Thursday, January 20, 2011

At the End of the Rainbow


One of the functions of this blog is, as I now realize, to chronicle the downwardly-mobile memoirs of a sort of anti-diva, which strikes me somewhat funny since Soprannie and I, back in the days of our high ambition, used to assuage each other's latest heartbreak or botched audition by telling one another it would all go into the diva memoirs.  Now that I've moved far away from the capital of that ambition (which is also the capital of everything else), I feel like my own ambition needs to sink low rather than soar high, as if I, ant-like, should dig tunnels underground and put whatever it is that I have to offer as an artist in there, in the dark, and hope something good will come out of it.  As Dar Williams says in the excellent song "What Do You Love More Than Love" (which, sadly, I couldn't Youtube for you):

I love the way the world is your garden
You plant your seeds and you let 'em grow
And you dig things out of the ground just like
You take what comes but you never know

You never do know, do you?  You recall having planted a rose way back thousands of days and nights ago, before the snows came; but when winter thaws, you see that what you have is a cabbage, which, while not nearly as lovely as a rose, is infinitely more useful.

So, in spite of the fact that at a certain point in my life the idea of the glittering career that I had longed and striven for began to repel me, I kept singing.  What else was there to do?  I threw myself hard into scholarship and research, digging out, from the rich ground of library archives, dozens upon dozens of wonderful pieces that hadn't been heard in a hundred years or more, and making them the basis of my post-operatic performing career.

This career, such as it is, has brought unexptected, even bizarre, good into my life.  There was, for instance, the strange reconciliation with the old flame I'd regretted treating shabbily as an undergrad.  And now, there is The Autoharp.

I was all excited to go to my son's pre-school classroom last month with a program I'd worked up of Christmas music.  I had all the accouterments in a big plastic see-through box:  rhythm sticks, jingle bells, a length of white chiffon fabric that I'd fashioned into dozens of little individual scarves to stand in for snow.  I had songs both sacred and secular for my young audience's delectation and participation.  And I had my axe, i.e., my nylon-string acoustic guitar, on which I'd laboriously taught myself to play a chord progression in A major.  I used the guitar on one song only, "I Saw Three Ships."  And I played that chord progression badly.  Luckily it wasn't a tough crowd.

I noted the experience on Facebook.  My old voice teacher from my master's degree program, A.B., who has been perhaps the single most important teacher I've ever had, suggested that I needed an autoharp.  The truth was, I confessed, I'd been coveting one for a long time.  The autoharp is like a guitar, but for dreamy girls with long hair who don't have time to teach themselves a variety of chord progressions on the axe they really want to play, which is, of course, the nylon-string acoustic (and they really want to finger-pick it like Joan Baez or Mimi Fariña, but that will have to wait for another lifetime).  In fact, I almost bought a used autoharp at a garage sale last summer, but at $175, I didn't think I could justify it. 

So A.B. and his wife decided to make me a present of an autoharp.

It came in the mail yesterday.  It is the Oscar Schmidt Ozark model.  It is the most excellent thing ever in the history of the world.

This is what I aspire to (with all due respect to the comic geniuses Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, from the great movie A Mighty Wind):


32 comments:

lissla lissar said...

That's wonderful! Now I want an autoharp, and I'm the most unmusical person you're likely to ever meet (albeit online).

Actually, Geoff and I both want a proper harp as well because of thousands of crummy fantasy novels. At least he has the musical aptitude to be able to recognise a tune. His wife sadly lacks any musical talent at all.

Pentimento said...

The great thing about an autoharp is that you don't have to be musical! It does it all for you. Press a button and the key changes!

lissla lissar said...

Yes, but then you'd have to be able to, you know, recognise keys, which would be a huge leap forward in my musical ability.

Really.

Pentimento said...

Not really! All you have to do is memorize the letter names of the circle of fifths. You need to know that virtually all Western music follows the chord progression I-IV-V-I, with I being the tonic, or home key. So say you're in C Major. C is the tonic. IV is four notes up from C, i.e. F. V, what's called the dominant, is G. So you play chords in C, F, G, and then back to C. That's it! On the autoharp, you strum the strings, then press the buttons to change the key. When you go from a C chord to an F chord, then, you just keep strumming and you are automatically playing the chord progression. There, now you too can play the autoharp.

And if that doesn't work, just remember that every teenage boy in America can play the guitar. . .

Philomena Ewing said...

Fabulous post, well written and the mischievous music video at the end plus autoharp is hilarious.
Thanks also for the details of chord progression- that was really instructive. I taught myself to play the guitar many years ago and loved it. Even though I did not know much about reading music I learnt a lot from others in a church music group that was really good but sadly I had to give up and sell the guitar it when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis because my fingers could not cope anymore but this has made me wonder if I could play an autoharp.I am retired now and it would be lovely to restart something I have always loved.
Thank you.
Blessings

Pentimento said...

Oh, yes! I'm sure the autoharp would be just the thing for you, Philomena! You can strum it with a pick, your fingers, or that thing that Catherine O'Hara has on. I think it would probably be a good instrument if you have limited finger motion. I love my new axe, and I want to share the autoharp love. :)

BettyDuffy said...

My son and I have been taking guitar lessons for about five weeks now, and I harrass him through his math facts with that same C F G chord progression. He really hates it. And I just realized this week, after spending many evenings practicing my plucking, that I don't especially love the guitar either.

Perhaps...autoharp!

Pentimento said...

