This question came in a couple of weeks ago from an old college friend while Liz and I were on the road to Oberlin, OH to record my current favorite band, Backbone. (Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond Chris, but I really do appreciate the question.)
As long as I’ve known you, you have been very talented and knowledgeable about music. I’m wondering about the back-story about what lit this flame in your life. Was it love at first sight when your parents let you hammer on a piano at church one day? Did you have traditional music lessons growing up, or were you more self-taught?
Speaking as someone who took years of lessons on Saxophone, Piano and voice, but still has very little musical knowledge, per se, your skills have always been a bit of an enigma to me.
I think I’ll have to answer this one in installments since my road has been kinda weird and “bendy” as roads go.
CHAPTER 1: AIR PIANO, OPUS 1
In truth, my musical journey has been a little bit of a mystery to me, too. I think my mom would tell you I was born to music. She has her favorite stories about music in my childhood, many of which I remember myself. For example, I remember hearing music in my head all the time, I mean ALL the time. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore so I dragged the entire family into the living room (which had a white carpet and was only used for special occasions) for a “recital” of all of this music in my head. We didn’t have a piano at this time, but that didn’t stop me. I proceeded to play air-piano for what must have been an embarrassingly long time, because at some point everyone started clapping and telling me what a great job I’d done. “But I’m not finished yet!” I wailed as I demanded that they all sit back down until the final cadence. I was three.
As Chris guessed in his question, church also played a significant role during this time. For starters, church was where I discovered a thirst for harmony. See, my father was a preacher in an old Baptist church that had a habit of singing all these old, haunting melodies. While everyone was singing these songs by heart (or blood maybe?), I would try to figure out what the titles were and look them up in the index. Once I found the page, I instinctively knew they were all singing what was on the top line, so I started trying to sing the other lines. If the dots were close to each other I’d sing as if I were singing a scale. If the notes had space between them, I’d make a large or small “jump” to another note that also “sounded right.”
Since my father was the preacher, we were always the last to leave. That meant, if I wasn’t too disruptive, I could play the church piano after the service. I had a ritual that involved sitting on the bench, playing one note at a time and leaning in to the piano so that I could hear “how that note went.” I listened to the attack, the decay, and even the tinny, pitched vibration the string would make right before it stopped “singing.” When I felt I’d studied one note long enough, I’d move on to the next note. Same thing, every Sunday.
We got our own piano shortly after the “air recital” incident, but it was technically for my sister who was three years my senior and taking piano lessons at school. Even though I couldn’t read music, I promptly learned to play by ear everything she learned from her books, sometimes adding my own embellishments because “I liked my way better.”
That same year I learned that my mom had taken music lessons as a child. She hated them of course, even purposely broke her wrist to get out of her piano study, but that didn’t phase me a bit. I assumed she must have known something of music notation, so I started harassing her about transcribing my own compositions incidentally entitled things like “Raindrops” and “Falling Leaves.” Her etchings on the homemade manuscript paper looked like magical hieroglyphics to me, and I’d spend quite a bit of time trying to decipher them, matching what I played to what was written on the page.
By the time I was four, my mother started trying to find a teacher for me. No one would take me. I was too young. I think I was 5 years old when I auditioned for Vera Weaver, my first piano teacher. Thus began my illustrious career as a completely unremarkable music student.
If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on pre-school years, it’s because, in spite of few blazing moments of pure joy and ecstatic fervor, the next 20 years of my musical career was kind of a downer. It involved losing teacher after teacher to one circumstance or another (usually financial), me trying to compensate for that through self-teaching with minimal success, and the humiliation of ending up at a boarding school full of kids who had grown up with a first-class musical education. More on that in the next installment….
This is all to say I honestly can’t remember a time when organized sound didn’t completely fascinate me, and I can remember pretty far back. Basically, I was a sickly, nerdy kid who wasn’t good at much and mainly annoyed everyone around me with precocious questions and general condescending manner. So music was my first best friend, plain and simple. I came into the world with a sincere affinity for all things musical. I can’t say that gift came with any particular talent per se, but it did put a deep and rich passion for music right at the center of everything I knew how to care about from my first day forth.
End of Part I