Still Music to Me

There is a time in life when one needs to write about something very important in his life. Now is my time to write about music.

I certainly can’t know what is a “very important” in your life. Too many possibilities to venture a near guess. Faith, family, career, pet, health …? We’d need an afternoon over subtle mugs of warm tea and pleasant conversation for me to understand your life’s targeted importance. As individual as we are, so are our focused attentions and interests.

I love music. It is my connection to life. It is where deep connections are made with those I adore. The space around me when I sit at my piano is happily hallowed – where all of the surrounding mistakes of present day slings and arrows can’t reach me. While listening to music, an invisible cloak of safety surrounds my unsettled reasoning of the day … protecting all my insecurities. There is no equal to music’s magic.

I’m not the best at it. Humility comes with ten fingers that not only miss my mom, but also at least a small percentage of notes expected to be accurately executed one at a time always falling on the floor – unfulfilled. Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, … all of them most likely understanding my hearted attempts to carry forward their genius, but coming up a few strides short of the Sibelius Finnish line. They understand, I’m sure. Very few can achieve perfection. Those that do, do. Lang Lang, young Evren Ozel from Minnesota, and blind jazz pianist phenom Matthew Whitaker to name some amazing musicians surrounding our lives.

I mention my imperfections because we have them, right? I love music because it always reminds me I am not perfect. I am, humbly, better than the average pianist … and I know the limits within my skill set.

Within those limits are the connections I make to others as a musician. The over-arching category here for a musician is “artist” and what you see scrawled on walls about town is, for the most part, true: “Artists are kinda weird” … Especially those of us who think a bit outside the normal box of ideas. Our corners aren’t quite square, perhaps, and we don’t look at the world quite the same as most.

My mom was a weirdo, laughingly so. This is why I miss her – even as an older kinda-weird guy. She didn’t give me many sane, common sense ideas on how to be a normal, adjusted human. Her world was fun, frolic, and games. “Be nice and everything will always work out for you …”, she spoke repeatedly wondering if I had any pianistic, musical ideas floating around in my skull. As long as there existed Trivial Pursuit, a deck of Pinochle cards in the game cabinet, and an in-tune piano somewhere near, her brain was in Edenic paradise.

She’s not here anymore. I am … and I’m still a musician struggling with connections to other special musicians, sometimes – because they’re off-beat weird, too, having the same problems in life. I make mistakes in missing those communicative notes between us just like I can’t hit all the keys. Very few can, right? Communication is really, really, hard when the music isn’t there … when only words replace beautiful melodies and arching orchestral crescendos.

This is why music is so powerful … so special to me. Why that space is. Just is.

There is no equal to an eyes closed listening of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, Tim Minchin’s “Carry You”, or Cold Play’s “Fix You” covered by Straight No Chaser – all of which I listened to, again, before writing this entry tonight. I needed a shield around my irrationality of the day. Another cold day in February when connections weren’t as hopeful as I had hoped for, and abnormal wasn’t as normal as I am accustomed to – even as a weird musician type.

You know your “very important” in life. I hope this not only includes a “thing” like, maybe, music, but also really cool people with whom you can make a connection. You’re not going to hit all the right note or keys. Do the best you can to make what you do your best effort, anyway. If you’re struggling with what to do, call me and we’ll meet up for tea and conversation.

That is, if you can put up with a little bit of kinda-weirdness for an hour or two.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. TheĀ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

Welcome Back, Mom

I’ve been at this a short time. Since October of 2019, to be more precise. Millions of other bloggers dutifully write words of greater depth on this day and have done similar, marvelous posts on days going back further than that. Year over year, they tell their individual stories. I walk along side some of them as they silently speak of their beautiful journeys. They are we-blog folks. Simple people who have something special to say on a particular day.

At the time of this post, there are an estimated 500 million blogs. Logging on the web, back in 1994, was a portal for Justin Hall and Peter Merholz who became quasi-household names to all the bloggers yet to come. Pioneers are they. The former considered the “founding father” of personal blogging and the latter who coined the term, “blog”. Technological credits aside – available for anyone willing to do the additional research – I’m simply amazed – after fifteen months of experimental digitry on my Dell keyboard and Samsung phone, primitive observational photographic skills, and basic grasp of grammar rules – I have followers of one kind or another. Either through email or a simple follow button, there are those of you out there in the blogosphere who enjoy reading my words.

