Petula Clark told me that everything was waiting for me “Downtown.” The Seekers encouraged Georgy Girl and me to “shed those dowdy feathers and fly.” And a little girl in Kansas asked for both of us: “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?”
From an early age, music was in my DNA. Though I had a great-relative who it is rumored had played with John Philip Sousa’s band at some point, those three songs constitute some of my earliest memories. But I grew up in a house where music was on the scene yet not part of our daily lives.
My father had scores of albums. A lot of Mantovani. Man of La Mancha and Beethoven’s Eroica. The Reader’s Digest boxed sets of classical music, light and otherwise. But they were seldom played. Even in the car, it was easy listening to Muzak or talk radio. And in those days, there wasn’t much to be found on AM radio. But there was always a piano.
Dad played piano on an amateur basis, strictly at home. I never had much interest in learning to play the piano, or even learn music, until one day Dad bought an organ.
What kid could resist an organ? Two levels of keys, pedals, buttons to push in and pull out, colored knobs that simulated (usually pretty poorly) the sounds of other instruments. It was a latent musician’s dream.
Understandably, Dad did not appreciate banging on the instruments or stomping on the pedals to hear weird cluster chords. One day he brought home a beginning music book that included a tear-out treble and bass clef that could be put on the organ keys to learn the notes, and I taught myself to read music through this simple system. As I began to realize that most of my father’s piano literature did not translate well to the organ, I naturally progressed over to the piano.
Mom and Dad paid for piano lessons, but for some reason, I never learned scales or the proper fingerings. Sure, I could see the tiny numbers above certain notes, but if I could fake it my way, then that was the way it was going to be. My teachers never corrected me either, so what did I care? Not until I was an undergrad music major did I learn to play scales so I could place out of the final semester of required piano courses.
Dad had numerous film music charts nestled inside the piano bench. I cared more for the themes from THE APARTMENT, ANASTASIA, and EXODUS than Mozart or Beethoven. (Still do.) Their sweeping melodies drew me in with an intensity that the classical composers did not. If you look in the far right-hand corner of this post’s picture, next to a Burt Bacharach compendium and the vocal selections from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, you’ll see a bit of the piano selections from LOVE STORY sticking out. Give me Alfred Newman, Ernest Gold, even Francis Lai, over Rondo Alla Turca.
In 1973, THE STING changed my life. The film was my first PG film, so at age 11, I was beginning to feel somewhat grown-up. And I was as besotted by Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangements of Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes as the rest of the country. “The Entertainer” was played in near-constant rotation on the radio and I was hooked. My father bought a book of Joplin’s collected rags and I got down to work.
It wasn’t always pretty. The syncopated melody in the right hand was fine. The steady progression of chords in my left hand? Not so much. I got within the general area of the afterbeat chords, but there were always a few clustered notes in there that Joplin didn’t write. And the octaves on the first and third beats were no better.
As my piano technique “progressed” over the years, octaves and chords became my nemeses. My hands can easily span a 12th, sometimes a 14th if I really stretch them. But that wingspan was not always helpful when it came to the piano, and certainly not on clarinet.
But no matter. I trudged my way through rag after rag. If I’d spent more time practicing the left hand, I might have made a decent ragtime pianist. As it was, I was just sloppy and lazy.
Around this same time, I began to learn the clarinet. Why the clarinet? Because my best friend who lived two doors up from me played clarinet. Because she played soccer, I played soccer. She’d always be better than me at soccer but there was no way I was going to let her be better than me at music. And she didn’t. I stuck with the clarinet for 17 years…but that’s getting ahead of my story.
How simple the clarinet seemed compared to the piano. Even though both hands came into play, there was only one line of notes. So long as you had the proper fingering, the worst thing you could do was have bad pitch or squeak. And believe me, I had plenty of both of those.
Up until that summer prior to junior high, when I first took up the clarinet, my musical accomplishments had been private primarily. When I was crowned “first chair” at our first “audition,” I got a taste of power and glory, at least among the 13-year-old set, and I loved it!
My previous musical training put me in good stead with the clarinet. I didn’t need to learn to read music, as so many other students did. And I found I had an affinity to the instrument. To hold it was natural for me, or at least it seemed so at the time. The problems would surface later, some of which I wouldn’t even recognize until I stopped playing years later.
I don’t remember much about my musical accomplishments in junior high. My only relics of that time period are a few faded concert programs that my mother still keeps and my high school band jacket which, for some reason, had patches from Region Junior High Band adorning the sleaves (as well as other honors from high school). My memory is of a big fish in a very small pond.
When I hit high school, that all changed.
NEXT TIME: High school drama and musical theater. “You have been warned…”