Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Music...the Therapy Needed Sometimes
My wife has suggested I get off the politics and philosophy train, and talk about something more "fun" for a change. Probably good ideas since many of us are understandably fed up with all the bad news and politics of the day.
Many of you know that I have had a lifelong "love affair" with music. I call it a "love affair", because as I look back on the music side of my life...the artistic aspects, the ups and downs both creatively and economically, the crazy people we call "musicians", and the unpredictability of music...it can rightly be compared to a long, emotional "love affair". Many of my recent friends are probably NOT that privy to this part of my past, so this might be an interesting side of me for you to know...or it might be boring and you may want to click now to another blog subject ;)...
It all started as a wee small child, coming from a musical family and a family church background where my minister grandfather was a self taught organist and "lover" of music. Mostly church music, but not limited to that. He had "encouraged" my mother to take piano lessons as a youngster, and it turns out she was quite gifted. I remember his favorite classical song she played was “Clair de Lune” by Debussy. Sometimes these things run genetically because my cousin Miriam who just passed away this year was also a gifted pianist with these huge female hands that as a child mesmerized me as she played so freely and creatively. I think Mom must have found inspiration from her older cousin as well because she had the same type of gift. So, it is no surprise that prior to my 5th birthday I started out taking piano lessons from Florence Brooks Evans in my home town of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Mrs. Evans was quite a character and had a special gift teaching piano to youngsters. She was a frail little Adventist lady who had spent years playing for the original 7th Day Adventist church (a large Christian denomination that began in my home town and that has spread in a large global way, even here in Panama). She seemed older than Methusela (grandfather of Noah, oldest Biblical man at 969 years of age), was legally blind, wearing huge multi focal glasses...kind of like mini microscopes...in order to read music, or even make out which student she was with at the moment. She lived in a tiny little house that had TWO pianos, one large traditional upright grand in her living room, and another tucked back in her 2nd bedroom that served as the main lesson room. All over her house were stacked music manuscripts, music books, and "stuff" of all kinds. She was obviously NOT a “neatnik” housekeeper like my mother...but was a sweet old lady who was good with children and totally dedicated to her craft. If you practiced hard during the week, she would reward you with a small, sweet glass of juice, usually orange. Adventists didn't do much with candies and fattening pastries as they were all about health foods...but I remember those little rewards quite distinctly for some reason.
We had seasonal recitals and not too long ago I saw photos my mom has kept of my first recital...about 5 years old...dressed in an Indian Headdress because my first "piece" to perform publicly was the "Indian War Song"...or something like that. Florence Brooks was a unique teacher for those times because she taught reading and traditional classical literature, while also teaching and developing a student’s ability to "play by ear" and create music ideas and sounds instead of just following what some classical composer had annotated 200-300 years before. She taught great fundamentals of correct hand placement and fingering and quickly broke you of the habit of watching your hands instead of the music by holding cardboard over your hands so you couldn’t see what they were doing. Whatever her methods were called, I truly believe she was well advanced or ahead of most modern children's piano teachers. As I observe current kids taking piano lessons, I don't see them being pushed and trained on the fundamentals as quickly or thoroughly as we were back then. It seems to me MOST modern teaching techniques have diminishing returns in many of the basics of education for children...especially in the areas of grammar, spelling, geography, and history. Most of today's public school kids seem to have much less capacity in those areas than when my generation was graduating from elementary or even High School. I think music education is in much the same condition sadly to say. Ah...but I digress...as usual.
So, I have Florence Brooks Evans, my parents and grandparents to thank for providing me the inspiration to implant the seeds of music and piano that stay with me to this day. My goal at that early age was to play as good as my mother or the organ as good as my grandfather. Of course, my grandfather to my knowledge never learned to read music and played completely by ear. Based on my good basic skills learned and developed from Mrs. Evans, at quite an early age I was allowed to sit next to my grandfather at the church Hammond B3 organ during the song part of the service and duplicate with him the melodies of all the old church hymns. Pretty soon I started doing the left hand while he did the melody. Then I learned the foot pedals for the bass notes...and pretty soon I had bumped him completely off the job and by age 10 or 11, I was the church organist, joyfully accompanying my mom who was the church pianist. We were...and are...a good team I think :).
