10 Ways to Become a Real Musician Right Now

Musicians are a unique bunch. We spend a lot of time working hard, but that’s not all we do! Here are ten ways to be a real musician that you may not have thought of!

1. Make the classics new.

John Cage is a 20th-century composer known for his style of taking away control from both himself and the performer. This type of music can be called “aleatoric” (a.k.a. “chance”) music, but he preferred the term “indeterminate.”

4’33” (“four minutes thirty-three seconds” or just “four thirty-three”) is commonly referred to as a song of silence. The performer sits before an audience and remains quiet. Cage argues, however, that the music is in the sounds of the room itself: the creaks of chairs, the buzz of stage lights, the inevitable coughs of that person who is present in every concert hall, or even the sad ringing of a cell phone.

It’s divided into three movements (a traditional number). Many pianists carry a timer to the piano and close the lid to signify the beginning and end of each movement. See such a performance here. Although the performer in this embedded video doesn’t use a timer, it is a cheeky performance that reminds us to find ways to revive the classics.

It’s actually still under copyright (published in 1952), so if you’re interested in what the sheet music actually looks like, you can buy the score here.

2. Make the best of things you can’t control.

Eliane Rodrigues is a Brazilian international concert pianist and professor of piano at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp (Belgium). In this recital at De Doelen in Rotterdam (Netherlands), she quickly finds a mechanical malfunction with the pedal that makes the notes continue to ring regardless of whether or not her foot is on the sustain pedal. This is why pianists are the real daredevils of classical music—we can’t take our instruments with us!

Instead of panicking, she makes it a fun experience and experiments with the piano as she rides below the stage with it. My favorite part of this video is when she comes back up with the new piano: what an entrance! She chooses to have fun, so the audience does as well.

To see the full video, click here, and check out her website here.

3. When in doubt, make it your own!

Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” “Queen of Jazz,” “Lady Ella,” is known for her innate understanding of the jazz lexicon, evidenced in her improvisational skill, particularly scatting. Her popularity gave her roles in cinema and on television, and she even collaborated with other jazz greats, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

In her 1960 show in Berlin, she forgot the lyrics to the standard “How High the Moon” (lyrics by Nancy Hamilton and music by Morgan Lewis). Instead of just not singing, she handles it with grace and changes the lyrics to fit her situation.

How high the moon is the name of this song.

How high the moon, though the words may be wrong.

We’re singing it because you asked for it,

So we’re swinging it just for you

How high the moon, does it touch the stars?

How high the moon, does it reach up to mars?

Though the words may be wrong to this song,

We’re asking how high, high, high, is the moon?

She includes quite a few more surprises in addition to the scat she’s so well known for. Although the recording is around 7 minutes long (normal for jazz), it is a delight to listen to it in entirety.

4. Find your own style.

American contemporary classical composer Andy Akiho wrote a triple concerto around the use of a ping pong table. The world premier of Ricochet featured Ariel Hsing and Michael Landers, two American table tennis olympians, and David Cossin and Elizabeth Zeltser on percussion and violin, respectively.

We can actually thank John Cage and his contemporaries for the inclusion of “odd” instruments in music. Or even going to Tchaikovsky who included hammers and cannons in some of his work.

This is only a short segment that features the bass drum, but you can watch the entire work here. Just remember, if you think your work is unconventional, don’t throw it away. It’s your style; stick by it!

5. Give people a reason to smile.

“The Clown Prince of Denmark,” “The Unmelancholy Dane,” “The Great Dane,” Victor Borge is one of my favorite pianists of all time. Even before I played piano, his comedy held a place in my heart. With well-known skits like Phonetic Punctuation, it’s impossible not to smile.

I’ve always admired him not only for his beautiful playing but also for his skill in playing pieces backwards, like in this video, and cracking jokes at the same time. For a sample of a more serious recording, you can listen to a performance of a soft lullaby here.

6. Be yourself, always!

There are some real bangers out there in the realm of classical music. This girl loves some Mahler. This piece in particular is from a larger cycle called Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German poetry set by this nineteenth and twentieth century composer.

