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.

Sorry, Bach.

It was a warm fall afternoon when I sauntered my way into a small basement studio, knowing nothing about what was to unfold. Inside approached a man, mid- to-late forties, slightly graying slicked back hair, small build with a striking jaw line framing a pleasant smile. He introduced his Eastman Doctoral self to my freshman-neophytic, pianistic-know-it-all, somewhat taller by 3-inches young, almost 18-year-old boy. Thus began our journey into the wonderful world of music exploration and partnership.

Through years of painful re-examination, it took more than eighty-eight keys to unlock doors slammed shut from pride, unsubstantiated self-awareness, and talent with less-than adequate preparation. This basement dweller of higher knowledge and advanced degrees of insight knew this, instinctively, once I began my introductory, “I’ll show you my genius!” … striking the first notes of Chopin’s G-Minor Ballade (of which I felt was so exquisitely played similar to the likes of Horowitz himself, btw). Jim, as I eventually was allowed to call him, stopped me soon after I began, placed his left hand on my shoulder, gently, and calmly said, “We’ll get back to this masterpiece in a bit .. for now, how about we look at Bach?” ….. Noooooooo!!!!

Not Bach!! I spent years avoiding this dry, powder wig, boring dude. There’s no sexiness in Bach!. Bach has no chick-magnet appeal like Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff. Jim HAD to be kidding me!! C’mon, man! Ok, so Bach had, like 19 kids and I’ve mega-props for his resilience in that department, but his music takes discipline, practice, and eff..eff… ef…fort oh, I started to see the problem. Damn.

Ding ding!! Light bulb moment in my mind, but I wasn’t about to let him know that. Why would I? Stubborn is a trait I am proud of to this day.

To go through the minutiae of my stuffy, eyeball-watering, note-by-night college lesson years with Jim isn’t the point of this post. I’d love to share all the moments. The struggles. Midnight hours alone with Chopin Etudes wearing my fingers to the bone, Czerny exercises sitting on my every nerve, Schumann lyrical lines I just couldn’t shape correctly, and Strauss waltzes accented so improperly I wanted to throw scores of blood curdling screams across the already small studio room … these are some of a thousand rough experiences nestled in among the few perfectly played moments in front of audiences comfortably settled in their plush, velvety seats in the campus recital hall.

I entered college as a music education major specializing in trombone studies. That was the path, anyway. I knew my passion was the way of pianistic endeavors, but earning a living as a pianist was not encouraged. It took a year of studying to convince myself that path, ultimately, wasn’t the way after all … after one phone call and a little paperwork, I adjusted my thinking and set a new way forward.

All this to say I did end up two college degrees. Yeah me, right? Now, I sell hot “dawgs” for a living and am quite proud of my life … and significantly less full of ego than my earlier, late-teen self.

All of this funneling down to my main point. The past month or so, I’ve posted daily piano pieces on Facebook. These exist as video evidence of my love for the instrument and an extension of wonderful music to the surrounding community as well. If you’d like to listen, they are posted under, “Doug Rhodes Piano”. These would not be possible without that first step into that musty, welcoming studio many years ago.

The selections vary from Jazz to Classical, Rock & Sacred to Motown. I believe there are about 40 total. Now, I don’t claim to have the market cornered on what helps any of us during these trying days, but I can at least give you some – if only a few – moments away to think about happier things. Maybe Chopin, Peter Nero, Barry Manilow, Josef Zawinul, Floyd Kramer, Beethoven, the Beatles, or Les Mis can pull you through … hold your hand – with the help of my two hands. I don’t know. It’s my offering to you.

Oh, and there’s no Bach … still. Years later and I’m as stubborn as I always was. Some things don’t change. Sorry, Jim.