Touch, play. Touch, kick.

I was so lucky to be provided piano lessons growing up. My first teacher started my first lesson by commanding me not to marry the wrong person! And then taught me how to listen and learn and express myself through music. I showed some talent, so I got the fancy kind of lessons, in Boston, every weekend from Junior High through High School. My mom, my dad, and my grandmother formed the almighty trio who shepherded me, guarded me and took me to Phó during break hours. They gifted me the piano, which is now my forever companion in the same way that a loved one joins you in the room without saying anything, but is always ready to talk deep if you’re feeling it.

My second teacher, the first at NEC, tore me down and built me up. Sarah Takagi is a martial arts wielding technician who zoomed WAY in on finger and wrist and arm mechanics, for years, before building back to the complexity of what I had previously been playing sloppily and joyously without even knowing how wrong I was doing it. Sarah would say, ‘Touch, play, — touch – and then play’, and have me tap out sections with my fingers never pressing the notes. Touching the note before you play allows precise countermovements with the arm and wrist as a sort of fulcrum. She could go on.

My third teacher played the piano so differently. Where Sarah had complex and detailed, hand-oriented technique, I remember Roberto would favor a direct, weighted movement, with the finger and hand and arm forming almost a single block dropping down to the very bottom of the note out of the heavens above. None of this touch, play, madness. Yes, I would keep my hands relaxed and close to the keys, but using the weight of your arm, not your fingers, we are not punching at the notes.

Of course I am almost entirely misrepresenting what Sarah and Roberto actually taught me, but whatever that was, these two lines of thinking have morphed and been useful to me for years beyond actually playing piano. Alex, how are you tackling the situation in front of you? Are you all in, all clear to go, right down to the bottom of this thing, or are we tapping, touching first, sensing and using our tools and techniques to gain leverage and precision?

I applied this most recently in my second (ever) Muay Thai class, during which I am learning the basics of how to punch, kick, and move. An advanced member of the class I was working with instructed me to lift my leg and kick him in the upper chest, but touch his chest with my foot, and then push off, using that momentum to arrive back where I started. Touch, kick. Touch — and then kick.

I further apply this regularly as I work in an office and internally and externally, there can be a funny interplay between directness and a coy, feeling-you-out kind of vibe. These subtle cues, which may even have important upsides like promotions or bonuses, are always difficult for everyone to sort out, and I am grateful for every tool I have in my bag!

This is just the very tip of what Mary, Sarah, Roberto, and Andrew, in addition to the shepherding trio mentioned above, brought to my life by nurturing my young love for music. My eternal gratitude goes to those people. Now this business of passing it on!

For the Love of … Whistling

If you know me, you’ve heard me whistle.

I know, it’s a petty prompt for a post, but in all seriousness, I am so grateful that I can whistle.

Being abroad so far has been a fantastic and broadening experience. My mom asked me while skyping the other day whether it’s been worth it, being here, and without hesitation I went rambling about all of the ways that I’ve grown and learned in the last months, which really comes down to my becoming slightly more acquainted with the world in all its bizarre diversity. I had a very drunk old man fall on my table two nights ago and knock my water glass and milanesa to shatter and splatter on the ground. I shared a mate with some random teenagers on Lavalle yesterday and ended up seeing (and understanding) Iron Man 3 en castellano with them (which was awesome, by the way). I walk a little taller here, not because I’ve grown, but because appearance is everything in this damn world. And so it goes.

It’s all been great, with the distinct exceptions of deeply missing two of my main loves: my people, and my music.

Of course I miss my people. Those who are usually sources of strength and comfort are… far away. That can be difficult and saddening. I miss you guys often.

But my music. Ah, my music.

If you know me, you’ve heard me whistle. Perhaps it’s because I began my musical education young that I feel the urge to express melodically; what is nature or nurture is difficult to discern. But whatever the source, I get something from being musical that I cannot replace with any other activity or mode of expression. Listening to music is in no way the same. In fact, I hardly listen to music at all. It’s like reading a cookbook and having no kitchen. Or shopping for running sneakers after having broken your legs. I don’t want to hear anyone else express, no matter how beautifully. Their songs block my own.

I can always hear my familiar melodies faintly in my head. They are so important to me, each of them having evolved and matured through the course of years and events. They formulate best through my fingers, thanks to the incredible privilege I’ve been bestowed, foremost by my mother for having prodded me to practice for all those years, but also by my makeup, my teachers, my guitar-smashing friends…

But these fingers have been denied their dancing lately, and are antsy, like, “WTF man?” I reply to them, “I know, right? Seriously, I’ve been looking!” For a country with a strong historical piano culture, there is remarkably little recourse for a non-music-student-traveller in search of a practice room, or a living room, or a hotel lobby, or a bar room— anything, anything with a dingy upright beer-spilt poorly tuned set of keys. Anything to get these melodies out of my head and into the air where they can re-enter through my ears and create that magical cycle of musical creation.

And so I whistle.

And just as a by-product of having whistled a lot (and having applied some conscious effort at ‘improving’ at whistling) I find that it … does the job. I can’t really sing, well. Humming is not as satisfying. And when it comes down to it, whistling produces a relatively pure tone, if high-pitched and shrill. But even then, I can comfortably whistle from about C1 — E3, which is enough range for a fantastic range of repertoire. Whistling thus allows for that blunt melodic expression that I feel the need to produce.

So in all seriousness, I’m grateful that I can whistle. I’m not sure if those around me share my gratitude, as you’ve certainly heard more of it than you’ve wanted at times. Here in Argentina, my host family has nicknamed me ‘El Silbador,’ although I think it’s used somewhat affectionately as my host-mother Carmen has exclaimed several times, “que buen silbatazo!”

Because I know some of you will recognize it, I’ll include here what is probably my most-sampled motif, which has been ever on repeat this last year. Ancient 1. It’s a simple, tragic tune, but never-ending, and full of hope.

And because I’m feeling bold, here is a recording on piano from before I left for Argentina, in which you will hear this motif and others. I don’t share this lightly, as this was produced in a sad moment. But it’s not a sad song; I whistle it in happy times too. Also please pardon the recording quality, which is horrendous. I should really get a microphone. #Someday. #WhenIHaveMoney.

Soul bearing is always a mixed experience. I hope I didn’t bore you with my musings. I did just write about whistling, which is not exactly a deep intellectual subject, though important to me, as I’ve just described. To make up for my own lack of interesting ideas, here and here are two innovative social enterprises that you should be aware of and support. 🙂

Be well!