Ivory Keys

This is part 5 of 11 in the series 26 Songs.

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently took Pat Pattison’s Coursera songwriting course (as offered by the Berklee College of Music via their Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) partnership with Coursera. I had a couple of reasons:

  • I am intellectually in love with the idea behind MOOCs…and they are on the rise.
  • I’m not blind to the potential downsides of MOOCs, but learning new things is my favorite hobby and it can be a pretty expensive hobby. The last new thing I decided to learn was a rather ambitious sewing project which started with the best intentions of keeping things simple and ended with me buying a sewing machine, sundry tools and special materials, all of which added up rather quickly. At least MOOCs are typically theoretical rather than hands on in nature…and they’re free.
  • I am a procrastination expert. I get distracted easily by shiny things (specifically, shiny new exciting projects or things to learn) so vows like writing a song every two weeks for a year start with the best of intentions and fade very quickly. I’ve yet to ever hand in an assignment late though, so the external motivation was good for me.

But even more so than those surface reasons, I took the course to overcome my fear of writing and the tyranny of the blank page. And whilst to some degree, I am petrified and have no confidence in my abilities as a composer, putting actual words on a page scare me even more.

This is actually pretty silly, since despite music being one of my earliest memories, in terms of actual creative output, writing happened for me way before composing. I’ve kept a diary ever since kindergarten (with each illustrated entry faithfully narrating recent events with appropriate dramatic embellishments) and my baby poetry definitely predates the cassette tape I made for my dad when I was seven, which I’m pretty sure just has me randomly singing sentences that I could have just spoken. I’ve always taken some measure of pride in my ability to string words together (even if – this blog being case in point – I do have a tendency to be verbose).

It’s as if when I got older and started writing more factual pieces (like choosing to write a critical essay instead of a creative piece for my English Extension II major work, or the hundreds of technical accounting memos and business reports of the past eight years), I lost that confidence to write creatively to the point where I don’t think I can create believable stories or characters anymore – all I can do is sit on the sidelines and dissect other people’s creative efforts to pieces, without contributing a single thing to the world.

When I first started posting stuff just over three years ago, I didn’t actually post the first attempt because I was too self conscious…but that’s something I can’t afford anymore; it just gives too many excuses to not do something. Creating something and not putting it out there to get feedback, well, it may as well never have existed in the first place.

So the first attempt was in AABA form. It’s about someone who has been known in the past for being an amazing pianist virtuoso but stopped for whatever reasons being asked to perform again. Jonathan gave me some starter lyrics focused on the idea of stage fright and all the excuses we come up with to avoid playing. After messing around a lot (and failing to empathize with how stage fright manifests on any instrument other than piano), I came up with this:

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So I have to play for you today
You know it’s been a long time
Since I’ve touched those ivory keys
Oh I’m shaking down to my knees
I think I might be losing my mind

So I turn the page here on the stage
You know it’s been a long while
Haven’t really warmed up my voice
Fingers frozen – I’ve got no choice
Now you’ve gone and put me on trial

Your accusing eyes name musicians all the same
My febrile mind produces voluminous excuses
“This room is too small and cold”
“The piano’s out of tune and old”
Can’t remember the song you chose
The bright lights blind me and they expose
All my flaws
I pause
Gotta take a deep breath
Fear I’m really out of my depth
But here goes…
Here goes…

[insert massive piano instrumental solo here…at the moment it’s just a repeat of the introduction motif as a placeholder]

Well I’m glad I’ve played for you today
I know it’s been about time
How I love those ivory keys
How it makes me weak at the knees
When the music sounds so sublime

Looking back three years later, there are so many structural problems with this – and no real narrative whatsoever as the song progresses, just a lot of describing stage fright and then suddenly somehow resolving that everything worked out in the end.

One of the earlier Coursera assignments was to write a verse and chorus, with the aim of trying to develop a better narrative in the song. Lacking anything else definite at the time, I thought I’d try this idea again. Here’s the rewrite, just of the first verse and chorus:

You remember a girl from seven years ago who said that she would be
Center stage in concert black at twenty-three
She’d go to Juilliard
Every day she’d work real hard
And her playing would echo across the schoolyard

On those ivory keys
Those ivory keys
Black and white and pure
And with every chime
There was music sublime
Beautiful and pure
But I don’t play anymore
I don’t play anymore

Lyrically I feel it’s much better, with a stronger sense of narrative and less “forcing” of words to fit an arbitrary rhyme scheme. Musically, I also think it’s a lot tighter, with a better distinction between verse and chorus, a better progression from verse to chorus, and a much better setting of lyrics to melody (ugh, I look back on that first version with all the awkward stresses falling in all the wrong places and just…ugh). I like to think I have better verse/chorus melodies which are distinct from each other, as opposed to one halfway decent melody and then a rambling mess in the bridge.

To date, this song remains unfinished – I haven’t rewritten the rest of it as the narrative I have in mind seems less than substantial. Still, there’s something romantic about the phrase “ivory keys” and it conjures up so many emotions for me that I’m pretty sure I’ll return to this and keep rewriting at some point.

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I'm just a girl with a piano. I'm on a quest to go from audit files to Broadway. Currently, I'm working on an as-yet untitled musical exploring identity, family, and love for second generation immigrants. In my spare time, I serve as the Secretary/Communications Director for the NYC-based Composers Collective.

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