A recent archeological dig in my home revealed old binders and file folders of photocopied music that trace back to my earliest piano playing days. It’s comforting to find physical evidence of some of my memories, especially since I’m more and more unsure about these things as I get older. Tim and I have tried to explain this to the youth in our band.
The music that I’ve hung onto is not the old lesson books so much as the custom made arrangements of songs that a teacher would give me to try something new. It’s in these pieces of music where I can find roots of some of what I still remember and even how I play. There’s a copy of When the Saints Come Marching In, Silent Night, and the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club. In each of these there are handwritten chord progressions written above the melody line for the right hand. From these I learned how to play the notes of those chords in the left hand, and later my teacher taught me how to break up those notes of the chord in one way or another. I can still remember playing Silent Night with the stride of a bass note and two clunky triads in 3/4 time. It sounded just as good as you would imagine, like a clunky waltz being stomped out around a nativity scene. But it progressed into other things as well, with arpeggios in the left hand and accompanying harmonies in the right, and later in other keys to match up with a church choir at midnight mass.
The most interesting revelation of the dive through my musical roots confirmed my memory of learning Gershwin’s Summertime. This was a “Big Note” version with the letters of each note written into their respective balloons, but it contained extra notation of grace notes, harmonies in the right hand, appropriate chords to fill out the changes, and hash marks to dictate a rhythm for the left hand. It was just what I’d remembered, though still astonishing to see this bizarre conglomeration.
I wasn’t familiar with Summertime or even Gershwin until I’d had this piece written out and introduced to me when I was there in my piano lesson, a 13-year-old sitting stiffly on the bench while my teacher leaned over my shoulder to pencil in and explain these marks. But I’ve always come back to this, maybe because it was easy but probably more because there was so much to keep doing with this. During my first year of college I took one semester of jazz piano and learned that blues scales were a thing and that there were all these other voicings for those simple chords. It’s an easy song in a lot of ways, yet it’s also wide open to lots of variation and possibility. To this day, if you catch me cold and say “play something,” I’ll likely launch into this. (In fact, when Caryn first asked “What do you know?” this is exactly where we started.)
This progression and evolution of a song isn’t isolated to Gershwin in A-minor. Fast-forward from learning what a chord is to this past Thursday in rehearsal. We’d just stumbled into one song that we’d been sharing around, and then I started playing the chord progressions just to start to feel it out. For reasons I don’t fully understand, it started in a rhythm that fit a 5/4 time signature. (Count “1 – 2 – 3 – 1 – 2” over and over and you start to get a feel, especially if you syncopate a little in those first three counts.) I didn’t even realize that I was playing it until Tim pointed it out and I caught myself. I started to apologize for goofing off, but then one thing turned into another as we dared ourselves to try this out. Soon, we’d worked on verses in 5/4 time, a chorus in 4/4, and then a kind of bridge in 3/4, with interludes that came back to the 5/4 to tie things together.
Let it be known: This was a stupid thing to do. It was also the perfect thing to do.
It took up half of our rehearsal time. And, this was after we’d said, “Let’s work on some easy things today.” But this is how the music evolves and it’s how — 35 years after my first piano lessons — I get pushed to learn and do something new. It’s a large part of the joy and benefit of playing with the band. I think at our next gig (at Cuppa on December 14th, 7:00 PM!) we’ll try out this self-imposed dare and see if we can stay together with the time changes. And, there’s a good chance that we’ll play Summertime, too.