10 June, 2016

My Mom, My PIano, and Me

Today marks my Mom's 68th birthday...I wish she were around here to celebrate it. I mean, she's still "around"...I've felt her, all around me, after all, suffusing my entire environment with the love and support she was famous for. But the part of her that I could hug...the part of her that could speak, and hear...that part's not anywhere I can quite reach. And I miss it. I miss her.

Today is also the day I'm expecting to receive a piano, ordered from Costco.ca yesterday morning:

This is only fitting, since my mom got me my first piano, and found money for lessons, and encouraged me to play every chance I got.

In fact, my Mom is in large part responsible for my love of music in the first place.

She had a lovely singing voice she rarely let loose, and she played clarinet, once upon a time. It wasn't as if Mom was prodigally gifted, musically. Nonetheless, in a very real way, Mom was music. Her heartbeat was the first rhythm I ever heard; her voice the cantata of my childhood; her laughter a leitmotif of life.

I would have been three when I got my first keyboard, a Magnus chord organ you can see on the windowsill of my bedroom here:

That's E I'm carrying, my first teddy bear, so named because the "Ted" part was beyond my ability to pronounce when I got him.  

But that organ...two octaves and six chord buttons: C, F, B-flat, G, D, and A major. The keys were numbered 1-15, and the songbooks showed both a treble clef staff with notes, and the corresponding numbers, with the chords in squares above. You'd be surprised how many songs you could play within those parameters.
A few of my songbooks were for a more deluxe model of organ. They showed some chords in negative images, i.e., a black square instead of a white one. When I tried to play songs from those songbooks, those black-squared chords sounded horribly wrong.  I experimented, playing actual keyed chords -- had to figure out how to do that, first, by ear -- and flattening the third, not that I could even begin to tell you that's what I was doing, and that's how I discovered minor chords just in time to graduate to my piano. 

This thing weighed a freakin' TONNE..probably more than that. It had glass feet, as well. Let's just say it was not fun to move, particularly the time we moved it down an exterior flight of stairs in freezing rain.

But it expanded my musical horizons immeasurably. 

The first song I wrote -- I can still play it today -- was a cheerful little ditty I called "A Trip Down Main Street", after The Price Is Right. Three chords, painfully derivative of something (couldn't tell you what, but you'd sure tell me if you heard it)...and I was off to the races. 

I liked playing well enough, don't get me wrong. But what I really enjoyed was composing: creating a soundscape out of silence and populating it with tunes of my own devising. I could pick up pop songs by ear easily, having trained my ear on that little chord organ, and as I got older that became a reasonably useful skill, enough to get quite a few girls in the room listening to me while they thought of other people, anyway. 

The first three songs I can remember learning to play were The EntertainerHeart of Gold, and Music Box Dancer. I hasten to add that only Heart of Gold was even close to note-for-note perfect at first. I heavily abridged (and faked) The Entertainer and, to a lesser extent, Music Box Dancer. Later on I'd learn to play them properly...but that took hours of practice. 

Hours of practice: in music as in life, the thought of devoting hours to any one thing, over and over and over again, filled me with a boredom so strong it was  almost violent. How people can play the same song, over and over and over again, when just a slight adjustment to one chord opens up entirely new vistas of music to explore...it boggles my mind. Sure, I could spend untold eons of time learning to play one thing perfectly...or I could play hundreds of other things, things of my own...MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

And so I played. Played, you know, the opposite of "worked". I did take lessons, thanks to Mom...I even got as far as Grade V in the Royal Conservatory. But my disdain for practice and my constant yearning to change the notes eventually caught up with me, along about the time my bad habits (fingering? who needs fingering? the right note came out, didn't it?) proved fatal. 

After that, it was just me and my piano. I gravitated to it whenever I was feeling anxious or depressed. I was both, and often: I was a sensitive kid. At school, I composed the music for a production of Charlotte's Web...two productions, actually, morning and afternoon, and the music was entirely different each time. I was just noodling. At one point I injected a song written for me by my first love (called "Just Bein' Friends", natch) and fitted it fairly seamlessly to a (mushier, needless to say) song I wrote for her...and then noodled off in some entirely different direction. Afterwards, people came up to me and asked how long I'd practiced. How do you answer that? "I didn't"?  

And yet...give me some real piano music to play, for instance a Bach fugue, and watch me blanch at it and botch it up royally. I could read it, but I couldn't make my hands do what the sheet music told them to do. It would take me hours upon hours of the same eight bars over and over and over again to play it up to tempo, and again...how badly do I really need to play this, anyway?

We moved a lot when I was young, and one of our moves, to an apartment, necessitated getting rid of that piano. In its place came a succession of synthesizers, some of them pretty pricey, all of them loved in their way....none of them even remotely comparable to an actual piano. 

Okay, so you have a whole bunch of sounds besides a piano sound. (Actually, one of my synths had four different piano tones, a couple of organ tones, a harpsichord and a clavichord, to say nothing of strings and brass and other more exotic things). You've got drums, you've got accompaniments, and you can even record things. Fantastic, right? Sure! But 66 keys (let alone 49) is tremendously limiting: so much of the piano repertoire relies on those low, low notes for sonic texture and emphasis. And the feel is just...wrong. It's hard to explain just how.  Also, without weighted keys, your dynamics are completely compromised: you get one volume and one volume only, that's it that's all have fun. Kind of negates the whole piano-FORTE experience, when you can only play piano or forte. 

It got so as I would choose not to play at all rather than cope with such severe restraints. For the last several years, my piano playing has been almost entirely limited to my friend Nicole's piano (thank you, Nicole, there have been some moments I simply couldn't write out). 

And now, I'm getting a piano.


It IS digital. That's for two reasons: one, I live in a semi, and I don't want to power chord my neighbours out of bed (digital pianos have HEADPHONE JACKS!) ... and two, space just doesn't permit a full sized piano in here. Just try to get a piano into our basement, I dare you. 

But it's fully weighted, has 88 keys...and a USB port. That's going to be explored, because that appears to offer me a way to get my music heard. My music probably isn't as viable as my writing as an option to get me some extra $$$...but neither of them are in fact doing that right now, are they? You never know who might hear something and like it, right?

I'm going to be setting that piano up in our basement under a painted portrait of my Mom and I. I like to think she'll hear me play. Maybe even sing along.

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