Monday, April 21, 2008

Music Lessons

Music is in my DNA, there is no doubt. My parents not only loved music of all kinds, but they were both truly musical, both coming from long lines of parlor entertainers. My mother had a good singing voice and loved to sing the popular hits of her day. My father, on his banjo, could pick out the chords and accompany her. When they were young newlyweds in the early 1930s, they'd go to parties and my mother would be the entertainment. Somebody brought a mike and a speaker for the occasion, and she was in business. (Both my sister and I followed those footsteps exactly in our own lives later on. We never consciously set out to copy our mother; things just seemed to work out that way.)

A baby grand piano in our living room was like the sofa or the settee as I grew up, an unremarkable feature of the interior landscape. The piano I was born to was the one that followed me to this house: a Brambach from the 1930s. It was built during the hayday of "parlor entertainment," when people bought the sheet music of popular songs so they could perform them at home for their families amd friends. People played the piano in those days the way they play the guitar now; small piano manufacturers had a ready market and thrived. The Brambach was no great shakes as an instrument, but it was a pretty piece of furniture and muscially, it did the job. My parents bought it used in the 1940s before I was born.

My earliest memories are full of music. I'm either in the back seat of the car on a long drive with my head in my mother's lap as she sings "I'll Be Loving You, Always," or listening to my sister, who is either playing the pop songs of her 1950s teen years, or practicing for her lessons in the classics. Czerny's exercises roll rhythmically in my brain as I write this, and I love them.

I started piano lessons at the old Brambach when I was six years old. I was the first in an endless line of students my sister now teaches professionally. She introduced me to Middle C, F-A-C-E and Every Good Boy Does Fine, and ushered me through the earliest beginners' books. As I got older, however, that arrangement fell apart. She is a standard pianist who can play chords, automatically knowing where the inversions are on the keyboard and when to play the black keys and when the white, in which key. She tried to teach me these theory basics so that I would be able to entertain myself and others with pop songs, but for some reason it just didn't click. I'd get frustrated and start to cry when she'd lose patience. At that point our parents unburdened my sister and me of each other and I started to go to a professional teacher, Mrs. Wheeler.

Mrs. Wheeler drilled me in exercises (I learned my own Czerny!) and assigned me interesting pieces, but didn't overtly push theory. At that time, in my pre-teen years, I learned to play my assignments in a mechanical way, but I was either too young or too dumb to intuit how a given piece should "feel." After recitals, people would compliment me on my "interpretation" and the feeling I'd put into my playing, but honestly, I had no idea what they were getting at. As far as I was concerned I was just doing what Mrs. Wheeler told me to do.

I finally gave up piano lessons when I entered high school, and actually did no music at all until the 11th grade, when I started singing. Finally I found my true talent, and I really flourished. I auditioned, a complete unknown in the little world of Falls Church High School music, for the prestigious Madrigal Singers, and got in on my first try. Since the school's sports teams had reputations mostly for one ignominious defeat after another, my participation with the Madrigals and other choirs was as close as I ever got to high school jockdom.

I was in high school when I picked up the little plastic ukelele that had been gathering dust in our house for years, and with my father's help I easily learned those four-string chords. Lo and behold, where piano chord theory never clicked with me, I found I knew automatically which chords to play where in a song. Innumerable doors swung wide when I discovered that if you can play four basic chords, you could "play" (well, accompany) virtually any song. I quickly graduated from the uke to my father's banjo, and then decided to go whole hog and ask for a guitar. Enter my Sears Silvertone, Joan Baez, and a whole new identity for myself as a folk singer. For the longest time, I was Joan Baez, but Anglo and with short hair. (Oh. And male.)

The Brambach remained with my parents as they sold the old Falls Church homestead and moved to the house they built on the water south of town. My sister, by then married and established in her own life, also had her own, better piano; she had no interest in the Brambach beyond nostalgia. After college and the Peace Corps, and after my post Peace Corps "starving artist" years, when I finally got on my feet, the Brambach re-entered my life. It followed me here to 12th Street, where it took up an enormous space in this little house, but I still noodled on it occasionally, and actually taught myself to play a few things. I could play by ear as long as I stayed in the keys of C, F, or G. I borrowed all my sister's old sheet music and fooled around with that on occasional nostalgia trips. For a very long time I felt a loyalty to the old gargantua, keeping it tuned and repaired in spite of the professional opinion of the tuner, who told me there would come a time when the repairs really necessary on the piano would be more expensive than than what it was worth. As time went by, I played it less and less, and it became a space-hungry thing on which to display other things, family pictures, etc., and on which dust settled in abundance. I finally came to terms with the fact that I no longer harbored even a vestigeal impetus to play music, and then I realized that I owed the dear old piano as much kindness as it had given me. I put an ad on Craig's List and found a young family who wanted their daughter to learn to play the piano. I gave it to them.

I never really learned to "play" either the piano or the guitar. I can sight-read certain popular tunes on the piano, and if the music of a familiar classical piece is put before me, I can pick it out by sight---if it's easy enough. On the guitar, I am an excellent strummer and I learned the most interesting picks used by Baez. My purposes were accompaniment, that's all I was ever interested in learning, so I guess you'd call me a "rhythm guitarist." As for actually "playing" the guitar, picking out melodies and moving all over the neck like George Harrison or Eric Clapton? Never in a million years. Some people have a natural technique. They just "know" where to put their fingers for chords on the piano and melody on the guitar. I "know" what chord fits a melody--the purely musical part. But I have no technical facility at all, in spite of practicing until my fingers bled.

Can you imagine what your life would be without music? I can't. When I think of all the gifts from my family, music is standing on the shoulders of all the rest. For me, it's a necessity. I loved the performing and the composing that I did and am proud of them. Early on, performance gave me a place in the world when I needed one; now it enriches any musical experience I have because I empathize so closely with that person on the stage. I know what she's doing; I know what drove him there.

Once you've been bitten by the stage bug, you find any excuse to indulge it. They say singers will sing to the light in the refrigerator if they happen to have an off, non-performing day. Me, I'll give speeches, teach, or, now, write a blog. Audience? Just a few ears or eyes will do.


Cuidado said...

I play the radio quite well and am a virtuoso on the stereo.

Ralph said...

We all have our talents, Cuidado.....