This post is the first instalment of a series of remembrances.
I have been wanting to document my journey as a pianist and a musician for posterity. People ask me all the time how long I’ve been playing, and I always give the same answer. Well, this time, I want to go into a little more detail about how I evolved as a performing musician. There will be places and faces named and information on how I developed (and continue to develop) my technique. Someone once told me that I should write about what I know.
Performing at the piano is what I know.
I remember being 7 years old. My parents enrolled me in a small piano school on the island of American Samoa where I grew up. I was ushered into a room that had several desk stalls, and each stall had a small electronic keyboard. There were what I felt at the time to be oppressively dull lessons in which I had to press the keys down in a continual motion OVER and OVER again. Looking back, I can understand the formative value of what I was doing, but it was incredibly boring nonetheless.
In time, I progressed into simple children’s songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, but we had to play these songs OVER and OVER again. By this point, a few months into the lessons, I was OVER IT! I begged my Mom to stop taking me. I remember the look of disappointment on her face when this happened. As a child in a small village in the Philippines, she did not have the opportunity to learn how to play such a glorious instrument, and she relished the notion that her own children could hone such a gift. This was not to be the case. My older sister Lette was also enrolled to take lessons, but she was bored out of her mind as well. We wanted to be kids running free, playing games, and getting dirty. We lived on a gorgeous tropical island for goodness sake! It was always more fun to be outside.
It is interesting how my home environment as a child inadvertently prepared me to become a musician. My parents loved playing their cassette tapes and vinyl LP’s. My dad was always keen to have a top of the line stereo system that came with large speakers. He often played the Beatles while my Mom played lots of Elvis. Abba, Frank Sinatra, and Englebert Humperdinck were also on continuous rotation.
There was ALWAYS music playing. It was part of the fabric of our every day lives.
Being the third child out of four also meant that I was subjected to the musical tastes of my older siblings. My brother, in his teenage years, LOVED 80’s heavy metal. I shared a bedroom with him growing up, and he was always blasting music from bands like Def Leppard, Metallica, Megadeth, and Guns N’ Roses. My sister was all about the boys. New Kids on the Block and Boys to Men were some of her staples. There was plenty of R&B and pop music blaring all the time.
My own musical tastes basically revolved around catchy pop music. Culture Club’s album “Color By Numbers” was the first album I begged my Mom to buy for me. Wham (and later George Michael’s solo work) and Michael Jackson were also big favorites. Sting’s solo album “. . . Nothing Like the Sun” and The Cure’s “Disintegration” were also on heavy rotation on my own stereo.
Clearly, all kinds of sounds, styles, and textures hovered around me across my childhood and adolescence. My family unknowingly cultivated a deep appreciation for the art of song in my life. The simple act of listening intently to music and the daily practice/enjoyment of it made such a profound difference to me. This would help me develop my own ear for melody, rhyming, tonality, and rhythm.
The rest, with some curious stops, starts, turns, and pivots, would unravel from there . . .