I am quite thankful that musically we came out of a fundamentalist, gospel oriented church whose music was always inspired by black gospel music. As most people know, blues and jazz music were rooted from old spiritual hymns created by the early African slaves who used to sing in order to survive their hard lives in the cotton fields of America. My natural background and inclination for gospel music easily transferred to early pursuit of R&B and Soul music that as a child started coming out of Motown...Detroit City...only 90 minutes down the road from my little town. I was into blues before I was into Rock and Roll. I was fortunate to have interest and an ear for ALL of God's music...from classical to gospel, from jazz to rock and roll. Much like other areas of my life, I became a "generalist" in my pursuit of music. I wanted to try it ALL...and therefore never really became the "best" at any. But, I think I became sufficiently successful to where I qualified to spend a summer during high school at the internationally renowned "Interlochen National Music Camp" in Northern Michigan. That summer was to become a pinnacle of my youthful pursuit and appreciation of music.
The first step towards going to Interlochen was filling out a long questionnaire and making an audition tape. Somehow I got motivated to perform those first steps (most teenagers have too many distractions and other priorities to pursue something like this) and of course had to come up with a significant amount of money to support the program that lasted 8 weeks of that summer. Fortunately, I had generous gifts from my grandparents and parents that gave me the green light to pursue this experience...and what an experience it was. I spent 8 weeks of summer in my 17th year with about (I'm guessing from memory) 500 other Jr and Sr High School aged musicians and artists from all over the world. I lived those weeks in Cabin 18 with 17 other guys, musicians from all over the USA and the world. I still remember most all of these characters vividly. Everyone in the program including instructors and staff wore uniforms during the camp season, even to this day. All the cabins of the High School Boys division were in competition throughout the summer in all areas in addition to musicianship. We competed in athletics, cleanliness (almost military style), and of course in night time antics. Our cabin was by far the craziest and arguable most talented combination of guys in the division. We had university aged counselors who gave up on ruling us...a deal was more or less brokered on all sides for surviving the summer as I remember right.
I had thought I was a pretty good musician in terms of my hometown of Battle Creek, but when put in the midst of this global talent pool, I was quite humbled immediately. There were Junior High students who could play circles around me on the piano which was my major instrument. I also had taken up euphonium horn in the band and orchestra...and I had to audition and qualify for a position in the orchestra in addition to my piano major. I made it into the SECOND Interlochen symphonic band...with no chance to make the "World Youth Symphony Orchestra" which is internationally renowned each year and with many annual recordings that I want to pursue a collection of one of these years. So, musically my summer was filled with private piano studies with Mr. Lawrence who was head of the piano department at Bob Jones University of all places, practice minimally 2 hours per day on that, then weekly concerts with the Symphonic Band which meant numerous sectional rehearsals and 3 full rehearsals with the whole symphony each week before our weekly concert in the outdoor bowl concert arena. Sundays were our only days off each week accept for some concerts that were held on Sundays. Between all the private studies, group rehearsals, symphonic rehearsals, and classes on theory, composition and methods...most every day had a full slate of individual recitals, group performances, concerts of the various symphonic groups, and then each week there were 2 or 3 MAJOR concerts by renown artists. Van Cliburn, the most famous American pianist has and had for many years sponsored an annual concerto concert and I was lucky enough that summer of 72 to hear one of his last regular performances at Interlochen where he performed Rachmaninoff’s Concerto #2, and I was part of the piano majors committee who were honored to attend and cater a reception for Mr. Cliburn. I'll never forget shaking his long, thin, and yes, sweaty hand as he came into the reception and was introduced to each of the piano majors.
That summer also introduced me to many new forms of jazz I was not familiar with. Interlochen had a jazz division/department as well, and while I had wanted to pursue jazz styling, I had never had the contacts or time to do so to this point. A couple guys in my cabin 18 were "jazzers", so I was able to develop a lot of awareness through them of what it takes to pursue that style and vocation. Most of the jazz students were from major cities like New York and Chicago. Stan Kenton came with his whole big band for a week of workshops on jazz and a sizzling final concert that week. I’ll never forget those live workshops with this giant of jazz…and that year he had hired as his main drummer a young Peter Erskine who had recently graduated from…”Interlochen Arts Academy”. He is still one of the first call drummers in jazz and featured on many big time jazz albums.
