Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

Mike asked if I had heard of or seen the art and music improvisation events of Ebb and Flow Arts.

“Yes, I’ve heard but I’ve never seen it,” I said.

He handed me a 20-minute DVD of “Ebb and Flow Arts Presents The Joining by Emil Richards” dated March 21, 2009.

“That’s before my time,” I said. I promised to view and return the DVD.


When I sat down to watch “The Joining” in which three large blank canvasses were placed adjacent each other to form one long horizontal canvas, I didn’t know what to expect. The first artist made a few broad strokes with big brushes – a pale grey oil paint followed by a black water color. He sat down. Mike was next. He picked up a bigger brush and made some large gestures in a different color. He sat down. The last artist sized up the painted canvas and proceeded to create.

Meanwhile, the music was clearly being improvised. As a musician, I can hear and feel where the music is going. There is a certain momentum. With visual art, I can’t be so sure.

My mind was swimming with questions and worries.

  • Did the artists discuss a plan before they started?
  • Did they have a goal or criteria in mind? In other words, did they want to create something that was beautiful, bore meaning, and had a purpose?
  • Did they know what they were going to paint?
  • Did they decide on colors or type of paint?
  • Did they set constraints or boundaries?
  • Were they being guided or influenced by the improvised music?

When I saw each artist paint around the previous and sometimes over the previous, I began to wonder if the process may become political. I mean, I’d be upset if someone painted over mine. Around my work was okay but not covering and suffocating my work — surely!

I felt the momentum of the music and the art work as the artists’ strokes increased in tempo. They were now painting simultaneously, each on a canvas. From afar, a powerful kaleidoscope was taking shape.

Were they painting tropical scenes? A part of me wanted desperately for their output to make sense. It can’t be random. It can’t be an accident. It had to be worthwhile.

For whom? For the artists or the musicians? For the audience? Why does the output have to be worthwhile or make sense?

I watched the DVD three times. These were master painters. The musicians were professionals, too. Why couldn’t I relax, sit back and enjoy the process and see the product unfold?

Have I forgotten the golden principle?

It’s the process, not the product.

“The journey is the destination.”


Later I googled “Ebb and Flow Arts The Joining” and found another art and music improv session, a different one. The three artists worked independently of each other.


How would the art and music improvisation be different with less skilled artists and musicians?

I’ve always preached that it’s more fun to play than watch. That’s my motivation for teaching piano, sightreading, and music theory. It’s more fun to play with others than by yourself, I say. That’s my rationale for conducting my piano class as an ensemble.

How can I involve the audience as participants in the creative process?

Maybe I need to ask the audience. Do they have the same kinds of questions and concerns I had when viewing “The Joining” ?


When I was in London, the Iraqi artist-in-exile Yousif Naser invited me to a D-double-D event in his studio in South Ealing.

“What does D stand for?” I asked. He made a joke that it could be a D-double-D or a D-triple-D. The name of the event attracted people to come.

He set up his easel and began to draw while I recited a poem. There was wine and food. People came and went. When I saw his chalk portrait of me, I asked if I may keep it. In just a few sketches, he caught the essence of me.

D stands for draw, dance, dine, or anything you want.

The purpose is to get together and create something on the spot.

We could have had writers, slam poets, musicians, chefs, dancers, and other creative-types.

Chalk portrait by Yousif Naser, 2003

Chalk portrait by Yousif Naser, 2003

Later in the Netherlands, I had the chance to work with two American artists. The film maker Julian Scaff projected raw video footage of different modes of transportation against performances of new piano duets of the Dutch composer Heleen Verleur in an evening event called Effusion, in our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht, Netherlands.

For a subsequent concert, we exhibited polaroid photos of water images taken by Liz Miller to launch a concert of the South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper. Two years later, we finally took the exhibit down, but not before Texas-based pianist Brendan Kinsella played Glass Works.

Between Effusion and Glass Works, Julian invited us to participate in an artist residency in Paleochora, Crete, creating something out of natural ingredients we found outdoors on a windy hill. We later exhibited, documented, and performed a concert in Brugges, Belgium, in an exhibition curated by Liz Miller.

How could I forget the joy of creating and collaborating across disciplines and geography?

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Yankee Doodle for easy piano

One of the earliest songs a beginner can learn to play on the piano is the sticky tune of “Yankee Doodle.”

The easiest way is to use both hands to split up the melody, starting with the right hand.

Next is to let the right hand play the melody and the left hand do very simple bass or interval accompaniment.

After some time, the left hand can add fuller chords and the appropriate cheerful rhythm that accompanies this song.

