I am an accomplished musician, capable of playing a lot of instruments. I started playing trumpet when I was 7; when I was nine, I learned to play organ the hard way – and on the hardest one to learn on – a huge five-manual church “pipe” organ. Of course, I couldn’t reach the pedalboard and a couple of the manuals were out of my reach… but I learned. That’s probably when I truly fell in love with music. All through school, I played in the band/orchestra and spent a few summers being classically trained on piano, violin (hated that) and cello – wasn’t sure about the string instruments at the time but it helped me when I picked up guitar and both electric bass and upright. I already knew how to read music but I also learned composition. I’m a drummer, too, trained in all the NARD rudiments. By the time I got to high school, I was already playing in a local band as a drummer, more often playing in clubs that, legally, I wasn’t old enough to be in at 15. When I got out of high school, I guess the musical training was over… but I was more than hooked.
Music was my life. I’ve played in other bands, at my church, stuff like that; I used to own several guitars, a really nice drum kit, and several professional keyboards and I can’t remember many times when I missed being able to practice. Now all I have is my Korg Triton, which gets me through and all that.
I’m that guy who always hears music in my head, either songs I’ve heard and I’m always composing songs. There was a time I used to carry around a manuscript pad and, when a new song popped into my head, I could be found furiously writing it down before I could forget. I wound up ditching the pad because I learned a few other thing along the way: MIDI and sequencing. Now, when a song pops into my head worthy of writing, all I do it bang it out on the Korg and the computer it’s connected to, along with the Sonar software, captures the whole thing and the cool thing is that I can correct my mistakes a lot easier than before – no need for an eraser!
Although I’m well-versed in all the music genres – and I have my favorites, of course – jazz is the genre that I feel gives me the greatest creativity. A lot of jazz is improv – you literally make it up as you go along, which works for me because while I can sit down and write a classical concerto, I’ve never been able to write a jazz piece before the fact. Then again, with MIDI and the software I use, I really don’t have to – it’ll even write the sheet music for me. I think it, I play it, tweak it, and there it is. Push a button and the software takes all of the parts I’ve input into it and – voila! A brand new piece of music.
When I had my stroke – and after realizing that I wasn’t going to die – my biggest fear was that I had lost music, meaning the ability to create and perform it. Indeed, I no longer have the fine muscle control it takes to play as I did before the stroke and, God, that bothers me more than having the stroke did. But, I was more determined to redevelop my ability to play even more than I was relearning how to walk. Today, I sit down at the Korg and play something… and it drives me nuts to see my right hand kinda/sorta doing what it knows how to do.
In my head, I KNOW how to do this, even though at my level, a lot of it is muscle memory more than conscious thought. I do find myself having to actually think about it, something I haven’t done since I first laid my fingers on a keyboard – it was always sit down, look it over to get familiar with it, start playing. And it pisses me off that I have to think about something I can literally do with my eyes closed.
Sometimes, it is funny; while my left hand just goes on about its business, it’s like my right hand doesn’t quite know what to do – and that’s probably a lot more truer than I care to believe; I can actually feel the difference in my musculature in my right arm, hands and fingers… it’s like parts are missing. Oh, they’re there… they just aren’t working like everything else is. You can actually hear me having a conversation with my right hand, telling it to stop fucking around and do it right because it knows how to do it.
And, yeah, I can hear Linda in the other room laughing her ass off…
My mother reminds me that it could have been worse – and she’s right. She tells me to be patient and keep working at it; I don’t know about the patient part but I’ll never stop working at it because, well, I can’t stop. The ability to pick up an instrument or sit down with it has been such an integral part of my life, it’s like breathing. It’s stuff I can do without really giving it a lot of thought and when I play, oh, man, you can’t imagine what that feels like!
What gets me is when I go back and listen to something I’ve already laid down. I hear things that other people wouldn’t notice – unless they were musicians – and even as I’m listening to it, I’m re-writing in my head, too, making it better, different, or both. I am my worst critic and even the best thing I can do is often not good enough. It can be mistake free… but I know the errors in technique, structure, stuff like that.
Then there are times when I listen to something and it just fucking blows me away and makes me say, “I can’t believe I did that…” I’ve even been caught in that moment when I’m actually playing something and, suddenly, it’s like I’m outside myself and watching myself play and marveling at how my fingers and hands just seem to be operating on their own, as if I have nothing to do with what’s going on. Simply amazing…
It’s what got my youngest son to learn piano. One day, he was watching me practice and asked, “Pop, how do you know which key to hit next?”