The camp also features many other art forms such as dance, drama, stage production, painting and the fine arts. If you want to experience a magical place where ALL the arts flourish in one place and in youthful form, Interlochen is the place. I was to carry many of the experiences and information I gained there throughout my life of traveling and pursuing understanding of other cultures and lifestyles. If I have been a little "different" in my life than the roots I came from, it is probably highly because of that one summer in the summer of 72 at Interlochen. I get back to visit as often as I can...and each visit brings with it a combination of emotion and nostalgia. One of the greatest honors of my life was to be nominated by the whole High School Boys division as "Honor Camper" which is one of the most significant awards handed out at the end of each summer camp...and the only one that is based on the votes of your peers. With all the talent and powerful "characters" in our division, I was quite shocked to receive that award. My Interlochen experience cemented in me the knowledge and strong opinion that music is truly the "Universal Language" of the world.
The following school year would find me back at my little public school, Pennfield High School. Interlochen has a year around "Arts Academy" for high school students, and I was encouraged to apply and audition towards the end of my summer there. Unfortunately, I still felt a bit intimidated by the level of talent and intellect at Interlochen and the price was quite substantial and I didn't think my family could afford it. In retrospect, I wish I had considered it more because going back to the home town and old high school after that summer was WAY anticlimactic. The level of education, the talent of the teachers, the whole academic atmosphere was just completely backwards to what I had just experienced, and I found myself floundering a bit my senior year, not very inspired to study, and I probably became one of greatest UNDER achievers of my class. Even the high school band and church music which I was still involved with became tremendously blasé to me. Being the rebellious final months of the Viet Nam war probably didn't help my attitude at all, and I found myself just surviving the best I could and keeping as busy as possible. Part of that reaction found me headed for the pop/secular pursuits musically which would be what pulled me out of my educational "funk".
After coming back from Interlochen, I decided to join a "soft rock" band with some local musician friends of mine. I borrowed a few hundred dollars from my folks and bought a Wurlitzer Electronic piano. This was the same piano that Pink Floyd, Supertramp, and a couple other big Rock groups of the day had built a sound on. I was now going to make my way down the road of popular music of the late 60s and early 70s with my drummer Eddie and bass player Louie. We called our first band "Rush Springs", and we tended towards softer acoustic rock sounds of Cat Stevens, the Beattles, a few Rolling Stones numbers and an assortment of others. This was to be the first of probably 18 different bands I would play for in my life. We played in "battle of the band" type events with heavier metal groups and I started appreciating SOME of the heavier rock though I was still more rooted in acoustic music and still studying my classical Piano.
I found myself studying privately with Calvert Shenk who was the music director at the main Catholic Church of my city and also the newspaper critic of all the local classical music events. We actually always had a fantastic symphony in Battle Creek thanks to Kellogg sponsorship, and my stepdad served on the board a number of years. Mr. Shenk was probably, along with Mr. Lawrence at Interlochen, the best music educators I ever knew. My weekly piano lessons were in the big rehearsal hall of the Catholic Church on a nice grand piano, and Calvert Shenk would sit in the opposite corner of the hall at his desk while I played, reading the newspaper or sometimes writing who knows what...maybe the next critique for the Enquirer and News. I was NOT practicing that much because of all my other activities and interests, but had developed the ability through my ear to "fake" that which I was not familiar with. It was amazing to me that after playing a complicated Chopin or Beethoven piece with Mr Shenk seemingly ignoring me and doing something else, he would walk back across the room, point to the exact bars I had faked through and circle the notes I missed! This ability always amazed me...especially when I had been faking lessons for a couple years with my previous instructor because of my "ear". It was good discipline for me though.
Throughout high school I had been the church organist at my own church, plus filled in a few times at other churches around town. Up to this point I had kept my "secular" band and concerts somewhat quiet even in my small home town. Not that I was ashamed of anything I was doing, but I just never wanted to "offend" people or flaunt my freedoms in front of those who didn't feel the same way. That all changed when I was invited to audition as an accompanist for a female singer to be the featured entertainment at the local Holiday Inn bar.
