Music has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother’s extended family members were faithful Southern Baptists, for whom music was the primary expression of worship and praise. I was raised in this environment and at an early age was encouraged to sing frequently, not only in church, but for elderly relatives on their sick beds, at occasional family gatherings, and during Christmas holidays. As a pre-adolescent, I became increasingly impressed with older teens who performed in church, especially those who played musical instruments. My older sister had taken several years of piano lessons, and we had an old upright in our dining room that she used for rehearsing. I was frequently scolded for “banging” on the piano.
In the early 1970s at around the age of eleven, I expressed interest in learning how to play the guitar, so my parents bought a starter instrument for me and located a teacher. My instructor was an old guy who loved folk music and wanted me to start with the basics by playing simple songs note by note. I was impatient, which in retrospect was unfortunate because this was my one chance to learn how to read music. Instead, I jumped ahead in my music books and began learning how to play open chords — the easiest ones such as C, D, G, Em, and Am. In a short time, I began picking out songs that were popular during that time from pop and folk singers, especially John Denver. I started out as an amateur musician at just the right time. Many of the songs that I loved during those years could be played well enough with 3-5 chords. I took guitar lessons for less than a year.
My primary incentive in learning to play the guitar was to accompany myself to sing the songs that my friends and I were listening to on the radio. The more I played, the better my hearing became adapted for learning songs; therefore, I never went back to trying to read a musical score. I expanded my open chord portfolio, but I was not willing to push through the pain of playing bar chords, which continues to limit me as a guitarist to this day. Soon I was given opportunities to play and sing in church. By the time I reached the 10th grade, I was playing well enough to accompany choral groups at school and sing in talent contests. My sister and I, along with one of our female cousins, formed a trio and played at nearby churches and for community groups. I was nervous playing in front of crowds, but I became better at listening to songs and reproducing them well enough for the average, uncritical audience. It was great fun, and it was a way for a short kid with not much athletic ability to find acceptance, approval, and even admiration from peers and adults.
Like most amateur musicians and singers from my generation, I also tried my hand at writing songs. My earliest influences were church music and pop/folk performers, so I began writing songs that I could sing and play for worship services and just for my own fulfillment. Some of them were good enough that I continued to sing them into adulthood. Others were absolutely horrible, and they are now thankfully forgotten. I have had the opportunity to perform original songs many times over the last thirty years, and my audiences have been quite gracious and accepting of my efforts. I continue even now to write songs, one of which I copyrighted and featured in this blog.
Sometime during my early college years, I began discovering chords on the piano. At the small community college I attended in the late 1970s, there were no restrictions on the use of the pianos in the practice rooms in the Department of Music. I would often head over in the late afternoons, when most faculty and almost all students were gone, and spend an hour or more discovering the triad configuration of the major chords and a few of the minors. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree, I had memorized all the major and minor chords, along with sharps and flats. I had learned how to make numerous augmented and diminished chords, the major and minor 7ths, and suspended chords.
Also, my ear was better allowing me to determine the, and I stress this adjective, necessary chords to reproduce melodies on the guitar, but even more proficiently on the piano. I was playing chords on the keyboard that I was never able to master on the guitar. Solely from a mechanical standpoint, the piano is easier for me to play, and I have always taken the path of least resistance as a musician. Soon, I was singing and accompanying myself almost exclusively on the piano for church services, and then several times a year at weddings. If I listened to a song and worked at it for a while, I could learn to play it well enough to accompany myself or someone else to sing it. In other words, I was faking it sufficiently for most audiences and the people who were either inviting me or paying me to perform.
In my early forties, a friend of mine invited me to come to band rehearsal with him. He played bass for a 5-member local band covering classic rock, Southern rock, and some easy-listening music. As it turned out, they were considering bringing in a sixth member to serve as a front man. He knew I had a fairly good singing voice because he had heard me perform at a wedding. I started practicing with them regularly, and within a few months, I was singing for them. Up to this time, their drummer was the lead singer, and he continued to sing about half of our set lists for the next ten years I was with the band. It was a good arrangement. The musicians in this group were all far more accomplished than I was, but occasionally I did play acoustic and even keyboards on a few of the songs I sang for the band. Playing in that band was such a rush and fulfilled a deep desire to perform the music that I loved so much. I will always be thankful for the opportunity.
I am also extremely grateful to my wife, who always encourages me and goes out of her way to convince me and others that I am not a lazy musician. Of course, I know better, but I love her to the moon and back for the confidence she gives me and the praise she pours on me every time I play music. She has also facilitated my musical endeavors in direct and significant ways through amazing gifts: a baby grand piano she bought for me ten years ago and a Takamine guitar as an anniversary present in 2012. The Howard baby grand is a beautiful instrument intended for someone with talent and skill that far exceed my own, but I am astounded at how my playing has improved on this piano. I hear sounds and find melodic movements that I never sensed on other keyboards. It may not be magic, but I also can’t explain it, so it’s magic to me.
The Takamine is hands-down the finest guitar I have ever played. It is an acoustic with a pickup and electronic tuner. I had the pleasure of playing it during the last year I was with the band, and I still enjoy playing it on my own now. It is the fifth acoustic I have owned, including my first learner model and a Stella 12-string I had in high school. Currently, I have a wood-grain Yamaha that I have had since college, a Fender with a deep blue finish that I bought from one of my band mates, and the Takamine. I need to play much more than I do, but what can I say? I’m a lazy musician. The most recent addition to my collection of instruments is a Roland FP-90 keyboard that features real wooden hammer-action keys, multiple banks of sounds (pianos, strings, organs, synth sounds, etc.), four on-board speakers, and inputs for a mic and an amp. I had a smaller Yamaha keyboard that I bought while I was with the band, but this Roland is like a Rolls Royce by comparison.
I have spent much of my life attempting to entertain others at home, at church, at school, at work, and in restaurants and bars. I have sung and played for weddings, funerals, parties, dinners, meetings, and other occasions. Even when I was providing music at church, deep down it was my need to perform that inspired me as much or more than any religious conviction. I addressed this issue as honestly as possible in another blog post. Music has always been my most creative expression, and I am so thankful that I had some raw talent and the right people — family, friends, teachers — to encourage me at a young age. I only wish that I had taken the time and put forth the effort to learn to read music, which would have given me so many more opportunities to give people enjoyment. And, in the end, that is the reward for me of being an amateur performer.