Friday, August 27, 2004

Once Upon a Time, Musically- Part One of the Epic

I realize that it's time I get over my little irk about the lost posting effort and find my way from my musical then to now, as promised. The inspiration generated by my new batch of Music Marketing students and my self-flagellation for not tending to this blog have done their job. So, on we go. It's a long read, so get comfy.

To say that music is and has been an large feature in my personal landscape would be a huge understatement. I come from a very musical family. Everyone sings and sings well, with the exception of my brother, who plays drums and actually studied music in college. To this day, he is the only drummer I know who can actually read charts. My dad apparently showed such great promise on the trumpet that a renowned teacher offered him free lessons as a teen, but decided it was too much effort to make the short ride on his bike to Loyola University every week. I think he regretted this decision all his life.

With the exception of my brother, someone in the house was always singing, and oftentimes it was all of us at once. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in my high chair as my dad directed each of us to sing a note. He'd point to one of us and say, "You," then would give us our note. "Lahhhhhh." Next person. "You. Lahhhhhhh." Next. "You. Lahhhhhhhh." Then he'd let us know what his note was. "Now, on the count of" And all together we'd sing, "Lahhhhhhh," and this beautiful chord would be heard. Yes, I could participate and hold my note even in then. There are lots of amusing stories of me toddling up to friends and strangers alike if they occurred in groupings of more than two, pointing at them, and in a very authoritative tone, commanding, "You! Lahhhhhhhh."

I also remember being stood on top of the coffee and comanded to sing for visiting company. I was a just toddler and I don't recall having any particular emotion associated with this. I do remember a great joy in the long car trips with my parents (my two siblings were off to or finished with college by the time I was in second grade) where we'd sing songs in three part harmony.

No one ever questioned the fact that I had a good ear. I think I owe that, for the most part, to my dad, his genes, and his vigilance in exposing me to a variety of music all my life. I picked up my sister's guitar when I was about five and began playing around with it. Then one day I found her Mel Bay guitar instruction book and figured out how to read the tabs. Soon I began playing songs I'd heard on the radio by ear.

My mother recalls me making an announcement when I was about 6 or 7 years old that I needed to be at a certain Sunday mass, which she found quite irregular since I usually refused to attend church services. I informed her that I had to go because I was playing guitar in the mass. She was stunned, having had no idea that I even knew how to play. (My parents were pretty well occupied by that time with working to pay for my siblings' college tuition and little Lisa had developed a very rich secret life, about which they knew little.)

Around the same time, my parents decided to buy a piano, which thrilled me. As a kid, the only elder relative that I ever really wanted to visit was the aunt who owned a piano. They couldn't pry me off of it when it was time to leave. Finally, we had one of our own and I set immediately to the task of figuring out how to play some songs. My dad exposed me to just about every kind of music and classical seemed to be the easiest thing for me to figure out. I watched a family friend play Fur Elise and decided I wanted to figure it out. I did, but since I'd only heard it played through a few times, I didn't remember it exactly the way it was played by someone who could actually read the music. Consequently, like most things played by ear, my version sounds a little different then the version found at the link, which I assume is the way it's supposed to sound. I like my version better, probably because it's the one I'm used to. I think it flows a little more smoothly, too.

I followed Fur Elise with lots of different parts from Bizet's Carmen overture, then on to my own versions of Bach and Scarlatti pieces, and on and on and on. It's always my own version, though. My parents did try to have me properly trained in the instrument, at one point. They hired this really goofy guy that my brother found somewhere. I learned the notes that correspond to the bars and staffs (or whatever they are properly called) through cute little pneumonic devices like "All Cows Eat Grass" and I learned to associate names with what certain chords sound like, (major, minor, augmented, diminished). By the third lesson the teacher figured he had drilled me enough on the staffs and notes and that I should now begin reading music. Being the impatient child I was, I felt like that just took too long. So once I read the first couple of notes and recognized the song, I just played the rest by ear. The teacher protested, insisting that I read the music. I demanded a good explanation for why I should have to do all that work. Wasn't I playing Moon River? Didn't what I was playing sound right? Did it matter whether or not whether it was being played exactly the way the sheet music had it notated? I wanted some good reasons to do it his way. The teacher didn't seem to have any and finally got so frustrated by this 8 year-old's demands for logic that he quit after the third lesson. (My parents were pretty wimpy, and that probably explains a great many things about me.)

