At this time of the year, I have always enjoyed choral music. I guess my appreciation went back to my college days when I would end the semester at Allegheny College with the annual pre-Christmas holiday concert in the chapel on campus. There is something special about choir music that sets the mood for Christmas and when I headed back to the dorm, my head was right for the celebration of the birth of Christ. There was something comforting in that music and it always took the burrs off finals and cramming to make decent grades. I felt like all was right with the world as I relaxed and headed home for Christmas vacation.

Fast forward and I found myself cycling in England a number of years ago. At the end of every ride, I would head back to the B&B,shower, and then hustle over to the famous cathedrals nearby and listen to the 4:00 PM presentation of Evensong. This has always been a tradition in the Anglican Church where the choir sings in the late afternoon or evening and the public is welcome. So much so, that in Salisbury Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, I was invited to come up and sit right in the middle of the choir on either side of the main aisle. What an experience listening to the beautiful harmony on all sides. It was quite moving and I remember it vividly to this day. Some days I was running late and went straight to the cathedral in my cycling togs. I was hoping I was not too disgusting for the sharply dressed, starched, choir in their vestments, as I sheepishly sat in with them and profusely apologized between songs, as I perspired all over the stone floor. They nodded politely and continued on with the presentation.

Nowadays, I rarely have a chance to listen in person, but I do tend to take in choir music on my Pandora Channel with some renditions by Libera, and even more secular music by Lorenna McKennett or Enya that gives you the same relaxed feeling as you drive. Their Celtic music with that haunting melody, can be equally relaxing. Sometimes, this kind of music can actually alter your mood and relieve stress if you do like I do, and drive the back way to and from work without fighting the masses on the freeways. I would rather go a little out of my way, enjoy the scenery, and take in the changing leaves or the gently falling snow which decorates the pines in the hollows of my commute. Those of you who know me might be wondering if I somehow have a loose screw. But I am here to tell you that as much as I like rock and R&B, I can equally be entertained and relaxed on the Spa Channel or choral music on my drives to work.

This time of year, I also have the opportunity to drive to the mountains on Saturday mornings for some local skiing in our Laurel Highlands. Being the Type “A” person that I am, the day begins well before sunrise and I am on the road in the dark. That quiet time in the car is a wonderful time for me as I anticipate a great day of skiing with my friends and have the opportunity to sip some coffee and listen to some relaxing music on the Libera station on Pandora. Sometimes I will listen to Gregorian Chant by the Benedictine Monks on the album “Chant”. The byproduct of this mood altering music is the fact that I am totally relaxed as I enter the parking lot, go to the lodge, and begin the process of booting up. Once I am on the slopes, I can still hear the chorale music in my mind which helps me make relaxing turns on the hill as juxtaposed to the headphone wearing death metal music that the crazies are listening to buzzing all around me. My elbows are out! Efficient skiing and boarding is smooth. Relaxing music creates smooth turns. Flex the ankles and finish the turns. Kyrie Eleison.

So what’s the point Pat? Well- simply put, give choral music, Gregorian Chant, and Celtic music a chance. This time of year it always gets you in the mood and is a nice alternative from Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And, if you are headed to the mountains for skiing, or a ride, or anywhere else where a car ride is involved, make the most of it and unload the stress from the week. Also, this type of music can make you think about the reason for the season. The words bring you to the real meaning of Christmas and release you from all the stress inducing secular time crunches for a consumer oriented holiday. I think of Evensong and am glad that I had that experience to make me appreciate the season. Thanks for reading and enjoy your Christmas or Hanukkah, and quiet times in the car.

