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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

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I explain why it's taking me so long to release new recordings of my music.

Michael David Crawford, Consulting Software Engineer

October 21, 2007

Copyright © 2007 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

givemegmail111 wrote, regarding my music:

1994? When can we expect the followup album?

Even the Beatles would be forgotten if they only recorded four songs.

He has a valid point. I wouldn't be much of a musician or composer if I only ever composed four songs. I'd like to address his question.

The Winter and Spring of 1994 was quite a creative period for my piano music, but shortly after recording my album, I got very depressed and stopped playing entirely for several years. When I did start playing again, I found myself unable to play anything really new.

I originally learned to play - and to compose - by learning how to improvise, that is, to create new compositions just by playing them immediately. Most of what I played was not very memorable, but I was able to refine some of it into the four songs that make up my album.

However, I originally titled it not just Geometric Visions, but Geometric Visions: The Rough Draft, because I always intended to re-record it. My existing recordings are, as has been so-frequently pointed out to me at Kuro5hin, not of the best quality. For reasons I will explain, the piano is out of tune - and purposefully so. Most importantly, The Rough Draft has only twenty-three minutes of music, not enough for a full-length album.

When I taught myself to improvise, I didn't learn to read music. Sometimes I say I learned to play by ear, but that's not quite right. My wife can play by ear - she can pick out any melody she hears on the keyboard, and almost always get it right the first time. I can't do that. Instead, while I'm improvising, I have an intuitive sense of what would sound good following what I have just played.

But as I said, when I started playing again after my long hiatus, I found my improvisation had stagnated. I wasn't able to compose anything really new. I had the idea it would help to take piano lessons so I could finally learn to read music, and to study the influences of other composers. I studied with Velzoe Brown in Santa Cruz, California, Esther Tanner in Truro, Nova Scotia and Angela Bonilla in Vancouver, British Columbia. They were all wonderful teachers.

I have had several years of lessons. I can read music now; I can't quite sight read, but I can learn new pieces on my own by working slowly through their scores. I can play music by a number of composers in a variety of styles. I can play far more complex music than I used to be able to. I can play many of the major and minor scales with both hands simultaneously moving in parallel motion.

But, it seems, I still find myself unable to compose anything really new.

A few months ago a music professor and piano composer named James Dering stumbled across my essay I Have So Many Questions About Music and contacted me, saying:

You have such depth and introspection in your writing, and I found your tenacity and inquisitiveness inspiring. I wish all my students tackled their musical questions as you do.

He offered to answer the many questions I had about music!

I asked him why, after so many piano lessons, I still found myself unable to create any really new music. He replied:

Let's look at wanting to learn a language, say, German, to the point of being able to walk up to someone on the street in Germany and strike up a conversation. What is required to do this? You need to learn German, of course! That means learning basic vocabulary, and rules of grammar. To make you sound "native," that would also imply learning common phrases, figures of speech, and, perhaps, slang. Now, where does learning to read German, say, from a book, factor into all this? Hold that thought.

Are you familiar with a "diction" class? This is a class that singers take in college, which teaches them to sing in different languages. It teaches something very specific: the rules of pronouncing words in a language. It gets them to the point that they can pick up any book or piece of music, say a piece written in German, and figure out how to pronounce the words they are going to sing. Mind you, they may not have a clue what the words mean, but they are now experts at pronouncing the words. They can do what the paper tells them to.

The typical classical lesson approach is similar to taking a diction class. Not to make light of it, but, largely, the students are learning to follow directions -- to do what the paper tells them to do. They are learning how the symbols on the paper correspond to the keys on the piano, and their goal is to arrive at the point where (ideally) they can pick up a book and play it on the first try. To continue the comparison here, though, I have to take it to its final thought: in many (most) cases, these music students don't understand what they just played, any more than someone who took a German diction class understands what they just said!

So now to return to the question of the importance of reading German in actually learning German, I would say this: of course reading is important; it is our way of transmitting information, of communicating whatever it is one person is trying to "say," so that another person can "say" it. It would be very helpful, when learning to speak German, to read great books written in German, and gradually learn to imitate what they do. Over time, copying the phrases and expression of others would yield to developing a style of your own, which is related to the others you have studied, but which is still now your own. However - none of this is useful, is even possible, if you don't know what the words you're reading mean. If you don't understand German to begin with, but you only know how to pronounce it, then it would be an extremely slow process, at best, to try to learn much from pronouncing German over and over, eloquent though it may be.

So you see, in learning to read music, I have learned to strike the keys indicated by my scores, with the right timing, but I have not learned to understand the real meaning behind the compositions.

That's not how music is taught - very few music teachers know how to compose, so they don't teach it. While I think that's a damn shame, and doesn't have to be the case, that's just how it is.

