I feel like I must have done something wrong. It just came to me that I’ve hardly ever cared about anything but music. I used to draw and paint to pass the time—I was good at it and I liked being able to impress people—but in the end, it wasn’t something I had to do. Same with reading and writing—a fantastic way to spend time—and it always took me away from the most unbearable environments—in the same house with an arguing family, being a brat on a bus full of brats, being stuck on a long line, and others. So I draw, read, and write here and there—but there’s only one thing I have to do—listen to, and play, music.
From that perspective, I can visualize my whole life, my jobs, my social interactions, my buying habits—as one big structure whose purpose is the perpetual availability of music to listen to, and a piano to practice and play on, and a stack of songbooks to sing from. Don’t get me wrong—many of my hardest efforts were in service to my Claire and my Jessy and my Spence. But anything I do for myself is unfailingly music-related. Nothing else has that feeling of obsession that I just can’t shake.
Unfortunately, I was not blessed with any talent for music—in general, I’m pretty awkward—and at piano, I’m markedly so. Any slight ability I display now, at the age of fifty-seven, is due to daily practice since the age of fifteen. And whatever ability that may be, it is easily out-shined by any toddler with musical talent and a few weeks of lessons. Do I have a great knowledge of music? Yes, indeed. And do I have a familiarity with music history that goes beyond that of nearly everyone? I do. But I’ll never be a musician, in the normal sense—I must eternally satisfy myself with my own puny capacity, and my improvisations (in which I attempt to make strengths of my weaknesses).
Thus, there is a Zen aspect to my music-making—I must see my music as one thing and ‘real’ music as another. Otherwise, I’d have to give up the piano. It makes for a unique situation—there aren’t many pianists who practice every day, but never perform in public, never collaborate with other musicians, and are still waiting, forty years later, to get ‘good at it’. But that it exactly my case.
The one thing that remains invisible to everyone else is the satisfaction I feel when I’m playing improvisationally—every day, I imagine that today’s improv is tremendous. Most days, I have a camcorder running and when I see the playback or burn a CD to listen to it, I hear something that is not at all tremendous—in fact, it stubbornly sounds like me playing badly—it’s mystifying.
I’m lucky, I guess—when I was young, I was very bright—I got used to being sure of the right answer, even when everyone else thought differently—it is a very good attitude—I wish I could share it with people who didn’t do well in school, who became averse to non-conformity and repelled by new data. I always feel sorry for people who disqualify themselves from learning, reading, listening to classical music—someday they’ll run schools so that the slower kids will have as much respect for their own viewpoint as they do for the teacher’s—but I won’t hold my breath.
So much of my life is a hot-house flower—it can only survive because the conditions are perfect for it. I don’t have to spend the majority of my time at an eight-hour job every day, because of Disability. I have a very fine baby grand in a living room that really only rates an upright. I have the advantage of having been mentored by Matt Glaser in junior high, and Gil Freeman in high school. I was raised to sing Christmas carols and Boy Scout campfire songs, and to sing along with the AM radio pop tunes of my day. As the cherry on top, listening to records of both Keith Jarrett and George Winston taught me, at an early age, that playing the piano can be as much a cathartic experience as a performance.
When I was a teenager, in the heat of a summer day, I could put LPs on the record-player—Glenn Gould playing the Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II, by Bach—and it would have nearly the same effect as an air conditioner—the cool, geometrical perfection of Gould’s Bach affected me in a physical way. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would make my blood hot and ready for battle. Silly little pop tunes could make me feel like my heart was breaking (and I loved having my heart broken) or that I was ‘king of the world’.
My sincerest sympathy I reserve for the people that see music as one thing—as rap, or as Bob Dylan, or as Theophilus Monk. Even confining oneself to a single genre is, to me, a tragic waste of potential experiences. I like medieval music, Bulgarian folk choirs, baroque recorder music, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Enya, Michael Hedges, Carol King, Randy Newman, Leroy Anderson, John Williams (the composer and the guitar player who made the name famous first). I like the Archies, the Partridge Family, the Monkees, Air Supply, Bread, Kris Kristofferson, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Barbra Streisand, Harry Nilsson, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, John Philip Sousa, the Roach Sisters, both Guthrie’s (Woody and Arlo), Judy Collins, Burt Bacharach, and just about every other ‘bad’ musician overlooked by ‘serious musicians’.
I’ve seen every musical movie ever, I watched Bernstein’s TV programs on music appreciation when I was little, I listened to every Nonesuch record in the library, back when Nonesuch produced LPs from ‘Bulgarian Folk Music’ to the ‘Koto Music of Japan’. Music is so much a part of my life that if it was excised from my history, my biography would read: “I am born. I get married. I have a family. I die.”
And that being the case, it seems rather unfair that I should be without even a hint of musical talent—but nobody expects life to be fair, and for good reason. I think it has been good for my character, such as it is—overcoming failure every day is character-building, if nothing else. My dreams of being a great musician would probably lack their zest if I had the slightest idea of what being one is really like. Isn’t that strange? On the plus side (and I say this all the time) it’s good to have a life-long pursuit that can never be completed. I know that Yitzhak Perlman could say the same thing—but being the world’s greatest living violinist, he doesn’t have to focus on that particular fact the way I do.