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The Piano Man


Well, I am going to see the real Piano Man tonight at PNC Park. Billy Joel has always been a real talent in my eyes and although I don’t expect to see him run all around the stage like the last time I saw him, I know his music is timeless. Thinking about the piano, let me tell you a few tales of my piano experience over the years.
It all started when my mom signed me up for piano lessons at 7 years old with Mrs. Chang from the neighborhood behind ours. I was excited to see if I could play and when I got my first music book with the songs “Birthday Party” and ” Sandman”, I worked hard to play them correctly. Mrs. Chang had her mom fill in from time to time and although she was a gracious older lady, she had this habit of passing gas during my chromatic scales. She would bounce one off the piano bench while sitting next to me and it was alarming/amusing as I was midway through the scale.I told my mom who said that it was part of the culture of Asia and nothing should be thought of it. Probably her way of making sure I did not quit.
Fast forward a couple of years to a new teacher down the street. Mrs. Manson was a little more demanding and her social graces more “western” so to speak as she politely scolded me if I did not practice to her satisfaction. My mom would always retrieve me from the field across the street and tell me to start walking to my lesson. I had to step up my game when Mrs. Manson had us do recitals every month with the other students who were mostly girls. As I sat down at the piano with a shirt and tie, the nerves always started to rattle because I did not want to look bad in front of a bunch of giddy grade school girls. It usually started with a clunker and Mrs. Manson would say, ” Start over again Patrick.” The sweat beads began to flow.
What turned the tide for me was when our backyard neighbor, Dorothy Morgan, gave me some music books featuring show tunes from Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe. I found out that I could play these tunes and accompany my mother who had perfect pitch and a beautiful voice. I can remember many parties at my folks where I would spend time playing for my mom to the delight of her guests. This continued when I became the default piano player at Christmas parties. Our spinet at home had many gin and tonics, beers, wine and other alcoholic drinks spilled in the keyboards over the years as revelers at my folks house would constantly bark in my ear,” Play White Christmas……dammit.”
Moving forward, my path to musical anonymity was aided by taking some piano electives at Allegheny College. I had the good fortune of studying under the tutelage of Lucille and Frederic Marantz who were noted classical pianists and performed nationally. A lot of the students in the music program, were studying to go to Oberlin or Julliard and yours truly struggled not to hit the cracks. At our college recitals, I would often come straight from the tennis courts, a ball of sweat, and bang out Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” as my performance piece while the other more refined and serious students played their sonatas and various piano pieces from the classical composers. Drs. Marantz saw me as a bit of an anomaly and a breath of fresh air in a program that was pretty structured as a feeder to Oberlin and Julliard. Allegheny was probably the high water mark of my piano playing.
I continued to play and had some funny experiences playing in bars and parties along the way which resulted in free beers and laughs. I even had an experience sitting in on Bourbon Street with an old time rag band in a bar. My friend Norm put me up to it on a business trip and the guys were kind to me by playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” which was a slow march and allowed me to keep up with my three chord progression in a major key. The sweat beads started to come again but I was happy to have performed as such on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
My piano sits a little idle in my house currently but as I get older, I see the need to keep up what meager skills I have. So I am sure that the Piano Man will inspire me to once again get partially serious about playing and if Janet, Joan and Jack can stand the occasional clunker and crack playing, I will fill the house with some kind of music. The moral of the story is that you are never too old to pick up a musical instrument. Encourage your child, grandchild, spouse, or whomever to play. It is good for your mind and you never know, people might ” put bread in your jar, and say Man! what are you doing here.” Thanks for reading.

Musical Trails

” Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette. Puff, puff, puff them and if you puff yourself to death. Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate that you just have to make him wait, but you just got to have another…..cigarette”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyYLrVNKE68

Nothing like a little Texas swing from Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen to start a trail run. 924186 Now, I have always been a bit of a late bloomer as they say. I got married at a later age,had a child at a later age, still have not matured in many ways, and still put stamps on envelopes and mail my bills. But I am embracing technology and now have a new partner on my winter trail runs- Pandora. You might say, ” Pat- what is so novel about running with ear buds? Everybody does it.” Well I tried the I-Pod a number of years ago and didn’t like it because when I am riding my mountain bike, I like the feedback of sound from the trails. Same with skiing. If I hit an ice patch, I want to be able to hear it so my reaction is appropriate and not be distracted by Mick yelling in my ear that he needs some satisfaction. But running the trails- that is a horse of a different color. Thanks to Janet, JR, Chris, and Daryl, I have finally found Pandora on the trail and have loaded up my shuffle opportunities with some of my favorite music. download (3)