James offered to teach me how to compose over the Internet. Of course I accepted his gracious offer, but I'm afraid I haven't gotten very far with it. A lot of other things have been taking up my time, which anyone who reads my diaries will be familier with - working on Ogg Frog, getting a new job, moving back to the US, and of course sleeping excessively.

You will not be surprised to hear that I'm not very good at time management.

My plan is to compose five or six new pieces, and to record them as well as to make new, all-digital recordings of my existing four songs, and to release a new album, which I will have "glass master" pressed - that is, my new CD will be manufactured in quantity by a commercial compact disc fabricator, rather than burned on my computer as is the case with The Rough Draft. The new album will be entitled Geometric Visions: Compositions for the Piano.


I have a big problem. I'm stuck, and I don't know how to get unstuck.

I plan to pay my way through music school from advertising revenue on Ogg Frog's website. The site doesn't get a lot of traffic yet, as the software is not yet available for download, but I have found that advertising tests got a good clickthrough rate.

But I was finding it hard to make much progress on software development when I was practicing piano for two hours a day. A little while ago, realizing that the opportunity to succeeed with Ogg Frog was slipping through my grasp, I decided to set the piano aside until I was able to ship Ogg Frog 1.0.

For a while I was making good progress, but a few months a professor of psychiatric social work, after having read Living with Schizoaffective Disorder, invited me to contribute a chapter to a book he is writing on the condition. I was quite stoked to accept his offer, but I'm afraid I haven't done well at writing it.

Unlike websites, dead-tree books have deadlines. There is not much time left for me to submit my chapter. But I am afraid that I am completely stymied: despite having put not just my piano on hold, but Ogg Frog as well, I have found myself completely unable to write my chapter. Time is running out.

I am stuck, and I don't know how to get unstuck.

If I can get my chapter written, I should be able to bring Ogg Frog to public alpha test within a couple months. A few weeks after that, version 1.0 should be ready, and I should be able to return to my piano practice.

And I should be able to return to James' composition lessons. Hopefully after spending some time with those, and with my music theory books - I have two University-level ones - my piano improvisation should finally get unstuck as well.

Then I'll finally be able to compose the remaining songs on my album.

The new album will still have the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license, as will the scores to the songs, which will be available from my website in PDF format (for printing) as well as Lilypond source (for editing by other composers and arrangers). I also plan to self-publish a dead-tree edition of the score at Lulu.

And despite that it will cost a lot of money to get my new CD manufactured, I still plan to give it away for free, as I do with The Rough Draft. My aim in doing so is to get as many people as possible to know my music, so that when I start playing professionally I will already have fans to pay for tickets to my performances.

me deochraty once pointed out:

If you had one minute for each word you type on K5, you would have six lifetimes to learn to compose.

Yeah, it is just like me to overcommit. I've had a problem with doing so for most of my life.

Baldwin by Howard

Allow me to explain why I recorded my piano without getting it tuned.

I recorded it in 1994. The last time it had been tuned with in the 1950's. My father, an accomplished musician, tuned it by ear.

It had gone so long without tuning that I feared tuning it would change its voice, that is, the characteristic sound of my particular piano that is different for every piano. Also the strings were very old and might break. While they could be replaced, the new strings would have their own voices, quite different from the rest of the piano.

While I planned to have the piano tuned, I decided to record it un-tuned to preserve the memory of its voice in case my fear was borne out.

The voice of that piano means a great deal to me. It's not just that it's the piano I taught myself with. It belonged to my grandparents. Many of my earliest and fondest memories are of the sound of that piano, heard while visiting Grandma and Grandpa Crawford in Grass Valley, California.

One day my father told me how his family had come to own it:

Of all the odd events, a door-to-door piano salesman offered to sell it to my grandmother one day. Grandma angrily told the fellow to get off her property.

A little while after that, Grandpa Crawford drove his pickup truck home and said to Grandma, "Guess what I just bought!" It seems that he'd met the salesman on the road and bought the piano from him.

I understand that Grandma got a new washing machine out of the deal.

undermyne has repeatedly urged me to make my new recordings with a Steinway. Without a doubt they are the world's best pianos. But there would be, for me, nothing special about the sound of one. I plan to honor my Grandparents' memory by using Grandpa Crawford's 1940's Baldwin Howard for my new recording.

You'll be happy to know, though, that I have had the piano tuned, and that doing so didn't change its voice or break any of its strings. It sounds really good now. I'll be sure to have it tuned again before I record it.

I don't have Grandpa's piano with me here in Silicon Valley though. It's in storage in Halifax. When the time comes to record it, I will either have it shipped out here, or I will go to Halifax to make my new album. For now, I'll have to get by with my M-Audio ProKeys 88sx electric keyboard.

I think, after I post this, I'm going to go home and play it. I haven't done so for a long time.

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