Just Crack Your Knuckles and Get On With It

Yesterday afternoon I got a call from a loved one who is going on an audition next week and needs to be able to sing a song to piano accompaniment. Yikes. I knew where this was going. I’m the piano player in my family.

It started in the typical way. Mom heard me plucking out tunes by ear on a toy piano when I was three and thought I was the next Beethoven, but with three kids and a cop’s salary there was no way they could afford lessons, let alone a piano. Then, my dad was walking the beat one day in Canarsie and some women asked him if he knew anyone who wanted a piano. It was free if someone would just come and move it out of their home. (Don’t try to tell me there are no angels walking the earth.) When my dad got off his shift, he went back with a truck and brought home an upright piano painted . . . brick red that fit perfectly into an alcove in our kitchen that was painted . . . avocado green. Are you getting the visual on this? Has the avocado green given away my age?

At six years old, I started classical lessons and took them until I was 13 or 14. My dad has a great photo of me lying on my back on the piano bench, with one arm and legs dangling to the floor and one finger raised to tap a key. This was my rebellious idea of practicing, I guess, after I had been told a half dozen times.

Needless to say, I was a big hit in my family, as all kids are. I had to play for whoever walked in the door and was asked to play by relatives whenever we visited. People oohed and aahed and, if I’m being fair to myself, I was pretty good for an average (read non-prodigy) kid.

But then something happened, or rather didn’t happen. I didn’t progress in my abilities. I got to a certain point and just started to feel stagnant. One of the problems was I didn’t know how to improvise. So, I was locked into playing the classical songs I knew and whenever I tried anything pop or rock it came off sounding stilted.

In my teens and twenties, I started writing lyrics, which came naturally, and putting them to tunes, which didn’t come so naturally. I wanted to copyright them and try to sell them, but once again my lack of improvisation skills made me self-conscious about sending them out. (I did, however, send lyrics out to a Nashville contest and ended up placing in the top 10, which was fun.)

Sometime around twenty years old I decided I wasn’t a real musician and from that time on would never again play for a living soul. If it was summertime and I had the urge to play, I’d close my windows so no one would hear. My family told me I was nuts, that I was good. I told them they only thought I was good because they knew nothing about music. Then my son was born and I just stopped playing. I don’t think I’ve played an entire song in the last eight years.

So my phone rang and, as you’ve guessed by now, I was asked to tape myself playing the piano for the song that would be sung at the audition. I suggested iTunes. They said no good because it had lead vocals on it. I suggested iTunes karaoke version. They said no good because it wasn’t just a piano. I grabbed a paper towel and mopped the sweat from my brow. Okay, I squeaked and then spent the rest of the afternoon practicing the hell out of the piece.

The sheet music was easy enough to read. The problem was I suspected a real piano player would never play a sheet-music melody line as accompaniment. I felt I needed to provide another version and that would require . . . cue horror music here . . . improvisation.

Four hours later (and with the windows still open), I taped both versions. They are not perfect. They are not even very good. But they’ll be better than nothing at all . . . I hope.

For those of you who read my post A Spanish Major???, you know that it’s been a week of challenging requests for me, so I think today I’ll unplug the phones and bury my prominent proboscis in a good book. And if any of you musicians out there have suggestions for improving my improvisation skills, send them my way.

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