The climb., by sdm on 03/23/2007, 12:51:54

He’s climbing the cliff side. It’s incredibly steep and the material is sometimes crumbly but with great effort, courage and skill, he fights through slips, falling rock and other dangers to finally drag himself over the edge onto a shelf. He turns to examine his path and is awed and gratified by the magnificent view laid out at his feet. He catches his breath, stretches his limbs and turns around.

And starts the climb again.

Up to that point is was an image from a Marine recruiting television ad. In the ad, of course, the young, brave man reaches the top, dons the dress Marine dress blues and, sword in hand, snaps to an impressive attention.

In my life, particularly with learning piano, the climb seems to start again rather too quickly. I’d prefer to take in the view for a bit longer but it seems, at this stage anyway, to be something that is not in my control, the timing of the turning around. And, yes, perhaps the incline is slightly, oh, every so slightly, less steep. And sometimes, even though the climbing is difficult and sometimes tedious, there does seem to be a little cache of tools on each shelf I manage to pull myself up on.

It’s been a long and sometimes very difficult winter. Today was a wonderful spring day and I look forward to more of these although rain is expected for the rest of the week. The winter was the hardest on Christmas day when my brother died after a battle with brain cancer. I tell this not for sympathy although all who lose loved ones deserve this. His death is here both for the profound impact it had on me and for how the events surrounding this loss are bracketed by personally significant musical events.

Dennis had been very ill for some time but we were all hoping for many more months and we were all spending as much time with him as he could stand. During this same period, my 93 year-old stepmother determined it was time to move into a small apartment in an assisted living facility and fulfilled her promise to me of her turn-of-the-century Chickering upright. This meant the Kranich and Bach I’d been playing needed a new home.

This piano had been given by my mother to my brother. I had ended up with it when his family began a series of moves and adventures we won’t go into here. I had had it since my divorce over 20 years earlier. He and my sister-in-law and finally returned to Oregon and had been in Portland for 14 years or so. It was time for the piano to return to Dennis and his family.

This happened in December some time and I was lucky and honored enough to be asked to play for my brother only days before he passed. It’s not that he hadn’t heard me play in small bits over the years but he really hadn’t heard much in the last few years when I’ve been working so hard at it. Although I’d looked forward to more evenings where part of my contribution to our gathering would be some piano, I yet felt blessed and lucky to have at least had the one chance to play for him. He seemed to delight in it as he always did with me and my own joys. He was that way. It was a touching and important night for me.

During the planning of his memorial, I offered to provide a piano player for the event and all seemed to think this a wonderful idea, something I was most pleased to do. Randy would be out of town but he offered the names of some of Portland’s finest and I found Steve Christofferson available and willing to play for us.

In checking out the location for the memorial, a classic old Portland ballroom donated for the event by a close friend’s employer, we discussed the piano and where it would be. Then during the setup, I found myself with a bit of time on my hands and actually sat down and played a bit. This was huge – yes, it was mostly family and very close friends in the room, but that’s never gotten in the way of my nerves in the past. But somehow this afternoon I was relaxed and comfortable and could basically ignore the fact that people could listen to me if they had a mind to. I mostly just quietly noodled around with the chords of Au Privave I’d been learning and I played just a little of Blue Bossa. It made me feel pretty good.

Just one more quick story about the memorial and I’ll move on to other things. For Steve it was to be, of course, a background gig and he was perfect (he’s a great player of course), when I actually listened to him – with over 130 people in attendance, I mostly talked with friends of the family and Dennis so in fact I listened very little. I did catch one tune all the way through and it was wonderful. I had asked for only one song if he would do it and that was Benny Golson’s lovely memorial song “I Remember Clifford.” At one point I walked across the room toward the piano just as Steve started the song. I leaned against the doorway near the piano and just listened and enjoyed the music. When he finished I thanked him and said he must have seen me walking toward him. He denied this and said he had noticed me leaning against the door-jam well into the song. It was a wondrous coincidence!

