When I sat down for my first organ lesson at 6-years old, who could have imagined where it would lead me? I heard my father and sister playing our Hammond organ and wanted in on the action. So Mrs. Lutz, who lived across the street and eight houses away, agreed to try me out. Apparently, I passed her little test and went dutifully and happily each week for an organ lesson. Two years later, we got a piano and I alternated between the two for another five years before stopping formal lessons altogether.
I haven’t played the organ in almost 40 years, but have remained faithful in my own strange way to the piano. It hasn’t led me to the concert stage, the jazz club or the recording studio, but has born fruit in unexpected ways. I seem to be carving out a new genre for myself, one that brings no fame or fortune, but a deep satisfaction. I have become a virtuoso of intimate spaces.
Here’s what I mean. In the past two weeks, I played for the school Holiday sing, instantly transposing Christmas carols that didn’t need the broken G above middle C. A few days later, I played for our neighborhood caroling party (with a G that worked!), on piano inside the house, accordion outside. After Christmas, I went up to a country Inn on Mt. Tamalpais with my family and three others. There was no electricity, but there was a piano and I played for about two hours while others read or played cards or talked and occasionally sang along or called out a song. Then at a New Year’s Eve party, I sat down at the piano and someone sat down next to me and requested a song his Dad used to play. That song led to another two hours of playing, with a few others gathered by offering occasional requests. And then yesterday, another fabulous session at the Jewish Home with my dear friends there.
In each of these sessions, I played without written music and moved seamlessly from one song to another without a set list written down. This genre I'm exploring requires that. It's not a performance or a rehearsal or a songbook sing-a-long. It's not so much what you play, but how you play it and what you play next and how you move between them. It requires a high level of musicianship—ie, playing a few hundred songs by ear in all different keys in a wide variety of styles. It requires a mind that can make connections, so that one song suggests another. The connecting tissue might be a theme (songs about travel or rain), a songwriter (Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Porter) a time-period (1800’s, ‘20’s, ‘50’s), a style (ragtime, blues, big band, be-bop, bossa nova), a composer (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy) and so on. It requires a sensitivity to what’s needed next. A waltz? A minor piece? A fast rag? And always, it requires an openness to what people want to hear. Mostly when I ask for requests, people are paralyzed— too many choices!— and are happy for me to choose. But sometimes they can pull out a favorite song and usually, around 75% of the time, I can play it. Believe me, none of this is bragging, I'm painfully aware of my shortcomings as a musician and a pianist. But I seem to have developed an unusual combination of skills that is useful in very specific situations.
The man at the New Year’s party seemed both moved and astonished by the session and complemented me on my gift. Part of me wanted to shout, “Maybe, but do you know how many hours I’ve put into being able to do that?!” But the gift is my interest in doing it, developed over the six years of playing piano for my Mom and my dear friends Fran and Edie at the Jewish Home for the Aged. That’s where I paid my dues and continue to hone the craft of seamless music with no fumbling through books, no predictable repertoire always played in the same order, always looking for the moment when Fran will exclaim, “I don’t think we’ve ever done that one before!!”
But still it’s a bit odd, inventing a new genre that doesn't quite fit into anyone's expectation. And a bit frustrating, especially in a culture that tends to measure worth by numbers— in most of these cases, the “audience” ranges from 1 to 10 people. Not a big impact compared to Justin Beiber’s listening audience. And yet there are many moments of sublime beauty that lift the listeners into another space and gives them energy or pleasure or comfort and solace. Yesterday at the Home, one of the new listeners was dancing to the Bach. Literally. Today I hope to play for my mother-in-law in Michigan over Skype. She’s in need of something other than words now and though so distant to play through a phone, it’s something.
And so I’m growing into this role as a musician of intimate spaces. I wouldn’t turn down a concert audience of a hundred or even a thousand. But even if such an unlikely invitation came, my hope would be to re-create the intimacy of the small venue that has become my default performance setting. Of course, when you stumble on something that feels right and authentic and connecting and healing, you want to spread the good news. You hope for more people to partake. But whether it be writing or speaking or playing piano or teaching (or blogging), my life path seems destined to be perpetually off the grid of Oprah and Terry Gross.
And maybe that’s just fine.