The beauty of sharing “silly” videos like this is that it shows her love for the music, and it makes people want to listen to the rest. If you’d like to (like I did), you can check out the entire song cycle with sheet music here.

Just…make sure you practice too.

7. Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.

The Wind Symphony from Liberty University got their professor good. Admittedly, the Mii theme isn’t the most difficult melody to hear and notate, but this group had some real teamwork to pull this off. Not only did someone write out parts for each person, but the group as a collective whole had to decide when to do this.

Their director seems to be continuing a thought when he steps up to the podium, so it seems this happens in the middle of a rehearsal, so I’m really curious how they pulled it off.

Just remember to use your powers for good, not evil!

8. Honor your favorite musicians.

These two guys often cause me to spend too much time on the internet. They run the Youtube channel, TwoSet Violin. It resonates with musicians because it’s about life as a classical musician: school troubles, how parents treat you, teaching, and other funny videos like this one.

In this particular video, they remind everyone that violin is hard enough standing still, but trying to dance at the same time? Good luck. Lindsey Stirling pulls it off with incredible grace and agility. Whether or not you like her music, this parody video makes people smile. And bonus points for the cameo at the end!

9. Create community wherever you go.

Pianist Dotan Negrin took his upright piano on a world tour. In the process, he met tons of people and had the opportunity to collaborate with extraordinary artists. In New York, he ran into Ada Pasternak, a violinist who does covers and some really cool improv. Check out both their channels by clicking their names!

Here they bring back an old popular (that’s still listened to today) by Grover Washington Jr. You can listen to the original here.

They continued to collaborate after this meeting, so remember you can make lasting connections wherever you go. Just keep playing and invite others into your fold.

10. Don’t forget to feel it!

Beethoven’s not for the faint of heart, but this kid nails it. My conducting teacher showed us this video to encourage us to loosen up and just feel the music. If a kid can do it, you can too!

Musicians can sometimes get caught up in getting all the notes right, but when it comes down to it, performing is about feeling. So summon your inner child and go get ’em!

There you have it, ten ways to become a real musician!

  1. Make the classics new.
  2. Make the best of things you can’t control.
  3. When in doubt, make it your own!
  4. Find your own style.
  5. Give people a reason to smile.
  6. Be yourself, always!
  7. Put those theory and orchestration classes to good use.
  8. Honor your favorite musicians.
  9. Create community wherever you go.
  10. Don’t forget to feel it!

Hope you enjoyed this roundup! If you like this, don’t forget to comment, like, and share with your fellow music folk. Until next time!

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician

Constant self criticism, practicing perfectionism, locking yourself away for hours. Such is the life of a musician. Half of it, anyway.

The other half of being a musician can be so rewarding, but when you’re stuck in the first half, it can feel like there’s no point in trying. There’s so many more people that are better than you. Child prodigies show up and learn skills in half the time. You started late, and there’s no such thing as “catching up” in music. You just aren’t as good as you thought you’d be at this point in your life.

At some point, you knew you wanted to be a musician, and you knew why. It just got lost along the way.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel like you have no purpose as a musician.

1. Why did you start?

Maybe you started lessons as a child because your parents made you. Maybe you had to pick an elective in school, and band was the least offensive idea to you. Even if the very beginning wasn’t your choice, you’re here because you’re worrying about the reason you bother practicing. It is now your choice.

Music gave me a sense of belonging when I felt I could never fit in. I was the girl who ate lunch by herself everyday, but I joined choir and found a community. After that, I started piano, and I felt like I found an entire world of love. It’s a little odd since it can be rather solitary, but either way, I found a place to belong.

I started working hard as a musician because I was so thankful for it.

2. How are you making the world a better place right now?

You may feel like you aren’t influencing the world at all, but remember that change has to start in one place. That place is small.

The moment I realized I could actually make a difference was during a family trip out west. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, is this massive gallery of instruments from all of world history. It’s divided according to geographical location and is absolutely not limited to Western Europe. I’d love to go back; there’s a lot to learn there.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Steinway grand sitting out in the lobby. They encourage anyone to play it.

