Love stinks; dreams die hard.
But you can always count on the process of skills acquisition.
Another section of my never-published memoir. I was reminded of it after spending the past weekend as both a panelist and a performer at a regional music conference. All around me were talented people, most but not all very young, passionately pursuing their dreams of fame and fortune.
I experienced both wistfulness for my own unfulfilled childhood ambitions and gratitude for my adult perspective. I am still determined AF to pursue all my intended creative projects, but I no longer worry about fame or fortune.
Don’t get me wrong: I need to pay bills like everyone else, and I am continually figuring out how to do that more efficiently. But with or without consideration of ROI, it’s a blast to play music for a crowd of near-strangers, hear them gasping at lyrical hooks they weren’t expecting, applauding after each song ends, laughing at my banter. These days I am so full of confidence that it borders on the cavalier.
The half-hour set I performed toward the end of the conference was met with cheers. What’s not to love? At the same time, I wear it pretty easily these days. The less I worry about the reception of what I do—and the more I concentrate on mastering my skills, on making each public performance truly effortless—the more people are drawn to it. It’s a joy whether the ultimate number of super-fans is a thousand or a couple tens of thousands.
But the skills come first. They have always come first….
My father and Regina had gone to hear a concert pianist whom Regina knew from the Filipino community in their part of New Jersey. After that, Dad started calling me every once in a while to talk about it. Remember when you girls used to play the piano? Always sounded so nice. In December 1995 I turned 30, and that January I bought a mediocre used spinet for $1200 that my father lent me. I hoped to trade up, eventually.
My mother had been lobbying for me to hire movers, take the Baldwin grand piano out of her house in New Jersey (I could no longer bear to call it “our” or “my” house), and haul it all the way to Baltimore. I refused. I did not want the piano or anything else from my mother. I was only just beginning to un-enmesh myself from the emotional damage of my childhood and twenties.
Then again, maybe I had just become a snob. On my now exceedingly rare visits to my former home, I felt no enduring affection if I sat down at the instrument. It was never in tune, its sound was muddy, and Bb just below middle C was a dead key. But had it been a classic Steinway or better-vintage Yamaha? I suspect I’d have accepted my mother’s gift even if I had to hire the same team who moved Holly Hunter’s instrument over the jungle mountains of New Zealand in THE PIANO.
Many years later, my mother donated the Baldwin to a local church. She made sure the town newspaper did a write-up. They published a captioned photograph of her sitting at the keyboard one last time. She sent me the newspaper clipping, and I looked at the weathering newsprint and felt ashamed. My smiling mother, hands hovering above the keys as if she actually played—I had no understanding of this person. A poor girl from the Ahmedabad slums had risen high enough in the world to be able to make such a gift. To her, it must have seemed the equivalent of a billionaire naming a new donated wing of the school after himself. This was what she wanted me to see, but I couldn’t open my eyes to it. Instead, I saw a strange and inappropriate need to brag about a minor act of charity. The truth was, she had spent years looking for a church willing to spend the money to hire a truck and take it off her hands. People don’t want pianos anymore, don’t understand or value them. Almost nobody plays. Nobody knows how much history and craftsmanship has gone into the instrument. People don’t know about Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier and its defining influence on all of Western music, about Scott Joplin’s ragtime provocations, about Henry Cowell reaching inside the case to strum the strings like a harp. My once-beloved safe haven is now probably sitting unused in that church basement, covered in dust, stacked high with hymnals or Tupperware or old board games for youth fellowship meetings.
A vocal composer I liked, whom I’d once seen at the Bang on a Can Festival in New York, was teaching an undergraduate a cappella group course at a nearby university. I registered as a noncredit student and spent a year learning Gregorian chant and early French church music from him. Toby Twining considered me competent but not truly gifted. He never offered me solos. There were several other individuals with beautiful, relaxed, well-trained voices. One young woman could fill the room with her powerful upper register. I once heard her complain to Toby about a role she’d won at a local dinner theater, a boon on the resume that offered little pay.
I’m good at what I do, damnit! I deserve to be paid well!
I wasn’t part of the conversation, and I would never have piped up anyway in this context, but I thought:
Of course you do, but that’s not how life actually works. (This was when I still retained the common sense of a former economics student.) How good you are and how hard you work has nothing to do with the laws of supply and demand, or with all the distortions created by late-stage crony capitalism. Do you think elementary school teachers and home health aides actually get paid what they’re worth?
