Sunday, May 22, 2016

My Life in Music

I wrote on Facebook yesterday:
“In the past few days, played piano at The Jewish Home for the Aged, the Palace Hotel, the SF Jazz Center (workshop) and a House Concert. Maybe I’ll be a musician when I grow up…”
It looks like I was fishing for affirmations and compliments and in some twisted part of me, I think I was. But it was also a sincere reflection on music’s role in my life, a constant companion, but not clearly for most of my life a soul-mate. Consider:
• I took organ and piano lessons from 6 to 13 years old. That was pretty much it for my formal training. I could play Bach Prelude and Fugues on the organ and rush my way sloppily through Beethoven sonatas, but no one suggested a career as concert pianist or church organist.
• Through a series of memorable revelatory moments, I realized that at 17-years old I couldn’t sing in tune, read a simple two-chord chart, improvise rhythmically (along with my friend on the back seat of the car with Led Zeppelin blasting on the car radio) or dance.
• In college, I was not a music major, but took many music listening classes, beat bongos, wore out the grooves of the F blues scale on the piano, played my first Scott Joplin rag, sang in the non-audition chorus and went to Saturday night dances and Friday night folk dances. I also took my first Orff Course with a teacher named Avon Gillespie.
• Post-college I moved out to San Francisco, accompanied my sister’s modern dance classes, landed a job teaching jazz piano with a repertoire of about 10 tunes, scrambled to stay ahead of my students (with the help of John Mehegan Jazz Theory books), took one lesson with jazz pianist Art Lande that gave me a year’s worth of work, spent many summers working at Cazadero Music Camp and was introduced to samba, West African drumming, steel drums and more. Began teaching classes to kids based on the Orff approach.
• Started going to concerts at the World Music Center, traveled around the world and studied a South Indian drum (maddalam) in Kerala, India, a bit of gamelan in Java, came home and kept working on jazz piano, gave a concert once a year with some Cazadero folks and composed a small repertoire of jazz/world music fusion.
• In the next decade or two, played with Balinese Gamelan Sekar Jaya for a few years, played Irish tinwhistle with my brother-in-law, took lessons in Philippine Kulintang, Bulgarian bagpipe, Ghanaian xylophone, Middle Eastern dumbek, explored the banjo and accordion. Kept playing jazz piano in my living room, with the occasional concert that friends were required to attend. J
• In the past ten years, started playing piano for my Mom at the Jewish Home for the Aged, memorizing some 300 jazz standards, at 60 years old, started my first real jazz group, the Pentatonics, and now about to turn 65, I’ve started playing at some local jazz jam sessions, playing “cocktail piano” at the Palace Hotel, giving more concerts—in short, coming out of my living room closet and starting to claim the word “musician” and specifically, “jazz pianist.”
 I’ve never had qualms about claiming the word “teacher” and am more and more comfortable to claim the word “writer.” But because words swirl around in my head each day more than tones— and knowing my childhood mostly bereft of song and dance and experiences beyond formal lessons to lay the foundation for musical neural connections— I still don’t feel wholly qualified to claim “musician.” But I think I’m a good model for how far one can go, through perseverance and long-term practice, in an intelligence not obviously hard-wired. And my patience as a music teacher comes from an empathy with children who can’t effortlessly hear, feel or understand something musically, but eventually can grow more comfortable with the complexities of rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, form. Natural musicians are often terrible teachers because they simply can’t understand how someone can’t hear what they do or play what they play.
And back to fishing for compliments. Of course, I’d love to hear people tell me that I am a good musician, both to affirm and encourage, but truly that’s beside the point. In fact, music has been a soul-mate for me both as a listener and a player, a constant companion that has kept me engaged and connected and feeling like I belonged to worlds far larger than just the details of the daily round. It has been the place to say all the things that come before words start and after they die out, the way to say “I love you” to friends and strangers around me with a power far greater than those three overused words. Every musician has to pass through the fierce gates of technique and deal with the flash and dazzle of the craft, but if the motivation is to provoke admiration and impress, something is missing. The point of virtuosity is to have at command the tools to bring a thousand people together into one complex nuanced feeling, to invite folks into the intimacy of a perfectly voiced chord or subtle touch of melody, to share a moment together outside of time and bring a hush to the room where people are listening as if their lives depended upon it.
At last night’s house concert, I leaped over the dangerous chasm of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu and fell a few times in front of an audience, but redeemed myself with the melodies that followed. I know I have so much work to do and so little time to do it to properly join the ranks of genuine professional musicians, but I’m content to just express myself at the highest level I know. And at the end of the evening, one of the listeners affirmed me in a way I often have been affirmed when things go well and it means more to me than any gushing admiration of the flash and dazzle:
“You made me cry.”

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