Prison Pete

Sunday, October 19, 2008
  Piano - Electronic versus Acoustic.
Let me see if I can use this one post to shoot three birds at one time. Bird one, the reason to buy a budding piano student an electronic keyboard instead of a real piano. Bird two, get some questions I have about keyboard/computer interface and what options are available for building a library of songs to enable the use of the keyboard for prison religious services. Bird three, some more pieces to the puzzle of Prison Pete.

First I need to confess that one of my major faults is my failure to accept that if I can not just do a particular task without the need for practice or background grunt work I will not do it at all. There are some things in my life that have come exceptionally easy to me, and that has sort of cast my life into the realm of if I need to work at it, it is not something I will never become accomplished at so why start.

For example back when I was 13 years old and went on my first ski trip and by day two was already being taken off the beginner slope and up the mountain to ski the real trails. I knew that skiing was something I liked. I do know that at the time the 14 or so fellow classmates were all sort of pissed at the special attention I was receiving from the headmaster. I remember him yelling up the stairs early that second morning that I better bundle up because he was taking me up the mountain.

Jump ahead to my long journey to learn to play the piano. While I have been at it for over seven years now, I still can not do anything more than play one note melody lines. Why? Well part is certainly somewhat impaired fine motor skills. But then again I had been a computer programmer for over 20 years and it took my time in prison to finally buckle down and learn how to touch type.

Over the last few weeks I have begun to truly practice piano on an almost daily basis several Spanish Christian songs, with the goal being to be able to play for the Spanish Catholic service held on Monday evenings. As a side issue of my broken leg, I am not able to carry my keyboard back and forth to the chapel. This means I can no longer take the time in the unit to store up to five songs in the sequencer in the dorm, carry the keyboard to church and plug and play as it were. No, I need to be able to play live.

So as luck would have it a couple of the Spanish songs have a rather simple chord pattern, and all of a sudden I am able to use my left hand to play the auto chords, and the melody with my right hand. Yes, with that dreaded P word (practice) I can do things that in the past I was willing to accept defeat and say I would never be able to do it. Yet another benefit of incarceration I have learned that I can learn, and that not all things have to just come to me.

Granted the songs are not the most difficult, but that is another point. I do not have to start off at the top. Start with the easier part, and work my way up. Boring? No, not really. I am celebrating the little steps of progress. For those that may be familiar with Spanish music the songs I am currently working on are:

Arriba los Corazones

There are a few others I am practicing, but they have a few more chord changes so will take a little more practice.

I should point out that with the Yamaha keyboard you have an auto-chord option. Any single key on the right side of keyboard plays a major chord. Hold down the G key and you get a G major chord. Hold down the key or the chord you want and the next lowest black key and you get the minor chord. Hold down the next lowest white key and you get the chord with the 7th note included. Hold down all three keys, the one for the chord you want, the next lower black and white key and you get then minor chord with the 7th included. Once you play the chord it continues until you select another chord. So for now as long as the chord changes are not too frequent and the chords themselves are one of the four types that I mentioned above I am go to go.

Now a few things I have found that the keyboard really can help with the discipline needed to be a great piano player. The first is the built in metronome. Yes the old click, click, click. The electronic version does have the advantage of being able to chime on the first beat. I have found it vitally important to not just play the song without worrying about the timing. It is far better to start off with the tempo you can play the whole song at then increase the tempo as your skill with a particular song increases.

It is interesting, and frustrating at the same time to realize that a major fault of some of our current musicians in church that do not read music and play by ear end up not only changing the value of some of the longer notes in a song to make them shorter time wise, but if there is a part of the song with frequent chord changes, the tempo slows down to squeeze the chords in. This particular group gets really upset when I try to encourage the use of the metronome during practice.

So once you have practice with the metronome, and are getting the piece down, you can store it into one track of the sequencer. Once you have stored the copy played with the metronome, you play and store it again in a different track, without the metronome. Now play back both tracks and you will find which parts you need to work on your timing! I also played back the non-metronome part with the metronome pinging away to see how many beats I lost. In one case once I slowed down in one particular place, the rest of the song I was on time; in another case there were several places where I either held a note too long or not long enough.

This way of using the keyboard to provide feedback allows me to sharpen my skills and readily see the progress I am making. I do need the reinforcement that my practice is leading to progress. Step by step. Not an easy lesson for me to learn, but one is never too old to learn. A few regrets that is has taken this long to acquire the patience yes, but better now than later.

Another area the keyboard is helping sharpen my music skills is being able to put a melody line into the sequencer and then using one of the bass guitar sounds try different bass riffs. This has proven invaluable recently as a new arrival has some great raw talent with the bass guitar and what seems to be a great sense of timing, but alas no music reading skill. Yet he is willing to learn to read the bass clef, which I am gladly teaching him. In the meantime, I am able to come up with some simple bass riffs for some of the songs we are playing. Some of the music we have is only melody line with the chords written above the staff. Since the new bass player does not know what notes make up the various chords, I will be able to write out different bass riffs for each song.

The sound quality of the low end keyboards has certainly improved over the years and even the low end keyboards have the ability to determine the volume of any individual note based on how fast the key is pressed down.

I know that most of the software available for making 'electronic' music allows the computer to handle the whole thing. The tones these days are all samples of real instruments and the only use for a musical keyboard is to use it as an entry device to get 'notes' into the software. Back up a few steps and this is where I need some more information.

I know you can transfer MIDI files from the Yamaha keyboard (my model is the PSR-E403, YPT-400) to a computer. I also know you can load new songs into the Yamaha, but I wonder how much room there is for these songs.

What I would like to design is a way to take songs that I have entered into one of the 5 songs available on the Yamaha, and transfer it to a computer. I know that this is already available; the key here is to be able to edit these MIDI files and also enter new music directly to the software. It is my assumption that software exists that can take a standard MIDI file and display it on the screen in normal music notation. Any errors can be easily corrected and the song saved. Each week we could load the hymns for the service that week into the keyboard. The hope is that the way this system would work is that we would not need to have the computer attached to the keyboard to 'play' the hymns. And since we are not using the computer to generate the musical sounds we would not need to have the latest and fastest computer system.

There you have it, three dead birds and I wonder if I was clear enough to have made their deaths worth it. Please feel free to ask any questions on the above. I love comments. I would like to get this blog back on track and be able to share my journey with the rest of the world, yet not go off on a whining campaign or cast aspersions on some of my keepers. This music issue is really one of my top ten concerns and I would really appreciate any information anyone has about putting together some system that would allow prison chapels to have 'live' music without having a live musician.
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