Confessions of a Lazy Musician

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.

Howard baby grand piano
Howard baby grand piano

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.

Takamine guitar
Takamine guitar

 

My guitars
My guitars

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.

My Roland FP-90 keyboard
My Roland FP-90 keyboard

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.

When the Splurge Is Worth It

Most Americans are not wealthy, unless compared to the millions of people who live in less-developed countries around the world. Although there is a vast household income spectrum in this country, most of us have limits on our discretionary spending. We have to make choices, especially about our wants as opposed to our needs. Some folks are truly prudent and seek savings that other families pass up: driving small, fuel-efficient vehicles; eating at home or taking lunch to work; shopping around for insurance; or even selecting generic products over name brands. Americans are among the most consumer-driven individuals on the planet. We love our stuff! We crave gadgets, electronics, toys, and a whole host of disposable products. We will spend hard-earned money on the most useless objects to occupy the limited time we have away from our jobs. The latest obsession that comes to mind is the fidget spinner, ranging in price on the low end from $3 to $10, but going well over $400 for the designer models. Millions have been sold across the country in 2017 (and in other countries as well). What is the function of this incredible device? It spins. That’s it. Oh, and it is branded as a remedy for everything from boredom to Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have absolutely no issues with what people choose to buy with their money, as long as they are paying their own way and taking proper care of their dependents. I certainly do my part when it comes to blowing money on the absurd too. However, as I look back over the decades, I regret a few times that I didn’t make certain choices that would have afforded me with lifetime experiences and memories. One example that comes to mind was during the summer of 1984 when I was studying abroad in England. Pop music has been an important influence in shaping my world view since I was a child. Some of the lyricists and musicians from the 1970s had the effect on me that poets and painters have on others with more sophisticated taste than my own. I was and shall always be a huge fan of the music of Elton John and his long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin. That summer in 1984, Elton John was on his “Breaking Hearts” tour and played a concert at Wembley Stadium in London. As a graduate student who depended on the sacrifices of my parents and the funds from two grants, I was on a tight budget. Still, I could have found a way to purchase a ticket, but I didn’t. There would be plenty of other opportunities to see Elton John in concert, especially in the states, but it would not have been the same. That chance came and went but left its mark on me.

Since that summer in 1984, I have made countless spending decisions — most were fairly routine but some were certainly significant. I am thankful to have more discretionary income now than I did as a graduate student! My wife and I love to travel, and even though some trips can get a bit pricey, I never regret the money we spend this way because of the incredible experiences we share during our journeys. In recent years, I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend concerts with family and friends because I never want to miss out like I did that summer so many years ago. My older son and I saw Bob Dylan a couple of years ago — who knows how much longer this musical icon will be around? We also saw Pearl Jam in the band’s hometown of Seattle a few years earlier. I understood about 2% of the lyrics that Eddie Vedder sang, which is absolutely irrelevant. My son is a huge fan of the band and the whole grunge movement, and I was so glad we could take the trip.

My wife tells a proverbial story from several years ago when she was stressing over the decision to spend extra money on a wonderful hotel for a trip we were planning to Rome. She asked the opinion of a good friend and mentor, who wisely said, “Five years from now you won’t remember how much you spent on the hotel, but the two of you will never forget the experience of staying at that place.” She was such a wise woman, and we followed her advice with absolutely no regrets. In that same spirit, we have attended several concerts in recent years and have seen some incredible shows, including Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2012, The Rolling Stones announced that they were coming to Newark, New Jersey and to New York City for a 50th anniversary limited tour. Thinking that the band might be announcing their retirement, we jumped at the opportunity to see them. We bought plane and hotel tickets and made it a long weekend in NYC, which was expensive. Do we remember how expensive now? No. Will we ever forget the moment Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts walked out on that Prudential Center stage? Can’t imagine. Of course, we couldn’t have known then that the Stones would end up touring several cities in the U.S. the next year and are still making appearances around the world. Again, no regrets.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones, 2012