With the Byrds, Commander Cody, The Dead, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco and a host of other music from my college years, I can run over those logs and rocks and make time to the cadence of my favorite songs. I can get lost on those trails with daydream visions of my old dorm room with Bob Rose and his aviator sunglasses getting ready to put his KLH speakers out the window for spring term- blasting the Commander for everyone outside. I can see the cracked linoleum floors and see the packed refrigerator with Genesee Cream Ale provided by Jeff Ruggles. I can even see that curmudgeon of a lawyer Pat Clair, with his long black hair back in the day, tapping his toes to the rhythm of the Byrds. I can see the layout of that room with the early post office decor- because it genuinely was ripped off from the campus post office by a number of rowdies in our dorm. I laugh as I hear these old tunes and it helps me through the dark nights of the winter on the dark and desolate trails. I have run our trail system for 35 years. I have not become involved in the Fat Bike craze or the studded mountain bike tire craze yet because when it starts to get cold, sloppy, and icy, I park the mountain bike and pull out my trail running shoes. photo Something different and no hassle with extra clothes and a mud/ice caked bike. But again, I am a late bloomer and I may change. In my defense, my behaviors may be archaic, but I have always tried the latest sports equipment looking for an advantage. I did embrace the oversize tennis racquets, shaped skis, and 29er mountain bikes. But with regards to winter trail activities,I am still in the trail running,hiking,and snowshoe mode. But my new friend Pandora has made it all the more enjoyable. For 35 years I had to entertain myself with my own inane thoughts on those dark, lonely, winter trail runs. Now I have my old college musical friends running and hiking with me.

When the first real snow arrives, I pull out the snowshoes and am in a more contemplative mood. I like the beauty of the snow covered trees in the woods. My eclectic taste in music changes on these nights as I listen to Enya, Celtic Women, Sara McLaughlin,and Libera. The haunting Celtic melodies or the choir music of Libera almost elevate me as I hike the snow covered trails with my snowshoes. It is as if I am almost in another world of some kind with that peaceful, contemplative music in my ears coupled with the visual pastoral settings of a snow covered landscape.

It is interesting how music affects your mood and manages performance in activities like trail running. I like the shuffling of my selections but when that hard uphill comes into play right before the end at the parking lot, I like the ability to kick into my last effort with some inspirational music from ………..lets say……..The New Riders…….” Panama Red.” ” Just don’t know when Red’s in town, he keeps well hidden under ground…….” Ahhh, made it up the hill.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKgB-3aANe0 Amazing how that music got me going. Hey- I am a late bloomer. You guys have had the ear buds for years. I am just now discovering and enjoying it. Keep bringing me into the 21st century my friends. Thanks for reading and enjoy the winter.

“Play us a Christmas Song or else I’ll………….

photophotophoto Well this weekend was the opening day of ski season at our local area Seven Springs, and as I have done for the last 52 years, I made my way to opening day and met up with my ski group with whom I have skied for over 40 years. Some of these guys I see mountain biking and others I don’t reconnect with until the snow flies. But it is always good to see them, ski with them, and find out how the family is, what is new in their lives, and check out the new gear that they have. It is always great to make those first turns with waxed skis and tuned edges. Flex the ankles, push off, pressure the tongues of the boots and make that first carve. Ahh yes! What a great feeling and great to get a break to ski in November.