While the above events made a hard period for me and the rest of the family, it was not all that was going on. Karen and I were working our way through the sale of our house, the purchase of another and, finally in February, a move. At our age this is a tremendous amount of work and seemed to last all winter.

And at work the month of February was about as jam-packed as I have had in my ten years with the company as I was responsible for three consultants on-site reviewing all of our processes as part of a large software migration.

It has been a long and difficult winter. But through it all I have managed to keep playing and practicing at least a couple of hours nearly every day. Oh, there have been times where I was simply too stressed to do anything very productive and I’d just read through lead sheets. There were times when Karen could hear the melancholy in my playing. Even anger was expressed at the keys but I did keep playing and, now that things are beginning to settle in to what seems to be a new part of my life, I’m still playing.

I don’t recall a lot of really breakthrough sessions in the last several months although there have been good as well as bad evenings. It’s amazing though that despite the distractions and turmoil and the consequent lack of discipline in my sessions, I continue to learn great amounts of information, build skills I could hardly conceive of not long ago and make more musical sounds all the time. It is such a great gift!

And, like the poor climber in the altered Marines ad, for every trick I add to my bag, for every lick that feels good or every piece of understanding, I see anew the multitudes of struggles I have yet to face and challenges yet to be met. It’s as if the old saying, the more I know, the more questions I have, has become my musical life. I grow but that very growth magnifies that which I must yet master. I wonder if I will always feel that the path ahead is long and hard, even when others might hear a real piano player. I suppose I can live with this.

Still, it is at most times not discouraging and I am for the most part undaunted. While my understanding of my own musical limitations sometimes seems to grow faster than my comprehension and skill, still I revel in the ability, however slight, to make some of this music that I love so. And while I’m now spending months concentrating on just one or two songs, my ability to open my book and play through five or six songs whenever I want is simply too much to have hoped for.

During the winter I only had a few lessons and partly because of the time between lessons, Randy has been able to see some development. It’s always encouraging to get a lesson, even if I come away feeling as if I had played badly, it still propels me and I’m able to take what Randy gives and use at least some of it to build on.

Will it always remain a climb? Always a mountain ahead even with the stunning view of ground traversed at my back? Or will someday the vista widen to offer a peak from which to view and enjoy a large and satisfying body of personal accomplishment? No, I can’t imagine complete satisfaction but I will continue to envision for my life playing with others (both Ed and I have been too busy to play together – he also moved this winter – and will be getting together for the first time in many weeks this weekend) and make enjoyable cohesive music. One of those shelves that I pull myself up onto will have that group of musicians which I will join.

LJP Journal: sdm

  • 12/05/2008 - Still at it...

    We’ve met and played a number of times now – maybe five or six – and the improvement is quite encouraging. We try to get together every two weeks but things do come up. We played this week and are feeling organized enough to leave some solo space, trade fours and end pretty much in the same place. Wow! Oh, and for the most part beat one stays in place but maybe better than that is that we almost never stop. If someone gets lost, and I do fairly often still, we are able to get back together somewhere be...

  • 04/10/2008 - Trio

    OK, I think I’ve recovered enough to write about my second attempt with a drummer and bass player. It really, from an objective viewpoint (well, as objective as I can conjure up) went pretty well. I was able to get through a number of the tunes we did without getting lost, did some reasonable if unremarkable improv, and we kept at it for a couple of hours. There must have been at least 32 bars through that two hours were we actually had a groove going too. So, why did I feel like I have always felt af...

  • 03/26/2008 - Easter was nice!

    Easter was a very nice family day with lots of talk, singing and games. Family and friends - how better to spend a day. But there was a special feature for me. The family piano is at my sister-in-law's house where we gathered so I screwed up my courage and spent about 20 or 30 minutes at the keyboard. It sure showed me that I need to memorize more -- I just didn't have enough to play. All comments were positive and very encouraging. I hope my next milestone is just around the corner. Early next m...