One more example should be enough to make my point here a tad more convincing. The Eagles are a band that helped define the music of our generation. They have a tumultuous history of substance abuse, infighting, breaking up, and reemerging from the ashes. They also created some of the most memorable music of the rock era. Their harmonies were close to perfect, their lyrics spellbinding, and their performances were almost legendary. They have won almost every major Grammy and at least five American Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. When the band announced the “History of the Eagles” tour for 2013, we paid an additional fee to grab early tickets and the best seats we could afford. Their concert in Charlotte on November 15, 2013 was truly the best show I have ever seen. The vocals, instrumentation, stage presence, lighting, acoustics, and video production were just outstanding. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer wrote, “The Eagles didn’t just give fans a typical concert Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. It gave generations of fans a musical history lesson from its 1971 formation to its 1994 reunion.” As thrilled as we were at the end of that phenomenal evening, it would be just over two years later that we truly appreciated how fortunate we were to have been there. The news on January 18, 2016 of the unexpected death of Glenn Fry, the band’s front man and one of its founders, sent a shudder through the world of popular music. It also drove home to us the realization that, whenever possible, we need to take advantage of every one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that comes along.

The Eagles
The Eagles, 2013

 

My first copyrighted song: “The One You Call”

As a life-long amateur musician and singer, I have been writing songs since I was a teenager. I wrote love songs when I was in high school. I tried to write a few songs that were more artistic in high school and college, but alas, I wasn’t a poet. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church and attending one for much of my adult life, my major contribution to worship was in music. I wrote songs that I could perform in church, which I did for about twenty years. I posted some thoughts about my experiences and my evolution with church music here.

I joined a mid-life crisis band when I was in my early forties, which afforded me plenty of opportunities to perform — only covers and never original material. One of the band members had a nice studio setup in the basement of his house, which is where the band practiced. When I approached him about helping me record an original song I had written, he went beyond just laying down tracks. He solicited help from some of his musician friends from other parts of the country, and they added bass and other instrumental accompaniment to my keyboards. He added acoustic guitar and electronic drums to complete the instrumental recording, and then we got together in his studio to add my vocals. The finished product is an amateur effort, but the instrumentation and the mix are really top rate for a home studio recording.

I regret that my voice is not quite professional quality. I have been told for decades by congregations, audiences, family, and friends that I should record my songs. They all mean well and I deeply appreciate their support, but I know the difference between the quality of my voice and what I hear in the entertainment business. I’m okay, but I’m not that good. However, I do think the original song that my band mate helped me with and recorded for me is marketable. I think it is as good as many of the country and pop songs played on radios all across the country. In the hands of the right people, and with the right voice, I believe it could be broadcast-worthy. Family and friends also strongly encouraged me to copyright the song. I procrastinated for several years, but I finally decided to submit the lyrics and the sound recording to the Library of Congress Copyright Office last year. This song is the first thing I have ever copyrighted.

A link to my recording of the song is available on YouTube here. I am singing all the vocals. The words and the music are written by me. The lyrics are printed below.

“The One You Call”

When the night gets cold
And you need someone who knows
Exactly how it feels
Someone who knows it’s real

I know you want to be strong
But you’ve been hurting for so long
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

I know your heart is broken ’cause I’ve been there before
You think you won’t survive it baby; can’t take this anymore

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

Now don’t you be afraid
What anyone may say
You don’t have to take the fall
Let me be the one you call

When will you see that I am so in love with you
Look deep into my eyes now baby; you know it’s true

If you just want to cry
Don’t need a reason why
You don’t have to be alone
Just let me take you home

In the middle of the night
Though you may not think it’s right
It won’t bother me at all
Let me be the one you call

Let me be the one you call

Worship Without Music

As stated previously in this blog, I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC).  Generally speaking, Southern Baptist worship, especially during the main service on Sunday mornings, could be described as a passive experience by the majority of people present, namely the congregation.  There are a couple of exceptions.  In recent decades, it has become popular to insert a time of greeting around the midway point of the service, which involves handshaking, hugging, some folks walking all around the sanctuary to apparently greet as many people as possible until forced by embarrassment to finally get back to their seat.  This practice is not limited to the Baptists either.  The only other part of a SBC service that encourages participation by everyone in the sanctuary is music, and for Baptists, music is a central part of worship.  SBCs give music a lot of space and time, from large pianos and organs for traditional worship services, to full-scale bands for “praise” services, and even small orchestras for the mega-churches.  They include several hymns for the congregation to join together singing.  SBCs also tend to employ full-time ministers of music, who typically are paid better than other support staff in most denominations with comparable-sized churches.  They typically have choirs for all age groups, along with an adult choir that practices weekly to present calls-to-worship, anthems, benedictions, etc.  Some churches even have special musical groups like hand-bell choirs, vocal or instrumental ensembles, and pop bands.

