(last updated on April 29, 2014)
SUMMARY: Some personal reflections on hanging out at a very relaxed “piano karaoke” event as a non-singer.
The first Thursday at every month is Piano Karaoke night at Studio 99, one of the many brainchildren of my friend Elise MacDonald. She maintains a “listening room” music venue here in downtown Nashua, which has over the past couple of years blossomed unexpectedly into the center of a musician-focused music renaissance. venue downtown. Elise, who started the space to provide music lessons for her collective of fellow teachers, found that there were many people in the area that just wanted a place where they could play music together. This led to a quick change of business plan, and now Studio 99 hosts numerous music jams for a variety of genres and age groups. It’s been fascinating to watch it grow into a community of its own.
I’ve been curious about karaoke since I started playing the electronic version on my old Playstation 2. I have a habit of picking up video games that use unusual gameplay mechanisms; music games took off in the early 2000s after dance games like Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution became a popular niche game. Konami’s Karaoke Revolution was the first step toward the development of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band; all three games were developed (albeit under different publishers) by Boston-area game developer Harmonix. The especially-geeky part of me was interested in how Karaoke Revolution used microphones as a game input, using digital signal processing to extract pitch (i.e. the musical note being sung) via application of a discrete Fourier transform algorithm. I’d studied these briefly in school, and thought they were cool. What I didn’t quite expect was to enjoy playing these games. While I can’t sing with any expression or volume, I can actually hold pitch pretty well. And when you are hosting a party with women in attendance, the Karaoke games can be a big crowd pleaser. Everyone can watch and sing along, engaged in the shared musical experience.
Having heard real singers perform, however, I’ve become curious about the entire process of vocal production. Elise once helped me understand how my voice worked during an impromptu podcast during one of our Jelly co-working sessions, and this gave me an initial idea of how the various bits of the body contributed to the creation of sound. Since then, I’ve been dipping my toe into the culture of “live music” by sitting in on jam sessions and listening to the musicians talk and experiment with their sound. It’s quite a different experience from the pre-packaged, highly-produced sound that I used to associate with music, and it’s a way of seeing (or hearing) that is fascinating. It’s very different from what I do every day, manipulating images by proxy through a mouse.
So I’m here checking it out. There are just a few people here tonight. Elise is using an electronic piano tonight, as the baby grand is in desperate need of tuning. Neil is a regular who loves singing; every October, he makes a point of singing “Monster Mash” at every Karaoke event he can in the area, making hundreds of appearances. Monique is new to me, and and has a lovely voice that reminds me of a delicately-resonant wooden box. Right now, she’s working out how to sing Bonnie Raitt’s Give Them Something to Talk About with Elise, who is improvising and transposing the song on-the-fly as they look up lyrics on her iPad. They’re both having a good time, and as a result I’m having a good time too. There are a lot of goofs and hitches, but no one minds at all…it’s part of the process, and it strikes me that the people here are actually playing with music. They’re not fixated on correct performance or proper technique. Instead, they are part of the experience of music. This is a bit different from how I’m used to thinking about music. My mom was an organist, played hymns at church, and taught piano lessons to seminary students. I grew up surrounded by church music of the traditional variety, everything in the key of C major. Musically, I think of C major is being the equivalent of the “Times New Roman” font in graphic design, and it doesn’t exactly move me. Mom tried to teach me piano for a year when I was around 10, but I was an unmotivated student and these didn’t last. As would be the pattern in many things in my early education, I got hung up on the origin of the craft. The question I asked my Mom, upon being told where “Middle C” was, was why it was called that when it wasn’t actually EXACTLY in the middle of the keyboard. These kind of things bothered me. I think Mom had a reverence for classical music as a symbol of culture and education, and by playing each note as it was written it payed homage to all that she held dear. This didn’t work well for me; I kept wanting to change notes because I liked my choices better, and I kept thinking there was a secret pattern to the keys that were just out of my reach. This has resulted in a continuing interest in music theory and composition, but alas…I didn’t take my piano lessons seriously.
What strikes me about tonight’s piano karaoke session is that the people here have a personal relationship with each song. I’m terrible with lyrics and can never remember names of songs. This is exacerbated by my tendency to hear lyrics as music and not words due to some oddity of my brain. Thus, I find the the powerful association that people have with their music both foreign and fascinating. The conversation that arises is highly educational as well. The seasoned musicians sometimes stop and wax enthusiastically over a particular arrangement of notes…”it’s a weird transition that happens right in the middle! The whole song is C major, and then it goes into D minor; what you’d expect is it to do THIS instead. Wow. It’s genius!” This is followed by a cheerful wave of acknowledgement from the others in the room. It’s a kind of awareness that mirrors some aspects of graphic design: the suspension of completion, the playing against expected patterns, and the use of our ability to discern the direction of a change to guide our emotions. Pretty darn cool stuff.
Toward the end of the evening, I’m cajoled into singing a song that Elise choses from one of my iPod’s playlists. My pitch is good, but I am lacking in projection. I also don’t know the lyrics that well, and the whole experience reminds me of learning how to drive a car with manual transmission. There are subtleties in timing and pressure that demand attention, and I haven’t developed the awareness or the fine motor control to sing the song with confidence. It reminds me of trying to drive a car on a twisty track at maximum speed, a feat which requires optimal modulation of acceleration, braking, and positioning for every single moment to achieve. A friend of mine, Gary, once told me how he sat next to a guy drawing weird circular patterns on a pad of paper, tracing and retracing the shape with his eyes closed. Curious, Gary asked him what he was doing, and the guy said he was a race car driver; the circular path he was drawing was his mental recollection of every turn on the course he would be racing on soon, and he was practicing what he needed to do. For example, to make a particular turn, he knew he had to be going a certain speed for the best time. Too fast, and the car would fly off the track. Too slow would mean he wasn’t going to do the best possible time. And so it would seem, in my developing understanding of singing. Instead of a track, you have the melodic line you are going to sing. Transitions between notes are like the turns in the roads: some are pretty steep, and you need to modulate your vocal cords and air pressure to make the change cleanly. And then there is the smooth delivery of power through breath control and a host of other things that I’ve yet to discover. I think this is all pretty cool, but I remind myself that the insight alone isn’t going to make me a better singer. I’ll need to memorize the lyrics and the melody, and practice in the way I didn’t do with the piano. What makes this a little easier, I think, is that I already can hold a note, but having watched enough American Idol to know that this doesn’t necessarily carry over to more challenging vocal exertions, I’m not deluding myself. It should be pretty fun, though, to see what happens.