Saturday, August 25, 2012

Plays Well With Others

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who learned how to play piano, and people who are still mad at their mothers for not making them play piano when they were young, when they were mad at their mothers for trying to make them play the piano. Actually, there are more than two kinds of people in the world, if you include people who don't like cheese, but for the purposes of this essay we can set that kind aside. No one understands them anyway.

It never occurs to the people who are mad at their mothers that there is nothing stopping them from taking up the piano now, because they've got a lot invested in being mad at their mothers, and that line of reasoning would interfere with their worldview. They've decided you either can play, or you can't. And that works out really well for those of us who can. There aren't as many of us, and unless we hang out with musicians, it's likely that most of our friends can't play piano, and it's possible to start feeling sort of special about the whole thing. "Oh yes," we say modestly, when pressed, "I play," and your friends will pipe up and tell people you're really good, and here's the cool part: they don't even have to have ever heard you play. In my case, they almost certainly haven't. Like most people, I whack away at my instrument in private. But your friends go right ahead and hang a star next to your name and polish it up. After a while, you start to think it belongs there.

A real good way to get over yourself, in a situation like this, is to actually start hanging out with musicians. In Portland, at least, and probably everywhere, talented people are thick as cream cheese, and I finally got to meet a whole schmear of them by joining an informal performance group. Pianists predominate, but singers and string players and poets show up too. I got into it the same way everyone else did: I was shanghaied by Bill Lewis. Bill is a frighteningly enthusiastic man with no sense of personal boundaries, and thanks to that he has badgered a sizeable bunch of individuals, one by one, into showing up to perform something. You can tell him "no," but Bill isn't familiar with the concept, and if you show any sign of weakness, he will take the spatula of insistence, scrape you off the frying pan of trepidation, and flip you right into his group. And that is how, several years ago, I ended up quivering at a piano in public like a bunny in a coyote cafe. If bunnies could sweat.*

Anxiety. It's bad stuff. Right away you realize you've left your talent in your other pants, and within a few measures you have decided that the keys on this piano aren't the same distance apart as the keys on your piano. By page two you're pretty sure that some of the keys are actually missing altogether and before long you're swatting at the keyboard like it's a drum set and feeling really sorry for your audience, because they are kind people.

I kept showing up anyway, and after a number of years, I had conquered my nerves enough that I didn't leave anything on the bench that needed to be wiped up afterwards. And in that time I nurtured a throbbing admiration for chamber musicians, who are, by definition, people who can play well with others. If you're the piany player in a string quartet, one of the things you have learned to do is keep playing, no matter what.

You do not get to oops you do not get to sorry you do not get to shit start over. No, this train is already on the move, and you have to fling your thigh up onto that boxcar and hang on until you can haul the rest of your ass up. You are there to collaborate on something wonderful and your whining option is off the table. It's a good way to approach life, too: act as if it isn't all about you, step out of your own way and keep going.

"You know, it's just a matter of practice and technique. You could learn to play chamber music too," my friend Carole says.

I don't think so. There are two kinds of people in the world: people who can play chamber music, and people who can't.

*I apologize for the density of metaphors. It kept getting away from me. If you wanted a tighter piece, you should have hired a professional.

82 comments:

  1. I think that there are two types of people in the world: people who can ..., and people who can appreciate those who can. I fall firmly into the second category, and I think I am necessary too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are. And next time I need a good talented appreciator, I know just who to call.

      Delete
  2. There are three kinds of people in the world -- those who are good at math and those who aren't.

    One thing all bad genres of music have in common is that they avoid the use of the piano. I suspect they fear its emotional power. Unfortunately this must mean that venues for making use of one's talent are limited, unless you just like to sit at home and bang out the occasional sonata or balaclava or whatever they call those things.

    But I'm afraid for most people, if their mother didn't make them learn, it's too late. Nobody has time for anything nowadays. Maybe it's different for retired people.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We have no time at all. I have no idea why that is. I'm going to go bang out a balaclava now, and then maybe later rhap out a whipsody.

      Delete
  3. "I whack away at my instrument in private."

    I do likewise, but I don't suppose you were trying to include anything sexual in this post. I'm afraid that after that line I had trouble concentrating on the rest. But I sure got my snortworthy chuckle this morning. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wiLL use "if bunnies could sweat" as often as I can work it into conversations. Thank you. I play piano, just not often enough, but soon, hopefuLLy soon, veRy often I hope to be Yamaha-ing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, I don't play often enough, either. What is so dang important that I leave that till last?