When we took our trip, I had only been playing piano a few months, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning an instrument. At the urging of my mother, I quickly sat down and played one of the only two songs I knew. I developed this arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast” back then because I just loved piano that much.

To that point, I hadn’t really had a bad performing experience, so I got to enjoy playing a Steinway for the first time ever without much anxiety. When I looked up, I was surprised how many people had stopped to listen. A group surrounded the piano, and there were even people smiling down at me from the balcony above.

Afterward, a few congratulated me and asked about my background, but one person stuck out: a little girl (with her parents of course!).

She jumped up and down like I had physically flown around the room with fireworks exploding behind me. That’s when I knew I could do magic; I could influence people with music.

I hold this memory close and pull it out when I need reassurance that I can play a role in making the world a better place. It starts with making someone smile.

3. Who are you working hard for?

This answer changes with your circumstances. When I was younger, I practiced simply to make the people around me smile. But the more I learned of how dark the world can be, I decided to work for those who need a little light.

Music gave me a community when I was alone. It’s a refuge for some with mental illnesses or dire situations. I practice for them, so they know they’re not alone.

But I know I can do more. There are many musicians I look up to who donate heavily to or create their own charities. With budget cuts leaving kids without access to music education and without the same community I found, I was thrilled to learn of Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation. I want to work hard to support that and other groups that are making real impacts in the world today. I can use my love to help others live.

The people who will benefit from that are the people I work hard for.

Whoever it is you’re personally working hard for, think about them when you feel pointless. It could be your parents, your sister, your teacher, your student. Let them motivate you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of practice and performance and forget just how hard being a musician can actually be. When you find yourself in the practice room in tears asking yourself, “Why?” ask these three questions too.

  1. Why did you start?
  2. How are you making the world a better place right now?
  3. Who are you working hard for?

I hope these help, and if you have any other questions that help you, add to the discourse! You can comment below or share elsewhere.

7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.

I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.

Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.

Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.

No one can tell you.

That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.

1. Practice Every Day.

This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.

2. Set small goals.

Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.

Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.

3. Keep a practice journal.

This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.

Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.

4. Celebrate the little things.

Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.

Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.

5. Take a Break.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).

The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.

6. Move on.

The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.

This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.

7. Smile.

The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.

You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.

I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.

All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!

What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!

Meet the Composers: Palestrina

Meet Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Known as the “Prince of Music” he is responsible for hundreds of works that are known as “absolute perfection.” I love his music so much that he is a supporting character in a novel I wrote (not yet published; I’ll let you all know when it is).

Perhaps this is because he avoided chromaticism in his music, or it’s simply because of the natural beauty in his voice leading. Whatever the case, there’s so much to dig into in his music.

Sicut Cervus is one of about 250 motets Palestrina composed. I encountered this piece in high school, and many of my music friends say the same; thus, it makes a good introduction into the work and style of Palestrina.

The text is based on the first verse of Psalm 42, “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Good ole KJV.

It’s curious that this version of the Latin uses the term “fountains of waters.” I know that some cultures view fountains as symbols of good fortune, so I’m curious if “fountain” is used in the original Hebrew, or if it was added in some translation. History buffs, please share if you know anything of this; I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to research this.

The way Palestrina sets this text is divine. It makes you want to just sit back and absorb the sound. Sicut Cervus uses imitative polyphony, which is kind of like a round. Think of when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with a large group of people. One subgroup starts, and when they get to “Merrily, merrily,” the next group starts at the beginning. The melody sounds good on top of itself and creates harmony internally. Imitative polyphony is also commonly used in the fugue.

The 16th century relied heavily on this style, but it is not the only style Palestrina used.

This imitative polyphony enhances the image of flowing water in Sicut Cervus. You can most easily see this in the last repetition of “ad fontes aquarum” particularly in the top two voices, as the moving parts of the melody trickle down from the soprano and into the alto, like water trickling from a fountain.

Sicut Cervus remains one of my favorite works of choral music of all time, and it will be for some time, no doubt. As we explore more of Palestrina’s works, we’ll dig more into technique and style, but for now, sit back and enjoy this recording.

