Here are video stills of more things that have been happening. Those things include gorgeous female vocals, trombone, violin, and cello.
Something else just happened that requires a little backstory.
I’ve mentioned a time or two before that I took piano lessons on and off from about the time I was thirteen until I was sixteen. There was a false start a few years before, when a teacher I had one lesson with flipped open a book of sheet music, said, “Figure this out,” without beginning to teach me any of the rudiments that would allow me to understand what I was looking at, and left me alone in a room with a keyboard and the symbols and lines for about half an hour, knowing I’d never looked at notes on a staff before in my life.
I wish I knew that guy’s name so I could get in touch with him today and tell him about how, when I was a kid, his grotesque incompetence and total lack of giving a shit made me consider giving up on playing music altogether, because he made me feel like I knew nothing and there was no hope for me to ever learn. Granted, it was a brief consideration. But I think it deserves noting.
The real piano lessons happened with the one we call Dust in the Wind, for reasons that will soon reveal themselves. I did manage to learn a tiny bit of theory once I had a teacher who wasn’t a total douche, but it never clicked for me. It was always a struggle. I could stare at a piece of music and pick out what the notes were one at a time, like a skittish dentist extracting teeth, but I could never play through a piece without missing a beat while sight-reading like some people can. My brain wouldn’t let me get anywhere near that level of understanding.
Music theory was like French class for me. I was great at pronunciation, I knew how to conjugate a verb and what tense to use, but having a simple conversation in the language outside of asking, “Can I go to the bathroom?” or telling someone my name was beyond me. When I had to write something that had any real depth to it, it was a slow slog that involved burying my face in a French-English dictionary, finding the words I wanted one at a time, hoping I was arranging them in a way that made sense.
I don’t think I got a mark lower than 90% in any French class I ever took, but a large part of that was luck, because when it came to something as straightforward as answering questions after an oral report, I was lost.
Same thing with sheet music. I could figure out the nuts and bolts, but I couldn’t speak the language. Once the grade one piano book was out of the way and those wonderful, helpful numbers that told you which fingers to use were gone, learning new pieces got a lot more difficult. That’s when I became the skittish dentist, taking it one note at a time, guessing at the dynamics and articulation, hoping for the best.
It wasn’t long before I figured out a much better way. I started paying close attention to what Dust in the Wind was doing when he would play a new piece for me. I’d watch his fingers and listen with every bit of focus my brain and ears would allow. What happened was, my difficulties with (and general distaste for) the theory side of things forced me to develop my ear a lot faster than I would have otherwise.
I did my best to memorize what my teacher did and spit it back out. Sometimes I wouldn’t remember things quite right. I’d miss a few notes, or I’d play a few that weren’t there on the page. He got wise to me after a while and made me turn around whenever he played me something new, so I couldn’t see what his hands were doing. That honed my ear even more, since I couldn’t use my eyes anymore. When he got hip to that, he said, “I’m not playing anything for you anymore!”
I was back to the painstaking process of figuring things out a note at a time, and I didn’t have a dictionary to fall back on.
Sometimes I wonder if I would play piano the same way I do today if I’d never taken another lesson after the first aborted one. I didn’t learn much that stuck around in my brain for any length of time, aside from a fun blues progression in C major. My piano posture was never any good, because my natural impulse has always been to slouch, to lean into what I’m doing and get closer to the instrument. Even after I learned proper fingering, I went on doing it wrong, ignoring the way my hands were supposed to be positioned, opting for what felt more natural to me. Having long fingers helped. I got better in time, but I was playing so often, making so much music at home, and forcing myself to come up with musical solutions on the fly all the time with the improvised nature of everything I recorded, I was going to get better anyway.
I think the one thing piano lessons gave me was something they were never supposed to give me. They made me a lot better at listening and working things out away from the notes on the page.
To Dust in the Wind’s credit, he shifted the emphasis away from theory a little bit when it became clear I was never going to become anything resembling a concert pianist. He let me play and sing Beatles songs and Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” at our recitals as a reward for learning things from the book. I never wrote an exam to graduate from one grade to the next. We would get to a point where he would say, “Right, you’re done with this book,” and then I went up a grade. And he had a really interesting reaction when I made him a copy of SONGS FOR DEAD SKIN, long ago and far away, getting me to think about how other people might react to my music for the first time in my life. But after a while my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. The pieces in the book were getting too difficult for me to figure out and it felt like there was nothing more I could get out of lessons.
I thought we were friends. He gave me the impression it would stay that way, and we kept in touch for a little while after my lessons stopped, talking on the phone every few weeks. Then, after showing up for my seventeenth birthday party, he stopped answering his phone. I spent years leaving occasional messages on his answering machine before giving up. I must have left him fifty. He never responded to any of them.
Then again, maybe we were never friends at all.
