I grew up in a musical family. My first attempts to play music were Friday night family jam sessions where we’d all trade around a collection of beat up old instruments leftover from my parent’s stints as big band musicians. My favorite tune back then was When the Saints Go Marching In, which I learned to play on piano, trumpet, trombone, and drums. Back then creating music was all intuition. I’m not sure I sounded so good but I felt the excitement and couldn’t wait to learn more. I remember noticing with a shrug that there seemed to be some rules involved (music theory) but that basically, we just played whatever seemed to fit.
Around that time, I took the mandatory, parent-enforced piano lessons. I mostly remember my teacher’s out-of-style cardigan sweaters, the mothball smell of her house, and that her sternness scared me a little. I suppose she gave me a technical foundation, but the absence of creativity seemed so different from our family jams. I was bored with method book songs and classical music that seemed so irrelevant to my tween-aged mind, so I quit formal lessons to pursue the unrealistic goal of becoming a professional skier from Ohio.
However, during that time, my cool older brothers kept my musical interests alive. One, who led a blues band that played all over town, showed me how to the read chord symbols on pop song folios. The other, who wrote and performed neo-classical chamber music in churches before going off to music school, decided to tutor me in college level theory and guide my interest in composing. The family still did occasional jams and my brothers and I worked at music one-on-one through the contrasting lenses of pop music and composing.
One night, we went to a restaurant where a guy improvised at the piano in a jazz trio without any written music at all. I thought, “That’s what I want to do,” so I signed up for lessons with him. I wasn’t a very good student because I thought I knew it all already. Despite my sophomoric attitude, he managed to pass along the nuts and bolts of creativity while also developing my technique with scales and exercises. This, in turn, led me to landing the piano seat in my high school jazz band where my improvised introduction to our featured medley helped us frequently win competitions. I liked hanging out in the band room during lunch, learning licks with my musical classmates who taught me to walk a bass line and groove on the drum.
Between high school and college, I went to one of Jamey Aebersold’s famous jazz camps and it blew my mind. If I thought I was hot stuff musically going in, the experience of playing around other students my age who were much better cut me down to size. I think that was the first time I really internalized the fact that one has to practice to be any good.
Somehow, I got into music school despite my terrible reading skills. My professors pushed me hard and I thank them for that but they almost broke me, because the performance music was so tedious and the composing assignments, so academic. It was landing a gig in the dance department that saved me. I liked how my creative skills were more appreciated there in an immediate and visceral way. When the teacher called out, “5, 6, 7, 8,” there was no time to mess around. You had to come up with a chord progression, style, groove, and melody that fit the character of the dance combination right on the spot. If you did it well, the dancers were inspired and the whole studio would fill with hot, sweaty, inspired motivation. I thrived on it and I credit dance accompaniment work with being able to turn on my creative music-making pump whenever it’s needed.
Later, while living in NYC, I had to ratchet it up again when I started playing with much better jazz musicians on society gigs. I took some lessons with jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen and played avant-garde opera music with singer/composer Meredith Monk that opened my ear to new sounds. However, my most intensive artistic growth was when I accompanied my wife on a work-related residency in Belgium. With no friends and terrible French-speaking skills, I had nothing to do all day but practice before playing cafes at night. That’s the year when I finally got my chops to match my musical imagination so I could actually play what I heard in my head.
Since then, I’ve continued to develop my voice playing in all manner of venues from being ignored as a background musician at events, to signing autographs after featured performances in concert halls. As an educator, I also enjoy passing along the valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way so that others can learn to improvise and play more freely.
I’m still learning. Some keys are still harder for me to jam in than others. I’m not sure one ever really masters music. There’s always another mountain to climb (I’m currently learning to play fiddle and mandolin) but the journey is continually interesting and I’m fortunate to play, write, teach, and think about music everyday.