Tuesday, February 19, 2008

At Home with a Piano

On any given three-day weekend, I'm usually thinking about where I can go to get away from school and work. I went to Portland for the last few, if I recall correctly. I'm planning to go there again in a couple weeks (sans a Monday holiday). This last weekend I went home, though. To the same house I've lived in since I was two, until the day I moved to Bellingham about 2.5 years ago. It doesn't look the same as it did during my formative years. There's no more gold shag carpet or popcorn ceiling. No more yellow kitchen appliances or cold, unfinished basement. In fact, my parents just finished turning the last unfinished room in the house into their office. Really, the place looks a lot better than it did 16 years ago.

Being home this weekend brought back a lot of memories. I gave some of my friends a guided tour of my hometown: where I went to school, where I went to church, where I hung out. We looked through my old yearbooks. And it's funny, I don't ever really remember the growing, but now I look back and realize just how far I've come. (I think those who had the pleasure of seeing my 7th grade yearbook picture will agree.)

The changes are really easy to see looking at pictures, but I've been experiencing similar revelations in my creative nonfiction class. Writing personal essays and memoirs forces you to look at your life from a different perspective than you're used to. You get the opportunity to tell the same vignettes you tell your friends all the time, but this time it's on paper. And when the story's on the page, you've really got to look at it. Somehow the experience becomes real in a different way--it is a reality independent of its experiencer, free to be experienced by anyone who happens upon the words.

I'm realizing that I was something of a brat as a child. Granted, I've been choosing the more bratty occasions to write about--they make for more comic anecdotes--but all the same, one bad apple... Regardless of what type of child I may or may not have been, I think the man I'm becoming is more outside himself than I was as a child. Which is, if I'm not mistaken, the point of maturing. In more concrete terms, my experience with the piano is a good illustration of how I've grown up.

This is an alternating essay I scripted a few weeks ago. I think this form best shows the dramatic change over time without having to detail the change itself.


When I was still taking lessons, Mom and Dad—mostly Mom—wanted me to practice half an hour every day. More if possible. I never liked that idea much. Minutes were precious, especially during afternoon reruns of Spiderman and Animaniacs; I couldn’t spare any of them between coming home from school and eating dinner. And then after dinner were chores, homework, and bed. There simply wasn’t any time for piano. I frustrated my parents. Probably made my piano teachers feel uncomfortable when I had nothing to offer them after a week of avoiding practice.


“Hey Dave. This is Lance. I was wondering if you would be available to play tonight—my piano guy is sick. Let me know if things aren’t too crazy for you today, and I’ll see you around five.”At the beginning of every week I secretly hope to get a message from Lance to play piano at the INN on Tuesday night. For one reason or another I was unable to apply for a regular position on a music team, but Lance makes sure to get in touch with me on the occasions he needs someone to fill in. So after my last class ends around 5 o’clock, I hurry down Garden Street toward First Presbyterian Church of Bellingham where the INN meets.


I figured out a number of ways to trick my parents into thinking I had practiced. If they finally coerced me into sitting at the piano for half an hour, one method I used—more on principal of avoiding actual practice—involved playing only the things I already knew how to play. All the stuff my piano teacher had assigned me for the week remained untouched in the magazine rack next to my instrument while I only played pieces I had learned for previous lessons or recitals. To my parents, this looked like practice, but I suspect my piano teacher always knew.


As I walk into the church sanctuary, warmly lit with chandeliers suspended on chains from the vaulted ceiling, Lance is tuning his acoustic guitar in the music pit. Corbin rat-a-tats the drums. Another student thumps his bass. Another strums her guitar. Others, with hands in their pockets, are poised behind microphones.

“Hey Dave,” Lance says, without looking up from his guitar. He carries himself with a perpetually cool demeanor. Nonchalant. Effortless. “Glad you could make it.”

“Thanks for having me,” I reply, sliding onto the stiff padding of the piano bench. Suspended above my lap is the keyboard of a Boston baby grand. The lid, cocked coyly to display the tension on the strings, is a black mirror of everything it faces.

“We’re just doing some sound check things, and then we’ll get started,” he says. He turns to the back of the room and calls up to the intern behind the sound board, “You want to set the piano on a little lower setting. That way we don’t get as much of a pop over the speakers.” He turns his head a bit to catch my eye over his shoulder as he continues. “Dave has a tendency to play a little more percussively than our other pianists.”

I grimace but am still a little flattered. I have been listening to the heavier-hitting rock piano from the likes of Ben Folds and Elton John and emulate them. I want to do everything with a piano that they could. I’ve never ceased to be amazed by how Elton John manages to stretch his stubby little fingers to fiddle with so many keys. And I simply consider Ben Folds to be the Chuck Norris of piano.


