Monday, June 12, 2006

Once Again, From The Top

Da da da daaa da daaa da daaaaa....da da da da da da daaaa da da da..

Recognize that tune? Why it's The Entertainer, of course. One of Scott Joplin's finest works. And the first song I learned to play on the piano just for fun. I was in the fourth grade and mom let me buy a music book of popular tunes -- all I remember learning to play from that book was The Entertainer and the theme song from M*A*S*H.

To this day, I can play The Entertainer. It's one of the only songs I ever committed to lasting memory. At age 10. So, after nine years of piano lessons from the incredibly gifted Mrs. Luebeck, you'd think I would remember Chopin or Debussey or Mozart....but no, I remember the dumbed-down beginner’s version of The Entertainer.

I’m eternally grateful to mom and dad for their commitment to pay for piano lessons every month for all those years – at a time when maybe they didn’t have a lot of extra cash. Being able to read music, appreciate the classical composers and, to some degree, being able to perform in front of a crowd (albeit not actually on the piano!), are all gifts I received from my piano lesson experience.

But man….talk about a very specific example of something in my life where I wish I could shout "DO OVER" and have the opportunity to go back and start from the beginning. Because in hindsight, I believe, if things had been slightly different, I could have been a great piano player. But, unfortunately, I ended up average, at best. Why do I think I could have been pretty good? Because I love music, I have decent rhythm and I can carry a tune. I can conceptualize a piece pretty quickly and my strengths were some of the more artistic elements like volume, tempo, and touch.

So what went wrong? It was my damned right brain.

While I have characteristics of both the right and left, I'm primarily right brained. Right brained people are visual and process information in an intuitive way, they look first at the whole picture, then at the details, and they tend to be fairly creative but often times a bit unorganized and can lack motivation. Left-brained thinkers learn from verbal cues and process information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces and then putting them together into a whole.

And therein lies the fundamental reason I’m not a better piano player – I was taught in a "left brained" manner. Mrs. Luebeck, truly one of the most gifted musicians of her time, wanted her students to be well rounded and she wanted us to develop the "science", or technique, behind the art, so to speak. We had to learn scales, and exact fingering, and how to read the notes on the staff and how to count every different time under the sun. She spent as much time, and sometimes even more, on music theory as she did on performance. We had to participate in a lot of group classroom lessons learning things like harmonic resonance, the difference between a major and minor fourth and the physics behind sound waves from a harpsichord string that is "plucked" versus a piano string that is "hammered", and all of that...other...crap. Oh God, please don't send a bolt of lightening down to strike me dead -- I've never said that out loud before!

Okay, it's not crap, per say. It's really the EXACT things you need to know if you are going to be a "serious musician" – and Mrs. Luebeck, God bless her, really believed that all of her students had the potential to be serious musicians. And most of hers were very studious and accomplished…but that really wasn’t me. I was never a very good "Mrs. Luebeck" piano student, at least not until my final year of lessons.

From the beginning, I just wanted to play songs on the piano. I was way too lazy to practice scales or do my compositions or really practice hard on those classical pieces. I wanted to play boogie woogie, and gospel and popular tunes (reminder…Mom Jo was a major influence!).

But I was so bogged down in learning this other stuff that I became crippled. I couldn’t play it if it wasn’t written on the staff, and even then, reading it on the staff was difficult. I couldn’t play by ear to save my soul because that wasn’t the way I was taught. And that would have been the PERFECT way for me to learn! Nothing about it was intuitive for me. If ever there was a good candidate for the Suzuki method, I’m their girl. If I had been taught to learn to play by ear, without the "crutch" of having to play the song just like it was written on the paper, I think I would have been such a better pianist.

I’ve decided there isn’t one thing wrong with teaching a child to play an instrument for the pure sake of enjoying the music. It doesn’t make them a lesser person if they can’t finger the perfect E flat scale!

But that makes me sound ungrateful, and I’m not. It was an honor, and truly a priviledge, to be one of Mrs. Luebeck’s students. I just don't think her teaching style and my learning style meshed well.

I do remember the EXACT MOMENT during my sophomore year when I decided to take my piano lessons seriously. It was after my basketball game in Butte, Montana. The team was eating dinner at a restaurant and I was sitting by Monica Strope. Monica was pretty much my idol – popular, smart, talented, competitive, driven. She started talking about her upcoming piano recital – the piece she was playing, how long she’d been practicing on it, how important it was for her to do well. And all of a sudden, it clicked for me. Right there, right then. I had better start taking this piano-lesson thing seriously. And I did. And I started doing pretty well. I started practicing because I WANTED to, not because I HAD to. My recital piece got better and better – it was Chopin. I actually was able to memorize the song. And I was rated a "I" at state that year. Mrs. Luebeck was proud. It made me proud that I had beat the "II" I’d received the year before.

Shortly thereafter we moved and I was swallowed up in my angst and newfound freedom from daily practicing (!) and did not pick up piano lessons again in Lakewood. I didn’t play much. Certainly never "practiced". So my piano lesson days were over, which, honestly, was okay. I had gone as far as I probably ever would have gone with them.

Now at the Last Stop, I’ll sit down every now and then and try to bang out a Heavenly Highways hymn, or two, on Mom Jo’s piano. I can’t read music that well anymore so there are plenty of clunker notes, to say the least. I’ve thought before, as an adult, that it might be fun to take a Suzuki class, but I have never made the commitment to do it.

Seeing our old piano at Matt’s house brought back a lot of these memories. Some great music was played on that plain, little instrument, and it holds some wonderful memories of Mom Jo and Mom’s playing. And mine. I played the piano once. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a big part of my life, and if this blog entry might sound like I’m complaining, I’m really not. I’m extremely grateful that I learned to tickle the ivories in Helena, Montana with Mrs. Luebeck.

The fact that I always had to play after world's-most-gifted-and-talented-paino-player-child-prodigy Mark Walker in recitals? Nothing that a few good therapy sessions couldn't cure!


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