About ten years ago someone gave my mother an old upright piano. This act inspired her to take lessons, something she had wanted to do since she was a child. The lessons made her realize that learning to play the piano at a certain age isn’t the easiest thing to do. That old piano was used sparingly over the years, never getting a chance to really flourish…until this past holiday season.
My parents had a couple of Japanese students staying with them for Christmas. It was billed overseas as “Christmas in Canada” and children aged ten to sixteen had flocked to the Fraser Valley to get a taste of our indulgent Canadian-centric festivities. The two girls my parents took in were 14 and 15 years old. And the younger of the two girls was a bit of a piano prodigy, having started playing when she was two.
Because the girls could barely speak English (and because they were both probably quite nervous), they were drawn to the old piano. The piano may have been out of tune and a few of the keys may have played softer than the rest, but when the younger girl placed her fingers on the keys and began to play, you would never have known what state the piano was in. As she played, the richest, most beautiful music filled my parents’ home. It sounded like a recording it was so perfect. It made us laugh. It made us well up. It made us all wish we had sucked it up and learned to play an instrument when we were younger.
But it’s not like my parents didn’t try.
They pleaded with the six-year-old me to play the piano, or the guitar, or the saxophone. But the six-year-old me wanted nothing to do with sounds that weren’t made by firecrackers or pucks being hit against sticks. Four years later I threw them a bone and joined band class. My weapon of choice: the trombone. My adventure with the trombone lasted exactly eight months. It was an awkward instrument and I was heading into that awkward phase in a boy’s life. Too many awkwards meant a lot of screaming and yelling and hating everything…including the trombone.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized what I had lost by not learning to play an instrument. It was the same realization I had had about not learning another language. Music, like language, is a form of communication. The more forms of communication we have, the richer our lives are. The richness comes from our ability to interact and connect with more people. I write, because it is one of the few ways I can connect with the world outside of my small world here in Vancouver.
When I was in my twenties I was given an old computer filled with music production software. A lot of loop-based programs and drum sampler thingamajigs and what not. I got a kick out of playing around with them. And that playing around eventually turned into an all-encompassing obsession. When I wasn’t working, or in school, I was “composing.” But the static loops and in-program instruments I was using to compose my “masterpieces” quickly got boring. So I bought a beat-up electric keyboard at Value Village and I got a microphone and I began to teach myself to play the piano so I could incorporate original music samples into my “compositions.”
At the time I was listening to a lot of MOBY and BOARDS OF CANADA and APHEX TWIN and THE ORB. I wanted to make music just like them. I couldn’t read a note of music, but that didn’t stop me. I have a bit of an ear for sound, so I made up my own notes and chords and began placing my recordings into my computer. Over the next four years I “composed” hundreds of original tracks. Some of the tracks could even be listened to more than once. One of those tracks was called THE DYING WEED.
Before YouTube and iTunes, there was a progressive and brilliant website/television program here in Canada produced by the CBC called ZeD. The concept behind Zed was that artists of every discipline could upload their creations to the ZeD website and potentially have their creations seen by a national audience. You see, the late-night TV show would acquire its content from those submissions. I uploaded my track THE DYING WEED on a whim and to my surprise they aired it as part of an ambient mix, and they even paid me for it. It was the first time I was ever paid for something I had created. Of course, it also made me believe I was a better musician than I actually was.
When I finally realized music wasn’t my forte, I wasn’t sad to let the “composing” go. What I couldn’t let go of was that yearning to properly play an instrument. I’ve been at parties where someone sits down at a piano, or pulls out a guitar and starts playing. It is a magical thing. People stop what they’re doing and pay attention. They get invested. They get moved. I still wanted another way to move people. A couple of years ago I took the plunge and bought a real piano and began taking lessons. But I, too, quickly found out just how difficult it is learning to play an instrument as an adult. The frustration of my clumsy fingers and my slow adult brain made me neglect the practice needed to progress. And eventually, made me neglect my piano altogether…until I heard the little Japanese girl play my mother’s piano over the holidays.
I knew I had to go back and give my piano the attention it deserved. I’m never going to be a rock star, but I know there’s a musician somewhere inside of me dying to get out. And even if I’m the only one who ever hears this musician, he deserves to be heard.
Here are a couple of my more accessible “compositions.