The format of worship in a SBC was certainly a suitable environment for my development with respect to the central role of music.  I was raised in a family that appreciated music, had some musical abilities, but above all encouraged musical skill and performance in my generation of youngsters.  My sister and I both took music lessons — she with the piano and I with the guitar.  I was brought up to sing church songs from a very early age, even before I can remember.  My earliest memory of singing was when my mother and grandmother took me out in the countryside to visit a bedridden relative of my grandmother (a sister or cousin, I’m not sure which), and I was instructed to sing a short song I had learned in Sunday School.  The song was titled “He’s Able.”  I still remember the words and the tune to this day:

He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through
He healed the broken hearted, and he set the captive free
He made the lame to walk again, and He caused the blind to see
He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through

As I became a teenager, my guitar skills developed enough that I could accompany myself singing, and could also play for youth group gatherings in my church.  My voice also matured to a fairly solid tenor, perhaps with a higher range than most guys my age.  I sang in choirs, performed at church functions (often with my sister and a cousin), and eventually reached what some would have considered the pinnacle of the music scene in a SBC — presenting “the special” during Sunday morning worship.  This song, typically a solo but sometimes a duet or trio, was usually placed in the service just before the pastor’s sermon.  For the 40+ years I was in a SBC, that part of the music service was always referred to by ministers and congregants as “the special” or “special music.”  Unfortunately, a label like that can encourage a certain sense of pride, if not arrogance, by the person offered such a place of distinction.

My love for music at an early age, combined with the ability to play the guitar (fair, but not very skilled) and a voice that my friends and family thought was pleasant, presented me with the opportunity to be a regular part of the special music rotation, almost always as a solo.  As I grew to adulthood, moved away from home, and started a family, I settled in another SBC where I continued with this practice.  I taught myself to play the piano and eventually began to accompany myself with that instrument.  It is with humility and perhaps some shame now that I look back on the decades of my musical contributions as a soloist because I realize that, all too often, I know what I was doing more than anything else was performing.  More than providing a meaningful worship experience for myself and the congregation, I was seeking to be an entertainer, to impress an audience, to attract their attention, to win their love.  So many people in SBCs will tell you that music is essential to their worship experience.  They will boast about their choir and exalt their music ministers.  But, they usually reserve their highest admiration for the people who perform special music, posting or sharing videos of them on their social media pages.  I enjoyed this kind of adulation all the time, and it was a rush.  My fellow church members were kind and gracious, and I have no doubt they were perfectly sincere when they told me how much a song I sang or wrote meant to them and enhanced their worship experience. I was touched by their encouragement, but what I craved was to amaze them.  Alas, I am vain.

After a divorce and a time of transitioning away from the Baptist church (I had left it theologically many years before), I met a beautiful Episcopalian.  And then I married her.  Everything changed, and for the better — much better.  I found a home in the Episcopal Church, with a theology that I could embrace without too much difficulty.  My wife introduced me to an early morning service at our small town church that she really liked because it was quiet, peaceful, reverent, and completely without music.  I had never been to such a service, and much to my surprise, I loved this style of worship.  After decades of being in churches where music was so central and where I was such a visible participant, it took me a while to understand why I was attracted to a service without music.  I think it is because I know that music was too often a distraction for me.  Instead of helping me get beyond myself to seek communion with the divine, it fed my ego and kept me in the foreground.  Performing caused me to focus on technique, style, quality, and even appearance.  It was way too much about me.

My wife and I have moved and are at another parish now.  They don’t have a service without music yet, although the priest has talked about introducing one.  There is resistance from the parish, which is to be expected.  I hope we can try it at some point. I will never stop loving music, and that includes church music.  And, I can certainly enjoy a worship service with music, even if I’m not at all familiar with so many of the songs from the Episcopal tradition.  In a way, that’s a good place to be.  It’s awfully hard to perform a song you don’t know very well.

The Legend of Bob Dylan

My older son and I recently saw Bob Dylan and his band in concert.  My son is quite the connoisseur of classic pop music going back to before he was born, and to some extent, before I was born.  Going to this show was what he requested for his birthday because he feels certain that there won’t be too many more chances to see Dylan live, and judging from how frail the aging rocker looked on stage, I would agree.  While 73 doesn’t seem so old when considering how many of his contemporaries are still touring extensively, Dylan doesn’t seem to “get around” with the same agility of guys like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney.

