For the love of music

Part 3 of the piano bits

So how in the world did I get here? I now have ten students. Half of them piano students, the other half voice students. And me, a music teacher with no music degree.

the choir I currently sing with

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that I began playing the piano when I was about 6. I took classical piano lessons most of my childhood.

And I’ve been singing for longer than that. In fact, I think I’ve heard my mother retell a story in which she claims she never heard a peep out of me as a toddler until she heard me one day singing “Over the Rainbow.” This might be one of those stories that is more myth than truth, but it sure sounds good doesn’t it? And if you know me, you are not surprised by the tale, tall though it may be.

I think my first singing role was in Hansel and Gretel at the age of 4 or 5 when my older sister and I shared the role of Gretel–she played it one night and I played it the other. I was bitten hard by the theatre bug and pursued roles throughout my youth. Hal McCuen was the director of that children’s theatre project in Mansfield, Ohio. He was a driven thespian who inspired me and many others in more than one generation in that little burg, and I am grateful for having been one of his protege.

 My first choir experience was in the junior choir at my church when I was in fourth grade. There, I learned that I am an alto and that I could sing harmony when most kids were too young to carry a tune while someone else sang something different right beside them. My sister and I held up the alto section together, in fact. There were probably twenty other kids singing soprano, and me and Sally and one other girl singing harmony . . . and being heard, mind you.

Our director for that little church choir of prepubescent was really fabulous. She was a very attentive and patient teacher, and an excellent director who could squeeze amazing subtlety out of a bunch of very young voices. I credit her with my being bitten by the choir bug and having spent the last thirty years participating in community choirs, symphony choruses, church choirs, and in choir leadership all my life. Mrs. Ransdell, I tip my glass to you, dear lady.

In high school I tried out for parts in practically every play our school put on. I played Abigail in The Crucible, the maid in The Miracle Worker, Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and other roles I can barely now recall. I thank Bill Asher for generously casting me in things that gave me an opportunity to try to act and to sing. Bill was a bombastic thespian: every word he ever spoke and every move he ever made was played for the deaf audience member in the back row of the theatre. Bill helped me figure out that I might be more than just a ham, and that gave me the crazy idea that I might pursue theatre in college.

So off I went to college, spending two years pursuing a theatre degree doing mostly musical theatre. Kept singing, got some voice lessons, and got stronger. But I slowly began to see that a theatre degree was not the most practical route to take in college, so I switched to English.

Then in my third year, I met a merry little band of folks who I thankfully still count as my dear friends today. And this is when my musical education was renewed.

I was living with my girlfriend Cindy when, one day, two people came knocking on our door looking for her. She had met Jim and Kathy at the local diner where they discovered they might have some mutual musical interests. Specifically, they wanted to recruit us to come sing some choral music with them. Jim was the Music Director at the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. He sang bass, Kathy sang soprano. My voice was low enough to sing tenor, my girlfriend sang alto. Together we began working on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Bach’s chorales, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We became inseparable friends and collaborators. I learned so much from singing in a small intimate quartet. Being able to work more intensely with each other on our sound, being sensitive to one another, listening to each other, working hard to blend—there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t tell you that it was a magical time in our lives and that we have not captured the same feeling singing with anyone or any group since.

Besides those glorious years expanding my classical singing repertoire, my friendship with Jim gave me the gift I had wanted as a child and been discouraged from pursuing. That gift—playing the organ. I had expressed interest in playing the organ to my piano teacher as I was growing up and her response had been, “You don’t want to learn that thing. Nobody plays that anymore.” Unfortunately, I never mentioned it to my mother or anyone else at that time.

But I had always loved listening to the pipe organ at church and now I had a dear friend who played it beautifully and loved it. Jim helped me wrap my mind around teaching myself to play the organ and, with his guidance and encouragement, I dove in with both feet, literally. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a “hack” at the organ since I am mostly self-taught, but I learned to play well enough to land the Music Director’s job in Florida, so I guess I did okay. Furthermore, being able to play music with both your hands and your feet at the same time is probably the coolest thing ever. Thank you, Jim. You inspired me then and I am happy to still call you friend.

Those years spent playing and singing with close friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kent, Ohio set the stage for the next 30 years of singing in choirs, playing in churches, directing choirs, singing in a jazz ensemble, playing in a folk group, and teaching other people piano and voice in the hopes of passing on the love of making music to others.

