My dad had a revelation about figured bass notation recently, and he explained it to me during our last chat on the phone. His lightbulb moment became mine as well as he described this new nugget of understanding he had achieved. My dad has been taking jazz piano lessons for several years, after studying classical piano technique for a few years before that. He is such a good practicer. After coming to piano later in life, he has gotten really good. I love talking to him about these revelations, which span from theoretical to physical to spiritual.
Thanks to my parents, music has been a part of my life since I was a fetus. They exposed me to a huge range of music via their joint record collection and live concerts; they enrolled my sister and me in the San Francisco Girls Chorus; they put me in violin and then viola lessons when the Girls Chorus became too stressful (the SFGC has won Grammys because they are hardcore); my mother let me use her old guitar to teach myself songs from my dad's Beatles songbook which led to me making up my own songs at around 12 or 13. My mom used to blast her vinyl copy of The Music Man to wake my sister and me up for school. When I decided to record my original songs as an album to sell for an Economics project in high school, my dad acted as my sound engineer, never once acting awkward when most of the song lyrics centered around hormone-addled boy-related content.
When I quit the San Francisco Girls Chorus at the beginning of puberty, music transitioned from a regimented, practiced art form into a more free-flowing, therapeutic one. Instead of learning repertoire curated by my directors, I taught myself what I wanted to learn. Instead of applying the music theory I had learned in Chorus to the guitar as I taught myself to play, I would learn how to play chord shapes from tablature notation, then write songs by ear. Each chord had a feeling, and I made up melodies that matched those feelings. Song structure had been burned into my brain in such a way that I naturally made verses, choruses and bridges without really calling them those names or thinking in those terms. I would sit on my bedroom floor leaning against my bed, strumming. As melodies formed, I would usually start crying. I knew if I was crying, a song was coming out. Around this time my own musical tastes were forming apart from my parents' record collections, and I would lay in bed reading liner notes, listening to albums that made me cry, also. Music, a sense beyond sound--bringing these waves of emotion through our entire bodies. Like orgasm, like swimming in the ocean, like shavasana.
The only problem was that the tears weren't relegated to the privacy of my own bedroom. In my viola lessons, I would often get sidetracked by crying instead of using the lessons to get better at my instrument. Somehow music became a conduit for any intense emotion, and playing music in many different contexts brought on different kinds of tears. It was embarrassing. And they weren't just the cathartic tears of songwriting; they were often tears of frustration. I became preoccupied with the idea that because I quit the Girls Chorus, I wasn't a real musician. I watched my sister learn her repertoire for the higher levels of Chorus that she had attained--she had stuck it out, as difficult as the environment was. I was a quitter. Here I was, starting violin way later than other students whose skills had surpassed mine when they were 6 or 7 years old, then switching to viola since fewer students played it so I would have more opportunities to play in ensembles. I avoided practicing viola because I wanted it to sound good immediately without all of the annoying scales and exercises. I wanted the transcendent musical feeling without the work that led to it. I castigated myself for my laziness. I kept writing songs, spending hours and hours playing the guitar on my bedroom floor, singing, crying. But that wasn't real musicianship. My self-taught guitar was subpar in my eyes, and this worry was solidified by comments from a guitar-playing friend who had taken lessons for years. When I released my Economics project album, his compliments were backhanded. The songs were pretty good, he said, but I really needed to work on my guitar playing skills.
I began becoming aware of music snobbery. There was not only a right way to study music, but also a right way to appreciate it. I became self conscious of my obsessive, focused attention on a few artists/albums. I started internalizing the idea that the only way to be a true music aficionado was to have an encyclopedic knowledge of a vast array of "important" music and musicians. This music, these musicians--usually dudes. The purveyors of taste--usually dudes.
In college, I auditioned for a jazz vocal technique class. I was a lover of Billie and Ella, introduced via my parents' records. My parents are jazz fans and had taken me to so many concerts--I remember a barefoot drummer at Yoshi's in Oakland making a lasting impression. I remember an evening of jazz at the Monterey Bay Aquarium--piano against the backdrop of the sunfish swimming through his enormous tank. Though my jazz knowledge was perhaps not as complete or "right" as it could be, I was accepted into the class (I auditioned with Billies Blues and The Man I Love) and I adored it in the beginning. Our homework was to memorize Miles Davis's trumpet solo on Freddie Freeloader, to listen to Chet Baker singing Just Friends! Eventually we were assigned The Autumn Leaves and were to work individually with our professor on our vocal interpretation. I went to my appointment and sang through the song as my professor looked at me with an odd expression. I want to say disgust, but my memory is usually meaner than reality. When I finished, he said I sounded like a cheesy lounge singer. Ouch. I was failing to measure up, again. I couldn't get over his dislike of my work (I of course interpreted it as a dislike of me as a human being). I was seethingly jealous of a beautiful blonde girl who was the teacher's pet--he praised her constantly in front of all of us. I quit the class before the semester even reached a halfway point, preferring to stick with my ear training class, instead. In Ear Training, I accessed the memories of chords being associated with feelings, and I remembered their correct musical names by categorizing them with a feeling or impression they solicited in my mind.
I kept writing songs, probably bothering all of my suite as I played loudly in the common room. I had a year-long dry spell when a friend died, and I worried that maybe my ability to love and write music had died, too. But it came back. Processing all of these emotions through made-up melodies.
Toward the end of college, I decided to take jazz guitar lessons. I found an amazing teacher. Unfortunately, I fell back into the pattern of using lessons as therapy sessions. Embarrassing myself--lots of tears. I learned an immense amount, but usually practicing on my own time led to working on my own songs using the new jazz chords that I had learned to play instead of doing the exercises and repertoire I was assigned. I owe those lessons for Raw Material, but I couldn't get over the idea that I wasn't using the lessons properly, that I still wasn't a real enough musician.
I started attempting to play out in New York City at open mics, then started organizing shows, collaborating with other musicians. I began working with an incredible fiddler, a Grammy nominee, and in the back of my mind I was dumbfounded as to why he would want to work with the likes of me. When hardly anyone would show up to some of the shows I put together, I found more evidence that I was fooling myself. Not a real musician.
I keep thinking I should be over this, that I've had enough experience with music, that I have enough love for music that I've proven myself worthy of being a musician. I've written the music for two shows, released my own work, sang in NYC theatrical productions, and I continue to process emotion through writing music. I've learned to claim that emotional connection not as a failing, but as a gift. But I still find myself feeling those old feelings of being an imposter, of needing to overstate all of my musical credentials while not really believing them, feeling jealous when I perceive another musician as more skilled, more talented or more successful than me. The funny thing is, usually when I've spoken to other musicians about this, they feel it, too.
At least now I can identify these impulses: They are not truths. They are just thought patterns that I have embedded in my head over years of worrying that my musicianship will never be enough for some mythical powers-that-be.
Please, mythical musical powers-that-be: Let me be more like my dad. Let me find the magic in figured bass notation. Let me have his love of practicing, the unselfconscious gumption of a man in his 50s going from being a beginner to being really good, simply by showing up every day. Let me find the same tears of 13-year-old me, sitting on my bedroom floor, playing music because I have to.