Vito & Clare photo by Todd
“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” William Stafford
As I mentioned in a recent article, though I’ve been playing the piano every day for fifty years, and have often been paid for my playing, I can barely read music. I have tried to overcome the trauma that kept me from learning to read music—my six-year-old fingers being whacked with a heavy metal pen by a bad piano teacher—but I am still stuck at the very early stages of being able to play written-down music.
I am also a professional writer of stories and novels, though had I not first been encouraged by my friends in elementary school to write and read my stories aloud to them, and then received modest encouragement from my elementary school teachers, I’m sure I never would have been able to overcome the harsh criticism and denigration of my work by my high school and college teachers, not to mention rejections from countless editors in the employ of mainstream publishers.
Thankfully, despite the confederacy of dunces that controls much of our culture, I managed to publish several books; and though contemporary commercial publishers are largely indifferent to what I’ve written in the last ten years—my best work—I carry on because I love to write and there are several marvelous people eager to read my stories.
But how did I come to love the piano again after being so frightened and hurt while trying to play the instrument as a child?
My mother played the piano, not often, but when she played, she was happy, and that is most significant. From the time I was a very little boy, whenever she sat down at our big old upright and got out the Tams-Witmark songbooks of hits from the 1920s and 30s and 40s, I would stand beside her as she played and we would sing “It’s Only A Shanty In Old Shanty Town” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and many others. Thus my early neurological wiring regarding the piano was all about pleasure and joyful communion with my otherwise not-very-happy mother.
Neither the violence of that bad piano teacher nor the rolling eyes of my father could inhibit my love of singing or curtail my frequent renditions of show tunes and pop hits. When in high school, I had roles in musicals, and at that same time, the late 1960s, I was lead singer in a rock band I formed with a guitar-playing friend named Dave. We did mostly original songs and were not great, though we thought we were.
One night Dave was at my house—my parents gone to a party—and we were working on new songs. During these songwriting sessions, I sang and played bongos, while Dave played his Rickenbacker electric twelve-string and sang, too.
Tiring of our bongo-guitar combo, Dave said, “Play something on the piano and I’ll play with you.”
I glanced at the dreaded keyboard. “No, I don’t play that thing.”
“How about a simple pattern of bass notes?”
“No,” I said, furiously shaking my head. “I’m terrible.”
“Like this,” he said, reaching over to the keyboard and playing Middle C and then G below Middle C and then C below that G, and back up again.
With great trepidation, I played what he had played.
“Now keep that going.”
So I kept the pattern going and he tried out various groovy sounding chords on his twelve-string and…
Six weeks later we were the opening act for a rock band in a teen nightclub in the huge basement of a church in Woodside, California. I don’t know how Dave got us this gig, or why he thought we were gig-worthy, but there I was sitting at a large upright piano in fairly good tune. Dave had his twelve-string guitar plugged into his trusty little amp and I had a microphone suspended in front of me for introducing the tunes and singing wordlessly on a few of our musical inventions.
We’d been playing and developing our piano-guitar creations for hours every day after school and on weekends for those six weeks and enjoying ourselves tremendously, but I was terrified about playing in front of an audience. Dave was giddy, but not terrified.
There were about forty teenagers sitting at tables or standing at the soft drink bar, and many of these teens were high on marijuana, having toked outside before entering the club. They had come for the rock band and were talking and laughing and not paying any attention to us. There were also a few parents present and some college guys hired to maintain order.
One of those college guys introduced us with, “Here’s Dave and Todd.”
My hands were shaking as I began to play a simple pattern of notes I’d figured out for my left hand combined with a few notes played with my right hand; and after I found my groove, so to speak, Dave started playing his guitar—the room wonderfully resonant. We called our songs ragas, and they were certainly raga-like if not technically ragas.
We had no idea what anyone might think of our music, but the moment we began to play, everyone in that resounding basement stopped talking and we could feel them listening to us, which was one of the most exciting feelings I’d ever had.
Then out of the shadows came a young woman bedecked with scarves. She may have been wearing clothes, too, but all I remember are her green and red and gold scarves. She walked to the center of the room and danced a fabulous dance full of eloquent gestures and graceful spins; and as she danced I realized she was dancing to the rhythm of my pattern of chords.
Then other people joined her on the dance floor and we played that raga for a long time because the people were digging what we were laying down.
When we finished that first tune, in my memory, the applause was thunderous, though it was probably just applause in a reverberant room—and nothing ever again could stop me from playing the piano.