Realizations The Autobiography
of Julian Lee / COPYRIGHT
2009 JULIAN LEE
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Our Big Green Piano
At some point mother my mom bought a grand piano. This was a cheeky sort of thing for her to do. It dominated the living room. This was near the time of the divorce, just before or just after. It had a unusual light green color. The top could be propped open. The keys had good action, and it sounded pretty good. She kept it tuned. She would on occasion sit down and try to get through a couple of piano pieces that she had been working on as a girl, under a West Des Moines female piano teacher. One was "Ebb Tide" and the other was "Claire De Lune" by Debussy. She would play these really feelingly. As Claire De Lune would get more fast-fingers and complex toward the middle mother would usually then give up. But I learned to love that song, especially on hearing the full recordings later. It's truly a beautiful composition.
Mother wished that I would learn to read sheet music, as she could. But I had already begun teaching myself to play the guitar by ear. My sound-mind would tend to race ahead of my eyes as they would fail to immediately understand how to translate the notation. I would be figuring it out my own way. Soon I was playing the piano passably well and mother found me incomprehensible and stopped advocating that I learn notation. To this day I can bang out any sort of pop tune pretty accurately -- even with the correct inversions or embellishments. For example, I figured out how to play the piano part to David Bowie's "Life On Mars" pretty accurately including all its portentous augmented and diminished chords. I could always tell, though, that my hands didn't play with the kind of skill and definition of the properly trained pianists and this bothered me. I was just too impatient to go back and start piecing together music slowly from sheet music. I also noticed that sheet music that presented popular songs (the ones I cared about) -- was inaccurate anyway; not showing what the guitarist or -- even pianist -- was actually doing! So what was the point. If I heard some honky-tonk piano riff I wanted to be able to play exactly that, and not a watered-down (or missing) version of the published sheet music. One of the first breakthroughs on piano was getting hold of a chord chart. This was loaned to me by my friend Billy Riley, whose brother played a Hammond B-3 organ in a wonderful band called Wichita Flash. Once I had the chord chart I began to immediately be able to figure out known songs plus create items of my own. I found that my approach of learning by ear, later affirmed and championed by the Japanese violin teacher Suzuki, led me to be able to understand music at an elemental level and with my own sense of theory. For example, if I hear a song my mind is automatically analyzing the bass part, then deciding what chords are being placed over the base note. (The root chord? Or something else?) If the bass is playing G, but the chord is an F rather than a G, I can hear it immediately. Meanwhile that particular chord trick riffles, in my memory, through a list of moments in a wide catalog of songs where I know that chord/base note combo was used. Most note readers don't get that kind of ear. If the guitarist is playing a C but the bassist is staying on "the fifth" (G) -- I notice it and understand the mood of that structure (Elton John's bassist used it a lot) and the suspense it creates. This led me, in turn, to value the bass part very much and see how an entire song can hang on a bass part alone, taking out the other instruments, while retaining much of its musical dimension.
All of this I learned at my mother's piano. I often felt I was wasting to much time there at the piano. I used it to fill time or get away from the world. Yeah, I did waste time there. I wish I had worked more, such as mowing lawns or doing more handyman work. Yes, I've been lazy in this life. But I could have been doing worse things. I am grateful to this day to my brothers and sisters for NEVER complaining about my banging away on the piano, learning how to play it. I don't know how they stood it. It's been a pleasure at times to find myself in a festive group, such as a Christmas Eve party, where a piano present and find that by sitting down and playing Christmas carols, just shooting from the hip, I could raise up a more festive mood and get the people over the edge into singing happily by banging out the right chords on the piano. Mother was the key to my getting into music. The moment I expressed an interest in having a guitar, at around age 13, she immediately produced one for Christmas a month or two later. I remember feeling deeply indebted and almost over-blessed, as my folks didn't have much spare money. To have done that, mom had to have cared about me. In fact, it was the norm that she and dad would get us that one thing we really wanted for Christmas, even when we did not believe it was possible and only mentioned it to them as an exercise.