  • 01/24/2008 - On hold...

    This has been a frustrating period. First, of course, my attention has been focused on my wife as she has gone through here personal struggle. This had the effect of cutting down my time a bit but that by itself would have been fine. Somehow, however, I managed to add a tendon injury to the mix and that has presented the biggest frustration. Around the beginning of December I began to feel something happening at my elbow. This quickly spread along my arm to my wrist to the point that it began to ac...

  • 03/23/2007 - The climb.

    He’s climbing the cliff side. It’s incredibly steep and the material is sometimes crumbly but with great effort, courage and skill, he fights through slips, falling rock and other dangers to finally drag himself over the edge onto a shelf. He turns to examine his path and is awed and gratified by the magnificent view laid out at his feet. He catches his breath, stretches his limbs and turns around. And starts the climb again. Up to that point is was an image from a Marine recruiting television ad.

  • 09/23/2006 - Survival

    It’s amazing really: 30 years, a completely different instrument and all of my life experiences in that time and somehow this workshop affected me much like most of my experiences back in Eugene when I was twenty-something and trying to play a trumpet. The work shop itself was good. The level of both experience and comfort between us was a decent match although I still believe, as objectively as possible, that I was the least experience and skilled piano player in the room – and the most self-conscious ...

  • 09/03/2006 - Workshop - prelude

    Well, this should be interesting. I’m attending my first workshop as a piano player. Wow, unbelievable. I haven’t been to one of these in 30 years and then it was as a very weak trumpet player. I felt pretty lost the whole time, almost like I felt as a 5th grade basketball player trying to figure out which direction I should run. Well, 30 years or so after that I learned to play that game. I was never real good but I did learn to play and had a lot of fun at it. It was only a couple of weeks ago ...

  • I had a surprisingly good evening. It was a Friday after a long and sometimes trying week. We watched PBS news so I didn’t sit down to the keys until 8:00 or after. But this tired Friday evening I gave myself a break. No warm-ups, no scales or single-key exercises, not even chromatic chords, just tunes: listening and playing. I started with a new love, Kenny Barron’s Skylark on the Maybeck album. The only sheet I have is in F and he plays it in Eb so I not only need to try to understand what he does...

  • 06/08/2006 - Awesome partner

    To begin with it is important to understand the routine that has built up for my wife, Karen, and I as I have journeyed into this piano playing. I get home sometime around 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening. Karen is already home and we watch the news together. Some nights we have dinner and some nights we simply “graze” – works well. Around 7:00 or 7:30 I head down to the piano. Karen will spend the evening reading or watching the television and will head up to bed around 9:00 (she is the morning person). I...

  • 05/07/2006 - Pieces

    There is so much to do. I am learning about how chords and scales relate. As much as I’ve resisted the belief that I can actually learn this in some way that relates to making music, it seems to be happening. The Bebop Major for a major chord, and the melodic minor for a for some minor chords and dorian at other times or the Diminished / Whole-tone for an altered seventh. All so confusing but it seems this is some of the convergence of conscious – think of the chord-scale relationship – and, what, unc...

  • OK, that was cool! My 25 year-old rocker son, Jordan, brought his Gibson over yesterday and we spent the next five or so hours playing. Now, as I say, he’s a rocker ( and not “schooled” – he doesn’t know theory and can’t even quickly identify the notes on the fret board but he can definitely play. He’s been playing for maybe 14-15 years and been with his current band for a couple of years and with parts of it for many years. This group has gigged around town but is working on chang...

  • Something new and interesting is beginning to happen although it is still rare: I occasionally feel like a bad piano player. Now, this may not sound like a good thing, given the qualifier and all, but it’s really very nice. The alternative, most of the time, is feeling more like a wannabe or pretender; someone who shouldn’t even be bothering with a piano or any other musical instrument for that matter. The beauty of this new feeling is that I now have a choice: I can stay a bad piano player (assuming...