I had turned 18 early in my senior year of high school, and at that time the drinking age was 18 in Michigan. That meant I was legal to work in a bar scene as well. Long story short, this attractive college age girl (I think her name was Lori...memory insufficient) asked me to help her get this "gig". I think her appearance more than her voice got us the job and pretty soon we were playing 4 nights per week in the Holiday Inn pub while I was still in high school. This was a whole new scene to me, but I was anxious to pursue and understand the adult world, so I was fully up for the adventure. Lori and I put together quickly 3-4 sets of music, and while it wasn’t the most polished live bar music you could find, I guess it was adequate for Battle Creek. The hotel owner was happy...and I was making $25 per night for 3 hours of music. This was huge income for a high school kid in 1973 doing what I love to do...music. Most of my friends were slingin hamburgers at McDonalds or stocking shelves at the Kroger store for minimum wage of around $1.10 per hour. Here I was averaging almost $10 per hour! I was ecstatic...and I became the local banker for some of my impoverished buddies. Then suddenly...after just a couple weeks of our contract, Lori found she couldn’t handle the pressure and flirting of all the businessmen at the bar night after night...asking her out...inviting her to their room. She just freaked out and quit one night right in the middle of the gig. The owner, Ernie Moore, was called in to try and convince her to stay...but to no avail. He then looks over at me and says, "Well kid, can YOU sing?" I sang some and had been starting to put together my own repertoire, but I had maybe two sets of material at most. But, I went ahead and said "of course, but I would need $10 per night more to go solo". He said "you're on", and suddenly I was learning and trying to imitate all the Billy Joel and Elton John tunes of the day I could put together. I think my whole life since then has patterned upon saying I can do something, then learning how to pull it off :).
Somehow I had kept this job/gig a secret from my church friends...until one night while I was playing I looked over at the swinging doors that separated the hotel lobby from the lounge, and looking over those half doors were 4 sets of eyes, two couples who were deacons at my church. They had quite a shocked look on their faces, but then smiled, waved and moved on to the dining room where they were going to have supper. When I hit my break, I sauntered out to the restaurant to greet them and explain what I was doing and why...just trying to make everyone comfortable. Alas, the next Sunday morning when I showed up to play for the church service, the pastor's wife who played piano opposite my organ position came up to me, and with tears in her eyes said "Tell me what I heard isn't true...that you are playing music in the Holiday Inn bar". I did my best to pacify her and explain to her my belief that ALL good music was from God...unless it was meant to illicit evil behavior. She never quite bought it, and my church organ playing days were numbered after that.
I could probably make this blog into a book which is more than you would want to read at this time, so let me summarize down in short form to where all of my youthful music pursuits led. Perhaps I will do another blog addendum to this one day soon of all my adult music experiences. The main thrust or summary I would make of my music background is this...
Music truly is the "Universal Language". My early years as "church organist" allowed me to learn confidence in public performance and how to concentrate even when in front of thousands in an audience. I met many great people and a number of colorful characters through my music. Some of my most "spiritual" moments have been when performing with other musicians, including my mom and other family members…or in later years playing jazz gigs with some great Chicago talents. There's some kind of magic in knowing what the other musician is going to do next, a split second before he does it, and know how I am going to adjust what I will play accordingly. Music challenges the mind and at the end of the day it is all based on high levels of mathematical sequences joined to other sequences that somehow create music, emotion and meaning. When words are at a loss, sometimes music can take communication to the next level. When I want a mood change, to relax, or to liven up a situation...music is often the best tool to do so. I like all forms of music (some better than others) just like I like all types of people (some better than others). I think children that are encouraged to pursue understanding and performance of music turn out to be more intelligent and "adjusted". The discipline of learning music or to play an instrument strongly carries over into other disciplines in life; school, work or business. It is an ability and form of expression that you can do your whole life...especially if you keep it up. But...it is never too late to restart in your life as well.
Many highly successful people in other disciplines were also good musicians. A few that come to mind are Warren Buffet, Alan Greenspan who put himself through university by playing piano, and of course, Bill Clinton on saxophone (OK…I’m kidding on that one).
I truly believe that if everyone in the world had the benefit of learning music in their life, there would be much greater compassion and understanding in the world. There would be less aggression, anger and derision. People that couldn’t talk to each other could still "make music" together. All of this would lead to more peace and sharing of prosperity in the world. It reminds me of an old pop song from the late 70s by the "New Seekers"...whose lyrics I will close with:
Id like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to hold it in my arms and keep it company
I'd like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills "Ah, peace throughout the land"
(That's the song I hear)
I'd like to teach the world to sing (that the world sings today)
In perfect harmony
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony