Thursday, April 5, 2018

"Take It In F"

I thumped down in Grampa Mac's rocking chair--my refuge of choice--dropping my old sneakers on the floor within reach, unfolding a clean pair of socks.  Before I could toe off my fleece-lined slippers, Teasel-cat landed in my lap. 
Teasel, in plump middle cat age, is most gregarious on chilly mornings, wanting to be held or carried about while I croon, "Beautiful cat! Pretty girl!"  When I am in the rocking chair she remembers that the cat brush and comb are handy by on the end of the counter.

I've had a week with more aches and fatigue than usual, so a session of cat coddling near the warmth of the wood stove didn't come amiss.
Jim was gathering outdoor gear, ready for a day of wood-cutting.
Teasel trod happily about in my lap, purring, preening under the strokes of the brush.

"Look at us, " I announced wryly. "If I could take a 'selfie' it would be captioned, 'Old woman in rocking chair with cat.'

Teasel eventually decided the grooming session had continued long enough and with a contented "Purr--oww" bounced to the floor.
I pulled on my shoes, heaved myself up and in desultory fashion contemplated the small chores of the morning.  Passing my desk on the way to collect the laundry, I noted a message from my dear friend, Bunnie:  "Ray needs to talk to you about a song." 

The house phone rang almost before I finished messaging our number.
Our friend Ray, is a versatile self-taught musician, a guitarist with a warm tenor voice.  Bunnie often adds a gentle harmony when they sing together for our church.

Recently Ray has acquired a collection of Native American flutes in varying 'keys.'  He plays haunting melodies, sometimes adding an a capella vocal verse. 
Ray has decided that the mellow tones of the flutes are enhanced by piano accompaniment.

Depending on the chosen flute--flutes-- if there is a key change planned midway--the pianist needs to transpose hymn tunes or melodies.

One of the pleasanter legacies of my maternal DNA is the ability to 'play by ear,' create alternative harmonies, and to transpose a familiar piece to suit the whim of singer or instrumentalist. 
"How do you do that?" I've been asked.
My explanation that I hear the appropriate notes 'in my head' and sing or play them, is met by most people with expressions of bewilderment.
For me [and for my cousins who sing the same way] it is simply what we've always been able to do.

A few weeks ago when accompanying Ray, I missed a chord--we were playing in the key of C--nearly impossible to mess up--but I got slightly rattled and struck a G major chord instead of C major.

This morning, at his daughter's home for the week, Ray had 'only' three flutes with him.
He announced [over the phone] that 'we' were going to play the classic, 'O Sacred Head Now Wounded'--rich with plaintive minor chords and the embellishments of J. S. Bach. 
"Are you near the piano?" 
I hastened to the piano, clutching the phone, forgetting that I could have put it on speaker to free both hands. 
I plonked unhappily at black keys as the notes of the flute floated over the airwaves. 
I floundered hopelessly--4 sharps?
Ray tried the next flute--more black keys, perhaps 5 or even 6 flats.
"Ray, I can't do that!"
"Well, hold on, I've got one more."
Again the familiar melody--"Hold that first note--I've got it!  Key of F!"
By the second time through I had the harmonies, the rich and somber chords.

This time, however, I won't trust to memory, won't risk being rattled.
Several friends have told me of computer programs which transpose a melody to any chosen key and miraculously produce a printable score.
Much as I detest the learning curve associated with an unfamiliar program or gadget, I daresay I need to explore such an option.
It is one thing to sit down and play through a piece, varying the chord progression slightly with each verse.
It is quite a different undertaking to transcribe the correct notes by hand to staff paper. 
Struggling with brain fog I went through several sheets of paper, sitting at the piano to ink in notes, returning to the kitchen table, trying to achieve a neat copy.

My working copy isn't perfect; I blacked in a chord here and there which should have been left 'white' to indicate a half note; I misplaced a measure bar or two.
I've not written in the walking bass notes or the modulations in the alto line--for those I can trust my ear and familiarity with the original arrangement.