Toby eventually took us into the university’s recording studio. We worked through our repertoire, passage by passage, to create a CD. It was my first such experience, and I was shocked to hear that I still had a Broadway-ish, pushy sound. It added some heft to the group, but I knew I sounded amateurish. I felt I was getting in my own way, somehow. There was a better, truer, more beautiful sound within me that I did not know how to release.
Or maybe I’d never really been that talented in the first place.
I told K., my then-husband, I wish I had really trained as a singer.
He looked at me as if I’d suggested running away to join the circus. Why?
I couldn’t begin to respond. His question seemed both unnecessary and unanswerable.
I got a referral to a piano teacher, someone who taught both classical and jazz. It was a vague notion. I knew exactly three jazz artists: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. Maybe four if you counted The Lounge Lizards, a wildly creative improvising band I used to follow around to all their lower Manhattan gigs. But down here in Maryland we’d been out to dinner and seen so-called jazz singers performing with bands or accompanying themselves on piano, with beautifully complex chords and classy-sounding runs coming from their elegant fingers. I’d think, I could do that. Couldn’t I?
My new teacher was in his late 40s, but for some reason I viewed him as both ancient and ageless. When I first spoke to him on the phone, his slightly creaky voice and thick Ukrainian accent made me picture someone much older. The impression stuck even after we’d met. He was a fit, charismatic man with a round Slavic face, more skull than hair on top, and a salt-and-pepper goatee. His suburban townhouse doubled as a music studio. His violist wife suffered patiently through screechy child strings lessons in their living room while Ivan taught his students at a tall upright piano in the basement. I worked with him on Bach preludes and fugues, Chopin nocturnes, short pieces by Russian composers I’d never played before such as Scriabin and Liadov—and on rudimentary jazz harmony.
He would direct my eyes to the keyboard. In your left hand, see, you are now playing the root and the seventh. This is called a shell voicing. In your right hand, Sandy, see this, you have the melody note, which is C in this case, and the ninth of the chord below it. Can you see it?
I could barely see it. I certainly couldn’t jump my hands to it the way professionals did. It seemed to me that anyone who needed this much guidance was probably not gifted. You either have it or you don’t said a woman I’d met in Ivan’s driveway, the mother of his next student and ex-wife of a jazz saxophonist. She had no reason to know whether or not I had it, nor was she being deliberately dismissive. Yet her facial expression betrayed the suspicion that if I, a grown woman, had never before displayed this talent, it probably wasn’t there to display.
And yet with no evidence I was convinced I could do this. I was starting from scratch but I felt fully confident I could get where I needed to go, if I just kept practicing.
This is how utterly ignorant I had been about music in general, despite or maybe because of formal lessons with a typical classically trained, utterly mediocre piano teacher in my childhood. When my high school rock band came out onto the stage and played “Love Stinks” by J. Geils Band, I wondered where they found sheet music for a hot radio hit like that.
I knew the music shop in downtown Millburn often took months or years to stock a popular new song, Broadway show, or film score. It never occurred to me that the band figured it out by ear. I didn’t know such things were possible. I’d never been invited into anyone’s garage to bash out some chords, to jam. It wasn’t a thing girls were invited to do in those days. And as full of dreams and make-believe stories as I could be, I lacked imagination in this realm.
Fifteen years later I was chatting with one of my assigning editors at Baltimore Business Journal. She’d majored in piano but clashed constantly with her professors. They expected note-perfect classical music but she preferred playing by ear and improvising. Her youthful music experience was the opposite of mine. After college, she’d held the lobby piano chair at The Admiral Fell Inn. She’d play and sing pop tunes she’d copped off the radio. Screw the Chopin Etudes, she said—what was really fun was figuring out how to create a keyboard/voice version of Madonna’s classic “Lucky Star” for a crowd of drunken travelers.
I’d dreamed of such a gig, but said: I don’t even know how you begin to do that.
Around the same time, at a happy hour, one of K.’s colleagues—an amateur folk-rock guitarist, just like 85 percent of the male engineers I’d met—told me I was being silly. Rock and pop songs were simple. Listen to the bass line first, pick that out note by note until the pattern can be discerned. Do the same for the melody. Then interpolate between them to get the chord progression. There are usually only four or five chords per song anyway. Major triads, minor triads, dominant seventh—easy stuff if you’ve spent years playing Chopin and Debussy.