My mouth opened to answer… and I realized that couldn’t answer him except to say, “I just know…” I turned to him and said that if he really wanted to know, he should take piano. Since he was in the middle of a school year, I didn’t think he could – but he managed it and dove in heartily. I got him a portable keyboard to practice on, too, and would often sit with him and go over what he learned, technique and stuff. A year later, during his last year in high school, he came home from school and sat down to practice – he played the Moonlight Sonata. I silently watched him, his fingers plying the keyboard and, Jesus, he played the piece better than I ever could – and I can play the shit out of it. Right in the middle of it – and as he did to me – I asked, “Hey, Jon – how do you know what key to hit next?”
He stopped playing, opened his mouth… and nothing came out. After a few seconds, he said, “I just know.”
Then he got pissed with me! He said, “You know, I hate it when you do that…”
I just laughed and said, “Now you know like I know – back to practice!”
After only about a year and a half of training, he could play better than I could – and all I felt was pride. When he enrolled in college, he majored in organic chemistry and minored in music. For this part, he had to audition and he was so nervous and came to me for advice. I told him how I had to audition for admittance into Julliard and how nervous I was, although for my audition back then, I chose trumpet over the other instruments I could play. By the way, I was accepted… but I didn’t go, which didn’t make my mother happy.
Anyway, we were talking about what piece he should play and I told him that since he plays the Moonlight better than anything else, he should play that. Now, I know something about these auditions he didn’t; you’ll come in, tell them what you’re going to perform, then go for it – but at some point, they’ll stop you, thank you, and let you know later if you made the grade; it can be kinda discouraging – I know it ticked me off when, in the middle of playing Flight of the Bumblebee (one of the hardest things to play on trumpet), they did it to me. I worked a lot of hours and split my lip quite a few times learning that piece from beginning to end… and they stopped me after only 20 measures or so.
On the day Jon was to audition, I went with him and told him not to get upset when they stop him in the middle. He had a chance to see what I meant with all the other people before him and, yeah, it kinda unnerved him. I told him, “Just do what you do and do it the best you can, son…”
His turn came up and I saw how the committee’s eyes lit up when he named the piece he’d be doing. Jon sat down at the beautiful Steinway grand piano, took a breath, and started playing the sonata. I watched the committee and they were enthralled, as was everyone else in the room except maybe me – I knew he could tear it up. I knew that he’d be accepted because the committee let him finish the entire piece – and that’s unheard of. Where they told the other students that they’d be contacted later with their decision, they told Jon before he left that he was in, hands down. One member asked him how long he’d been playing and mouths flew open when he said, “About a year and half.”
Where I’ve never forgotten my roots, my son went from playing piano and writing his own music… to being a trance DJ. Go figure.
It’s funny; they say that some of the best musicians are also damned good at math – and music is mathematical. I guess that meant I was good at math – I got straight A’s in school… but hated it with a passion the whole way. Likewise, my son hates math, too, but he can play, too. Must be something to that, huh? I not only hear music all the time, I see it, too, as if there’s a huge piece of manuscript in my head that I can write on. I can listen to a recorded song and not only can I hear all of the individual parts, I can focus on just one if I chose to. I hear an instrument being played and can see the techniques being used – it’s so cool and sometimes, scary as hell because I really don’t know where it comes from – I can just do it and I’m sure other musicians can, too. I’m the guy who can go to a live concert and pick out every mistake they’re making on the stage, things no one else can here.
My favorite jazz group is Spyro Gyra and I’ve been to a few of their concerts and have all of their CDs. And, I’ve had the chance to actually talk to them, especially keyboardist Tom Schuman. After one concert, I was outside getting some air when someone came outside and told me that Tom wanted to see me – and had asked for me by name. God, I was impressed right out of my underwear – of all the people they see when they tour, he remembered me?
That reminds me; took Jon to an SG concert and when it was over and they came out to sign autographs, he was so psyched it wasn’t funny. Then he really got blown away when guitarist Julio Fernandez stopped him to talk about the shirt Jon wore to the concert. After that, there just wasn’t enough room for us, Jon, and his big head…
I even managed to get on the list of drummers to replace Joel when he decided to leave; I didn’t get the gig but the fact that Tom had me added to the list – even though I never got to audition – was enough of a thrill for me. Somewhere in my prized possessions, I still have the letter the group sent me…
I know Papa Dee Allen, percussionist for the group War; his parents lived across the street from my grandparents like forever. When I was stationed in the Air Force in California, Papa Dee somehow found out – thanks, granddad – and took me one weekend to hang out with War. I even got to jam with them and that was so fucking cool!
Without music, I don’t know how my life would have turned out, although I tend to believe that I wouldn’t be who I am now had I not picked up that trumpet so many years ago.