Today was by no means a first for me, a long-haired musician raised on Bach, Beethoven and Brahms teaching a teen some pop tunes by John Ondrasik and Taylor Swift while I sailed through the universe of “Liz on Top of the World” with another student. Videotaping portions of piano lessons was the natural result of these explorations. If nothing else, it had historical value.
I’d been born into the cosmos of popular music, a member of the Rock n’ Roll generation and my big brother Russ, four years older, plugged me into Alan Freed at the Paradise, Bill Haley and the Comets, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and the Everly Brothers, among others. The music of this era could be movingly Romantic, especially the ballads. Presley singing, “Love Me Tender,” a tear jerker, and the Penguins crooning “Earth Angel,” a lilting, bittersweet melody, filled with heartfelt emotion.
Melody permeated the most rhythmically driven songs, like “Rock Around the Clock!” And “Little Darlin,'” another ear grabber, drew me instantly into its harmonically engaging universe beside its catchy banjo strumming beat.
Many of these “pop” favorites intermingled with the great Classical works of the piano literature, making me quite a well-rounded listener. It was well before my musical preferences were set in stone. Throw in Peter Seeger, Marais and Miranda, Edie Piaf (“The Street Singer”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and all the marvelous musical theater selections from Brigadoon, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, and I was in seventh heaven!
In the late 50’s, Van Cliburn was riding the crest of his victory in Moscow, performing his winning selection, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in Bb minor, a victory that inspired a ticker tape parade down Wall Street. I was in the throes of a full-fledged crush on him. Meanwhile, my teenage peers were exchanging “Kookie, Lend me Your Comb” pics, casting me out of their inner circle. They wanted their real friends to conform, sharing the initiation rite of fainting in the presence of heart-throb, Fabian. Or later, it was the Beatles.
I loved the Beatles, but not in the same way my peers did. “Yesterday” was for me a melancholy, heart stopper. “Hey Jude,” rocked in the Gospel style. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” had the surreal, contemporary sound with amazing, lush, sometimes dissonant sonority. I knew nothing of the LSD connection, and it didn’t matter because my love for the music prevailed. In truth, I tuned out the words of a song in my personal listening experience, but I was amazed me by how my brother and his friends memorized all the lyrics of a particular favorite, regarding words at the focus of their appreciation. I wanted to feel the melodic and harmonic contour to the exclusion of all else.
My brother had also been exploring Classical, Romantic and Expressionist music during his intense Rock ‘n Roll phase. For hours he would blast LPs of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Easter Overture,” Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played on our modest phonograph. These works were his obsessions alongside Alan Freed’s rambling radio commentary.
So it was not surprising that I would emerge from my childhood and adolescence with a propensity to love a diverse menu of music that included popular, ballad, folk, symphonic, and anything that communicated a memorable melody and compelling harmonic mosaic.
Flash forward: Today, Allyse, a 16 year old high school junior at Clovis North, practiced “100 Years” by John Ondrasik, and Taylor Swift’s “Forever and Always” in a slow and steady tempo at my home studio.
She had brought both these favorite pieces to me a few months ago, desperately wanting to learn them. Her older brother, Alex, likewise dropped off “Liz On Top of the World” from Pride and Prejudice which I had to finger and practice in short order.
Both of these endearing piano students were members of the NOW generation, separated from me by decades. Yet despite our age difference, we were on the same page, practicing music that had meaning and evoked emotion. That’s what brought us together.
Roll the video!