.

running 4/26

April 27, 2020

Yesterday I tried running three laps. Here’s how it went:

Sunday (yesterday): 3 laps | 26:52 ( lap 1 – 9:11; lap 2 – 9:14; lap 3 – 8:27)


April 25, 2020

A trail in the woods near where I’m staying forms a satisfying loop. It’s exactly the right length, exactly the right shape, exactly the right smell. It even has an agonizing uphill stretch that I swear takes back way more than its downhills give. When I found it, I wondered how long it would take to get around. Nine minutes and fifteen seconds, it turned out. That was on Tuesday. I went back on Wednesday to find out how long it really takes. Eight minutes and nineteen seconds. Then I wondered, how long does it take to get around it twice? Eighteen minutes and forty-three seconds. That was Thursday. I went back yesterday and today. Here is what I found:

Saturday (today): 2 laps | 17:40 ( lap 1 – 9:09; lap 2 – 8:31)

Friday: 1 lap | 7:51

Thursday: 2 laps | 18:43 (lap 1 – 9:56; lap 2 – 8:47)

Wednesday: 1 lap | 8:19

Tuesday: 1 lap | 9:15

The Lernen to Talk Show | Season 4, Episode 1: We are in Jordan!

April 25, 2017

I had fun making the Lernen to Talk Show in Germany. So I’m doing it again, this time in Jordan. I hope you like it. Here’s Episode 1.

Note: This time around, subtitles are displayed via YouTube, so click “CC” for the subtitles. Click the little gear icon to switch between English or Arabic subtitles.

0:11 – This was filmed about 30 minutes after I landed in Jordan.

0:31 – “alhamdulillah” – you’re gonna hear this word a whole heck of a lot this season. It means “praise be to God”, but it’s used in all sorts of situations. Here it pretty much means the same thing as “I’m doing well”, but I like keeping the direct translation there because I think it says a lot about the culture here.

0:35 – I’m shocked that he understood what I was trying to say here.

0:45 – What little Arabic I go on to display in this video is the remnants of what I had learned in the summer of 2008, when I spent 6 weeks in Amman taking an Arabic class and an Islamic history class at Princess Sumaya University for Technology. Sadly I didn’t make any Lernen to Talk Show videos back then… I hadn’t had the idea yet! The only YouTube record of my time then was this video of me badly interpreting a Badly Drawn Boy song… which, incidentally, also features the voice of Mohammed, my guest in this episode, at the very end!

1:01 – By now I’ve displayed pretty much all the Arabic I knew coming into this.

1:09 – Mohammed literally just said nahnu”, and I repat “nahna” back to him. I’d like to think this is more on account of the fact that I just got finished with a 16 hour journey from Chicago.

1:25 – Here I’m trying to distinguish between using the article “al” before words… “Jordan” has a “the” in front of it in Arabic, but Amman doesn’t…

1:31 – …and when said after certain prepositions, like “fee”, a contraction is made. Which is why Mohammed says what sounds like “fill”, which, when separated, would be “fee” + “al”.

1:44 – As the old talk show host saying goes, “ask what you know!” Right?

1:51 – Qusai nailed it. I was trying to say “I’m happy”.

2:19 – Just like in Spanish, you gotta add a plural ending to adjectives you’re using to describe more than one person at once. In Arabic, that ending sounds like “-oon” (at least in this case).

2:35 – I gotta agree with them here.

2:52 – Qusai is trying to keep things in “formal” Arabic here, by correcting my use of the word bukra to instead use ghedden to say “tomorrow”. What he doesn’t realize is that in my head bukra meant “after”… but of course I was wrong. Bukra means “tomorrow” in Jordanian Arabic.

2:57 – To my American ear, the letter غ in Arabic sounds kind of like the rolled “R”… In fact it’s supposed to be pronounced totally differently, coming more from the back of the roof of your mouth, not from a fluttering of the tongue. Mohammed was hearing my mistake, even though I wasn’t. That’s what’s going on here.

3:05 – Annnnd we’re already using the future tense.

4:20 – Masalaama, is how it should be pronounced… I’m embarrassed about how long I went on saying this way.

I hope you like watching this new season as much as I like making it!

Keep lernen,


5:40 mile in 5:40

August 21, 2016

I’m sick. I’ve had a cold for about a week. Before that I was traveling. So for about two weeks I didn’t really run at all. Not good for somebody trying to get faster.

Anyway, today my throat wasn’t sore enough to justify not running. But my nose was stuffy enough to give me an excuse for not running exceptionally fast. So I did a time trial on the track. 5:40. I’m glad I’ve gotten faster from the last time I was timed (5:47, 3.5 weeks ago), and I can forgive myself for not going way faster because hey, I’m sick!

What’s a good frequency of re-testing? Once a week? I dunno.

5:02 mile in 8:19

July 31, 2016

Those times yesterday were what I guess I’ll refer to as unofficial. I was running around a park and I only measured the distance using the mapping tool at It told me that the distance I was running is really 0.24 miles, not 0.25 miles. But hey you gotta work with what you have. And if a 0.24 mile course is right outside my house then I’ll use it and I’ll call it an almost quarter mile.

Today I ran on an actual Track so I think these times are more accurately described as semi-official.

Same deal as yesterday. 400 meters, 4 times. A little slower, but with less rest in between. I aimed to run at a 5-minute mile pace for each quarter, resting for one minute in between. It was harder than I expected. But that might have been on account of the 300 feet of stairs I climbed during the 15-minute “warm-up” run to the track.

400 meters in 75 seconds.

Rest 1 minute 6 seconds.

400 meters in 73 seconds.

Rest 1 minute 3 seconds.

400 meters in 76 seconds.

Rest 1 minute 8 seconds.

400 meters in 78 seconds.

5 minutes and 2 seconds of running, 3 minutes and 17 seconds of rest. I want to do 5 minutes and 0 seconds of running with 0 minutes and 0 seconds of rest. That seems kind of impossible right now. That mile today was really, really rough. Especially the second 100 meters of the first two 400s and the last 200 meters of the last 400. I was going as fast as I could but it didn’t feel fast at all.

I’ve never really cared about this before – being fast. I’ve always had a kind of “it is what it is” attitude with regard to how fast I can run. But for some reason I’m like Obsessed with this idea of finding that speed somewhere. I wonder where it is.