Thought I might reflect this morning on my life’s work as a musician. This includes where I have been, where i am now, where i seem to be headed and where i would like to go. And perhaps I will learn something from this and be able to share it with you whether you are in music or not.
My first paid gig as a musician was a cartoon of cigarettes and a case of beer for the band which was not bad considering we were all 16 and playing at the local community hall for a free neighborhood dance. We did cover songs that were popular at the time like Midnight Hour and Devil with a Blue Dress. We had learned our blues licks from the likes of John Mayal meaning we knew nothing about the history of the music we were playing. I had learned a piano solo from Get Outa My Life Woman off of the Paul Butterfield’s East West album that was pretty jazz infused for a Chicago style record. And aside from six monthes of lessons learning how to play off of a lead sheet from a polka band leader i could barely read or write music. That said, i could work out how to play anything by ear, could recognize the notes and chords in my head, and helped the other players correct their mistakes for which that convincingly pretended to hate me. But even with perfect pitch, i had terrible self esteem because i knew what great classical and jazz pianists were capable of, and didn’t think I’d ever develop a great left hand for the keyboard or be able to figure out notation. Because of this, becoming a professional musician was off the table. None of my friends believed this, and often told me so.
My mother was my first teacher, and she gave me the basics as an infant. She was a brilliant pianist and daily played Bach, Chopin and transcriptions of Dave Brubeck and Errol Garner. When I was in high school joining and quitting rock bands thoughout the city, she took me to meet the great Tommy Banks to get his advice on my future. He had a band at his nightclub The Embers and his bass player was there a young guy named David Foster. Tommy listened to me play some Andre Previn I had worked out from listening to my mother, and then asked me to jam some blues with David on bass. He told me after that I was good enough to play in his club, which I did not at all believe. He then advised me to learn how to read music.
After high school I was offered to join a band made up of musicians I had known and played with from around the neighborhood. I wanted to become a scientist by then, and thought what could it hurt to take a year off and have some fun. We all wrote songs in this band, and we hired a local DJ who was well known and wanted to be our manager. Our sets were an eclectic mix of folk rock and celtic and we worked out elaborate 5 part harmonies for everything. Around town we became pretty popular, and our manager worked out a deal that we could do two of our own songs in concert with orchestras if we toured with a concert version of excerpts from Jesus Christ Superstar which I absolutely hated. Our fame increased, and we traveled to big concert halls across Canada and the US but I decided to quit in the spring and enrolled at university to become an honors biochemistry student. I was barely 19 and had learned that the music business was somewhat corrupt and full of pressures to do exactly the opposite of what you wanted in order to become famous and make money. Our manager and my friends felt betrayed, but so did I.
As a science student I was allowed to choose an arts elective and I decided to study harmony. I moved into the basement of a house with a friend- it had cement floors and a two piece bathroom. We put mattresses on the floor and set up a stereo turntable system with a board that was sitting on the huge speakers and our records filed underneath. The two students renting the house charged us $30 a month each and let us use the kitchen and the shower upstairs. My roomate was a high school friend who was studying painting. His father was the Dean of Arts and John was rebelling against the higher status of his family in the community. He hated money, and would crumple it up into balls and throw it on the floor before he went to bed. Joni Mitchell released Blue and it was usually playing in our little pad. I hung out with John’s new friends who were all budding artists, and conversations often went til dawn. Calculus class at 8am Mondays was always a blur. My science marks suffered even though I had received an honors grade in Calculus in high school. But harmony was a breeze, and I loved it.
I had savings from my year as a musician, and continued to play around town as a solo entertainer. The highlight of my year was opening for Bruce Cockburn at a local folk club. There was a house full of pianos three houses down that was part of the universities music department. I was granted permission to practice there after showing my registration in the harmony course. One day I met the music professor who used the house for teaching. I was unaware she was even there, and I was stomping on the floor playing a boogie woogie style blues and she appeared at my door red faced from her studio directly beneath me. We exchanged words, and I reluctantly moved to another room in the house and took my energy down a notch. Little did I know that this teacher Sandra Munn would take me on as a student the following year, and ultimately change my life.