One day when I should have been working on my hopeless novel, I pulled Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here out of our rack of vinyl to play the title track. I sat on the piano bench, sussing out the left hand bass line, plucking around to get the right-hand melody, making mistakes and hearing them right away to correct them. Then slowly figuring out the chord progression from the interior voices between bass and melody. Over several days I did the same for other songs from record or CD, choosing ones I wanted to sing. Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer.” The Counting Crows “Long December.” Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”
The first song took me all afternoon. By the third or fourth I could crank through in less than an hour.
I decided I wanted to figure out Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.” I put the CD on and furrowed my brow. The song began on G major. It stayed on G major. It remained for the entire verse on G major. Then briefly dipped to E minor before moving back to G major. What? I had listened to this song dozens of times on the car radio and at home, and yet never really heard it.
At some point during this fervent period, I was beset by the memory of an old song called “Autumn Leaves.” I probably hadn’t listened to it on purpose since singing it in middle school choir. Out of nowhere I could hear the song, as vivid as an aural hallucination, hear its descending bass line, almost see it, almost reach out and touch it. Ivan and I had been working on seventh chords: major seventh, Dorian minor, dominant, half-diminished. Their defining sounds had slowly infiltrated my intuition. In a near-trance I sat down and played the first half-dozen or so chords, using inversions on every other chord and playing bass notes in descending fifths. My fingers felt their way down the progression, following the song memory lodged in my inner ear. At the bridge, I was stumped. It was harder to recall. I skipped it for now, playing those first chords and bass notes over and over.
After a few minutes of this I stood up from the piano and danced around the living room like a maniac. Some monstrous exultation took hold of me.
It was probably 1996 or so when I opened up my Amazon.com front page and saw, splashed across the banner, a glamorous photo for a singer I’ll call Stephanie Brandt. I’d been buying a lot of jazz vocals CDs lately, but Stephanie was a person well known to me, an old frenemy from school—a popular girl who could be alternately dismissive or warm. I was riven with pride and jealousy. Stephanie and I had become close in high school during a number of performances we did together, and kept in touch intermittently for a while through college before losing track. Apparently after her undergraduate degree in literature, she'd gone to Europe to study music and was “discovered” by a famous jazz DJ. She now had a debut of standards out on a prestigious small label.
On a whim, I looked up its New York office telephone number and left a message with the receptionist. Old friend of Stephanie’s, just wanting to say congratulations. I left my number but did not really expect a response. Within three hours Stephanie called back. She lived in London now but was in New York on a promotional visit. She sounded lovely. We caught up quickly. I told her I was a working journalist but was just learning jazz piano, hoping to get skilled enough to accompany myself, maybe start a little trio in the manner of Shirley Horn, a classy bad-ass vocalist/pianist to whom Ivan had hipped me.
Stephanie said, That’s so interesting. Your profession is my major hobby, and my profession is your major hobby.
I bristled. There was nothing inaccurate in her words. I was a writer of some accomplishment, who did a little music on the side. She was a singer of some accomplishment, who happened to love languages and writing. She was merely stating the obvious. Why should I feel insulted?
A few years later K. and I went to see her perform at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. She stood confidently still in front of her microphone, opened her mouth just narrowly enough to direct a stream of breath into the mic’s windscreen, and produced some of the most pleasing, lilting sounds I’d ever heard. It was not a big voice but it was unique and memorable. She sang Gershwin, Noel Coward, other nostalgic classics for the over-60 set—yet the audience included a surprising number of fans in their 20s and 30s. When one of her rhythm section players was taking a solo, she’d step back from the microphone and whisper adorably in the ear of her saxophone-playing husband. He’d laugh and nod. Their romantic vibe was distracting but easy to forgive.
Afterward, I suggested to my husband that Stephanie’s well-chosen repertoire could serve as a professional model for me. If there was a market for jazz-pop singers of refinement, maybe I could find a place in it. (In retrospect, my ambitions were really quite modest at that stage.)
K. looked at me with some impatience and said,
But it’s too late for you to have that kind of career, isn’t it? The label and world touring, all that?
He was stating what seemed merely obvious.
It crushed me.
That moment may have been the beginning of the end of our marriage, which didn’t take place for another 25 years.