It’s not difficult to transpose to other keys.

There are numerous free versions on the Internet. However, it soon gets boring.

I deliberately defined the fingerings in my three-verse version. There are finger changes on the same key to avoid “running out of fingers.” Click on the sample score and lyrics below for the three-page PDF of this arrangement for easy piano.

Yankee Doodle for easy piano

Yankee Doodle for easy piano

By offering different levels in one score, I allow more pianists to join in the fun. Feedback welcome!

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Makana plays my request

In my MUS107 “Music in World Cultures” cable TV class, I tell my students to consider many aspects of experiencing live music, not just the performer, the performance itself, the music (and lyrics), and the choice of instruments.

How you experience music has a lot to do with the space you’re in.

At dusk, I walked uphill, along the busy end-of-the-day traffic of Queen Ka’ahumanu Avenue, to the old town of Wailuku. I crossed the narrow street to enter a shop by the curious name of “Request Music” at the corner of Market and Main, a place I noticed last Friday on the occasion of First Friday in Wailuku.

I immediately recognized my colleagues and ex-colleagues, already standing or seated. The audience dispersed among the racks of CDs. I found a spot on the floor that let me lean against a solid bookcase of some sort.

Glancing around, I noticed everyone had a look of awe, a kind of smug contentment. It’s like being given your favorite candy when you least expect it. One older lady who “chanced” upon this intimate gathering gingerly stepped inside the shop, whose doors were wide open. Her face said it all — “I can’t believe my luck! What is this?”

IMG_5583.JPG

I was forty minutes late to the live performance of Makana, a musician I had first seen at TEDxMaui and again at the MACC with the Hawaii Pacific University orchestra earlier this year. His guitar playing was featured in the soundtrack of the movie “The Descendants.”

When I learned through a personal invitation on Facebook of this event on Monday morning, I quickly told my colleagues and students.

“Go!” I urged my students. “I will be there. You should try to attend every live performance. It is so rare on Maui. This one is free. You can meet him yourself — in person!”

Unfortunately I didn’t see any of my students there. They could have experienced what I’ve taken for granted all the years I had organized my own house concerts — to share breathing space with the performer. There was no one or nothing between me and the singer, only about four feet of space. This is how I like to experience live music.

“I’m open to requests,” Makana announced after finishing a song on his acoustic folk guitar.

I heard someone echo “Only You by Yazoo” or perhaps Makana mentioned that he had played it on one of his albums.

My heart skipped a beat. He knows this song? I joined the chorus of requests for Yazoo.

I had first heard Yazoo’s “Only You” sung by the Pitchforks, the oldest acapella men’s group at Duke University, during my freshman year. It had stuck ever since. Decades later, when my friend told me about his barbershop quartet activities, I recounted the Pitchforks and “Only You.”

Needless to say, if I could hear Makana play his version of Yazoo’s (he calls them Yaz’s) “Only You” I would not only be traveling back in time but also connecting with my friend who promised he’d get his quartet to revive that song.

But somebody else caught his attention. He didn’t play “Only You.” My heart sank.

After singing his famous “We Are Many,” he retuned his guitar. He played a rift I didn’t recognize. I thought he had dismissed our request.

And then he played that familiar broken chord at the beginning of Yazoo’s song.

I felt like a little girl again. It was a deja vu of Suzanne Vega playing the first few bars of “Queen and the Soldier” in Utrecht. I had joined the crazy standing crowd screaming for her to play this song. When she finally did, I burst into tears.

Tonight, I contained myself. Now I know why audiences react so violently when they get their requests granted.

Songs have meanings. Songs bring back memories, and with them, feelings that we have forgotten.

Makana recorded his version of Yazoo’s “Only You” on his first CD album. He told me the album is now out of print. He has maybe one copy in storage.

“But,” he said, “you can go to my website at Makana Music and click on that album. You can listen to it for free.”

And so I found the album Makana and listened to the entire list while writing this blog post.

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The raw sound of unplugged

Microphones on stage are not always used to amplify. They can exist to record.

It’s fairly easy to tell if the sound from a musical instrument is amplified or not. You hear the amplification through speakers.

It sounds different when amplified.

Amplification is the default-mode in large gatherings where the natural acoustics of the space is insufficient to carry the raw sound.

The economics of concertizing has made amplification necessary. It’s simply more profitable to play to a thousand than a snug group of ten.

How then do you get to hear music unplugged?

  • Piano solo. Classical guitar.
  • Chamber music. Piano trio. String quartet.
  • Opera.
  • Orchestra.
  • Folks who get together to “talk story” and jam on their ukeleles and guitars at sunset.

