Friday, November 20, 2009

Music in my Life...A Brief Personal History--Friday Journal

As a small boy I heard and observed my father play the piano almost every day.  One music book in paricular, Everybody's Favorite Piano Pieces, contained piano compositions by famous composers, along with brief biographies and pictures of each. So obsessed was I by this book of music, that I can still recall most of the composers and the order in which they appeared: Handel, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovski, Brahms, Mendelsohn, Mussgorsky, Rachmaninoff, fact, here's a photo of the very same book...This takes me back....

I was mesmerized by how my father could translate the little dots on the lined pages, and press the piano keys to create musical sounds, sounds which were prolonged when he stepped on the right pedal near the floor (he almost never, to my recollection, stepped on the left or middle pedals.)

While my father, who studied piano from boyhood, created music for the living room, my mother had her own musical interests and passions, at the time ubiquitous on the radio and television.  Hers were the popular tunes, the modern standards, the music of her high school days, her romances, her youth.  I frequently came home from school (afternoon kindergarten, mostly) to find my mother watching American Bandstand....often while she ironed shirts!

I practically memorized the composer biographies. I thought I could "compose" too, so I would huddle at my desk in my room, with lined paper I pilfered from school (the kind with 3 lines we used to learn how to print) and drew dots with handles and flags, little "o"s, and  all the symbols I could remember from the pages of the music book.  Then I would ask my father to play these songs.

Of course, it was difficult at best for him to know which three lines on the musical scale to use, but he made the attempt, and it always made me laugh to hear the outcome of my innocent effort.

As a youngster, I tried at one point to play the piano, but quickly lost interest, preferring instead to write "stories", and play outdoors.  Now, it has become somewhat of a back-of-the-mind passion, meaning that I want to try it again, and if I succeed in convincing myself to actually do it, I would plunge into the attempt!

We always had the radio on, in the days when WGN 720-Chicago offered a variety of programming for everyone, and not the shrill pseudo-conservative pandering it has become. (If it were not for Chicago Cubs broadcasts, I would permanently delete it from my channel selector.)  In the afternoon, one show played all of the Billboard top ten for the day. There were few "specialty charts" then, so we were likely to hear Petula Clark, The Four Seasons, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peter Paul and Mary, The Beatles, Vicki Carr, or Perry Como all on the same program.  In the evening, Music Unlimited played classics, show tunes and other standards....its theme song was the theme from the movie "The Apartment".   One of my favorites: "Try to Remember", from The Fantasticks.

We also had an old-fashioned record player, the kind with the top lid and record changer, all up on four legs with the speaker in the front,  We heard lots of concerts, opera, and occasionally, movie soundtracks.  I learned to recognize the tunes, but it would be a long time until I acquired the interest to actually identify them....except for the movie tunes, which interested me immediately....

More later on about my love affair with movie music...including the only Joni Mitchell songs I know that were used in movies.....


  1. I've had a love affair with the piano since childhood. I was one of those gifted with the ability to play by ear and it was shocking that I could pick out tunes on the old family piano when I was a wee lad. I was set to take lessons way back then, but a jealous brother thought it would be better if didn't and broke several of the hammers inside it rendering many keys useless. Still, I have enjoyed picking out tunes and playing over the years. And with the purchase of a new keyboard a couple months ago I have decided to teach myself to play. If I can ever find time!

    Great post, Tom!

  2. Tom, please take up the piano again...I sense that you have enormous talent, not just technical proficiency but the emotional capacity to bring greatness to the music you will make. I will be in the front row of your first concert, you can be sure!