      Delete
    2. I don't have an answer for our question, but while I was studying collective nouns today I came across the word 'murmuration' which is a group of starlings.

      Delete
  5. I blamed my mom for not pushing me...late in life I learned to play some guitar and I realizzed that as hard as I tried, I suck as a musician. My daughter went back to the piano at 40...she has talent!

    "Bunny in a room full of...." funny stuff!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, as long as you blamed your mom, you've done everything you could!

      Delete
  6. The thing about playing the piano is you can't take it anywhere with you. That makes it easier to preserve the fiction that "I can play". In cases where there turns out to be a piano on the premises, I usually realize an old thumb-wrestling injury is acting up, and beg off.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, those thumb-wrestling injuries are no joke. I usually just tell people I can't play after I've started drinking, and then I start drinking.

      Delete
    2. Now why didn't I think of that?

      Delete
  7. One of the best things for conquering performance anxiety when playing with a group, or for an audience, is to have cancer and chemotherapy. Then you realize that perhaps making a performance error isn't NEARLY as important as you thought, and you can relax and just have fun playing! The coyotes dissolve into cute little appreciative field mice, who are just glad to have you around.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HEY! I'm going to try that right now! :)

      Delete
    2. You're SO right Sculptor1, and any "major" illness serves the purpose. And you've given away the big secret, that it IS fun! Love the Appreciative Field Mice too- they give us the affirmation we need to keep not putting our practice last!

      Delete
  8. You reminded me of that old movie "Groundhog Day" where Bill Murray learns to be a jazz pianist in his many repeating days. I guess you CAN learn to play the piano as an adult. He's the only one I've heard of, though. You had me busy fending off all the metaphors in this one, Murr. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Did you use the Scroll Bar of Disdain?

      Delete
  9. "Talented people are thick as cream cheese." "Like a bunny in a coyote cafe." Your similies are pretty wonderful as well, though the metaphors WERE red-hot and rollin'

    I've heard that someone was "thick as a brick" but that refers to a different quality of density.

    You must, by the way, let us know when you will be performing.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I took piano lessons as a child and failed miserably. My parents encouraged me to quit---no joke.
    I tried again as an adult and no go. I am told that math skills and piano skills are related and maybe that is my problem.
    I envy you pianists, no matter your skill level.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My parents once encouraged me to take up another instrument and asked which one I might want to try, and when I said "trumpet," they said never mind.

      Delete
    2. I can't believe you passed on an opportunity to comment on pianist envy....

      Delete
    3. Nobody told me about the math/music connection as a child, and I religiously follow that rule. We're giving away too many secrets today as it is!

      Delete
  11. Do NOT apologize for any metaphors, ever. We like 'em. You have a particular talent.

    Thankfully, mom never made me take piano lessons. I did learn to play the guitar at summer camp. I have mostly forgotten how it works now. Just as well. Hardly ever am called upon to perform "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" on the spur of the moment any more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the earworm. No, really. All of a sudden I'm back in fourth grade, home in bed with a radio and the measles. Oo wait! Here comes "Thunder Road!"

      Delete
    2. What about "Rollin' rollin' rollin', though the streams are swollen, keep them dogies rollin', RAWHIDE!"

      Delete
  12. My folks were too cheap for piano lessons so I kind of learned to play by ear. The problem however was that my lobes kept getting stuck between the keys.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "...he will take the spatula of insistence, scrape you off the frying pan of trepidation, and flip you right into his group"

    Wonderful!! Love it.

    And, good for you for sticking with it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't tend to spend a lot of time feeling proud of things, but I'm proud of that. It IS easier now.

      Delete
  14. A someone with no musical talent whatsoever, I am impressed. Tho a little voice says I could have my picture taken sitting at a piano, too. Video, ma'am, VIDEO. Roth x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If I had photoshop skills, things would look a lot different around here. I think I'm going to save that for my next life.

      Delete
  15. I fought with my mother until, when I was in the sixth grade, she let me stop playing. When I was 30, she gave me money from an inheritance she'd received and told me to buy a piano. I did. It sat in various rooms in my house for 30 years, until last year when I lent it to my young neighbor who's teaching herself to play.

    Now I'm retired, and I wish I could play the piano again. But I can't. My neighbor has it! She started playing first, so I'll wait until the old upright she's looking for comes along.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeez, woman. Go find her an old upright! Time's a-wastin'!

      Delete
    2. An old upright certainly lasts longer than a teenage upright.