As I said my goodbyes for the day, I passed the Mountain Club on the way down County Line Road. My mind drifted to all the good times at that club playing the piano during the Christmas season. I will tell you a little more about that but first I need to explain my roots in music. My mother thought it would be a great idea for me to take piano lessons as a young child and as I made my way to Mrs. C’s house, I had some trepidations. I will not divulge Mrs. C’s name for reasons yet to be told. Mrs. C was a demanding Asian lady who knew full well when I did not practice my scales. She was very particular with my finger positions and demanded accuracy as I made my way through the octaves. On occasion, her mother would teach me and she had this interesting habit of passing gas during my scale interpretations. It was a little unnerving as I hit some real clunkers when she would bounce one of those gas bombs off the piano bench. I told my mom when I got home and in typical fashion, my mom gave me some BS by saying that it was acceptable in the Asian culture to pass gas and that I should not think a thing about it and just play my scales. I found that explanation unusual and soldiered my way through the lessons with old lady C as best as I could. I was thankful when I started to take lessons from a new lady down the street named Mrs. Manson. She was equally demanding in all respects but on occasion, her daughter Carlene would teach me. Carlene was a gorgeous grad student with long blonde hair and was a real stunner. As a young teenager with the hormones raging, it was again hard to concentrate during the chromatic progressions with her sitting right next to me. I often tried to get out of my lessons when I was playing football across the street but my dad called me to take a shower and get moving. As I walked down the street with my hair freezing in the wind, I always hoped that Carlene would be filling in. It was a good thing she was not sitting next to me in the recitals because the nerves would surely have detonated my piece and I would have embarrased myself by playing the cracks all during my turn at bat. Her boyfriend showed up one day and as a youthful brat, I was jealous. “I’ll bet he can’t play the Flight of the Bumble Bee as well as me!” I wanted to take him out, but he was a little large for me.

High school was fun with my piano playing moving towards Billy Joel, Elton John, and Leon Russell pieces. I could do them some justice but only in a crude high school manner of getting most of the notes right with the clunkers being ignored by my understanding friends. I really enjoyed playing for my mother whom I accompanied while she sang. My mom had perfect pitch and sang at the Pittsburgh Playhouse for years. It was a treat to accompany her and it gave her great joy to have me play for her. This led to many Christmas carol parties at my parents house but that will be the subject of another post. Suffice to say, I did my fair share of playing in high school.

Moving on to college, I continued to take lessons as electives. I studied under Mrs. Frederick Marantz who was a real professional. Her husband looked and played like Artur Rubenstein and it was a real joy to hear him play that Steinway in their living room. When the both of them played, I should have sold tickets. What a treat to hear those two people play with amazing talent and skill. I felt like such a rube when I arrived fresh from the tennis court in my t-shirt and shorts dripping on the Steinway. Mrs. Marantz was so kind by saying that it didn’t matter how I showed up as long as I had practiced. While her other students were playing classical pieces and preparing to enter Oberlin or Juilliard, I was playing Scott Joplin and ragtime piano. The Marantzes thought it was amusing and I was kind of a novelty at the recitals. But they all knew I was in it for the fun and my talent was limited. No Oberlin or Juilliard for me, but I could still bang out the ragtime or the Christmas carols when needed.

So, if we were fortunate enough to have snow between Thanksgiving and Christmas,the apres ski was a lot of fun. I was teaching skiing with my group on the weekends in my younger days, and Craig Morris our ringleader got a pickup truck filled with hay and we all would sing Christmas carols all over the mountain on one Saturday night before the holiday. Because of my limited training, I was the musical director and printed out all the song sheets. This became a pretty popular affair and the people on the mountain whose chalets we visited became incensed if we didn’t make a stop at their place to drain all of their beer and booze. It was like a rite of the season for our motly crew to visit and sing off key for their enjoyment. Their penalty was going to the beer distributor the next day to refill their fridges. Craig and I used to always put this show together and it ended up at the Mountain Club. The first year, I was a little shy to play the piano until I suddenly was placed on the piano bench rather abruptly by our skiing pal Joe Scott who in the holiday spirit said,” Play some Christmas carols or I will kick your ass.” We all laughed and I obliged and we drained all the resources from the club including food. We were a roving band of gypsies that’s for sure and as I drove down the mountain on opening day this year, I could still hear those carols as I passed the Mountain Club. It seemed to me that the sounds muffled as I approached the turnpike for the trek back to the burg. But those days will never be forgotten and it all started with the flattulance of an old lady and the beautiful strains of my mother’s perfectly pitched soprano voice. I am happy that I have that skill. I have had a lot of fun expecially during the holidays with it, and although I am no Rubenstein or Fred Marantz, I can play the cracks as well as anybody expecially on a beautufully polished Steinway grand piano. Don’t listen to me too critically and you will enjoy my enthusiasm even though the occasional clunker might resonate. Thanks for listening, er ahh reading. Think Snow!!!