Creating Music, Part One: Where to Begin

Classical musicians are cover artists. We play the scores of composers from long ago, and we get to put our own spin on the music.

But what about creating our own from scratch? It’s not always easy to start off. Compare it to writing in your own native language (English for the sake of the analogy).

You started reading somewhere around the age of five. Then you probably began to write short sentences and progressed to essays during the time of grade school. You learned to write poetry, the easiest form being the haiku, and possibly some fiction. Throughout this process you learned to express at least some part of yourself in a literary manner.

Now think about your journey with music. Your parents may have started you in lessons when you were just starting school and learning to read, or you may have waited until you could join band in the fourth grade, or maybe you didn’t even think you’d like music until you started taking piano in high school.

Nonetheless, the fact that you are reading this probably means you are a musician and have studied musical literature in some way, shape, or form.

You probably know at least the bare basics of theory, and if not, you’re not afraid to ask for help. The internet is full of resources.

And maybe you’re like me. You want to learn to express yourself with music too. Playing already composed music is one of the most amazing things you’ve ever done, but you also feel this urge to create.

Yet, instead of starting you off with short sentences, the music education system had you learn all the grammar, had you read only the very best of musical sentences. And the result of that is you know how elementary your own creations seem.

You have to start there though, and that’s okay.

You’ve got all the knowledge of theory and grammar that you need to learn how to write music much, much faster than when you learned to write.

At the risk of adding to an already loud discussion of advice blogs and Youtube channels telling you how to break into arranging and composing, I hope to help in any way I can.

Remember how all your teachers always say to “listen more than you play.” They’re referring to paying attention to your technique, to other members in your ensemble, to recordings of the greats. But something they don’t always talk about is that tiny voice inside you.

You experience the world differently than anyone else. For synesthetes, it’s very obvious; they literally see color when others don’t. For the rest of us, it’s the memories we’ve made that paint the world in different shades in our minds.

You hear things in a way that no one else does.

So when you’re listening to a song that you want to arrange, you might add notes here or there, or you might sing along and add harmonies.

Listen.

Be confident in that voice. Arranging and composing is one of the rare times when you actually get to listen to that voice.

For the rest of your life, you’re encouraged to be more objective, to listen to technique, to think about what the audience or the judges are looking for. But here, in this creative space, listen deep inside.

Your instincts will guide you.

Of course you still have to work hard. There will be countless hours when you don’t know how to finish a song. The muse refuses speak to you. But keep trying different things; it’s a puzzle to be solved. You’ll find the answer.

Exercise: Pick one of your favorite songs that gets you moving, one that you either literally or figuratively dance to when no one’s watching. Learn the melody on your instrument (or just sing it) and then turn off the track and have fun with it. Don’t worry yet about writing anything down. Just let yourself have fun. Good luck!

I plan on doing a series of arranging tips, so this is the first. There are so many resources available today for musicians, so I’ll gather up what I’ve found helpful and try to build upon that. Let me know if there’s any specific topic regarding arranging or composing that you’d like me to touch on. You can do so in the comments below or send me a private message via my contact form (or even on tumblr if you prefer)!

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis
#pleasedonttakemeseriously

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!

I Lived

Inspired by the Daily Post’s daily prompt, Retrospective.

Looking back isn’t always easy. A lot of you are probably thinking of cringey moments from high school or college when you should’ve done something differently, but you can’t; the moment’s passed.

Until recently, I’d been pretty good about not letting myself regret mistakes or big decisions. To, as Longfellow puts it, “Let the dead Past bury its dead.”

But now I look back at my time in university and am shocked that two years have already passed since I graduated.

I could go on and on about what I regret most in my time fleeing my calling after leaving school, but that’s not very productive. Sharing music seems like a better idea. Plus, it cuts to the heart of matters a bit quicker.

“I Lived” by OneRepublic seems fitting. I listen to this a lot when I’m feeling nostalgic, and I hope I can pass these ideas down to someone younger than me. And I hope I also learn to listen to this advice going forward.