When playing hymns I tend to strike melody, alto and tenor with my right hand and add the bass in octaves. There are only a few individuals in our small congregation who read music and 'sing parts.'  When they are present, I need to limit myself to the harmony as written.  Otherwise, I embellish the harmony spontaneously.

As I worked at my messy transposing today, I remembered the years in Wyoming when we often sang informally with a group of gifted musicians, most of whom played without 'reading notes.'  
Old cowboy songs, bluegrass gospel, classic country music--most of it typed or hand-written on loose-leaf notebook pages, chords penciled in.
Someone would choose a song, announce, "Let's try this in G."
"Too high," might be the protest after a few bars.
"OK--take it in F." 
A new riff from the rhythm guitar---fresh chords struck on mandolin, upright bass, guitars, and we were off, strong lead voices, high and lower harmony, ringing with the pure joy of making music.

Sadly, my singing voice has become a ravenish croak, the 4th finger on my right hand has stiffened.  My confidence in my musical abilities is a tad bit shaken. 
But, I'm doing my homework, the inky notes wobble across the paper, Bach's harmonization is on loop-play in my head.
With any luck, we'll take it in F.


  1. Your friends in Wyoming remind me so much of my family when I was growing up. Everyone played an instrument or two by ear and I played the piano and inherited my mother's ability to harmonize when singing. Every get-together was musical. Wonderful memories.

    1. Lillian; some of my earliest memories are of times when my Mother's family came to visit--they always gathered around the piano and any combination of them could sing well: songs from 'The Golden Book'--popular tunes of the day, and always ending with old familiar hymns. Wonderful memories, indeed.

  2. I would love to hear it all. It sounds difficult, though sitting in your rocking chair with Teasel is good and the whole businesss of WRITING down the notes will tidy your handwriting up. We are so bound up incomputers, the art of writing has slipped away.

    1. Thelma; Time with Teasel on my lap is always good! My handwriting used to be quite pretty--like other things it has deteriorated a bit. Yes, we are very computer dependent!

  3. What a gift--both the time in the rocker with the cat, and your musical ability. I love to sing, especially the old mountain ballads, but am clueless about the science and art of writing and creating music. My hat is off to you.

    1. Sue; My interest in old ballads was sparked in my early teens with the gift of a long-play recording of Susan Reed singing old ballads with harp or zither accompaniment. The first one I learned was 'Barbary Allen'--and I sang it incessantly! I am clueless about the 'scientific' method of transposing music--I play it the key I want and then, in this case, struggle to put the correct notes on paper.

  4. I'm in awe of those who can play without a score. I hear the music in my head, but must see the notes.

    1. Janet; I gather from posts you have written that you are far more technically accomplished than I am--a result of dedicated practice. I can't explain my way of hearing harmony--its a family gift.

  5. What a great, interesting post! I no longer can sing like I used to. I feel like you, *my singing voice has become a ravenish croak*.

    Have a beautiful day ~ FlowerLady

    1. Rainey; Who ever told us that our singing voices might alter as we age? Singing was as natural as breathing for me--and I miss it.

  6. Wow, this is wonderful! I am in awe of anyone who has such talents as you! Music stirs something within me that nothing else can. I love old cowboy songs, bluegrass, and, especially, classic country. And, how I would love to hear that piece "taken in F."

    1. Chip; It seems you enjoy the very music that my husband and I have loved to sing. I grew up with a strong tradition of formal [classical] church music--with a sprinkling of the more rousing gospel songs from my Mother's Wesleyan Methodist relatives.
      I can only hope the effort in "F" plays out well!

  7. What a nice post! I am in a choir at church, but my musical training was limited to playing the trombone in school. I must say I really can't read music. At practice I basically ask the accompanist for my notes and just memorize them. Luckily I have a good memory, but it would be nice to read the notes on the page.

    1. Phil; I grew up singing in a church choir. Since my Mother was one of the organists, I often heard the tenors being drilled on their notes--there were very few in the choir who could read music. Trombone--that always looked like a fun but difficult instrument--I played clarinet--didn't really enjoy tootling away on one note.