Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 1

This will be a series of entries relating much of my life as a musician, composer and listener, presented in roughly chronological order. Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I expect I'll enjoy writing it.


Where I come from: Music often runs in families, and mine's no exception. My father is an accomplished pianist and a true natural musician. He played keyboards (electric piano and organ, back then; he wasn't a synth jockey) in rock and R & B cover bands in the D.C. area in the early 70s. There's a picture of me at age 2 plunking around on a black Wurlitzer electric piano in our apartment. I grew up hearing my father play - he played piano in church sometimes, and he'd often play at home just after dinner. He was and is a pleasure to listen to, melodic and soulful, with a fine singing voice as well. My mother also plays piano - she majored in music for a year at college. It's been many a year since I've heard her play now, but when I was growing up she would play now and then - often Bach's Invention No. 5, which she'd learned in college, I think. Both my parents have sung in church choirs for a long time three younger siblings are also musical, but we'll get to them later.

1974 (I was born in March 1970): The first time I remember playing an instrument. I think I was in some sort of kids' program at a community college and got to play on a piano there a little.

1976: Started piano lessons. I would take them for six years, with a few different teachers. My teachers were good (and patient, as any good teacher has to be), and taught me about technique, expression and theory.  The technique was always the most frustrating - I didn't enjoy practicing, though I'm glad my parents made me stick with it. The theory, on the other hand, I was comfortable with. I didn't really understand a lot of the classical music I was assigned, except when my teachers played it well for me - when I played it, the music didn't feel that way and I had difficulty connecting with and appreciating what I was playing. Maybe because I was focused on it as a difficult chore. But when I'd just mess around on the piano and make up music - often in vague or unaware imitation of some pop/rockish thing I'd heard on TV - then I was on board; then music was fun.

1982/83: My parents finally gave in and let me quit piano lessons, which I was sick of. I didn't want anything to do with music at the time. I even made it a point not to take music appreciation as an elective in 7th grade. (Very bad call - I took industrial arts and failed it.) But in an ironic development, toward the end of that year, I started listening to top 40 and rock radio. Obsessively. You have to understand something: unlike most kids, I listened to virtually no popular music before age 12, except what I heard incidentally. This was for religious reasons: back then my folks were...well, not fundamentalists, but closer to that description than they would be later. We spent a lot of time at church, and for much of that period my two-years-younger brother Brian and I went to a Baptist school. My parents listened to current popular music when I was little but pretty much stopped when they converted, or maybe a little after. The devil's music just wasn't around unless my brother and I thought to go out of our way to hear it.

So what changed? One night during the last week of 1982, I was watching TV, alone, and the Solid Gold show was on, and they were doing a two-hour special, a year-end countdown of the 40 biggest songs of the year. A few artists, maybe ten of them, performed their hits (lip-synced, though I didn't know it then); for the remaining songs, the show's dancers did a routine to maybe 30 seconds of the song. I'd heard only a few of the songs before, and only snippets then, not knowing who did them or what the name of the song was. So I was introduced to all of these songs, all these sounds and styles and textures and expressions, all at once. An alien landing on a lush blue and green planet.

This show changed my life. To this day, hearing almost any song featured on that show causes some endorphin release to go off in my brain. I started listening to the radio the next day and every day after - often late at night, with headphones, undetected and undisturbed, discovering the music. When we got home from church on Sundays, I'd rush downstairs to the stereo to catch the last hour of the Casey Kasem countdown. My little brother was getting the bug too - both of us started taping lots of songs off the radio about then, using leftover cassettes our dad had in storage that originally contained meeting minutes or something. Not with a stereo cassette deck, which we didn't have, but rather with one of those little portable tape recorders placed close to a speaker.

I returned to the piano with a vengeance, because now I had to figure out how to play the music I heard and liked. And while I was there, I would often segue into making up riffs and lines that sounded like the music on the radio. Wasn't long before I was writing lyrics during math class and composing whole pieces of music. I didn't love playing piano before, but now I did. Now I could imagine *being* one of those folks I heard on the radio. I'd think about music all the time, and I needed to: life as a young teenager was often confusing, embarrassing and hurtful. Music was more than just entertainment; it was a desperately needed refuge.

Our parents didn't exactly like this new development, and they sort of tried to forbid the music a couple of times - but I'm sure they knew it was a losing battle, and I don't suspect their hearts were in it anyway. I'm sure they saw how much joy the music brought us.

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