Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Piano Man"

There are a lot of ways to be happy.  Today, I celebrate being happy by doing everything under the circumstances in question absolutely incorrectly. 

And still it worked out.  Proving that, if you are willing to go the extra mile and behave as counter-intuitively as possible, being happy could be right around the corner. 

You say, “I’ve already tried that and it blew up in my face”?   Then, my friend, you are simply not behaving incorrectly enough. 

This amazing strategy, although easier for some of us, is not entirely beyond reach.  With persistence and hard work, avoiding reasonable advice, common sense and “conventional wisdom” at all costs, you too can make the worst possible misjudgments and still come out a winner.

I did.  And this is my story.

I am now nearing – or may have actually have passed – my tenth anniversary of taking piano lessons.  Ten – or maybe more – years ago, I found a piano teacher who lives three blocks from my house – no small consideration, as my current Driver’s License forbids me to drive any farther than my ability to still see my street.

I explained to the teacher that my primary interest was learning to accompany myself when I sing, wishing to emulate famed composers like Irving Berlin, who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, playing his memorable “standards” with a barely passable musical accompaniment.

I wanted to play like that.

Announcing he was onboard with this plan, we immediately jumped in.  I remember the first song I brought in:  Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”  It took a few weeks to get under my belt, but I finally did it.  Not the identifiable “ache in the voice” part – that results from a kind of hard living well beyond my personal biography – but the accompanying arrangement.  (To pull off the other part takes years of heavy drinking and endless misery, and I was not ready to pay that price.)


After ten or more years – and here’s another approximation, making this hopelessly flawed if it were a science experiment but it isn’t so it’s fine – I have brought my piano teacher something like a hundred-and-fifty or so songs.  And as of the current moment, I can play, with inevitable mistakes,

Four of those hundred-and-fifty or so songs.

The rest of the songs, that I thoroughly studied and diligently practiced and could at one time play as acceptably as I can play the current four… let me give you an analogy.

You know like, you’re out someplace and you spot a person that you know you’ve met but can no longer recall their name, the circumstances of that encounter or anything specific about them… that’s me and the one hundred and forty-six or so songs.

I’m like this “Etch-o-Sketch” piano player.  I learn one song, I flip up the cellophane sheeting, I start a new song and, “Poof!”, the song before is magically erased.  I mean,  I recall learning to play it, but no longer recall how.

Explanation of this Startling Phenomenon:  I’m old.

Actually, it’s not entirely “I’m old.”  A lot of retaining the ability to play a song on the piano involves “Muscles Memory.”  Apparently, my finger muscles have a “Memory Shelf Life” of four songs.  With still, inevitable mistakes.  That’s why I rarely play for anyone else.  I tell people I’m just practicing, and if I finally give in and play something, and make those inevitable mistakes, I sense an inexplicable disappointment in my listeners.  I mean, what‘s that about?  I told them I was just practicing. 

Still, four passably playable songs out of a hundred-and-fifty is hardly an admirable repertoire.  What did I do wrong?  


I refused to study the “Basics” – the endless scales and arduous exercises that are the essential underpinnings for future development.  Stubborn and impatient, I jumped over all that and went straight to “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”  (Which, of course, I am no longer able to play.  Though I imagine I could relearn it faster than the first time.  And then forget it again.  That’s how it works with me.  I have learned “Twilight Time” three times.)

It’s not my teacher’s fault.  He’s great.  Aside from technical training, he offers Zen-like pronouncements, like “Play as if you are already proficient.”  And when I explained to him that, because of some neurological injury in my neck, the baby finger on my left hand refuses to relax, he sympathetically inquired, “Couldn’t you ask it to?” 

So there is no blaming here.  At our first lesson, he explained, “I don’t teach piano; I teach people.”  And since this “people” wanted to skip the “preliminaries” and go straight to the songs, my debilitating limitations are entirely on me.

Here’s the thing, though. 

Eighty to eighty-three-and-a half percent of the time? – I am as happy as a clam. 

(The twenty or so percent of unhappiness is the natural “attrition rate”, emanating from reflexive regret, residual shame and inevitable self-recrimination, which, for me, as regular readers understand, applies everywhere.)

That foolishness aside, for the past ten or more years, there has never been a lesson I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed nor a seven-day-a-week practice I deliberately skipped.  Nothing – including writing – gives me more outright satisfaction than banging away, however imperfectly, at the piano, playing songs I have always wanted to learn.  (And secretly perform.  I can imagine myself in concert, garnering screams and applause from adoring audiences.)  (When you are imagining, the sky’s the limit.)

The best thing is I can see myself improving.  Every practice, the song I am working on gets tighter, smoother and easier to play.  At a time when certain attributes are lamentably receding, this miracle of progress is a welcome exception. 

By the way, this is not “rationalization.”  Considering the time and effort I willingly put in?  I am not that deluded.  At least hopefully.

Final comment.

Listen to this wonderful ballad I am working on.  I picked the Bobby Darin version, but there are also renditions by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Robert Goulet.  We troubadours can really pick ‘em.

After you hear it, imagine it sung worse and accompanied horribly.

And that’ll be me.

Having the time of my life.


1 comment:

Walden Robert Cassotto said...

Sing us a song, you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feelin' alright

If you take requests...

Thanks for the Bobby Darin piece. Loved his stuff, except for Splish Splash! Keep playing!