Piano forte

Me and My 1929 Weber Concert Grand

My earliest memory of the piano was being very impressed with my Mom’s version, of what I believe was “Heart and Soul”. It might have actually been “Blue Moon” or some other similar song. It was a long time ago and I’d never heard either of them anywhere else. My brothers and I referred to it as the “bompa-BOMPA” song, as it had that sort of feel in the accompaniment.

We thought Mom was pretty good. She had a Sohmer studio in the family room. It was old, probably bought used, but it played well and sounded great. Mom had other songs in her repertoire – she could read music – but none of them quite had the appeal of the “bompa-BOMPA” song. She could really rock out on that one.

I can’t really be sure, but I think at some point, Mom showed me how to play the “bompa-BOMPA” song. Well, half of it anyway – the “bompa-BOMPA” part, which was easily the best half. I believe this was the start of my long and frustrating relationship with the piano. (Thanks, Mom.)

At various times in her youth, Mom had played the trumpet, the clarinet and the glockenspiel, a sort of marching band version of a xylophone. There may have been more – those are the ones I remember. Whenever one of us showed any interest in an instrument, we were encouraged to take lessons. My brother Steven was the only one I remember having any actual talent. He played the piano and the organ – decently as I recall – he could play most of the Ray Manzarek (The Doors) keyboard parts note for note, was in a band – I think he even played in our church at one point.

My lessons were not as fruitful. I think I started studying with Mrs. Gubbings at age 11 or 12. I lasted long enough to play a passable “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at my first (and last) recital. At the time, I had a paper route, trouble in school and a very short attention span. I didn’t have the self discipline to practice and was slow to progress. About six months or so into my career, after a particularly unpleasant confrontation over my study habits, Mom or I (perhaps it was mutual) decided the money going to Mrs. Gubbings might be put to better use elsewhere.

Although it was not my first brush with failure (see Little League, swimming lessons, penmanship, etc.,) for some reason, this one stuck in my craw. Perhaps it was the fact that I did not quit entirely of my own accord, maybe it was sibling rivalry, or maybe just thinking “If I could learn the ‘bompa-BOMPA’ song so quickly, how hard can this be?” Whatever the reason, I resolved to carry on via self-directed study.

Since I was now calling the shots, things were going to be different. No more “Volga Boatmen” or “Spinning Song.” Forget about scales and counting, I wanted to PLAY!

Steven had fake books with lots of songs in them – all you needed to know was the chords. So I learned them: majors and minors and all their inversions. Got as far as the sevenths and major sevenths before my enthusiasm waned. But armed with the chords I knew, I could sort of play any song I was familiar with.

From there I graduated to sight reading. The easy play stuff first, gradually working my way up to the lower intermediate level. I still didn’t practice much. At the first difficult passage I either faked my way past it, dumbed it down or skipped it altogether. My fingering was terrible, my dynamics were non-existent and I often held the sustain pedal down for the entire piece. With each aimless session at the piano, I meticulously adopted and ingrained every bad habit in the book into my repertoire.

The worst mistake I made was forgetting that the point of playing is to make music. My focus was on the mechanics: reading the notes, hitting the keys, avoiding mistakes… and playing as loud as possible. One of my more charitable critics once said I played like a player-piano. It was not a compliment.

I took a beginner’s class in high school, and did well compared to the true beginners, but it only served to reinforce my counterproductive behavior. During my college years I sold pianos, and when business was slow I had even more opportunity to perfect my crappy playing.

After Karen was born, I moved to California and, for the first time, I was piano-less for three years. Bad as my playing was, I missed it. We bought our first house out here partly because I wanted to get a piano and needed a stable place to keep it.

We closed on a house in La Habra and financed a 50-inch upright at Field’s Pianos right about the same time.

When it arrived at the new house, I fell right back into my old patterns. I’d buy a book of pop songs, read my way through a few, get them up to a minimal level, and move onto something else. I dabbled a bit in ragtime (Scott Joplin), and later, country and western (Floyd Cramer.) Over time, my playing did get a little better, from the sheer amount of time spent at it, but the musicianship never improved and my playing remained something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Three years ago, in fit of middle-aged closet cleaning, I decided I should either get better or quit. I traded my upright for a grand, hired a teacher and plunged back in.

It was like old times. He wanted me to “count.” I didn’t want to. He wanted me to practice at least an hour a day. I practiced mostly on Saturday, in the hours before he came over. He wanted me to learn classical music, I wanted to learn how to play “New Kid in Town.” Instead of arguing with Mom, I now argued with him. I even hired a second teacher – a guy I met while he was playing at Nordstrom’s.

Two years passed. I got a little better. But, the flush of the initial excitement wore off, my teacher gradually lowered his standards down to mine, and once again I realized I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Thirty years of effort and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” remained the high point of my career. I came close to quitting several times.

Earlier this year, I decided to make one last go at it – if I wasn’t playing in front of people by year end, I’d pack it in.

I tried to ease into it by bribing a few of my co-workers with filet mignon. To earn it, they had to agree to sit through a 30 minute recital while digesting. One of my teachers suggested I raise the ante and play for seniors and shut-ins. Athough I made a few calls, I never hooked up with any of them. I decided I’d try to play at someone’s Christmas party. I’d done it before, badly. This time, though, it would be for real. After all, I had almost a year to work up some Christmas material.

One of my associates did me one better – he offered me a spot playing at the opening of the Christmas show at his storefront theatre. It was early spring and the first show was not until late November. I agreed to do it.

In May, I dragged out my Tom Roed Collection of Christmas Favorites and set to work. My plan was to focus solely on a Christmas repertoire and have at least ten pieces ready for prime time by November.

Through the spring and summer I toiled away on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Christmas Time is Here”, “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”, “Home for the Holidays” and “The Ukrainian Bell Carol” (Karen likes that one – it’s her ring tone.)

By August, I had scaled back the set list from ten to four. When September rolled around, I dropped “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” and “The Ukrainian Christmas Carol.” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was coming along okay, and “Christmas Time is Here” was not hopeless, but my dream of mastering a set of seasonal classics was fading fast. In October, at the urging of a friend, I added back “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to provide a little balance to “Christmas Time is Here” (too depressing, I’m told.)

Meanwhile, things had piled up at my “real” job. A project I had expected to complete by November, had run behind and I would now be away for several weeks in November and December when the shows were scheduled. When the director contacted me to set up the pre-show playing, I bailed.

My associate invited me to watch the dress rehearsal for the show, and afterwards, invited me to play, strictly in the background, at the party after the opening night show a week hence. After torturing my family and neighbors with Christmas carols all summer long, I figured I owed it to them to at least play a few at the party.

I practiced a lot that week.

I did the party. That led to me playing at the opening for one of the shows, and then the after party for another show, and then more opening music. I’d like to say that I was great, but I wasn’t. In fact, I was a nervous wreck and played much worse than I normally do.

But, I did play for other people. And it was OK. Even pretty good at times.

More importantly, in facing my fears of public performance, I finally realized that it is not about the notes, the chords, or the volume, but the music. When my pulse stops racing and I wipe the sweat off my palms, what I’m there to play, and the audience wants to hear, is music.

I may never get to the level where I can play musically consistently, but, when I’m sitting out there, under the lights, crapping my pants, every once in a while, I hear it.

And that’s good enough for me.

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