The constant piping of background music through speakers at supermarkets, airports, shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, receptions of medical clinics, and even food trucks has caused me to long for the sound of silence. Next best, the raw sound of music that’s not amplified, piped, or plugged.

Where can I go on Maui for the unplugged, unamplified sound of music?

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Ode to Joy Easy Piano Flash Mob

The first tune my beginning piano students this semester are learning to play is that familiar and sticky melody known the world over as “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven decided that the human voice was needed in the final movement of his last symphony, the Ninth, and hence nicknamed “Choral.”

The piano textbook instructs them to play in the key of C. However, the original key is in the key of D major, a mere whole step shift up.

As they are not yet reading notes, I asked them to move their hands to the right, hovering their middle fingers on the F-sharp. In one move, they’ve learned to transpose.

And then I showed the video of the flashmob of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Allegro Assai section of the Fourth Movement, the Finale. A young girl throws a coin into a hat. The well-dressed double bass player gently bows his instrument. Before long, a cellist joins him. And the rest is history. This surely is the best flash mob I’ve seen yet.

Meanwhile, my eighteen students are watching the video on the big screen and wanting to participate.

“Just play whenever you hear the tune,” I indicated from the Steinway Grand. In front of me were several different arrangements for piano solo: Pauer, Reinecke, and Liszt. It was playtime for me.

Unfortunately, sheet music for “Ode to Joy” for Easy Piano is few and far between. Most assume the beginner can only play white keys. I think of transposition as parallel universe. Black keys are okay, too.

Below is a version for class piano. I’ve added the chords to encourage students who play guitar and ukelele to join in. The rehearsal marks are deliberately indicated to allow breaks. Notice that the original theme spreads over 16 measures. The second and subsequent times, the theme appears over 24 bars because the last 8 is repeated. Click on the sample score (image) below for the four-page PDF.

Ode to Joy for Easy Piano (class piano)

Ode to Joy for Easy Piano (class piano)

More advanced players may want to consult Liszt’s piano solo transcription available from IMSLP. Start at page 51 for the flashmob — allegro assai.

UPDATE! A slightly more advanced version which I call “Ode to Joy for Not So Easy Piano” follows the most logical parts from the original orchestral score, page 8 to 18. Download the 5-page pdf for “Ode to Joy for Not So Easy Piano.”

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Concert reviews Maui Arts and Cultural Center

Every semester I require all my music students to attend an approved concert and write a review. The review must demonstrate they actually attended the concert. They can write about the concert-going experience, their impressions, feelings, thoughts, and anything else that resonated with them and for which they wanted to share. I then select the most relevant passages from their written reviews and write a so-called “Review of reviews” on this blog.

At the beginning of each semester at University of Hawaii Maui College, I usually see just one concert on the calendar of Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC) that I could approve. I tell all my students to mark the date on their diaries. As time goes on, other concerts get announced. Not everyone is able to attend the concert. I cross my fingers and hope other concerts get organized. Meanwhile, I invite the performers to come to our class. Violinist Martin Beaver and pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald did just that, the evening before their concert. Meanwhile the Boom Booms from Vancouver participated in our Earth Day Jam and other festivities a few days AFTER their concert at the MACC.

All the concerts reviewed here took place between February and April 2014 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center (MACC) which consists of the 1,200-seat Castle Theatre and the smaller McCoy Studio.

What is universal in all the reviews I’ve read is the following observations:

  1. It’s their first time attending a classical concert. My second semester students would say it’s their second time.
  2. The concert is not what they expected. It’s different from other live performances they’ve attended.
  3. They are impressed by the dedication of the performers.
  4. They are intimidated by the environment — majority of the audience being much older than themselves, the posh venue of the MACC, the formality of the occasion.

This is actually my first time going to a classical concert or any kind of concert. I feel so lost actually once I enter the stadium. – Macy

As I entered the hall I couldn’t help but notice the huge age difference.  I must admit it was very intimidating.  Everyone was very well dressed and amongst all the noise I managed to decipher that the audience was very familiar with the “subject matter”.    – Dayton

I noticed that the audience were generally of caucasian race and a much more older and mature crowd. I felt that I stood out greatly as I was dressed more casually compared to some of the other people in the audience and I was definitely one of the younger ones. along with the other of my classmates that came out to watch as well. I also noticed that it was a very quiet crowd. I felt that it was best appropriate that way anyway as the type of music being played didn’t call for a loud vibrant audience, but a more quiet and observant vibe. I realized that we didn’t need to clap after every performance, but knowing Maui, of course we would. – Byron

