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.

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.