Or, Out Of Sight (reading), Out Of (my) Mind
It was a curse, it was a blessing. It was a pronounced weakness that helped define my strengths, my true abilities and my career direction, all in one seemingly immovable obstacle that might, as so many other weaknesses already had in my young life, stop me from pursuing my career dreams. You see, I wanted to be a pilot, but I had zero math skills and poor eyesight. So bye bye to that dream. Ditto for being a flight engineer, navigator or radio man.
I would have liked to be a custom car designer and builder, but I couldn’t draw worth crap, and wasn’t much of a mechanic either. So as I looked around, in my late teens, for a career I could get my teeth into, a career that could be exciting, rewarding, it quickly became clear that I had no abilities for anything that I really wanted to do… except music. My parents and several friends had encouraged me to try music, and by the time I went to college, it was already my fall-back position. I sampled philosophy, but it was dry as an old dog bone. My mom thought I might be a good English teacher, but that sounded like a slow, painful death to me. So I majored in music and began my college career as a hopeful pianist.
And then the dreaded weakness raised its ugly head in a way I couldn’t ignore… my first college piano teacher, Dr. Rudolph Wendt, informed me that I would probably never be a player of any consequence, because I was 19 years old, had been taking piano lessons for 8 years off and on, and, gasp… still couldn’t read music!
Naturally I didn’t like that news, but took it lightly, as I had just been hired by a small local band to play around in clubs and for parties on campus. And besides, my piano teacher taught the classical style… what did he know? I didn’t want to play classical music, (good thing, as i couldn’t) I was going to be a jazz pianist!
Ray Linsey, Dick Lee, me and Bob Holton
Now dyslexia is defined as “a difficulty with reading or writing that some people have because they are unable to see words as meaningful shapes or the differences between letters.” I have what could be thought of as a musical dyslexia. I can read single written notes just fine, but add just two or more notes to the same melody note and my brain instantly scrambles and shuts down. To say I was able to patch a decent career together with this musical impairment is a surprising conclusion… even to me! In hindsight, I feel the reason I succeeded was an abiding love of music, a great ear, a fertile music imagination and a learned ability to minimize and hide my weakness and play to my strengths. Somehow, with grace and the jazz angel on my shoulder, it all worked!
Put Another Nickel In The Nickelodeon
I had grown up in a bar in Montana, and had heard all the tunes on the jukebox for at least 10 years while I was young. Our old upright piano sat right next to the juke box, and on quiet evenings I could sit at the piano and pick out some of the songs that were hits at the time… How Much Is That Doggie In The Window, Sixteen Tons, The Tennessee Waltz… you know, the biggies of the era. Remember, this was Montana in the ’50’s. I never thought much about it, just figured out the melody and put some simple chords and rhythm to them, and presto! Music happened!
As you might imagine, this was a fairly big deal in Montana, when a little kid could sit down at the piano and play a request without any sheet music sitting in front of him. Even when Tuffy Burgstrom, a good piano man in his own right, sat me down one afternoon and told me I had a good ear for music, that I should develop it, I listened, of course, but shrugged it off and didn’t think about it again until several years later, when I was enrolled in a private jazz school back East and suddenly had some fairly big decisions to make!
You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You
When I was 25 another teacher, Paul Schmeling, told me my technique was so bad I would never be a player. I was a senior at Berklee at the time and had already been paying my way through Berklee for three years… by playing. But professor Schmeling was right, in that my technique stunk. I suppose honesty is the best policy in those matters, but I remember that really stung me. I proved him right, however, by failing my piano final three months later. and just so you know, Berklee was famous for having most of its best students leave school for their new career before graduating, and in that regard I’m actually proud to be considered one of the successful Berklee drop-outs!
All that, luckily, turned out to be inconsequential, as my first piano teacher at Berklee, Ray Santisi, heard my audition when I first showed up at school. At that moment, I thought of myself as a piano major… after all, I could play C Jam Blues in C and G! After my playing for a minute or so, Ray gently suggested I change my major from piano to an arranging major. To be honest, I didn’t even know what an arranger was, though that was to become what I did best in the ensuing years. I took Ray’s advice, changed my major to arranging with a minor in piano, and that made a huge difference in my time at Berklee. Just for the record, Ray Santisi gave a lot of good advice, like to one of his students, Diana Krall, who was thinking about not continuing with her voice lessons, but rather concentrating totally on her piano playing. Ray’s advice? “Don’t stop singing, Diana.”
The teacher responsible for my being able to play jazzy piano and to solo was Dean Earl. I finally got him in my junior year, and the first thing he asked me was, “What do you want to do, what do you want to learn?”
