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.

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.