It’s not about striving for success; it’s about living.

What about you? Are there any songs with ideas you’d like to share with younger folks?

Langston Hughes and The Weary Blues

While Langston Hughes was not a Jazz musician, he is known as a leader of the Jazz poetry genre. His poetic forms, remembered for their spirit, contain many stylistic devices also characteristic of music, especially the blues. This fully American music stemmed from the mixing of cultures, from the two traditions from which Langston Hughes was birthed. His work represents a culmination of the African-American, post-World War I, and Jazz traditions. But, for the sake of length in this post, we’ll just look at the African-American and blues traditions.

The African-American slave tradition tore people from their homes and introduced them to new living conditions and to new music. Earlier slave music is notably rhythmic, and this lends itself easily to poetry. The rhythms came from the work being done, monotonous tasks such as hammering or pushing weights, and this combined with a new vernacular of African shouts and hollers with the English of America. It created something personal, for each slave on each plantation had their own story to sing about.

The beauty of this tradition is that even though every slave had their own story, they chose to combine them to create a community of song. The “freedom song” then began to contain repeated lines that a leader could sing and the group could finish.

A visual way of thinking about it is with letters. AAB is a typical call and response form that is used throughout all of history. In it, a leader sings a line (A), the people repeat that line (A again), and then the leader creates a new line (B) that could be a call to action or a transition into the next verse.

This call and response form created standards for their music while still allowing the singers to continually create new lines. Jazz, however, is not a sole child of slave songs and spirituals.

Jazz is a music birthed of freedom.

The blues fully developed as a form when slaves were freed, and they spread around America in attempts to locate their lost relatives and a better life. In the process, they shared their life stories with those who would listen. Langston Hughes travelled widely and discovered new and interesting people who all influenced his work. The early blues structure based itself off of the early English ballad, which was perfect for the sharing of stories, and that evolved into the now-traditional twelve-bar AAB blues form.

In the case of “The Weary Blues,” Langston Hughes reinforces the AAB traditional blues but does so without actually repeating text. While the lines of the narrator do not repeat, the number of syllables for each line does repeat and then varies on the third line. The poem begins with two lines of ten syllables each: “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,” followed by one line of six syllables: “I heard a Negro play.” The meter in these lines, however, does not remain constant, which signifies Hughes employment of the traditional African sense of rhythm.

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Hughes uses the same technique in most of the lines of the narrator, such as “With his ebony hands on each ivory key. / He made that poor piano moan with melody. / O Blues!” In limiting himself to maintaining two lines of the same number of syllables, Hughes allows himself to improvise within a framework, to redefine meter within a specific structure, which makes it effective, for it is deliberate. “The Weary Blues,” however, does contain lines with syllables that do not seem to correspond to any other line and seem not to serve a purpose. These unmatched lines represent the blues spirit in its attempt at improvising around rhythm. Since dissonance and disjoint rhythms characterize Jazz, the representation of Jazz in the meter of specific lines displays the understanding of blues rhythm that Langston Hughes must have possessed.

While Langston Hughes was not a musician himself, he yearned to be, and to fulfill his dreams of music, he read his poetry to audiences with live accompaniment. He collaborated with famous Jazz legends like W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Louis Armstrong, some of whom may have inspired his “The Weary Blues.”

This post is based on a project I did back when I was still in university. There is so much more to unpack in this poem like improvisation, modernism, and even more about rhythm, so I hope to revisit this poem in the future.

What are your thoughts on the blues, Jazz, or Jazz poetry? Share in the comments below!

The Mage’s Song, One: Silver Night

Some say that magic is a metaphor. That magic can only be felt when listening to music or when falling in love. It’s something deep that seems it should be anything but natural, but it happens every single day. I cannot attest to falling in love, but I know how playing the violin makes me feel. Perhaps that is called magic.

Kira, my violin, sat in my lap for the duration of the carriage ride to my home for the autumn. Whenever my parents fell asleep, I plucked her strings quietly, trying to pass the time. It was a shame her bow was lost at the hands of the movers. I walked away for one moment, and they’d already thrown both violin and bow into a box. Luckily, Kira sat on top and did not suffer any damage. The bow, however, had new plans to help warm us in the winter.