Going to the concert was an interesting experience for me because I had never been to a classical music performance before. It was different to see everyone dressed up and silent during the show. In the concerts that I am used to attending, everyone is loud and definitely not in button-up shirts like most were in this concert. I appreciated how respectful everyone at this performance was and there were no outbursts or interruptions. – Levi


February 9th, 2014
Hawaii Youth Symphony

I was blown away by what I heard. The Hawaii Youth Symphony is the only statewide youth music education program. Their mission is to create critical and positive links. They serve about 650 students from all over the Hawaiian Islands. Conductor Henry Miyamura has been conducting for nearly three decades and joined the HYS in the early eighties and has been a conductor ever since. I am honored to have been able to experience their art through the form of music. – Kisha


Thursday March 6, 2014 @7:30 PM
Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano and Martin Beaver, violin

I liked their trance-like state when they played. I also liked how Mr Fitz-Gerald swayed with the measures as he played. – Pope

The pianist, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, had told our class that he started playing piano at the age of 10; I started playing at the age of 6 which should put me at an advantage if I had stuck with piano from the start. It helped me to realize that if I put my mind to it and work really hard, I, too, could be a great pianist one day, maybe not professionally as my career, but for fun.  – Richel

I like the way that the music does all the talking for the performers, they do not need to hype up the crowd or do too much interacting other than play the pieces and let the music do all the talking. They obviously played together a lot, they did not need to make eye contact with each other, they knew when to come in and out of each piece and the transition was smooth and seamless. – Josh

They played all of the music equally beautiful. But, there was something in Mozart’s Sonata K. 526 in A Major first movement and Grieg’s Sonata #3 Op. 45 in C Minor second movement that made me want to listen to them again. Sonata K. 526 in A Major first movement is a lively piece not like the others. It has the power to make me smile. Sonata #3 Op. 45 in C Minor second movement is a peaceful one. It could have made me sleep there if I just let myself. Somehow the beginning of the piece reminds me of my childhood days with my mother’s love.  – Mary Ann

Martin plays a 1789 Nicolo Bergonzi violin. Beautiful instrument! It’s amazing to see an instrument that continues to pass the test of time, as it is some 225 years old to date. I was honored to hold it as he offered. – Anna

I heard the audiences’ breath catch when the strings of his violin snapped. I lost track of time listening their music. When the concert was done, it was already 9:30pm. – Misako

There were only two instrumentals, Piano and Violin, but I could imagine an orchestra around them. The tempo of the melody was smoothly moderate, and changed to fast as song changes. There was a break time however I actually didn’t notice it was already break time.  – Hide

By carefully listening to the sounds their instruments made I felt like I was taken to a completely different world. I was moved by the music and the atmosphere of the concert hall. This concert was the second I’ve ever been to in my life and I had a blast even though I’m not a big fan of classical music. While I was listening to the music I had remembered something an old teacher of mine had told me “To be an expert in music you must experience music in all of its forms.” A piece of wisdom I still hold on to whenever I experience a different form of music. – Eric

As soon as FitzGerald placed his fingers on the keyboard, Beaver was armed with his bow, and at that moment I knew they would be taking their audience on a journey with them. Magic began to flow. With every enthusiastic stroke, I felt their vision, their passion for the music they were creating. It was as if they were pouring their very soul on the stage and we watched them, exposed. – Vanessa

Fire and water, their chemistry can only be described by the relationship between fire and water.  Two conflicting elements working together to create something beautiful. FitzGerald was the water.  His fingers danced across the keyboard with each note falling like droplets of rain.  He created the perfect backdrop.  He remained consistent throughout, never overpowering nor faintly drizzling behind.  Beaver was the flame, the fire burning brightly amongst the rain.  It was as if he drew a spark as soon as his bow hit the strings.  Each slide only caused the flames to to grow.  He was the lead, the melody, the soul to FitzGeralds beating heart.  Existing together in perfect harmony.  Never did I feel like the two were disconnected.  Here water did not douse the flames nor did the flames evaporate the water.  – Dayton

Pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald and violinist Martin Beaver after their concert, Maui, March 6, 2014

Pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald and violinist Martin Beaver after their concert, Maui, March 6, 2014