I told him I wanted to play jazz, and learn to solo. “Oh, is that it?” he smiled and pulled out the bottom drawer of his desk. He handed 5 sheets of music paper to me. “Here, take these home and play with them. You’ll be playing jazz in no time.”
There were 5 sheets of one-line melodies, solo licks on standard chord changes. I took them back to the apartment and began playing through them on our old piano. (story of the piano will wait for another time) Bee do bee do bah do bee do, bee yay. I’d heard these licks played before, on records, and wondered why he wanted me to copy someone else’s jazz solos. Well! After only 20 minutes of playing through the lines of jazzy 4-bar phrases, I started playing my own little solo melodies, and it suddenly became so clear! I could do this! As I played, my fingers got used to the new and different places they could go. I knew the chords already, and now began to hear how different melodies could fit in with them! I sat there playing my very first jazz solos for hours, until my roomie finally dragged me away to go to dinner. Thank you, Dean Earl… thank you so much for that!
I guess it was in school where I first learned to work around my sight reading disability. Most big band charts have piano parts, most of which have the chords written instead of the notes… E maj.7, G minor, that kind of writing, and I learned to do that fairly quickly. Also, because i had a good ear, I could memorize a tune in a rehearsal, where we would play through it several times. The only time I got into trouble was when the piano chart had all notes and no chord symbols. Thankfully, those were fairly rare.
Chord charts I can read just fine
Yet this might as well be ……………………………………………this!
Out in the real world, the opportunities for a pianist were numerous enough that I learned to side-step the sight reading gigs and go full bore on the others. I made it to, what was for me, the top of the heap, as far as playing concerts goes. A five-concert tour with Henry Mancini through the South in 1976 was easily the pinnacle of my concert-playing career! It wasn’t long after that I played, of all things, a Barry White concert in Atlanta. We had no rehearsal but played the concert cold… and why not? How hard could it be? Too hard for me, as it turned out! There was an 8-bar section in the middle of one of his songs that was a piano solo, and was written notes only! I blundered through it, of course, but the conductor was furious with me and told me so. He also told the Atlanta Musicians’ Union, which stopped recommending me for any local concerts. Just as well… I was easing my way into the recording studio circuit in Atlanta and had no desire to put my playing reputation (and my nerves) any further at risk. I played other concerts from time to time, but they were all for bands that I knew, with music I knew by heart. Big difference!
As I became more of an composer/arranger and less of a player on the Atlanta music scene, my sight-reading paranoia finally lifted and I regained the confidence I’d once had as a player. There was a lot of great jazz happening in Atlanta in the ’70’s and ’80’s and I got to participate in a good portion of it… easily enough to satisfy the early longing I’d fostered to be a jazz pianist. For a time, at least, I was a jazz pianist in a big city – a dream come true!
Some have asked me how I can write an orchestral score and conduct it if I can’t read. I can write them easily! It’s not hard to write down what you hear in your head. And strangely, I can read my own scores. because (naturally) I wrote them, and know how they’re supposed to sound.
I did learn several of my favorite classical songs by sight-reading the sheet music, but it was always the student version, the simplified version, and it took me days. Here’s one that should really piss off my classical purists. It’s a combo pack of two famous classical tunes I glued together, the first part being Frederic Chopin, the second part Franz Liszt. I call the classical mashup, “My Shopping List.”
My favorite is Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, a gorgeous piece that means so much to me, and I have no idea why. Whatever, it sings to my spirit and it was years before I even attempted to learn to play it. I had wanted to play it, but always felt I would ruin it for myself if I tried. Finally, retired back in Montana, I bought the simplified version of it and sat down to learn it. Turned out to be an enlightening experience for me… I learned and memorized the song in several days, and found it meant even more to me when i was able to play it, and interpret it!
A musical acquaintance of mine once said that “if you’re going to play a song written by someone else, the least you could do is play it exactly the way he wrote it!” To that I say, bullshit! I have played the second movement of Mozart’s Piano concerto #21 in C Major many times, (theme for the movie Elvira Madigan, remember?) and often I feel Mozart smiling at me, perhaps thinking, “Not the way I wrote it, kid, but certainly interesting…” As a composer, I would always be honored to have another player play, and interpret one of my compositions. Hell, the momentary interpretation of a song is one of the sheer delights of being able to play music at all! The more one’s heart and creative mind can take part in the process, the deeper, richer, more rewarding that experience becomes!
I find it fairly funny, and perhaps ironic, that two of the most powerful elements to help me be a jazz musician and fulfill a lifelong dream, were two of the most unlikely circumstances to success one might imagine… being a left-handed piano player, and having musical dyslexia! Life is truly a strange and wonderful journey!