I Know What I Know

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I used to think that a person’s music collection was a good judge of their character. I used to think that it told you more about a person than anything else. And while I recognize now that it’s reductive to think this, I still think that you can learn a great deal about a person by looking at the music they like.

I get this from my father, who has been among other things a professional musician since he was in high school. And he’s good. Very good. He’s a singer, a drummer, a guitar player, and he can get by on the piano. My mother is a singer and a piano player. Her twin is a singer. Her younger brother played piano by ear, and the first chord he ever played when brought in for piano lessons was an E-flat major. He probably had perfect pitch, and he could play just about anything on the piano after hearing it once. I don’t mean “Three Blind Mice.” I don’t mean playing the melody. I mean playing the precise piano part to an Elton John song off of Tumbleweed Connection. Or Piano Man. He could learn it as it played.

There was a great deal of pressure on me as a kid to take up an instrument. Any instrument. It didn’t matter. My parents (divorced when I was three) didn’t mean to pressure me, but it was there nonetheless, if only because on Friday nights I would go to hear my father’s band play. Or hear my mother teach piano lessons. Or watch my father sing in the choir on Sundays. Or go to bluegrass festivals. My father would sit me down, when I would visit him on weekends, and make me listen to albums: Frank Zappa, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, Andrew Gold, Neil Young, CSNY, Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Gentle Giant, YES, Mac MacAnally, Emmylou Harris, Buffett, Alabama. You name it. Others, I discovered later.

I first took up the piano. I took lessons from my mother, and she was a fine teacher. The problem, though, was that my relative pitch was so good that between watching and listening to her play a piece I could simply spit it back out, note for note, without having learned to read the music.

At one point, my relative pitch was good enough to distinguish between an F and an F# or an A and an A-flat in a range of notes. Play me two notes or five and I can pick the ones you want. Don’t get me wrong, relative pitch is not the same as perfect pitch. It works like this: I have a number of songs in my head that are exactly the same as their recordings. I can play them in my head. I can rewind them. Fast forward. Pause. I used to say my head was like a tape deck, but now I suppose it’s more appropriate to say that it’s like a CD player. I also know, for instance, that Pink Floyd’s “Mother” starts on G, or that “Comfortably Numb” starts on B-minor. I know what C sounds like. And G. And F. And D and E. Knowing this, I can then figure out the pitch of just about any note you throw my way by running the scales in my head.

From the piano, I moved to the coronet and the trumpet. I have great sympathy for my teacher. I could read music (slowly), but the instrument never quite felt right, and I never had the drive to put the effort into it that I ought to have. I am sure I will rot in hell for some of the horrid sounds I forced out of that perfectly good instrument. I didn’t give it up because I was embarrassed or because I wasn’t particularly good at it. I gave it up because there was no way not to be loud while I made my horrid sounds. And so I suppose I gave it up because I was embarrassed. But I also felt horrible about subjecting others to the awful sounds I could create.

After that came the guitar, to the complete surprise of my parents. I am tempted to elide this business of the guitar, but there are things it is important to know. Like most people, I picked up the guitar in my teens. At the time, my bedroom was directly beneath my mother’s, and so I had to learn to play quietly. Very quietly. This is crucial, and would affect everything about the way I play the guitar. I learned, early on in my playing, how to play dynamically. I’ve been told by engineers in studios where I have recorded that I’m a frustrating player to record, because I move between loud and quiet so quickly. I’ve been told by more than one engineer that I’m the only person they’ve ever heard who can distort an acoustic guitar.

When I was learning, I carried the guitar everywhere I went. From the time I was 14 until I was in college, I carried it literally everywhere. I packed clothes in my guitar case when I went to visit my father. I played until my fingers bled. I have used superglue to fix cuts so I could play. It’s the only instrument that I’ve stuck with for any real amount of time, and the only instrument that I’ve actively worked at being any good at.

These days, I rarely play. I stopped playing live a few years ago, after playing regularly (more or less once every two weeks, somewhere, depending on my schedule) for many years. I rarely even take it out of the case these days. I’ve never been a prolific songwriter; it was never a discipline for me in the same way that other interests have become. I wrote what I wanted to, when I wanted to. I once churned out something like 10 decent songs in a week when my band in college lost our singer and I had to take over the vocal duties, but such explosions of songwriting have always been rare. Usually, it was a matter of having some kind of emotional release.

I don’t write much anymore. I’ve released a couple of CDs since I moved to Oklahoma, and while I’m happy with the songwriting on them, they are also increasingly characterized by an absence of lyrics. I’ve started writing instrumentals, partly because I enjoy the challenge of working in a tuning like BF#DDAD or DADGGD, and partly because it’s easier to build a song if you don’t have to literally say anything.

Recently, I got back in touch with a friend of mine, and we talked about how neither of us write much anymore. She didn’t say it, but I guessed that her problem was similar to mine. She’d been writing at least as long as I had (probably 12-15 years). You reach a point where the inner censor simply shuts you up. Everything you might say seems trite, obvious, stupid, insipid, unoriginal, or boring. Those words all mean more or less the same thing. But the point is that you simply can’t say anything anymore.

I suspect this is the most insidious form of writer’s block–knowing that you can do better.

As I type this, I have my main acoustic guitar on my knee. It is a Seagull guitar, nearly ten years old now. It is tuned to standard tuning (EADGBE), but I have a capo on the second fret. On the fourth fret, I have another capo, this one modified to allow 6th, 5th, 2nd, and 1st strings to pass through. I am going to play for a while.

I will begin with this melody, which I have been carrying around for ages.*

We will see what happens.

* My sincere apologies for the quality…I recorded it on my iBook microphone and had to bump up the volume, so it’s a little noisy.

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Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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