Without music, life would be a mistake.Friedrich Nietzsche
Music is the background to our lives. What music we listen to, sing to, dance to – or create – changes with us as we grow and evolve, from infancy to the day we die. It expresses our innermost emotions, gives wings to our desires, and memorializes our highest joys and deepest sorrows. Our lifelong roadmap.
We identify ourselves – as children, adolescents, and each phase of our adulthood – with songs that, when heard later, immediately conjure memories of specific feelings, people and events.
Rock ‘n’ roll, country, jazz, reggae, hip hop, new age, pop, blues, punk, funk, soul, classical…most of us admit to loving one genre more than others, although each has likely touched us at some point.
We may even sing along, in our heads our out loud, in the car, the shower, with friends, in musical groups. By sharing music, we share a deep, inexpressible bond.
My relationship with music has always been complicated. In terms of my musical tastes, I don’t fit into any typical niche, and I always seem to be out of sync with my peers.
For me, there has been the music I listen to, and the music I play on the piano. The latter influences the former.
The music I enjoy listening to usually features the piano. These days, Amazon’s Prime allows me to listen to a wide array of music I wouldn’t otherwise have access to, including movie scores to movies I’ve not seen, scores which move me (as they’re designed to do). Often, I discover new artists while listening to a curated playlist. I’ve come to realize that Celtic-influenced music resonates with me, perhaps because of Irish ancestry. And even though I love to sing – I sang in school choruses in junior and high school and love to sing while driving – I usually find myself drawn to music without lyrics. Big, soaring orchestral works of contemporary movie scores have become the go-to background to my writing.
A Life-long Relationship with the Piano
I started toying with the piano when I was four. One of my older brothers was taking lessons, and he taught me to play chopsticks. I was hooked.
To allow my brother to practice at home, my parents bought a used 1880’s upright piano. Over time, it became one of my closest, dearest friends. It was my anchor, my rock in hard times and a joyful refuge in good times.
At age five, I started lessons with my brother’s instructor. I can’t describe her, I don’t really remember her, but boy, did she teach me! I remember playing a song she taught me at a school event when I was in the first grade. I played on an elevated stage, with the audience – parents and other kids – seated in rows on the gymnasium floor below. A parent approached me afterward, asking to see my sheet music. I had played an Andre Previn piece, kind of jazzy and pretty advanced, although I didn’t know that at the time. Later I understood that the man was amazed a six-year-old could play the piece.
I was able to play it only because of that early teacher. She was amazing. My brother also excelled under her tutelage.
Sadly, she moved away a year or two after I started.
I tried to work with a couple other teachers. They would set new music in front of me and ask me to play it. I couldn’t; I couldn’t sight-read. I could only, slowly, pick out notes and try to string them together in proper timing. That first teacher had taught me to play mostly by ear. She knew that to grab the interest of a child, playing had to be fun rather than a chore. The new teachers made me start over with scales, finger exercises, etc. They insisted I play at recitals, where I felt terrified and made mistakes. (One awful recital memory: feeling nervous, I started my piece an octave too high, and my instructor had to interrupt me and tell me to start over.)
I hated all that. It made me feel stupid, plus I was bored with the scales and finger exercises. By third grade, I quit lessons altogether. But I kept playing on my own. Playing being the key word, as in, having fun plinking the ivory.
In fourth grade, on a whim I tried out for our elementary school orchestra. I played the same song I did at that first-grade school program. The auditions conductor – he was the Seattle kids’ symphony director at the time – was impressed. He put a new piece of music in front of me and asked me to play it. I couldn’t. Once again, I felt ashamed. That was the end of my playing-in-public career, along with any sense that I could be a musician.
Yet I kept playing piano, because I loved it. I loved making music on my own, whenever I needed it.
To learn new music, I would ask my mother to buy me the sheet music to a song I heard on the radio. The first was Born Free, theme from the movie of the same name (which I also loved). Since the song was popular and often played on the radio, I knew what it was supposed to sound like, and eventually combined playing by ear with learning to read the sheet music. I added song books of popular songs, reduced to “easy” compositions, which I played ad nauseum, so much so that one of my brothers was constantly complaining, “She’s playing the piano again; tell her to stop.” But it worked; eventually I learned to read music.
By seventh grade, I was heavily influenced by the ballads of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and Carole King’s Tapestry album. I bought the song book for Tapestry and two collections of John/Taupin. By this point, knowing how the songs sounded allowed me to learn to read music faster. Not well, but decent enough to learn lots of new songs. The brother who had initially taken piano lessons took up guitar, teaching himself as I was teaching myself piano. His sheet music and musical tastes – Led Zeppelin – provided more fodder for my musical education.
Digging through my pile of songbooks and sheet music is like traipsing through my formative years. In addition to Carole King, shaping my notions of tender romance, there’s Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross (Lady Sings the Blues), John Denver, The Bee Gees, Bread, and the songs from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (a movie I saw when a seventh grader; the songbook included gorgeous photos from the film) and the songs from Love Story.
