Friday, August 12, 2011

The Piano

It’s a myth that you’re born with perfect pitch. I found this out in college when I was studying music therapy. Perfect pitch is acquired through constant exposure to music.

When I was a small child, my parents often played records for me. At the age of two, they took me to a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and I sang along. I’m glad I don’t remember that. It must have been embarrassing.

At home, Mother played a recording of Puccini’s Tosca, and I cried when the heroine sang her famous area lamenting the fact that she has been forced to have sex with a sadistic police chief in order to gain her lover’s freedom. When I was older, Dad played Fats Waller, and I stomped around the room in time to “Your Feet’s Too Big.” He put a speaker in my bedroom that was hooked to the phonograph in the den and played a record each night at bedtime.

When I was five, we got a piano. I delighted in running my fingers up and down the keys and inventing harmonies and melodies When Mother heard me play the opening bars to Bethoven’s fifth symphony, she called a piano teacher.

Mrs. Teska was a pleasant woman about Mother’s age with two children of her own. Her house had two pianos, and during my lessons, I sat at one, and she sat at the other. She started by teaching me fun pieces. She gave me a book of songs with food titles such as “Strawberry Short Cake” and “Banana Split.” Since Mother could read music, she taught them to me at home. I played them for Mrs. Teska during my lessons, and she helped me with fingering techniques.

I had to warm up every time with the dreaded Hannon exercises designed to increase finger dexterity. I got pretty good at these. When I grew older, I graduated to simple classical pieces like Bach’s Minuet in G.

At the Arizona State School for the Blind in Tucson, where we lived, Mrs. Berrand, an elderly blind woman, taught me piano, violin, and a little Braille music. I mostly learned to play by ear. What delighted me the most was playing songs I made up. A babysitter once taught me “Heart and Soul,” usually played as a duet. We took turns playing the top and bottom parts. At school, we kids often played that song.

I tried to teach it to Mother, but she said, “You need to work on the tarantella Mrs. Teska wants you to play.” Later, she got out a book of classical duets that were more difficult, but I managed to master the top part while she played the bottom, and that was fun.

I also enjoyed singing, and I often sang along with music I heard on the radio or on my eight-track tapes. When I was in the third grade, a boy and I sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” together during a school talent show. That was a glorious moment. At home in my room, I relived that moment over and over by singing the song with my Three Dog Night eight-track.

When we moved to Sheridan, Wyoming, in 1973, Mother and Dad found me another teacher, an elderly man named Duke who used to play with Grandpa Johnson’s band. He taught me popular pieces, which I enjoyed, but Mother insisted I learn to play classical music. He finally gave me a few difficult classical pieces. Time and time again, Mother lost patience while trying to teach them to me. At one point, she said, “Maybe you can’t play classical music.” Duke was also crabby at times, and after a year, I gave up taking lessons from him.

It was then that I got the idea I could use my piano playing to accompany my singing. The first song I sang this way was “El Condor Pasa” from Simon & Garfunkel’s album Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of my favorite eight-tracks. I performed it at the Stars of Tomorrow talent contest, and although I didn’t win, it was a great experience.

Since Dad was in the coin-operated machine business which included jukeboxes, he installed a remote control box in my room, hooked to a unit in the basement. The print on the title strips was too small for me to read so I memorized the letter and number combinations that played my favorite songs. This was my way of playing records. I also had a cassette player, and I still used the eight-track machine from time to time.

After I heard a song several times, I went to the piano, picked out an accompaniment, and sang the words I’d memorized. I enjoyed playing and singing these arrangements which weren’t too different from the original recordings. I practiced these pieces more diligently than all the pieces I was ever assigned during my piano lessons. In junior high, I gave unaccompanied performances during study hall, much to the delight of other students and the teacher.

We soon moved to a bigger house, and the remote control unit in my room was replaced by a jukebox in the laundry room which my younger brother Andy and I both enjoyed playing with our friends. The house had a wide front porch, and I pretended it was a stage. I stood at the edge, holding a wood chip to my lips. Andy sat behind me and banged on an old paint can to accompany my singing. Neighborhood kids gathered and applauded.

