Oh my poor neglected blog. I've been obsessed with my new hobby, at the expense of my old one. I’m spending every spare moment at the piano. I wake up in the middle of the night humming songs in my head. In some ways, playing the piano is much easier than blogging. With piano, you just play the notes that are already printed on the page. With blogging, it’s up to you to figure out what to put on that blank page.
But last week it was that already printed page of my piano book that frustrated me. I was learning “At Last,” a song which should be full of soul, think Etta James. The simple arrangement in my beginner piano book was competing with the Etta James version playing in my head. I tried to play what was playing in my head instead of what was written on the page, but my piano skills just aren’t advanced enough yet to achieve that sound. So all I achieved was frustration.
I explained this to my piano teacher last week at my therapy session, I mean my piano lesson. His diagnosis was that I’m ready to start learning how to improvise. He sent me home with the bare bones version of “Autumn Leaves.” It’s a page from what is known as a “fake book,” something I had only just recently learned about from my piano-playing uncle, aka, play-a-hymn-any-hymn-Jim. Jim spent his childhood piano career accompanying parishioners at Sunday morning services. He was the son of a preacher man, my grandpa.
My uncle gave up the piano several years ago when his arthritis made it impossible to keep it up. But before that, he would entertain his fellow Rotarians with old standards at their weekly meetings. Before he gave up his beautiful baby grand piano, he asked my cousins and me whether any of us wanted it. I regret to report that we all turned him down. So he gave it to the music department at U.C. Berkeley. How I wish I could play that decision over again.
Anyway, he did keep his mountains of piano books and sheet music. I just popped over there last week and combed through his stash. In the piles of paper were these fake books. I only took one of them because I didn’t really understand what they were and I couldn’t make any sense them. The songs are really just skeletons—the melody notes, chord notations, and lyrics. It’s up to the musician to improvise exactly how to play it.
So now I understand. And I’m having so much fun learning how to fill in the blanks, adding what’s in my head to what’s on the page. Just as much fun as I had when I first started writing what’s in my head onto the blank page, or blank blog screen as the case may be.
When I retired, I had no idea how much I would enjoy blogging or how much of my time would revolve around writing. I knew I wanted to pick up the piano again, but I never thought it would take me five years to get to it. And after I retired, I certainly didn't think I’d ever be interested working in my old field again, even part-time. But now I know that retirement is part advance planning and part live improvisation. And if you're comfortable with improvising, you're going to have a lot more fun.
(Several readers have made the great suggestion that I include a little description of the photos that I include in my blog posts. The photo above is Rasheed and the Jazz Collective at Washington Square Park in New York City's Greenwich Village.)
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