“As soon as we locate a tutor for you, they shall join you on the farm,” Papa said as we began to unload the carriage.

“Help as much as you can, but don’t neglect your studies,” Mama added.

“You’ll be tested every lunday after you join us in court,” they said together.

My parents always thought and acted as a unit. That’s why they were such a fundamental part of the court. Born in opposing sides of the country, they became the unofficial symbol for the post-treaty land.

Because of their dedication to peace, however, it was difficult to have a true home, but we made the best of it. They kept me away from their politics as long as they could, but eventually I had to learn.

“Oh, sweet Sonya, I always hate to leave you.” Mama planted a gentle kiss on the top of my head. By the end of the season, I’d inevitably have to hunch down for her.

“I know, Mama, but I’ll join you in a few days. And remember you promised I could get a new bow in the city.”

“Of course.” Her eyes grew misty as they always did when we had to part ways for a time.

Papa stood by the carriage and gave his customary salute and wave before beckoning my mother to join him.

These moments were ordinary. They happened so often it shouldn’t have mattered. But, nonetheless, my stomach flittered like the glowing bugs in the darkening meadows around us.

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Once I got settled, the kind farmer—Artem, he told me to call him—allowed me to wander the nearby meadows so long as I stayed within eyesight of the cottage.

Eagerly I raced into the night, the light of the full moon guiding my steps and Kira on my back. The glow of the cottage faded behind me, and the glow bugs multiplied in number. I stretched my arms out wide to brush the tips of the long grass. As if by magic, thousands of the specks of light flowed from behind me to fill the darkness. This was already becoming one of my favorite homes.

My parents always tried to keep me from the prying eyes of the cities we visited, but I always stayed a close walk away. In this place, I was far. There was so much space. I hoped I could get away with at least a week of exploring before the tutor arrived.

Nearby, a tree stood alone in the meadow, separate from the woods that lined the meadow. Thinking it could be a great lookout spot, I skipped over to inspect it.

True enough, it had smooth bark and low-hanging branches. I planned to climb it as soon as the sun announced the morning. Climbing it now would end in disaster, after all. Sighing, I leaned against its cool trunk. After a long day of sitting and sleeping, I wasn’t ready to go in. I pulled Kira around to my front and plucked her like a lute.

Mama’s favorite evensong fit the night. With the silver light of the moon glistening on the trees, I strummed away, and I thought I heard someone humming along.

“Lovely” a low voice said at the end.

It was so quiet I could’ve dreamt it. I hadn’t heard anyone approach, but I still looked around. There were no dents in the tall grass, nor was anyone hiding behind my lookout tree. I couldn’t make out the lumps of branches high in the tree, so I backed away in case someone were to jump down.

“You won’t find me, especially not in that tree.”

It sounded far off. It had to be in the woods. The cottage was luckily close enough to run to should this voice come after me.

“I won’t hurt you. Actually, I wanted to share something with you I think you’d like.”

“And what’s that?” Already, Papa had taught me to be diplomatic. He said to first find out what a stranger wanted because you don’t always have to run or fight. Talking can do just fine sometimes.

“It’s just a trick I think you can do with your instrument. I know a little music myself.”

“It was you humming then!”

“Indeed. Silver Night is one of my favorite evensongs. Will you let me teach you then? I’ll help this first time.”

I squinted at the woods, looking for some figure, but nothing seemed to move, even wildlife.

“I suppose. I must go in soon though.”

“Quickly then. Look at the glow bugs around you. Internalize them. Close your eyes and feel the warmth of their light.”

The bugs seemed to be settling down, but the focusing on the few left did bring me a certain joy. I closed my eyes and began to feel a warmth, a pool of light, growing in my stomach.

“Good, now open your eyes and pluck your favorite note.”

When I did, I jumped back, for a blue light leapt off the string. About the size of a glow bug, it hovered in the space between Kira and my face before fading into nothing.