Those three piano lessons constitute the whole of my formal musical education. I kept on doing things my own way and it wasn't until many years later that I realized how valuable it would have been to have learned to play properly and to read music, particularly with the ear I have. Real piano players cringe when they see all the bad habits I've acquired and can hardly fathom how I play with the incredibly weird and funky fingerings I use. And given the fact that I play only sporadically and only recently figured out the reality of how valuable practice is, (though I'm still not sure I have the attention span for it), it's amazing I can bang out anything at all on those keys.

So, the music played on in our household. My brother was always gigging with one band or another and rehearsals were often held in our garage. I used to visit these and I recall he and his bandmates playing improvised chord progressions upon which I would lay my spontaneous vocal inventions. My lyrics would emerge from whatever happened that day or was on my mind and they got a big kick out of it. Some of these sessions were recorded on reel-to-reel tape and one day I will work on finding someone to take what might be a one-shot opportunity to transfer these to a more lasting medium.

It was during one of these rehearsals that perhaps the most formative moment of my musical self-perception occurred.

An attractive female showed up at our house one day for rehearsal. No one in my household had seen her at around before and when asked who she was, she gave her name and announced with great confidence that she was a singer. I only recalled males singing in Michael's bands, and though there would be other females singers to come, this was the first I would experience in person.

She was so very confident and self assured. "I'm a singer," she said. The words reverberated in my head. The real thing. A real girl singer. I was much intrigued, so I decided to spy on this rehearsal session to see what this real singer in our midst had to offer. If I had known the repercussions, surely I would have decided differently. But I didn't.

And then it happened.

She started singing. Oh, God! This isn't good! Oh, God! She's terrible! She's off key! (I may have been little, but I'd always had an ear.) She thinks she can sing! How can she not know how bad she sounds??? No one has ever told her??? Maybe I think I can sing and I really sound like that and just don't know it!!!

It was the last time she was ever seen at a band rehearsal, so I guess I wasn't the only one hearing what I heard. But the damage was done. The seed of doubt had been planted. Now I had been poisoned by the knowledge that it was possible to really believe that you had some kind of talent when you didn't. This idea was confirmed recently when the Warner Brothers network decided to do their inverted version of American Idol. The show's producer, Mike Fleiss, pretty much sums it up in this review:
These people believe they're the next pop superstar, even though they're horrible singers," Fleiss joked to Daily Variety. "It's not funny seeing bad singers doing karaoke. This is about people who are clearly delusional and watching them butcher song after song." "I swear, the finale is the most incredible 20 minutes of television I've ever seen," he added. "People will be calling their friends saying, 'You won't believe what they're doing.'

Needless to say, I was mortified by the concept of the show and even more so by the apparent magnitude of cluelessness exhibited by the contestants, many of whom thought they were surely among the greatest singers/performers to ever have graced this planet. I still don't get it. How can you not know?? How??

Anyway, my experience with the real girl singer was the first real breach in the structure of my self-confidence. And then something else started to happen. I guess it was no longer adorably cute and entertaining to have me performed for my family or visitors. No one stood me on the coffee table anymore and commanded me to sing. No one cared what I could do with any of the household instruments. And if I felt like I accomplished anything that I thought was special and wonderful, I got brushed off with one of those "that's nice" type responses by everyone but my father. He just admonished me to stop showing off. It seemed like every time I felt good about some ability and accomplishment and wanted/needed it validated, I was told by the man who nurtured all my desires to learn and create to stop showing off. It's so unbecoming. So, I stopped. Unless I thought it was safe and I had a chance to have it sincerely acknowledged from someone I could trust.

I turned into what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way calls a "shadow artist." She puts it like this:
Shadow artist is a phrase that I invented to explain the fact that very often people who are extremely gifted will put themselves in the proximity of other people who are officially more gifted. And I want to be clear that they are only officially more gifted. Very often a shadow artist is the person who does the work at the office... or someone who maybe dates a person or marries a person who is pursuing the desired art form.
Ouch! Did you feel that?

Lisa Palumbo: sister of musician, friend of many musicians, girlfriend of musician, wife/former wife of musician, musicians' advocate and manager, professor of music marketing, and girlfriend of musician revisited.

In the cracks between these places I've occupied, I have managed to actually step out of the shadows and play real musician from time to time, always struggling with the demonic voices from the past that whisper of doubt and showing off.

And the person who dragged me out from my hiding place is the one who inspired me to write here.

Still with me?

Now, the you'll understand what a big thing it was that he did, whether he knows it or not.

Stay tuned. David is next. I might even get to it tonight!


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