So when potential students or students’ parents ask me what qualifies me to teach, I tell them, “a lifetime of playing piano and singing and a belief that being able to make music is the most valuable, spiritual, and inspiring gift you can give to yourself or your kids.”

I am blessed to be able to have a hand in that process in anyone’s life. And I am incredibly grateful for the teachers I have had all through the years that helped me improve my techniques, inspired me, and helped me foster, cherish, and never forget the gift of music in my own life.

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The joy is in the practicing

 I’m sitting at the computer, writing and listening to Keith Jarrett on Pandora. Keith Jarrett is a jazz pianist who has a unique style and voice (he sometimes can be heard audibly scatting while he’s playing even though he is not a singer). His style varies from contemporary jazz to traditional to avante garde improvisational with a mesmerizing or hypnotic quality at times.  Check him out doing Autumn Leaves at the Blue Note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1o1Hwpo8Y

One of the first guys I dated in college, a music student by the name of Kevin, turned me on to Keith Jarrett. Kevin and I met when he approached me in the lobby of my dorm where I was playing the grand piano that sat there. Kevin was mean and self-centered and was probably bipolar, like so many of the people I attract like a magnet. We dated only a couple times, but my appreciation for Keith Jarrett has continued through the years.

I love the piano. I have played it all my life. I love to listen to piano music. I particularly admire jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Diana Krall. But I have an undying appreciation of all accomplished piano players and will listen to piano music any time. When a pop singer hits the scene whose main instrument is piano, I tend to have a special affinity for him or her, Ben Folds, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Hornsby, Ingrid Michaelson, Nora Jones. God bless Pandora, because I can listen to any pianist I want day or night.

I am not half as accomplished at piano as some of these folks and I did not major in music in college. Still, it is my beloved avocation. I have played piano professionally, accompanied soloists, played in ensembles, and I have taught piano to adults and children.

I have my mother to thank for this. I grew up in a house where it was simply understood that you would learn to play an instrument, and taking piano was mandatory before you could move on to any other. Out of five siblings, I’m the only one who stuck with piano as my primary instrument.

I was having lunch with my mom yesterday and she told the man I’m dating this story: I was only 7 or 8 years old and had not been taking piano for very long and I performed Fur Elise at my piano recital to the amazement of everyone in the audience since I was such a young girl and a relatively new piano student.

Having an aging parent is such a blessing (my mom is a spry 83), because they possess this big trunk of secrets and memories. And all the wealth and richness of their lives and of your own life comes percolating out of them when you least expect it. Like that short little vignette of my life as a young piano student.

I suddenly remembered how driven I was to learn that piece, Fur Elise. I just loved it so much, I wanted to be it. It never occurred to me that I might not have enough knowledge as a young piano student to play it. The thought never crossed my mind. And even though I was a typical student who complained about having to practice all the time, practicing this piece didn’t feel like practice. I just decided I was going to play this piece and did. It was exhilarating. Of course I could only play the first movement, but learning that piece made me feel like I had flown to the moon and back.

I haven’t changed all that much from that driven, giddy little piano student. I still get a hold of a piece and don’t’ let go. Of course, some of the pieces I pick up take a hell of a lot longer to master. And many of them I never master. I’ll play Clair de Lune my whole life and never play it worth a crap. The arpeggios in the middle really hang me up. I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for years. I play a sloppy first movement and a halfway decent second movement, but can’t bring myself to try the third, knowing how fast it’s supposed to go.

Last year I learned the Prelude from Grieg’s In Holberg’s Time, a Suite in Antique Style. I’m still having a little trouble with a couple of places in it, and I will probably never play it up to speed. But when my dear friend, Carrie, told me one of her high school piano students was playing it, I got a little competitive and decided I had to learn it. It’s been a year and I’m still working on it. Maybe I’ll move on to the other movements, maybe not. The joy is in the work!

Even when I am playing piano by ear, finding a popular piece that I like to sing and figuring out an accompaniment so that I can sing it without the record, I still operate in the same way I did those many years ago when I learned Fur Elise. In these cases, when it’s an Ingrid Michaelson song, or a Dolly Parton song, or a Patti Griffin song, or a Cheryl Wheeler song, I usually sit down at the piano with the recording nearby and work out the entire song in one sitting, repeating it over and over and over so I don’t forget it. Then I know it’s in there (my pea-sized brain) and I can pull it out any time I want.

Without all this music running around in my head, I fear I would be very lonely and bored. Thanks, mom, for making me take piano lessons. Sorry I complained so much about practicing.