“What is—”

The voice began to laugh, heartily, and I noticed that I heard it more in my head than through my ears. Even through the laughter, nothing moved in the woods.

“Magic, little one. I knew you had it.”

“What? Magic is—”

“Alive and well. I can teach you more if you like. But not tonight.”

“Who are you?”

“I will be a mystery to you for a little longer yet, but I promise not to harm you or let any harm come to you while under my guidance. Now off to bed. You need rest after your first spell.”

The voice was right about one thing. Bed called to me, so I slung Kira onto my back and stumbled back to the cottage. I took one last look at the woods before stepping instead and wondered what secrets it held.

 

Hope you enjoyed the first of this series of magic and music. I’ll be updating every week, so be sure to keep an eye out. And let me know what you think in the comments! Until next time!

That Star-Spangled Banner

Today, we Americans remember those who have fought for the ideals of our nation. Although national pride isn’t as rampant as it once was, the flag still inspires feelings of awe and gratitude in many citizens, and it’s something that all Americans have looked upon at least once in their lives.

The National Anthem, based on the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by Francis Scott Key summarizes the feelings of hope that Star-Spangled Banner gave him as he watched helplessly from captivity.

While Americans traditionally only sing the first stanza, the other three stanzas describe the long night Key witnessed and end with a call to action.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The first stanza is explosive, sounding as if Key watches fireworks all night, but these threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. It’s fitting, then, that Independence Day celebrations often include massive fireworks displays accompanied by this anthem.

Yet, the second verse stands in stark contrast. “On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep / Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes.” It’s dark and quiet, and perhaps that’s the most terrifying part. After the bombast that occurs only moments before, it feels as if the enemy is about to sneak up behind you.

Or worse. You lost.

But, light fills the darkness, and there the flag waves. To Key in that moment, it’s the most beautiful thing he’s seen.

With the light, sound also returns in the third stanza. In an almost mocking tone, Key asks where the enemy’s battle song went. He sings their song back to them and wonders why their words didn’t ring true. And there is that flag, waving now in triumph.

The very last stanza mirrors the first in patriotism, speaking of the ideals of his people and how they are free men. And then he ends with a call to action.

“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just” refers to the freedom to take up arms but only if the reason you’re doing so is morally right. This is both a command and a warning to future generations who would read this poem.

But of course, no matter what happens to us, that Star-Spangled Banner waves above and represents what we believe in. Sure, an entire nation can’t agree completely, but the idea is that it reminds the soldiers out there why they’re fighting, olympic athletes what they stand for, citizens what is given to them: home.

Below you can listen to all four stanzas being sung to the familiar tune.

Like many patriotic anthems and folk tunes of America’s history, the lyrics and music were written by different people. Thus, while Key wrote the poem, an English gentleman by the name of John Stafford Smith composed the music.

The original tune was actually the official song of a music club in London in the 18th century. Below is a picture of the first page.

The Anacreontic Song

As you can see, while the backbones of the American National Anthem are present here, it is sung much differently today. This is due to a long history of being published and sung at different gatherings. Aural traditions tend to bear multiple contrasting versions of original tunes.

In 1937, President Woodrow Wilson wanted one standard version of the song, so the help of Walter Damrosch, Will Earhart, Arnold J. Gantvoort, Oscar Sonneck, and John Philip Sousa were enlisted. This version is the one used today.

The way the current tune differs from the “Anacreonic Song” is most notably rhythmic. The original is very straight with very few dotted rhythms, but the modern version uses dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth (long-short, long-short) frequently. Historically, this rhythm expresses regality because of its association with the court, mainly due to the influence of the French Overture in Europe. Whatever the reason for switching to that rhythm, it gives the song a bouncy, triumphic feeling.

Like the flag itself, it gives hope to those who need it. Both remind Americans of what they treasure: their home.

And today, we Americans remember those who gave that to us. May we never forget the past, and may we fight but only “when our cause it is just.”


Further Reading:

Defence of Fort M’Henry Lyrics

The Star-Spangled Banner

To Anacreon in Heaven