Piano lessons were over. And that sucked because at age 11 I had already been playing piano for most of my life. By now, other boys my age played sports, were boy scouts, were hanging out with their friends at the playground or roller skate rink. Me, I was at home.
Not going to piano lessons anymore… that was a huge chunk taken out of my regular routine. No more piano lessons meant no more practicing the piano. There was a void and no one told me how to fill it. My parents didn’t say, “Do this instead.” I was bored. I didn’t have a lot of toys to play with. I remember having Matchbox cars and two action figures: G.I. Joe and Stretch Armstrong. Why they didn’t have certain anatomical parts like me when I took their pants off confused me. I mean, how were the two supposed to…
Never mind. I’ll save that for another day.
Anyway, Matchbox cars, G.I. Joe and Stretch Armstrong… what? Was I supposed to play with them for longer periods of time to fill the gap of my no longer playing the piano? Hell no. Playing the piano was joy for me! It was the way I could express feelings that, up to now, I didn’t know needed to be released. The only way I knew how to express myself was through playing the piano. Taking that away from me was problematic because I didn’t know how else to let my feelings and emotions show. I had developed a skill that I had spent eight years developing.
Some parents have their kids playing sports at age 3. After sticking with it and being devoted to it for several years, those kids have the potential of growing up to become incredible athletes. Me, I was a pianist. I, too, stuck with it and was devoted to it for several years. Would I grow up to become incredible? Maybe. Maybe not like kids my age eventually becoming famous athletes. But the similarity between those kids and me was obvious: We had passion for what we did. We didn’t want to stop. We didn’t want to stop because we loved what we were doing. Even if progressing became impossible because of unforeseen circumstances that seemed to be out of our control simply because we were kids, still… we charged on ahead and there was no telling us to stop.
Taking piano lessons had stopped. And I hated that. From time to time, I would still go to the piano and play sheet music that had been attained through the years. Whether they were purchased for me or for my mother, I was playing them. She had music of popular songs heard on the radio from Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler, Carole King, John Denver and so on. Me, I had the classics: Schubert, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Beethoven and the like. Playing these songs taught me how to emit feeling into the notes being played, whether with vigorous fire or with heartfelt sentiment. It was all in how I played the keys. When I wasn’t hitting the keys with my fingers aggressively, I was touching them delicately as though I was touching the pedal of a rose, not wanting to bruise it. I recall Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata” being fovourites of mine. Both songs expressed both feelings and I was good at playing them.
Often times I would stray away from the classics and play selections my mother had, including “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller. Playing classical music meant playing with expression. But when playing secular music – sheet music of my mother’s – expression was important there as well. There weren’t words to the classical music I was playing. Of course not. That’s why paying attention to detail and to the theory of the music was extremely important. But that doesn’t mean secular music shouldn’t have the same expression.
At 11 years old, I learned this. And it changed everything.
Within a year of my last piano lesson, I had grown tired of playing my mother’s music and my classical music over and over and over again. During that time, two things happened: Unfortunately, my sightreading skills had plateaued. Today, if I were at the piano and someone were to place music in front of me, I should be able to play the music either perfectly or with only a few mistakes. No. I’d be learning how to play the treble clef of the first page with a whole lot of head bobbing going on… up, down, up, down, up, down, do I have the right fingers on the right keys. Great! Now the bass clef. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to play both hands at the same time with less than ten mistakes, depending on the piece of music. Really, that shouldn’t have been the case. It’s all about practicing, right? But my mother wasn’t pushing me to practice like she had when I was taking lessons. So what happened was this: I taught myself how to play by ear.
From age 12 and well into my teen years I was paying attention to songs radio stations were playing. Even though my parents would have preferred my sticking to the classics, I had emerged from there and I had newfound favourites: Elton John, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, REO Speedwagon, Cyndi Lauper, Foreigner, Madonna, Tina Turner, and Survivor just to name a few. Back then I had one of those portable stereos or “boom boxes” that consisted of both an AM/FM radio and a cassette recorder. I also had 60 and 90 minute blank cassette tapes. Whenever I heard a song that I really liked being played on the radio, I would quickly hit the record button on the tape deck and record the song until it was completed. After filling the tape up with favourites, I would play the song from the tape and, at the same time with my right hand, play the melody line or singing part with my right hand whilst the song was being played. After doing that a few times, I would play the fill-ins or the bass line with my left hand. At the beginning, this usually consisted of me playing octaves. Everything else was filler with both hands as close I as could get to the original track.
So, although one ability became stagnant, another ability was born. Decades later, that ability tied into the ability to play with expression helped me become the pianist I am today.
I hate the fact that I don’t read music as well I should. But that’s okay because learning never stops even though the lessons do. Ever since that last lesson, not only had I taught myself how to play by ear, but I taught myself how to read chords and even write music of my own.
Much of my piano playing and singing took place in churches. (My mother taught me how to sing around the time I started playing the piano; I’ll get into that another time.) Throughout my life I’ve played for countless church services, crusades, revivals, camp meetings, camps, and the like. When I was 16, I had written my very first song, “Where Have All the Children Gone” which was a sad song about children being neglected by families. I’m not sure why such an ominous song had to be my first, but after playing and singing it in front of my peers one night during a youth group service, all of a sudden, I was thought of differently. The youth pastor as well as others in the church saw something in me that I hadn’t seen: A gift. As a teenager, I was simply doing what I knew how to do. I played the piano and I sang. Sometimes I’d write a song. I looked at it as a hobby. But, since then, I’ve learned that it was always much more than that.
Learning how to play by ear became valuable to the church, especially when I was on the worship team and even more so when a visiting pastor would come preach, and, in the middle of his message, feel a song stirring that he’d start singing. That’s when I’d be “cued” to going to the piano and start playing the piano, plucking a few notes and chords as the pastor sung his song. Granted, more times than naught I hadn’t heard the song before, but that was okay. Two or three times into it, I had it down.
Yes, I’ve done a lot with piano playing and singing for over fifty years now. I’ve played for various functions and gatherings, for weddings and funerals, I even recorded a couple of independent records and have had a couple of original songs played on independent radio stations. But I was never limited to just the church. I’ve also played and sang at bars, fireside rooms, and even at senior citizen homes during their supper times.
There was a time when I, in my late thirties, was the music director for a couple of musical productions for a children’s school, one of which was “The Wizard of Oz.” The entire musical score was given to me, but did I play it? Of course not! I mean, hello! It was the “Wizard of Oz”! (I’ll share that story for another day, too.)
There have also been times when I would simply sit at the piano and just play. No music in front of me. Nothing rehearsed. I would just sit myself down, take a few breaths, figure out what key I’d play in, and then let my heart be expressed through my fingers. My soul bared for the listening ears. I call it “Off the Cuff” because that’s exactly what it was: Me creating music as I played. And that which I played could never be duplicated.
Of all the concerts I’ve performed, performing an “Off the Cuff” concert was always my fovourite because it would never be the same concert twice. In fact, many times I’d see a few of the same faces at those concerts because they knew they wouldn’t be hearing the same songs. That’s what made it them so special.
Today, I still play the piano and I still sing. I still play “Off the Cuff” and I still compose and write lyrics for my own music. From time to time, I play for church services and for special occasions. Do I regret not being able to sightread music like I used to? Not really, because it helped shaped me into becoming the gifted pianist, singer, and song writer that I am today.
That’s right. I said, “gifted.” Because being a pianist and singer is a huge part of who I am. And I will always be grateful for that.