      Delete
  16. I begged for piano lessons when I was little, but my parents told me they couldn't afford them, let alone the piano! Then, half my life later (when I was 15) they offered a guitar + lessons to go with it. I've forgotten how to read music, and my Bunny Sweat keeps me from playing in public very often, but I still love to play & sing. It keeps me alive sometimes and it's good for the soul. Play on, sistah! Elaine M.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Music is good for everyone's soul. Music is amazing.

      Delete
  17. Simon Nicol - me again...August 25, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    "step out of your own way and keep going."

    'Nuff said - not a hedonist charter or an anarchist outrage, just a wonderful encapsulation of wisdom.

    Thanks again Murr x

    ReplyDelete
  18. I still cannot read (or, obviously,write) music, but I still like to poke my fingers at the keys occasionally.Sometimes, I hit the right ones in the right sequence.But doing the happy dance around the living room kind of spoils the moment...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No no no. It amplifies the moment. You'd be a twofer in the performance group.

      Delete
  19. I asked for a piano every birthday and Christmas from the age of 4 on. They did get that Laurel & Hardy movie for my birthday party, you know, the one where they bust up the piano trying to get it up the stairs? I hid behind the couch and cried because I wanted that piano so badly. Himself gave me one as his wedding gift to me. So finally I play--by ear very poorly but with great feeling. That spatula analogy was splendid, Murr!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll just bet you're still married, too. Keep on!

      Delete
  20. I had never touched a piano until about seven years ago when I decided to buy a piano and take lessons. I'd never had music lessons of any kind before. It was one of the scariest things I've ever done. Of course, it was a lot harder than I expected, and a lot scarier to play in front of live people. I had to give it up last year when I got too busy, and haven't touched it for ten months. I never got very far with it...made lots of mistakes that drove my poor teacher crazy, altough she was kind enough to hide it. It was a strange experience, humbling and emboldening at the same time. Mostly humbling, I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey. Try another teacher. One that won't make you play in front of other people. First things first. They aren't all good. I'm serious now--I want you to report back.

      Delete
  21. My fingers and legs are too short. I tried. ;)
    Kudos to you, though!! :):)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm with you on the short fingers. It's not fair. But how short could your legs be?

      Delete
    2. Rita, there's no such thing as too short legs, as my first year of lessons proved. And short fingers can be helped by a good teacher and the firm understanding that you DON'T have to play every note McDonald or Chopin wrote on the page. Give yourself permission girl!

      Delete
  22. Alas, I never learned to play an instrument, although my parents attempted to get me to learn to play the accordion when I was about 12. I was nerdy enough! It was NOT any instrument I wanted to learn to play! But my brothers enjoyed placing it on the footstool and then pushing one side off to listen to it "groan."
    I enjoy listening to other perform playing piano or flute or harp or guitar. Me, I read my poetry at open mike sessions!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've done a bunch of that too, but my poetry is about colonoscopies and stuff.

      Delete
  23. I'm in the group of people who are angry with their parents for not making them continue with those piano lessons they hated until they could actually play something. I'm also in the group that has horrible anxiety over performing in public. But in my defense... I still love cheese! Guess I can still enjoy nibbling cheese and crackers while listening gratefully to chamber music.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That also sounds very aBrieable to me.

      Delete
  24. I don't play any musical instrument except my body. (I'm a dancer.) Let me know if Bill plans to extend his musical group with an improvisational dancer! Note, I'm almost 68, so I can bring a lot of um... maturity (yeah, that's it, maturity) to the table... er... floor. Just getting in the spirit of metaphors, Divine Ms Murr.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Metaphor, hell. I have a very vivid image now, and it does involve a table.

      Delete
  25. Also, too. On September 30 at Pioneer Square, 175 of Portland's finest amateur dancers (from rookies to old fogies like me, will be performing (rain or shine, we're Portlandians, ya know)in a free White Bird supported production of Le Grand Continental:
    http://www.whitebird.org/continental

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll be there. How will I recognize you? A rose braided in your eyebrow hair?

      Delete
  26. I admire people with musical talents and skills for funny metaphors. I don't even sing in the shower, let alone bang out a balaclava. I do know how to eat baklava, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't feel all alone. Most people find balaclavas over their heads.

      Delete
    2. Boo...

      And I mean that in a good way, of course.