A little edgier (but not much), there are songbooks for Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad. For a few years in high school and early college, I was very into George Benson, Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly score) and other soul and funk artists.
I kept improving, entertaining no one but me. I was too shy to play in front of others. But I still fantasized of a career as a musician, of being on a stage playing for an adoring crowd. What teenager keen on playing music doesn’t?
I dabbled in making up songs.
That’s what I called it: making up. I didn’t know or understand the concept of composing music. I still call it making up songs.
In seventh grade, I made up my first song. It was a process of many hours spread over many days and weeks, repeating the notes over and over because…I didn’t know how to write music, so memory was my recorder. I had to train my fingers to remember where to go each time I sat at the piano. That’s the only way I can describe it. Finger memory based on repetition.
By the end of high school, I had internalized the messages that music wasn’t a stable career path. Despite my desire to be like the Wilson sisters of the band Heart (from Seattle), creating music and belting out songs on a stage, I was instead encouraged to put such dreams aside and be more practical about my future.
I went to college and studied history. Then I studied law. Ironically, what helped get me through those years of study was playing piano. In college I “discovered” classical music, and learned to play Beethoven, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Those works challenged me, and that mental challenge seemed to be exactly what I needed to offset the challenges of college and law school. Because I didn’t have my old 1880’s upright with me as a student all those years, I found pianos to play on campus. Sometimes I even got to play on studio grand pianos, letting myself imagine playing to audiences.
The more stressed I was about exams, or life, the more I played.
I still don’t know how to write music. I’ve “made up” my own shorthand style of writing music so that when I create something some random evening of playing, there’s a hope that I can recreate it again while it resides in that in-between place of birth and having cemented it in my finger memory after repetitive playing.
The only reason I can still play that song I created in 1969 is because I keep playing it, frequently, year after year since then, making sure I don’t forget it. It has always just resided in my head, in my fingers.
I’ll never forgot a simple bit of validation my father gave me when I was in college. My piano resided in his basement at that time, and whenever I visited him, I played her. It was during one of those visits that my father told me he considered learning to play music the same as learning a foreign language. That simple analogy made me proud of all the effort I’d put into learning to play, read, and compose music.
Saying Goodbye to a Dear Friend
I kept my beloved upright piano with me for most of my life. She was moved more times than I can count, following me from one location to the next. She lost one wheel early on, thereafter propped up by a piece of wood. Yet amazingly, despite all those moves, she never needed tuning. I learned to repair her myself when a random key would quit playing, and her innards were where I stashed my jewelry, safe from burglars.
Eventually, after five decades of our amazing relationship, when moving for (I hope) the last time from Seattle to Idaho, I reluctantly decided to donate my piano rather than move her again. That was a traumatic day, watching her loaded on her back onto the flatbed truck of a piano tuner who said he’d restore her and donate her to a worthy cause. I paid him $100 to take and care for my life-long friend.
Upon arriving in Idaho, I quickly gifted myself an electronic piano, as I knew I couldn’t go long without one. While lacking the history and character of my old friend, my new piano has a setting for a “grand piano” sound that isn’t quite as lovely as the old girl, but a close second. It will do.
These days, I find myself mostly playing my go-to new-agey songs I’ve played for a couple decades now (David Lanz, Enya, Jim Brickman), with occasional nostalgic tears into the really old stuff just to see if I can still play them. And my own compositions, because playing them every time I sit down to play the piano is how I keep them alive, from my brain to my fingers on the keys.
Putting Myself and My Music Out There
Recently I discovered that there are decent recording apps for smart phones. I downloaded one and started recording myself playing my “made up” songs on my electronic piano. I figured this way, I’ll always have them, even if for some reason I become unable to play them. I won’t forget them.
Which brings me to the real point of this post: outing myself as a composer.
For so many decades I’ve harbored a desire to be a musician. I never cared about any particular level of success. I just wanted to share music with listeners, wondered what that would be like. Would they enjoy my creations?
Being a published writer has given me insight to what such a world might be like, where one’s art and craft is tossed out into the universe and some people respond positively. I’ve had the joy of learning how gratifying that can be.
I’ve always wondered whether I might enjoy a similar result with my music. At this stage in my life, where I’m less concerned with making a living and more concerned with living, I’ve toyed with the idea of finding other musicians with whom to create music, or maybe showing up at a small local venue’s open mic night to play some of my “made up” songs. But I always shut myself down with negative self-talk: I’m not good enough; I’ll screw it up as I succumb to the pressure to perform; I’ll be laughed at; or, who gives a shit?
Then it occurred to me that my blog might be a place to toss myself out there without much risk, given my small audience. And I’m not playing live 😊
Here’s my composition from seventh grade (1969), which, for lack of a better title, I’m calling Seventh Grade Angst.
Featured image: the score of the Andre Previn song I played at that school event in first grade, and still play periodically, from memory, to make sure my fingers never forget, with mark-ups from my teacher and my own (my name and phone number).