I still used the piano to accompany my singing. Our parents bought Andy a drum set and placed it next to the piano. I was fourteen, and Andy was seven. He was fond of saying, “Abbie, hop on your piano, and I’ll get on my drums, and we’ll play.”

After several lessons, he became proficient with the drums. Like me, he did a lot of his playingby ear. In fact, he played drums along with his Beatles records. The house rang with the strains of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, augmented by Andy Johnson, the extra drummer.

When I was a freshman in high school, Dad and I took a jazz improvisation class at Sheridan college. We had to buy records containing exercises consisting of simple melodies that we played straight once or twice and improvised after that. The exercises were accompanied by a full band. No matter how long or often I practiced them at home with the records, I never mastered the art of jazz improvisation.

The instructor told me I needed to absorb jazz in order to be successful. “Don’t listen to anything but jazz. Get one of those record players that shuts off automatically, and put a jazz record on when you go to bed at night.” Being a teen-ager, I couldn’t appreciate jazz as much s popular music. I hoped Dad wouldn’t replace all the popular songs on our jukebox with jazz numbers, and he didn’t.

I continued performing whenever I had a chance. Andy often accompanied me. Dad bought a used string bass and tried playing with us but soon gave up. During my sophomore year in high school, after several years of competing in the Stars of Tomorrow talent contest, I finally won first place with my rendition of “You Light Up My Life.” After that, Dad started calling me a star.

I dreamed of being a singer, but others convinced me that I needed to do something else on the side to supportmyself. Since I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, my major in college was in music performance. After two years at Sheridan College, I graduated with an associate of arts degree in music. I transferred to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where I also majored in music and graduated two years later with a BA. By that time, I’d discovered music therapy as a career. I transferred to Montana State University, also in Billings, and after two more years of study and a six-month internship at a nursing home in Fargo, North Dakota, I returned to Sheridan as a registered music therapist.

I found a job in the activities department of a nursing home. Besides the piano, I used a guitar I learned to play in college. I also used an electronic keyboard from time to time, but it wasn’t as portable as the guitar. Although the residents considered my activities performances, they were therapeutic in nature. We sang, played name that tune and musical bingo, and I often encouraged them to talk about their younger years. I also created an activity called singer-cize which combined singing and exercise. People often told me I should record a CD. Remembering past dreams, I laughed and thanked them for the compliment.

Besides the group activities, I also worked one on one with residents who couldn’t or wouldn’t come out of their rooms. I used the guitar to accompany my singing and often held their hands and sang unaccompanied. Most of these residents weren’t as responsive, and since I couldn’t see facial expressions, it was hard for me to gauge their reactions, but other staff members told me that my music brought a smile to their faces.

As part of my job, I had to learn a lot of old songs. Some of these I picked up in college during my practicum sessions and internship. I bought recordings of others and learned them by ear, as I did with the songs of my youth. Residents often requested songs, and I made every effort to find recordings and learn them. Besides my work at the nursing home, I volunteered at other senior citizen facilities and joined a women’s barber-shop singing group.

After fifteen years, I met and married my husband Bill. I realized I was tired of learning and singing songs for seniors and creating activities for them. I’d taken up writing as a hobby, and I decided it was time for a career change. I quit my job and volunteer obligations in order to write full time. I still perform with the women’s singing group, but when people ask me if I’m still singing at the nursing homes or assisted living facility, I tell them I don’t have time anymore since my writing keeps me busy. They think I’ve lost my true calling, but I don’t care. I’m happy.

I still have a piano in my home. It belonged to Grandpa and Grandma Johnson. Grandma gave it to me when I returned to Sheridan after completing my internship. I’ve sold the electronic keyboard, and my guitar sits neglected in a closet. I occasionally sit down at the piano and play for Bill the songs of my youth: “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Memory” from Cats, “The Rose,” “Unchained Melody,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “You Light Up my Life.” After many years, I still remember the words.

Did you play an instrument while you were growing up? Did you take lessons? Did you learn to read music or play by ear? Please feel free to share your experiences below.

You can also click on the link below to hear me sing “Memory” from the Broadway musical Cats. I made this recording years ago when I was single and still had my electronic keyboard. The link will be available for about a week so enjoy!

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome

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