On the Couch
Pony Keg (1979)--Unable to find a piano stool, the firemen bring me a little keg and top it with a piece of plywood. My first piano, and I climb up to it, teetering, staring...improvising songs with my fists until, having just discovered an infinite palette of techniques (not just fists, but elbows, too!), my mother declares I will take lessons. "Better to learn to play real music not just that made up banging around." At this decree, I slip quietly from the pony keg to the box of alphabet blocks on the floor where, with my words, I am more easily unheard.
Junior High Band (1986)--I play keyboard on top of a thirty-year-old amp that smokes and shorts on a daily basis. On a mission to escape certain death by electrocution, I grab my best friend's flute for a run-through of Magnificent Seven. I push air roughly through the pipe and clack, clack the keys, mimicing rhythmic gestures and musical phrases. Three quarters of the way through the piece I suddenly sound something more like a note than a ragged breath. Giddily I let my fingers fake a sequence of pitches. "Who is playing flute...what...is that...?" By the time the other students cease their racket, I am halfway down the hall to the principal's office.
The Happy Birthday Incident (1995)--"Oh yes, they'll need you to play Happy Birthday. Ok? In C, and" in pure terror and disbelief I sound a C major chord, hoping that someone will be able to pick the tune out of the harmony. Thinking furiously, searching for dominants and subdominants, I attempt to "improvise" a way to the end, fail miserably, and endure the stares of sixty kindergarten parents and their confused, stage-fraught children. Later I practice Happy Birthday in every key before quitting in disgust and throwing most of my ideas about what it means to be a pianist in the trash. I think I feel the first nudge of musical freedom.
Cookies & Accordions (2001)--Prowling the streets of Portland with old college friends, I discover the tiny accordion in a shop filled with vintage clothes, tinted postcards, and rusted lunchboxes. I pick it up and begin noodling, turn to my best friend and joke, "hey I've almost got these left hand buttons...wanna hear something? I'll improvise for you...ah-hah!" The shopkeeper interrupts in a blatantly disdainful tone, "hello? The thirty second accordion performance period is--OVER." Still laughing, I ask, "are you serious?" and he says smuggly, "you gotta learn to play it right, you know, buy it and take some lessons." I put the accordion down and smile, "yeah, lessons." Who is more free, the instrument or me?
Frankenpussy--In the practice wing hallway, half a dozen men sit hunched over pages of music. They rest their coffee mugs on instruments still in cases--fiddle, drums, accordion, bass, guitar. As I walk past, "hey what's up?" Bill asks, "would you like a bagel?" A bagel. I linger, peering over David's shoulder at the score, wondering if, given a few minutes, someone might say, "wanna join us?" But the band, even as they stand barricading the door to the women's bathroom, seems decidedly for the boys.