We don’t say “thank-you” enough these days. Out of half-a BILLION blogs, you’ve chosen this one to read. Thank-you.

…and thank you, 2021. What for? Returning a little bit of normal to me I thought I lost months ago during a tempestuous, emotional 2020.

We didn’t lose mom in 2020. She died in 2012. Part of what she left behind was her music. Not just all the piano music I get a chance to play, but also her iPod Shuffle and various other devices with music downloaded she listened to while undergoing chemo treatments. I’m not sure my siblings, or my dad, miss mom the same way I do. We’re all different. We mourn her loss differently – even eight years, four days later. Pianistic connections are hard to let go between a son and mother. Duets played side by side, deeply felt, are not easily let go – and shouldn’t be. Remembering hearts entwined, while playing thousands of pinochle hands on cold winter evenings, trump this sad feeling of not having her around to help me deal with her absence across the table from me.

Facing another year without someone like her is hard. If you’re sitting with me, you know the fondness without the company of that person. A mom, dad, son, daughter, friend …they’re all so uniquely important to us. A memory just isn’t enough most times. We can pretend a sign from above is enough – and it is for the moment. But when that person is no longer here in person to give us a hug, or tell us they love us no matter what, we feel less-full, less-complete. Holidays, especially, are tough. Mom’s cookies. Dad’s Christmas traditions … all so important to us, right?

Here is 2021. Geesh, are we glad it’s here, or what? The election season was anfractuous. Yes, anfractuous, and as of this day, still hasn’t settled into a direct line toward a calm inauguration. The pandemic, of course, virtually split everything into parts previously unknown for a century. Racial tensions pulled apart our country. What a mess we were … and continue to be. How about we simply acknowledge a lot happened we weren’t too happy about and, privately, mourn our losses? If you suffered a tragedy, please accept my sincere condolences. 2020 wasn’t kind. “Happy New Year!”, I guess.

Mom didn’t need to be alive for any of this. It’s fortunate she isn’t around. There are too many people to hug and not enough time in the day for her. Distancing away from her family would be too much – as it is for so many other families – and not being able to be her wouldn’t be any kind of life.

Cancer sucks. The day she died, however, was one of my best days. I’ve said this since that sad March day in 2012. My biggest crutch in life was kicked out from under me. I had to grow up and become an adult on that very day. Losing her earbuds last year still hurt, however. Listening to music through her ears since she died was one of my connections. When they went missing, I lost a part of my mom. Last year took so much from so many, yet misplacing a simple pair of earbuds, to me, was living the 14th floor of UPMC Altoona’s palliative care wing all over again.

The connection was lost. I lost a small part of mom. Efforts to find failed. Drawers, closets, cars, clothes, etc … nowhere to be found. With regret and sadness, I gave up. Times of late night music sessions only for my ears silenced. I didn’t want to buy a replacement. There was no other. I know this sounds goofy, perhaps a bit featherbrained, but tickle my fancy and go with the emotional-logic here: there IS no emotional-logic. Replacing the earbuds meant I was, in a mystifying way, replacing my dear mom.

I don’t believe in signs from above. If there’s a divine being up there, I think there’s a better way to send us signals than birds and cloud shapes. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I’m always open to learning, however. Whatever urged these wonderful little earbud-dies of mom’s to show back up in my life yesterday … thank-you. Yes, they were jammed under the sofa … no surprise there because I probably hobbled them under there a while back flirting around doing something else.

As I type, for the first time in months, music flows again through my ears. Mom lives again. I’m listening to the top hits of 2020. Everything’s back to normal. Kinda. Still have a way to go because hanging close by are six masks and a schedule adjusted for semi-lockdowns and virtual teaching.

I’m thankful and grateful I can write along with my 500 million friends … and have something special to say on this particular day. Unique, to me, of course because of all the problems in the world lately, I may have been the only one who lost his earbuds within the past 6 months. Small in comparison to others’ tremendous losses this past year, my experience was, nevertheless, real to me … and heartfelt.