Something happened when i was fourteen that still doesn’t make any sense to me. There was another student he was teaching who was my age. Sometimes her lessons were right before mine, so we’d see each other in passing. Her name was Bonnie. She had dark hair that was always tied back, she was beautiful, and she could play. She seemed nice. Her dad seemed nice. She was an impeccable dresser. She looked elegant in a way I wasn’t used to girls my age looking.
One of our recitals was going to fall on Father’s Day. Dust in the Wind said he wanted me to write something for the occasion — to sit down and map out a piece of music, when I was used to creating through improvisation. I thought it was an interesting challenge. I came up with a few vague melodic ideas and motifs. I played him what I had at the next lesson, and he told me what he liked and didn’t like, offering some constructive criticism.
Then I didn’t bother writing anything at all. I tried once or twice, but when I would sit down at the keyboard and try to hammer out something definitive working off of the ideas I had, the inspiration wasn’t there.
I thought once I wrote some lyrics everything would snap into place. A few days before the recital, I experienced a sudden, dramatic, puberty-inspired vocal change for the one and only time in my life. I didn’t go all squeaky or suddenly become a baritone, or anything like that. I was just incredibly hoarse, in a weird way, for no apparent reason, at the worst possible time.
I did what any sensible person would do, and improvised and recorded a few songs on my first day of hoarseness to preserve the sound in all its glory. The strangest part was, I could sing in a goofy Barney the Dinosaur-inspired voice and I was fine. As soon as I sang in my normal voice and went anywhere near my upper register, things got hoarse again, and it wasn’t subtle. It did wonders for my Bill Clinton impression, but I couldn’t sing live sounding like that.
The day of the recital came, and I still hadn’t written anything. Before leaving I ran through the few ideas I had one more time. I decided all I could do was improvise, using the scraps I’d come up with as a safety net, and hope it wasn’t a disaster.
I found out at the recital Bonnie had been asked to write something of her own too. She played a piece out of the book for whatever grade she was at, and then she played her own thing. It was dramatic and percussive, full of minor chords. I dug it. I went up after her and played a piece out of my book, which went well enough. Then I had to introduce a song that didn’t exist.
I was used to hamming it up at recitals. Somewhere the parents of a few other students might still have some video footage of me belting out a ridiculous original Christmas song after a silly introduction that got a lot of laughs. This time I was nervous. Robbed of the ability to sing, I felt naked. I stood up, called my ghost song “Father and Daughter”, deciding on the spot to tie it in with the day to make it sound like it was about something, sat back down, and improvised.
It worked. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but I was able to think my way through it and make it sound like the thing had some structure without hitting any ugly notes. Somewhere in the back of my head I was laughing at the absurdity of the situation. I was playing out of my ass, not at all prepared, while everyone in the audience was assuming I’d written and rehearsed this song. It even kind of sounded like i knew what i was doing.
After the performances wrapped up and it was post-recital mingling time, Bonnie’s father came over and told me he really liked my song. He told me his brother worked in music publishing, and he thought this song of mine that I’d already forgotten most of as soon as I stopped playing it might be something I could get published and make some money off of. I was in shock, but not so catatonic that I couldn’t respond with real excitement when he suggested I come over sometime to talk business and play piano with his beautiful daughter. We didn’t have anything to write with on hand, so he suggested getting his phone number from Dust in the Wind at my next lesson.
The next time we saw Dust in the Wind, me and my pa told him about the conversation I had with Bonnie’s father at the recital and asked for the magic phone number. He wouldn’t give it to us. I expected him to be as excited as I was. Instead, he looked at us like we’d just murdered his whole family and pissed on their carcasses. I’d been his student for quite a while by then. He knew us. He’d been over to our apartment. He knew I wasn’t out to try and seduce anyone. He knew all I wanted to do was play some music with a nice girl, maybe make a friend, and maybe get the chance to make a little bit of money off of my music while I was at it, at a time when that whole thing made sense to me. For reasons he never explained, he wasn’t going to let any of it happen.
I didn’t know Bonnie’s last name. He wouldn’t give us that information either. The final nail in the coffin of my thin remaining hope was that her lessons now fell on a different day than mine. I never saw her again, and I wasn’t even able to look up her dad in the phonebook to try and set things in motion myself.
So there went my opportunity, decimated in one fluid motion by my piano teacher and supposed friend.
The only plausible explanation I’ve ever been able to come up with is that he was jealous. Which is bizarre to even think about. He was a grown man with a girlfriend who would soon become his wife and the mother of his child. His students liked and respected him. He was a gifted musician, and he seemed pretty content with his lot in life. I was just a kid who could barely read music, improvised a shitload of weird songs behind closed doors, and had no concept of what a girlfriend was. Would he really go out of his way to kill my chances of getting a publishing deal out of spite, because it wasn’t being offered to him when he was the better musician and he’d invested a lot more time in honing his craft? Would he sabotage my potential friendship with someone my age before it even began because he wasn’t fourteen years old and it wasn’t him she was going to be playing with “off the book”?