  • 09/28/2005 - Progress???

    So I had a pretty good practice session last night. I'm learning the melodies of three new tunes. I picked two from the Aberesold book, “Night And Day” that I have: “Three Little Words” (up) and “My One And Only Love” (ballad). I’ve also started Duke’s “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” for a medium swing piece. I’m not exactly sure what Randy has in mind with just learning the melodies first although I think it is about my phrasing and swing feel. I can play both the play-along songs at tempo which I t...

  • 08/01/2005 - Pure Inspiration

    I do love good jazz festivals and Centrum was great! This was my first time to this festival and next time we’ll do it differently. We drove up (about 4 ˝ hours) Saturday morning, caught the day’s shows and did clubs afterwards. Caught the breakfast show and then back home. Randy (he was both facility and club performer) has suggested that I should consider at least going to the workshops as an audit student. I figure in a couple of years I may try to participate as a player but who knows. But what’...

  • OK, back into the woodshed. I’ve been on the road for the last week so no practice. On the way back I stopped and tried to play my step-mother’s wonderful Chickering spinet that will become mine. She has played by ear for much of her 92 years so her playing is much more musical than mine and I felt really clumsy but she said she was impressed with my progress (and marvels at my “book learning”). Still, I didn’t feel the progress! Then Ed came over today and our playing wasn’t so good so we spend some t...

  • My trumpet playing friend Ed postulates that learning an instrument (at least as an adult) follows the five stages of grief. I think he may have something here. We all talk about plateaus and getting stuck on the one hand and sudden leaps forward on the other. It kind of makes sense: one, denial – “I’m better than this, what the hell is happening?!?”, two, anger – don’t really need to say much here but it is frustrating when you can’t seem to stay on the black keys for instance, three, bargaining - “just...

  • There are some nice things starting to happen with my playing. Of course, only nice in comparison to my own history -- the thought of being a nice player is still beyond me so I try to keep the smaller picture in mind. First, I’m finally gaining what I think is the proper appreciation of slow. In the past I’ve worked under the assumption that if I only play it as fast as I can (whatever “it” is) over and over, I’ll eventually be able to play it well – and, of course, even faster. This all despite the ...

  • Gave myself a break last night. Well, really the last two nights because I had to watch the Illinois / NC game – good game – so didn’t practice at all Monday night. Last night I did spend an hour or so doing some technical stuff – careful scale work, chord exercises, and a little Hannon. After that I decided to go back a couple of songs rather than work on current “assignments.” Spent a half hour on a boogie base and then put on the Aebersold version of Night And Day and just jammed for 40 minutes. Ma...

  • 04/01/2005 - Click

    There was a small click last night. Whew! It's not been a good week. The weekend went alright although I didn't get as much practice time as I like (never!). Got together again with Ed and we did OK. As expected, the new tunes weren't in good shape and I ended up only playing one hand a lot. But it was a Monday evening lesson that sent me downward. Not Randy's fault of course, just where I am I guess. First of all, Monday's are just not good days and by the end my strength, what there is of it, ...

  • Slow! This is an exceedingly slow process. Sometimes it seems like the two or three hours a day I spend at the keys is just that, time spend with little or no return. Sure, I enjoy myself during that time. Beats the hell out of watching TV. But I guess I want continual progress (am I a victim of my business experience and the “continual improvement” fad?). I said something to Ed about wondering where this will go and he said “it’s a hobby” as if it’s only a hobby – a way to spend some time like woodwo...

  • Decent lesson last night. Randy was pleased with the improvement. Played “Night and Day” while he played a base line. Didn't get all the chords but did at least keep my place and some of the improvised lines were, well, respectable. Didn’t have time to play him “I’m a Fool To Want You”. Have to move on. Of course it had been a month or so since we’d gotten together so it’s a damn good thing he heard some improvement. Problem is now he thinks I’m ready for some changes. First he wants me to start...

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