My Musical Experiments with Piano and Trumpet

When I was a little boy, I liked to sit next to my sister by the piano and watch her play my favorite songs. But the musical notes looked intimidating. This handicap has haunted me through the years. I’ve never learned to read music although having developed a taste for it. No teacher wanted to coach me for I only played by ear and sound and refused to learn music theory. Nevertheless, I’ve learned to play the piano, the guitar and the trumpet in my own special way. I like to sing too, especially karaoke. I’ve also written some songs and recorded them on Youtube (under the name “Randband Cantonese” plus other categories like English, Mandarin and Oldies). Two stories I want to share may sound funny to you: one about the piano, and the other the trumpet.

One day, it suddenly dawned on me that I could experiment on my own all the chords in music without resorting to memory or teacher. How? By hitting three keys (1st, 5th and 8th) on the keyboard. Before this epiphany of mine, I had learned every chord by memory and sound. No more! I can now play any possible strange chord based on this simple rule. In contrast with other instruments, the piano has all the keys laid out in repeated octave sequence from low to high. This makes it easy to experiment on your own. Let me demonstrate my simple rule with an octave:

Lowest ———- G Ab A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G———-Highest

The above shows an octave selected that runs from G to the next higher G consisting of seven different full notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F (white keys). All the full notes have half notes (black keys) in between except two pairs, B-C and E-F. For instance, Ab (A flat) is a half note between G and A that is also known as G# (G sharp).

What is C chord? Just press C-E-G (1st, 5th and 8th keys)

What is A chord? Press A-Db-E

What is A# (or Bb) chord? Press A#-D-F, same as Bb-D-F

What is B chord? Press B-Eb-Gb

What is G7 chord? Press G-B-D for the G chord, plus Gb (12th key) for the 7 suffix.

What is G minor chord? Press G-Bb-D (1st, 4th and 8th keys). Minor means flatting the second key, that is, press 4th instead of 5th in the simple rule.

What is G minor 7 chord? Press G-Bb-D plus Gb

The above show some examples only. If you apply this simple rule, you can play any chord you find in the music world, including all the strange ones played by the Beatles. Try to do the chords with your left hand, and the main tune with the right. You’ll get the hang of it pretty soon. So, wish you have a fun and fulfilling experiment with the keyboard!

Now comes the trumpet story. I knew all along that I had small lungs because in a physical test of blowing a ball up a tube, I could never get it to the normal level. This was also confirmed by shortness of breath after running, or failing to keep full air flowing when I sang. A few years ago, I suddenly felt like playing the trumpet so I bought one, together with an instruction book for beginners. My God, the trumpet was hard! It took me more than a month blowing and blowing until I finally squeeze out a sound! My friends couldn’t believe it when I told them. I learned it the hard way that the trumpet does not require blowing with all your might. It requires skillfully adjusting your lips on the mouthpiece. Despite all the initial difficulties, I’ve been having a lot of fun.

I love the trumpet for two reasons. First, it’s a relatively small instrument to carry around, and it emits a loud sound. Unfortunately, the drowning sound of the trumpet drives family members crazy. They used to say my trumpet sounds like a cow, which is by no means a compliment. Second, the fingering on the trumpet is so easy to learn because there are only three keys to press. Pressing the keys in different ways yields the entire octave of sounds. Going an octave higher or lower depends on how skillfully you blow. Although unable to achieve two full octaves, I can play most of my favorite songs. In my happiest moments, I feel like I am in the same league as Al Hirt or Louis Armstrong. How wonderfully unreal!

Strangely speaking, blowing the trumpet and singing karaoke passionately have helped to enlarge my lungs to a great extend. How do I know? Recently, I went to have an X-ray during a regular physical exam. I remembered last time the technician had to take a second shot because I could not breathe deep enough when he told me to. This time I took a deep one just to avoid any embarrassment. To my surprise, the technician later said, “Good! You really breathed a deep one, didn’t you? Your diaphragm really curved up.” People had told me that you have to use your diaphragm to get more air when singing. I never took singing lessons so I don’t know how to do it. But I did it as confirmed by the X-ray technician. I also know that I have somehow mastered the airflow when doing karaoke. Let me tell you a secret: sing Italian songs like “O Sole Mio” or “Time to Say Goodbye” will greatly expand your lungs.

(February 2012)

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