Yes. Yes, Betty. Autoharp. You'll never go back, I promise.

lissla lissar said...

Nathaniel just insisted on watching "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" three times, and danced along.

Pentimento said...

LOVE. You have to see the movie, Lissla. It's a spoof of the folk revival.

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, man. Now I want one.

So we won't have a bloggers' ball, after all, but an all-autoharp blog-orchestra.

Pentimento said...

Awesome idea, Sally. We all have to get those white go-go boot, too.

mrsdarwin said...

I remember watching "A Mighty Wind" through a haze of tears of laughter -- the pivotal concert had the delicious inevitability of the performance of "Springtime for Hitler" in the Gene Wilder version of The Producers.

And now and then Darwin and I greet each other with "How's it hangin', Grandma?"

My brothers invested hours and days of their teenage years in practicing the guitar, while I never took it up. As a result, now they play like gods, while I sit back and wish I could be fun at parties too.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

An autoharp does sound fun, but wouldn't a capo do just as well for changing the chords on a guitar? I bought a capo early last year, and since then I've been "cheating" by learning as many songs as possible in G major and then letting my capo adjust the key for me.

Still, an autoharp sounds so cool. Perhaps the closest I'll ever get to Weird Al's accordion. =P

Pentimento said...

Mrs. Darwin, the answer to being a dud at parties is . . . Autoharp.

Enbrethiliel, you're probably right. But it's so much more exciting to have a new and different axe than an accessory for my old one.

Clare Krishan said...

way cool, and here
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelvideo/8215131/Ice-festivals-a-new-sound-at-Somerset-House.html
is even cooler, d'uh forgive the pun!

Pentimento said...

Oh, awesome, Claire! Thank you for the link!

Emily J. said...

We learned to play the zither in nursery school - how much harder could an autoharp be?

The only problem is that I associated it with the hammered dulcimer Christmas music our mother made us listen to against our will. Maybe if I had paid closer attention in preK I might have developed a little musical ability and could go to the cool parties too.

Pentimento said...

I have many fond memories of playing the zither in nursery school, too. Did you have those sheets of music that you slid under the strings that showed you where to pluck? I loved that zither . . . .

Autoharp is like a big zither that you could probably play Beethoven's 7th Symphony on.

Tell your mom I'm coming over to listen to her hammer dulcimer music next Christmas. That's my joint.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

No zither in my nursery school. I'm feeling intensely deprived of a proper musical foundation.

Pentimento said...

Dude. You can actually PLAY the guitar, unlike some of us.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Yeah, I can "play" the guitar. I can also "drive" a car. =P

I constantly feel that there is some mystery about both instruments (one musical, one mechanical) that I don't feel privy to yet. Being self-taught is better than getting no lessons at all, but then I listen to other amateur guitarists on YouTube and wonder what magic drug they've been taking that I hadn't even known was on the market.

PS--Twenty-two comments now--and at least twenty-three if you reply to this one! Did you ever guess the autoharp would make such a popular post? ;-)

PPS--You know, you probably did!

Pentimento said...

E., I only wish I could "play" guitar AND "drive" a car as well as you.

I'm sure Mitch and Mickey have a lot to do with the enduring nature of this post. You HAVE to see that movie!

lissla lissar said...

I can't play a guitar or drive a car. I want the autoharp and the white boots and the mini-dress.

There's a toy store near here that sells zithers. I've thought about getting one for my son. I don't know if he'd ever get to play with it.

Pentimento said...

The zither is definitely a gateway drug to the autoharp (or "AutoAxe," as A.B. calls it).

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

If the toy shops near my house sold zithers, I'd probably have one by now.

No luck with the white boots at all, though. And my fashionista mother says that minidresses are still out, so she's not going to be any help, either. =P

Emily J. said...

Ok - just one more note: Minidresses and high heeled boots - black, not white, though - are still the height of fashion here in the South. Think Barbie. I'm always afraid some lady is going to bend over a little too far in front of my husband in Mass . . . But the toy stores here do not sell zithers, only bows and embroidered bags. Ebay?

Pentimento said...

No kidding, Emily? Kind of cool about Southern fashion.

Lots of good stuff here:
http://shop.ebay.com/i.html?_nkw=zither+toy&_sacat=0&_odkw=zither&_osacat=0&_trksid=p3286.c0.m270.l1313

Sorry, I don't know how to make it a link . . .

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

The power of the autoharp won't let this thread die!

Pentimento, is your son old enough for the cartoon Phineas and Ferb? I think I just spotted an autoharp in one episode:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOfM7WB1ya4

Just wondering: can your trained ears hear an autoharp in the track--or is the instrument "just for show" and not for real? =P

Pentimento said...

Oh. SO cool. Thank you, E!

I didn't hear a real autoharp in the arrangement, just guitar. However, the use of certain instruments in cartoon depictions of music-making for verisimillitude is already sounding like an academic paper to me . . .

Anonymous said...

After seeing this movie, I went in search of an autoharp on e-bay - and now have two - short and full chord. The only problem is that music is in short supply as guitar chords aren't necessarily usable.

I have 10 years of organ, 3 years of guitar, several of violin, but I am horrible at transposing. That is a skill that does come in handy when you have an autoharp.

Music may be more accessible in the US, but not here in Canada.

Pentimento said...

Anonymous, I'm still using mine to strum chords, but I've been wanting to get finger-picks. I heard an autoharp master play recently and it inspired me.