The most effective way for me to avoid practicing was when my parents went out and left my brother and I home alone. They had to be out for at least forty-five minutes for the lie to work best. When Mom and Dad decided to run errands, all I had to do was get my brother to be my alibi.

“David, did you practice today?” Mom asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I practiced while you and Dad were at the grocery store. Right, Dan?”

“Right,” was all he needed to say. Sometimes he made me play one or two songs straight through. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a good compromise.


Lance stops the music. “Dave, I think the passing tones you’re doing there are throwing off the harmonies a little.”

My stomach drops, and I feel the heat on my cheeks. I’ve never been called out like this before. Never been told that what I’m doing isn’t working. Over the top. Cocky?

The bassist chokes a snicker.

“Sorry,” I mutter.

“Don’t worry about it,” Lance smiles. “It sounds cool. I just don’t think it’s working for this song
right now.”

I nod. We start again.

For the next few songs I pull back a little. Triads in the treble, octaves in the bass, quarter notes all around. Then the set begins to pick up again, and I start moving my hands more. Suspended chords, sevenths, small trills here and there.

On the last song before dinner, Lance calls over the music, “I like that, Dave. What are you playing there?”

“It’s a G-7th,” I call back.


Despite all the dawdling and diversions, there were days I just couldn’t outsmart my parents. “If you don’t practice today, I want you to practice for an hour tomorrow,” they said.

I sighed, hung my head low, and shuffled into the living room. We had a Technics digital piano, like the gaunt figure of a cyborg, speakers out the bottom of the keyboard.

“Sit up straight,” Dad said when he caught me slouching. “Why don’t you play Für Elise.” Everything seemed to test my patience. I snubbed requests, only playing what I wanted to.

When my second teacher introduced me to a book of Disney sheet music, I was intrigued. He began playing “Chim-Chim-Cheree” from Mary Poppins. I watched his hand bend the keys into the soft, lilting melody. Somewhere in my guts resonated with the familiarity and enchantment of it all. We were turn-of-the-century London, and he was a busking chimney sweep.

Over the following weeks I learned how to play “Cruella deVil.” The song was sinister and jazzy. It was a dark side of the piano I had been deaf to before. The rhythm popped much more than the simple ditties from Alfred’s Basic Piano Library or the soaring melodies of Beethoven and Bach that I was used to. This was music intended for a dilapidated upright piano in a smoky speakeasy or on a vaudeville stage. The notes were entrancing.


After two hours of practice—give or take—we’re ready for the 9 o’clock service. The lights go down, and our set begins. With each song I find new direction. This one leads me into the lower octaves, off-beats, and triads. The next is slower, broken chords. Then I play the melody. Then passing tones. Higher octaves. Mid-range. The music guides my fingers, and suddenly my hands separate. They are self-sustained, and my mind is carried along.

I learn the delicacy and power of the piano. It is beautiful. Aggressive. It is both spiritual and physical. It is subtle and passionate. I hear Ben Folds, Elton John, Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane. I play alone, with others, for others, in the presence of God. I am captivated by the manipulation of black and white keys. Hammers on strings. Melody. Harmony. Percussion. Silence.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Creative Nonfiction and the Coterie

Starting a blog has been in the back of my mind for a while, mostly because I enjoy the act and process of writing. Synthesizing ideas and images with feelings and opinions, revising and reviewing them. A blog also gives me an outlet for my writing. Then again, to me, that seems like a cop-out, the easy answer, a sort of weird self-indulgence: Just in case my writing isn't good enough to make it into a magazine or between the bound covers of my own book, at least my friends and family will get a chance to read it when they want.

I'm learning, however, that writers from the 16th and 17th Centuries created a similar community. Not a cop-out at all. Granted, publishing opportunities were much more scarce in those days, but that's why they created writers' groups to pass around manuscripts. To get reactions, advice, suggestions, etc. The word is "coterie." In effect, I'll probably use this as primarily that: a pre-staging of things I'm writing to get feedback from an audience.

There's also this idea of blogging as creative nonfiction that's been bouncing around inside my head for the last month. I'm taking a course on writing personal essays, and I can't escape the obvious connection to blogging. Now, I'm no expert on blogging--in fact this entire format is less intuitive to me than I had hoped, but I will definitely spend some extra time making this space less template-y and more Dave. Regardless, I think blogs are an interesting form--if not simply the embryonic stage--of the personal narrative essay. It combines multiple threads, images, all the things present in your typical memoir, only this form includes community.

I'm excited and intrigued by the idea of writing in a new form, genre, medium, whatever you want to call it.