As I close, “Memories” by Maroon 5 finishes up on the playlist. Again, no pointing upward or sideways to a divine interventionist. I’m simply going to stop typing, sit back, and listen to the words. Thankful, for one last time, mom is talking to me again. Welcome, 2021.

Elsa and ‘Bones

Frozen in time are memories of Mr. McGee lumbering into the bandroom with that predictable scowl on his face. I don’t blame him, knowing what I know being, now, the age he was back then. Having to listen and direct a hoodlum bunch of blowing junior high quasi-instrumentalists – day after bad note day – had to get on his nerves. A collective group of teenaged tooters divided into the usual sections: woodwinds, brass, and percussion.

Sitting on the row in the top tier of the room, immediately inside the door from which he entered, we were the trombone section. Two Daves, a Jim, and I with a smattering of underclassmen. Four ninth-graders resting at the top of the middle school world who first spied Mr. McGee on any given day. Dave, the principle trombonist on the end, had the best seat, I was second, Jim … then Dave #2. One music stand per two slidey bones, four players, …. and one really good time. We were friends.

Dave to my left was always the better negotiator of chair order to that point, although I knew soon I was going to swing around him – which I did the following year. Music was too much in my bones (yes, pun intended) and he didn’t have the passion I did. Mr. McGee recognized this early on, but didn’t do much the change the status quo, so I went along with the plan. Why not, right? Too many other bothersome things in junior high to stumble over than fight about being 1st or 2nd in a band instrument section.

Roughly 10 years later, Mr. McGee fell ill and reached out to me. He was unable to return to that same outdated bandroom for an extended time and wondered if I’d be available to step in as a long-term substitute. After all, as a graduate and qualified K-12 music educator, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Politely declining, I stepped aside due to other career obligations and thanked him for the chance to walk through that same door he did years prior. He died shortly thereafter. The teacher who did accept the substitute position was eventually hired full-time and had a wonderful career.

Life is wonderful. Opportunities not taken are still excellent … just sometimes for others. I went on to do other things I am so wonderfully glad I was able to do – and continue to do.

This is about Dave #1 … and frozen moments. Mr. McGee walking sternly, yet exhaustively, into that bandroom is a still moment I can see today in my left peripheral vision. In that view is Dave sitting beside me. He will always be there.

Imagine my surprise when, with both eyes, I saw his profile picture a few years ago on Facebook when he accepted my 40-years later formal friend request. Those are definitely frozen moments. The, “Oh, man is this really him/her after all these years?” times that repeat over and over following reunion inspired requests. Yes, this was Dave’s overly dark beard, bushy eye brows, deep brown, tan skin and at- peace personality shining through his small smile.

With all those nice qualities, it’s not surprising his new puppy, frozen in time above, is in his care … or, that her name is ELSA. She is second in charge in his home behind an older canine sibling. I’m taking an immediate liking to Elsa and her apparent position seeing as how she’s “second chair” in the ‘bone section. The family is out of state, so I won’t have any opportunity to commiserate with my young puppy pal-ette of similar emotional coloring, but I can sympathize with her plight from afar.

Being 2nd isn’t a bad position. I’m behind my sister, yet ahead of my brother. Seconding, one could argue, is just as important as proposing a motion. Going for seconds is a compliment to the chef and minutes don’t exist without sixty little divisions within them. Great symphonies need relaxing, beautiful 2nd movements and what historical significance would there be between Washington and Jefferson if Adams was out picking apples instead of presiding as President?

Certainly Elsa didn’t choose to harm Anna in the movie. Kristoff steps in to help Anna find Elsa, eventually breaking the spell cast upon Arendelle. Elsa #2, becomes #1 with the help of an unlikely cast of melty characters.

Our Elsa above simply melts our hearts. No movie necessary. Look at that face.

It’s our cast of characters – unlikely or not – who get us through life … our Mr. McGees long since passed, or Daves popping up with cute puppies on social media. These folks melt away the frost on our frozen memories we may have forgotten.

It’s been some time since I’ve reminisced about those junior high, wool uniform band days. For all of Mr. McGee’s faults, he did a pretty good job of corralling a goofy bunch of late 70’s kids into a semi-large, old, non-acoustic beat up old band room from the 40’s.

