Monday, August 01, 2016

How Did I Get Here?

Have you ever asked yourself:  "How did I get here?"

Maybe you found yourself in a bad spot or a tight spot or an impossible predicament and you asked, "How did I get here?"  Maybe you found yourself suddenly noticing that your improvement was incremental and you didn't realize how good you had become at something that meant everything to you.  It is at that point in time to take a look and assess how you got there.  Why?  You want to stay there once you are there, don't you?

My father played piano most days after he came home for work.  Sometimes he would show me some things.  He was a very good amateur who could somehow rise to a professional level when he sat in with professional musicians.  I was curious and interested in what he was doing and how and one thing he told me was to learn chords.  I found a book about chords and, at the age of fifteen, I learned chords.  I learned major, minor, 6ths, 7ths, augmented, diminished, 9ths, and so on.  Then I tried to play from piano sheet music, just looking at the guitar chord symbols and found that I could play songs: melody in the right hand and chords in the left.  It was a bit awkward until I learned inversions.  It was good to get away from everything in root position.  One thing that helped was my father taught me "Satin Doll", which was played by Duke Ellington's band.

Flash back to the forties.  New York City.  A 21 year old navy lieutenant out for a good time is in the venue where Duke Ellington's band is playing.  You would have to know my father to understand the audacity of what was about to happen.  Cutting to the chase, he sat in on drums with Duke Ellington's band.  Decades later, he did the same, except on piano, guessed it...Satin Doll.  It was at the West Virginia governor's inauguration ball.

So, knowing chords is only important if you wish to play piano or write music.  It certainly doesn't hurt to hear chords and to understand what you hear, if you are a melodic-type musician, such as a singer or any instrumentalist.  It is an absolute necessity, if you have any aspirations of playing jazz.

A college class that is five days a week, an hour each day, with homework, sounds grueling.  To make it worse, it is at 8 AM.  You cannot stay up late and party for long and show up for that class before exhaustion sets in.  Therefor, you learn something that is not part of the curriculum.  You learn that you either prioritize your time or you fail.  What was that class?  Music Theory.  It used the Walter Piston book.  Piston' birthday is the same as mine.  That's odd, because that is where the similarities cease.  The teacher was a famous composer of modern music.  How did I get here?  Oh yes, I tested for the class.  What was the test?  Before I answer that, I should point out that there were 300 freshman music majors.  A few at a time were put into a classroom with no piano in it, were given music manuscript paper and a pencil.  A professor walked in and said, "Write out the melody line to "The Star Spangled Banner."  I wrote it out perfectly and that got me in the hardest music theory class.

I lost my edge after losing my high school girlfriend.  I stopped going to class for a while.  Before this, late one night, my roommate played random notes on the piano and I could hear which notes they were, without looking.  It turned out he could do the same.  We both had a disease--perfect pitch.  It is useful but I don't know how to teach it to anyone.  I don't see colors or pictures or numbers; I just hear and know notes and their pitches instantly and without analysis.  The same goes for chords.

I got a phone call in the dorm.  Dr. Whear was on the phone and he invited me to meet with him. We got together and he let me know that I had something that is "very rare and only one other person in the class also had this thing".  I knew it was my roommate.  He was talking about "perfect pitch".

Dr. Whear asked me, "What do you want to do with your life?" 

I said, "I want to write music."

"It's a very lonely life, writing music, but I think you could do that.  I would like you to please come back to my class.  Would you do that?"

I agreed.  Five days a week.  8 AM.  Lots of homework.  I got ok grades on my compositions.  I broke some rules with Baroque-style 4 part writing.  That annoyed him and also my on-purpose mis-pronunciation of Mozart.  A music theory rebel, I was.  It is part of how I got here, though.  I would say that being a music major is more time intensive than majoring in almost anything else.  There is a huge amount of practice on the major and minor instrument (or voice) and add to that the so-called core curriculum that everyone gets: English, Math, etc., ad nauseum.  Then you get the picture that it may be more than an engineering student will do time-wise and maybe more along the line of a medical student.

If you have plans of being a songwriter, you might consider that time to learn and study and practice will determine your outcome.  You cannot really fail.  You can quit, though.  You also can self-sabotage, by not learning your "tools" and their use.  If you don't put in the time and the study and the practice, you are the cause of your asking yourself (as you wait tables or do other jobs):  "How did I get here?"  You took the steps that lead to the place.  No on walked them for you.