If that’s what happened there, I think it’s pretty pathetic. I didn’t even care that much about the publishing business. I was more upset about being teased with the idea of playing some music with a pretty girl only to have it ripped away from me by someone who was supposed to be helping me. We should have went after him for an explanation, but I think we were too stunned by the strangeness of his reaction at the time to know what to say.
All of this is just a digression-filled way of getting to this simple truth: theory never took for me, and once I stopped taking piano lessons I let what little I’d learned from them wither and die in whatever small part of my brain it had been leasing. I haven’t looked at a theory book or a piece of sheet music in fifteen years. If we’re jamming or recording or writing something together, I can tell you what notes I’m playing and what the basic chords are. I can tell you what time signature a song is in. But if you stick those lines and dots in front of me, I’m lost.
Sit down and play me something, on the other hand, and chances are I can figure out what you’re doing and come up with something to compliment it off the top of my head. I don’t know why I can do that. It’s just always been a thing I can do.
Apparently this is another thing I can do:
Bet you didn’t know I could do that. Neither did I, until Friday.
One of the best parts of this whole “bringing in others to play on some of my songs” thing has been working with people I didn’t know at all before they came over here. I’ve found some really talented musicians just from floating around on the internet. I found Karen that way. I’d seen her at a few get-togethers over the years (she’s a friend of a good friend), but we’d never spoken to each other. She plays the cello — an instrument I never had the chance to record but always loved the sound of.
I sent her a message outlining my nefarious plans, she said she was interested, and we went about planning a recording session. It took a bit of time, because she’s got a lot of things going on (touring will eat into your free time a little), but I could tell it wasn’t going to be another one of those things where someone says they want to do something only to disappear when it comes time to make that something happen. I thought it would be fun to have her play on one song where there was a written part, and then let her go off and improvise on another. I sent a rough demo of one song that felt like a good cello candidate. I couldn’t think of what the second one should be.
Then I had a dream i was listening to something I’d written and recorded but hadn’t played a note on myself — a piece for violin, four or five layers creating a sound not too far removed from that of a string quartet, with a mournful lead line. Even while listening to it i was thinking, “I came up with this? How?”
When I woke up the chords and melodies were gone. I remembered the feeling of the thing, but not how it went.
If the dream didn’t give me a song outright, it gave me an idea I wouldn’t have allowed myself to reach for otherwise (because how is writing a piece for strings something even remotely within my grasp?). Stu, who’s in one of the video stills I posted the last time I let loose with the still action, has played violin on a handful of songs that are going on this album. He’s a fantastic, intuitive musician, and an all-around good guy. He was the one playing in my dream. But I felt like if I asked him to play on one more song in the waking world it might start to seem like I was taking advantage of his kindness.
Then I thought of Karen. Maybe cello was the way to go.
I did a little research on which keys are the most comfortable to play in for a cellist. I wrote something in G, picking out melodies with an acoustic guitar, trying to think in terms of single-note lines and how they would lock together to create harmonies — something I tend to work out instinctively without sitting down and giving it any serious thought. A bowed instrument with four strings is a different beast from a plucked six-string instrument, and I wasn’t sure of the cello’s range, so some guesswork was required.
I recorded a rough late-night GarageBand demo and sent it in a Facebook message, along with my best attempt at explaining the structure, notes, and movement of the thing. I didn’t know how helpful that would be, so the night before our session I took a quick look at Wikipedia to remind myself what a staff looked like and where the different notes were. Then I thought, “Well, maybe I can make some sense of this.” So I broke each part down on paper. Notes on a staff. Half a lifetime — literally — after forgetting everything I knew about theory, it took me ten or fifteen minutes to do what might have taken forever back when I was wrestling with sheet music on a weekly basis.
I’m still a little stunned I was able to do this, that it wasn’t all that difficult to do, that she was able to look at it and see logic instead of a mess of scribbles, and that it’s something I could do again if I were to write another part for someone who can sight-read. I’m not going to be able to write out entire songs this way, or even complex chords, but I don’t think I really need to.
I even put my sharp in the right place. How funny is that?
I’d thank Dust in the Wind, but i don’t think he deserves any credit here. None of the theory he taught me came back when I was doing this. I taught myself what I’d forgotten from scratch, with a little help from Wikipedia.
Building the piece one layer at a time was pretty straightforward, and though I’d like to think my crude handwritten staff notes helped with that, it probably had more to do with how good Karen is. I just stuck the Pearlman TM-250 in omni, set it in front of the cello, and off we went. Turns out that mic likes the cello as much as it likes the violin.
The placeholder guitar tracks stuck around all through the recording process, serving more as a rhythmic backbone than anything else. When we’d done enough that I could mute them and hear my voice supported only by strings, it was surreal. I mean, I wrote and arranged a piece of music for strings. It’s a real thing. It’s not a terribly complex thing, aside from one verse slipping into 7/4 time and no verse or hook ever running for the same number of measures as the one that came before, but it feels like it’s exactly what it was supposed to be.
So don’t be too surprised if somewhere down the line I write and record an entire album of songs for string quartet and voice, Elvis Costello style.