      Delete
  27. I don't find myself wishing I could play the piano or other man-made instrument now but often wish I had a strong & clear singing voice, especially when I hear someone really talented - singers seem to have SUCH a great time! And their instruments are such a snap to pack. Yes, I could take voice lessons but I seriously doubt that would significantly improve what nature provided in my case...and at my age. So I listen to my favorite artists instead and sing along under my breath & in private, wishing I wouldn't have to cringe at the sounds I made if I let 'er rip. Oh well.

    Murr, I introduced a local friend to your blogs. Saw her last night and she said "That gal is some kind of genius!" I agree though am still trying to figure out WHAT kind. Definitely a pro at metaphorizing, anyway. Thanks for another hilarious post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you want to see some SERIOUS flop sweat, ask me to sing a solo. The very first time I ever said no to anything asked of me as a child was the third time I was asked to sing a solo in church. The previous two times had been preceded by a week of general nausea and the solos weren't very good, either. When I said "no thank you" and that was accepted, it was a revelation to me.

      And thanks for spreading the word. Mama needs a bigger audience, and no, that's not a secret word for pants.

      Delete
  28. I can't play. I blamed my mother, but as you pointed out, I could resolve this problem in adulthood. I took lessons and discovered I wanted to play, I didn't want to LEARN how to play. Kind of like being a nuclear physicist without taking all that crummy math. Hoorah for you doing your thing in public. Takes lots of spine to do that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. I want to have learned how to dance.

      Delete
  29. I went to grade 3 in piano, then I got really tired of it. And quit.

    Now I have a five-stringed banjo. Much easier to move than a piano, and a cinch to play! Not only that, three chords = 10,000 songs. I got it (the banjo) in University (about 40 years ago), and I'm still playing it, though I saw one in a pawn shop that sounds much better and I'm tempted. . . . Well, that's another story.

    Keep playing! It makes you much more fun. I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Every time my college friends moved my five billion ton upright oak piano with the non-functioning leaden player-piano contraption inside, Max would ask why I couldn't have picked up the clarinet.

      Delete
  30. If I could play as well as you, I'd be overjoyed. I started playing again a couple of years ago after a hiatus of about 26 years. My fondest dream is to learn to play by ear, but I'm too embarrassed to try even when I'm sitting by myself at the piano in an empty house. Pathetic, or what?

    But I'm working up to it...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you taking lessons? They can teach that, you know! (Playing by ear.)

      Delete
    2. I saw an ad for a piano teacher that included "learn to play by ear". I went to see her, she asked me to bring some sheet music to play from, and after I played, she informed me she didn't think she could really help. I'm not quite sure what to think about that.

      I didn't have enough to time to practice effectively at that time anyway. I'll try again soon...

      Delete
    3. I delivered mail to a salon that advertised a five-minute beauty treatment. I went in and said "can you really make me beautiful in five minutes?" and the guy said, "well, NO!"

      Delete
  31. I am a private piano hacker-awayer, too, lacking the courage to even contemplate taking it public. This reluctance is probably also related to my memories of childhood piano recitals, during which I'd forget my memorized piece, burst into tears, and sit, sobbing on the bench, while a bunch of aghast adults remained in their seats, acting like it wasn't happening.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's way too vivid, dear, and now I have to go lie down for a while.

      Delete
  32. I'm with you, ladies. When I was 5, my parents gave me the choice of instrument that I'd like to learn. I picked piano. Took classical lessons from kindergarten right through high school graduation, even though at the sixth-grade mark I voiced my desire to cease and desist. It was not to be.

    I think my mother harbored fantasies of my being a "child prodigy" and becoming a concert pianist one day. That never happened, although I did all right in recitals, and even voluntarily played in front of church and other groups.

    Now, I'm just glad I learned to sight read, as well as to play by ear, and am enjoying non-performance playing in my own house, learning music from the 1940's and playing my old Beethoven faves.

    I credit my parents for forcing me to continue lessons until I was really proficient, at which point I wandered off and enjoyed learning music that I chose. It really would have been pointless to quit mid-stream and be left with nothing but "chopsticks".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Somewhere in high school I got the gumption to say I didn't want lessons any more, and then I took up lessons again at age 37.

      Delete
  33. Oh I definitely fall into the category of people who are "still mad at their mothers for not making them play piano when they were young, when they were mad at their mothers for trying to make them play the piano."


    Ahahahahahahah!

    ReplyDelete
  34. I like looking through a post that can make men and women think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing for me to comment!

    my blog post - grupa kreatywna
    My web site: creative group

    ReplyDelete