Just before the show began, the house lights went out and the stage was dark.  A single member of his band came out in the dark, picked up a guitar, and started playing a gentle, folksy tune.  It was like being in church.  When the lights went up, the rest of the band was in place, wearing matching outfits.  I leaned over to my son and said, “How often do you see band members dressed alike?”  He replied, “I never have.”  They were definitely representing a different era, when rock-n-roll was reaching adolescence and getting more rebellious, but there was still a touch of class and style left over from the very early days of the bands that accompanied Buddy Holly and Elvis.


President Barack Obama presents Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom (May 29, 2012)

Most people don’t become legends during their lifetimes, nor do they become iconic.  Bob Dylan is an exception.  Some of his songs clearly define the rock-n-roll era, especially the elements in the genre that are most significant historically: protest, reflection, freedom, and change.  More than any other popular musician and songwriter from my generation that I can recall, Bob Dylan has proven over and over again that rock-n-roll was never just about the music, and certainly not about beautiful voices.  Hell, he never even tried to make pretty sounds with his voice, that is, on the occasions that he decided to sing instead of speak his songs.  But I would argue with anyone that his lyrics were some of the most powerful and moving of that generation.

At this particular show, Bob Dylan sang an incredible variety of music in a short time. He was probably on stage for less than two hours altogether, but during that time, we heard folk, blues, country, reggae, and rock.   He never picked up a guitar, but he played a miniature grand piano, and of course, the harmonica.  The instrumental variety from his band was impressive, including tunes using a violin and a huge string bass.  It was clear that he was playing what he wanted to play, not what the crowd expected or necessarily wanted.  He didn’t include “Like a Rolling Stone,” which no doubt irritated some of the audience.  But he did play “Tangled Up In Blues” and “Blowing In the Wind.”  Dylan performed that last song as his finale for the single encore he gave, and true to form, he used a variation so different from the original recorded version that I didn’t even recognize it until he was into the chorus.  I leaned over to my son and said, “I almost didn’t recognize this one, the way he’s playing it.”  Looking straight ahead to the stage, admiring the legend, my son replied, “He’s earned the right to do it anyway he wants.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Defining Art

Yes, I realize the title of this post is about as vague as it gets.  Nevertheless, how we define what is, and isn’t, art as a worldwide culture is something that puzzles me.  In America at least, so many of us seem to have no real criteria by which to judge if a work can be considered art — no standard.  I understand how subjective the appreciation of art is, and I suspect survival from generation to generation has played a major role in determining what has been defined as art throughout human history.  In my lifetime, Americans have become less and less prescribed in their definition of art, and to my way of thinking, this is an unfortunate trend.  We tend to use the terms “art” and “artist” to describe almost any form of creativity.  I am the first to admit that I don’t have a true appreciation for a great deal of modern art, which includes painting, sculpture, poetry, and a few other mediums.  Okay, those are perhaps my own shortcomings and limitations due to a lack of education or sensibility.  

  

What I’m referring to here, though, is how modern culture seems to lump all creativity into one huge basket, with very little discernment or discrimination.  We use the term “artist” so loosely.  We consider Leonardo da Vinci to be an artist, but we also use the same word to describe Thomas Kinkade.  Most people would recognize Beethoven as an artist, but we hear the same word used to describe Taylor Swift.  Really?  What happened to words like “entertainer?”  I play the guitar a little, the piano a bit more, and I sing well enough that people have paid me to do so at weddings, funerals, parties, etc.  I have even written a handful of songs that I think are pretty good.  Am I an artist?  I would be embarrassed if someone referred to me that way or called my creations art.  I am an amateur musician, singer, and composer.  There are plenty of people who have made a very good living doing the same thing, only a whole lot better than I do.  Are they artists?  Well, not in my mind.  I would call them professionals, and that goes for many of my musical idols.

I am not advocating that, as a culture, we have to have some kind of hard and fast rule to define art and identify artists.  But I would like to see a little more differentiation to show respect to those among us who have exceptional gifts of creativity — timeless, perhaps.  I suppose we all know that Michelangelo is actually a great artist or even a master, and that his work is not comparable to the images of Elvis we see painted on velvet canvases for sale at roadside stands.  Or do we?