As for Dave, I think he’s retired military who enjoys his cars. I doubt he plays his trombone much – if at all. Since I’ve been active in music my whole life, it’s probably about time to challenge him to a friendly head-to-head audition. Not that I’m holding a grudge or anything … we should just put to rest who was the better of the two back when Mr. McGee walked into our lives every other day.

Turns out, I kinda miss Mr. McGee’s attitude. It was real, … authentic. Qualities not seen too much these days. Almost frozen in the past.

Unless you’re the puppy, Elsa. Then you have genuine in spades.

Life is Grand in Small Pieces

It’s most likely the pianist in me. Eighty-eight keys arranged by white and black pieces, 52 + 36 = 88. Simple math. Ten little fingers gracefully stroking the correct ones – at precisely the correct moment – to create music directly from the Masters’ hearts is so special. A purely divine plan easily devised, but difficult to execute well.

Few rise to the level of international fame. More fall into mediocrity and just as many, if not more, succumb to scales and chords of lesser quality. As with any discipline, refined excellence of prodigious talent is really, really rare. Horowitz, Lang-Lang, and Rubenstein are perfect pianist pearls in an otherwise ordinary oyster world.

I fall into one of those categories. Into which one I descend is up to you to decide without hearing me stroke a single key. My dear mother had an opinion when she so diligently listened to my young digits squeak and squirm their way around the keys. Young as I was years ago, I did have an early affinity toward the mathematical 88. The piano/music connection always made sense to me. Middle C was to my brain as breathing was to my lungs, so mom decided early on THIS was to be the grand plan …

… Did you ever get the feeling someone else knew something you didn’t? Just asking. I should’ve finger-figured something was afoot.

Bless her heart, she tried. I didn’t. Call me stubborn … most do – even to this day many decades later. She recognized a gift I refused to open. I knew what I had in my hands was a unique quality … a special talent to play this wonderful, orchestral instrument capable of rich low and sweet high tones. One single vibration, or many clusters of dissonant sounds together at my sole discretion … all available with one twitch of a wrist. Yet, with that knowledge, I fought the less-than-valiant fight against the natural forces given to me at birth.

“Cantankerousistic tendencies” and the drive to be my own stubborn self. Period. End of self-analysis. I’ll send myself a bill.

Mom died eight years ago knowing all this; However, she did see me perform many times on stage both as a soloist, accompanist, and music director, etc… Music became a major part of my life and, aside from being a street vendor selling munchables, still is. I eventually decided to get serious about it after high school and have remained active in the arts community ever since. Mom saw that development in my adult years … yes, I did, kinda, grow up.

She’s so easy to write about and spatter great and wonderful words all over conversation. Her influence on me is immeasurable – in small parts.

Which makes my life so grand.

She saw the big picture for my life, but never pushed it on me. I was left to be me. Now, had I decided to be less of a pain in the ass and practiced more, she would have most likely influenced the “plan”. I didn’t. She didn’t. Instead, we laughed, played games together, colored, told jokes, went to stores and ate fast food, spent time with my brother and sister, ate meals together as a family with dad after he came home from work ….

All the small stuff in life she never ignored.

Wow. What a life lesson for all of us, right?

Big pictures and goals are great to have and to hold. No argument from me about life’s “go afters” that keep the wheels from coming off. None of us need to sit around drinking sodas, eating bbq chips, and watching cable news all day long. That’s definitely NOT worth the weight, correct?

Point being, relax and notice the small things that make you … you. Perhaps the stubbornness? (Ahem) … or the gift you have yet to develop. Maybe the gift in someone else who needs you to recognize and inspire? Could be a joke or game to share with a friend. Who knows?

My mom hasn’t been here for eight years. I’ll never see her again, nor will she hear me play one more time. It’s really ok. She’d always come up after any performance, give me a big hug and say, “How’d you do that? … it was wonderful!”. Now, I know in her heart she meant a heart-squeeze, but I also am aware I missed a c-sharp in the development of the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata and she knew this as well … “

I miss her on a grand scale. My heart heals every day in small pieces.

It’s all good. My ten fingers grace the keys today with almost as much grace as she blessed my life. It never mattered to her into which category I fell … and that, my friends, is a perfectly executed, divine plan.