I noticed how Kevin would nod to the page turner when he was ready for the next page, and this made me realize he was reading a bit ahead of what he was playing. I was worried each time she was about to turn the page that she would accidently (sic) turn two pages instead of one. I cringed at the thought of that happening and the resulting disaster that might have occurred. Like with Kevin, there were moments when watching Martin caused me to fret. The hairs that snapped from his bow at one point landed on his left hand, and I feared they would get tanled in his fingers. He responded quickly by snapping them off and dropping them to the stage floor. – Saxon

One thing that got me all worked up is that the man that was playing the violin. When I saw the horse hair got loosed, I was like all worried, thinking the concert might be over because of it. I almost stand up from my seat. If I see something that makes me nervous, I can’t keep still at all.    – Macy


Saturday April 5, 2014 @ 7:30 PM
Hawaii Pacific University Symphony with Makana

They introduced Streetlight Cadence which is a group formed by four young men. They are composed of UH Manoa and Hawai’i Pacific University students. They began four years ago as a sidewalk group in Waikiki. I never expected these four men to have played how they did. They blew the crowd away and even got an encore at the end of their performance. This concert was not what I expected. The people were talking during the performances and babies were crying. I could not enjoy the whole concert with all the distractions and aromas. I would love to attend one concert on the mainland just to get the real feel of a great concert. – Sunny

When Makana and the HPU Symphony Orchestra played together, the room was full of musical vibrations that anyone in their right mind would appreciate because they were so magical. I definitely wish I could play guitar like Makana! That was great. He had a good voice too. I feel like I’m constantly learning when I am listening to music like this because I saw all of the different techniques, postures, and attitudes on the stage that effect each and every part of the music. It was a fun experience to get to see the Symphony Orchestra, and the first concert was great too! – Ben

Intermission at the Makana HPU Symphony Concert in Castle Theatre, Maui, April 2014

Intermission at the Makana HPU Symphony Concert in Castle Theatre, Maui, April 5, 2014


Saturday April 19th, 2014
The Boom Booms

What is so great about this band is that they started out with an environmental friendly goal which was planting trees and then used their music (sic) talents to help further their cause. The Boom Booms also got the audience involved, which was superb. They had us clapping our hands to the beat. Singing along with vocals that we were hearing for the first time. Their energy made everything flow smoothly. They also incorporated some nice choreography in a song as well which caught me by surprise. By the end of the night, there were people dancing right below the stage, mainly consisting of women showing off their impeccable dance moves all through the night. – Aurthur

The Boom Booms Band in McCoy Studio at MACC, April 2014

The Boom Booms Band in McCoy Studio at MACC, April 2014

 

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Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano

The National Anthem of the United States is neither easy to sing nor play. It’s not easy to sing because of the wide octave range. It’s not easy to play because the melody and bass move all over the place. What motivated me to arrange the American anthem for piano? Fourth of July?

In truth, it was a combination of things. Robert’s landlady left a book on the dining table. While having breakfast one morning, I read the sleeve and became curious why she was reading a book about World War II. She had already read it, but she mentioned that it was written by the husband of the friend who lent me a bicycle a few years ago.

It didn’t take me long to read “No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love” because it was well-written and full of moving love letters — real love letters between the author’s father and mother.

As soon as I finished it, I immediately requested to meet the author Walter Ford Carter.

In the meantime, I visited the aircraft carrier USS York Town at Patriot Point, just outside Charleston, South Carolina, a week before we eventually met in Newton Center, Massachusetts.

I had a million questions why an economist would spend years researching a book about his father who died when he was four. His mother wouldn’t speak about it. Some fifty publishers rejected his manuscript. Yet he persisted. He wanted the story to be told.

As I began to research the American national anthem, I suddenly had the urge to arrange it for flute and trombone with chords for an optional piano or guitar or both. I was not only inspired by meeting the author and his wife but also that they play the trombone and the flute, respectively. Needless to say, I got distracted trying to imagine how the two would sound. I guess I’d have to hear it.

Extract from

Extract from “Star Spangled Banner arranged for flute and trombone”

As for the piano version, it’s not so easy because both hands are moving all the time with no predictable pattern. I have thus marked optimal fingerings for both hands in the score. Click on the sample score (image) below for the two-page PDF. As usual, I have also indicated chords to allow the more advanced student to improvise on the skeletal structure.

Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano arranged by Anne Ku

Star Spangled Banner for not so easy piano arranged by Anne Ku

For those readers who are curious about the book by WF Carter, please watch the short movie “Letters” shown at the Normandy Visitor Center, available online. Listen to the haunting cello melody by the composer Michael Bacon. I had the privilege of hearing Mr and Mrs Carter play the duet arranged for trombone and flute yesterday. There are also letters, photos, and links available from the website of  No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love.

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