It all started with Lead Sheets: I’m 10 years old. I’ve never read a note of music in my life. But I want to play and sing my favorite song, “April Love,” on the piano and I want to do it NOW.
So my mother sits down on the piano bench next to me. She explains how chords work and shows me the ‘Big Letters’ written above the melody on the sheet music. She briefly explains major, minor and 7th chords and then she tells me the most important thing of all: Ignore everything else on the page.
From then on I’m playing the piano like kids today play computer games – constantly. I’m ignoring everything except what I know how to do. Occasionally I ask her about a symbol I don’t understand, but mostly I just play with what I’d learned – because I have the basic formula. To me it’s a game.
I don’t know I’ve just learned to play from a Lead Sheet. I just know it’s fast and fun and I can play the music I love.
Fast forward 12 years.
My college needs a harpist and I elect myself. I still can’t read music – but I can ‘decipher’ it, memorize and then sound like I can read. That means each piece takes a LONG time to learn, but that’s not a big problem, because in the concert band, where I’m playing, the harp hardly plays anyway.
But then I buy my own harp. I have to pay for it. So I get a job. Playing harp. In a fancy restaurant in a fancy hotel. By this time I can play 4 songs on the harp.
What didn’t occur to me was that 4 songs is not enough for 3 hours of music.
But two things happened that night that changed my life forever.
The Handsome Waiter: 90 minutes into my first set, the handsome waiter sidles up next to me with a pitcher of water, a white linen towel folded over his arm. He leans down and whispers: “If you play those four songs again, I’m pouring this pitcher of water into your lap.”
I nervously start noodling, playing a chord progression my mother gave me as a works-ever-time intro for any song. The progression is called “1-6-2-5” because it’s built of chords on the 1, 6, 2 & 5 degree of the scale. It sounds like “Heart and Soul” if you swing the rhythm and it’s the go-to progression piano players use when an actor misses their cue and you have to fill the silence before they come on stage. And if you noodle a little melody on top of it you can create something that sounds like music. I don’t know then that it’s called a ‘vamp’ – I just know that it’s saving me from a dousing.
The waiter steps away, I’m safe from that pitcher for a few minutes – and it occurs to me that if I create ‘interludes’ by noodling on this progression for a few minutes in between each tune, and create ‘fillers’ using that same progression to expand each of the four tunes I can play. I just might be able to keep that job.
Then I start discovering that these ‘cheats’ open up a whole new realm of creativity. I can improvise on the job. Sure, it means I’m a fake harpist … but the ‘job’ starts to become an opportunity to develop my creativity.
So far so good … but then Thing Number Two happens. [read #2 ]