Fired at forty. It was a belated birthday present from the owner of the mid-size manufacturing firm I worked for. I had spent the evening before defending one of my staff against the tirade of the boss’s irascible wife: an unconscionable act that needed to be dealt with, swiftly. And so it was the following morning I found myself back at home, before my wife had even left for work. I stood there, without job, title, high five-figure salary or security, and fearful of telling her the news. Without hesitation, my wife affirmed, “This is the best thing that could have happened to you. You were miserable in that job. We’ll figure it out”. Pause, catch breath….wow. The doors that life opens and closes are rarely the ones we are expecting.
I grew up in a rigid, academically-oriented environment. I always found school easy, piano practice difficult, and longed to play baseball and work on motors. My mother would have none of that. Sports and manual labor would lead to a lack of focus on the important things: things that would lead to a well-paying and, of more significance, a well-respected profession. As she grew up a poor Missouri farm girl during the depression, I can hardly fault her for that perspective.
At age twelve, bored with the tedium of piano music I could not emotionally relate to, I began teaching myself to play the guitar. For the next several years, I picked out the songs from the sixties and seventies that I loved: the piercingly beautiful harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, the questioning tenderness of Cat Stevens and the rough and flowing melodies of Gordon Lightfoot. Along the way, I became addicted to the power-chord fun and frenzy of AC/DC and the original and quirky musical approach of Jethro Tull. Through all this, I began to develop an appreciation for certain aspects of classical music. I enjoyed the wonderful melodic drive of Telemann, and almost every symphony of Haydn’s I came across. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos appealed to me also, although I have since lost my taste for the very mathematical preciseness of those six pieces. Curiously, I found myself disliking almost any classical piece played on the piano.
Nothing else had appeared on the horizon after high school, and I quietly and reluctantly admitted it was now time for me to grow up. So, to please my parents, I took my valedictory honors and scholarships and headed off into my gleaming future at University of Missouri-Columbia as a Navy ROTC cadet, certain of nothing other than garnering more accolades and respect that increasingly meant little to me.
My first year at college passed uneventfully. I made the grades, wore my cadet uniform, and performed across the board as expected. I was even selected to be the Navy ROTC representative in a recruiting picture that hung in the main university visitor building, where prospective students and their families would come to see what campus life might hold. The only memory I have retained of that building is that the glass door in front of that photograph was happily unlocked the day I decided to abscond with the picture for my scrapbook.
I began second year much as the first, embracing life in a matter-of-fact, humdrum manner. One day in early February of 1974, I was walking a dear friend back to her room on campus. We were discussing music, in particular a Neil Diamond song which ended with a very pretty solo piano piece. (Odd for a pop song.) She was telling me how much she enjoyed that, and when we arrived at her dorm, I sat down at the lobby piano and picked out the music. This was nothing out of the ordinary as far as I was concerned, but her reaction was immediate and enthusiastic. “How did you do that?” she exclaimed. “That was wonderful! You are wonderful!”
Still feeling nonchalant about it, and not fully understanding her amazement, I kissed
her good night and trudged back across campus to my own room. Along the way, I felt her words sinking in, deeply. “Probably just my ego needing to hear that”, I reasoned, and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning was a Saturday and I awoke with, what? Noise, no… something in my head, and not just something, but music. It was not the song from the night before, but hundreds of instruments all sounding together in a frenetic rush of harmony and energy. I was aware of all sounds and melody lines simultaneously. I lay on my bed unable to move, or not wanting to, for fear of stemming the deluge flowing through me.
After an hour or so, I got up, ignored all my studies and plans for the day, and headed back to that same piano. I sat down and played for two hours, and it was all music I had never played before. I finally pushed the lid closed, completely exhausted, empty, and happier than I can ever remember being. The consummate “all A’s” student began missing classes for the first time ever and searching out any available piano on campus, with always the same result: playing for a minimum of an hour, and all new music. The upcoming integral calculus exam no longer held sway over my time and study.
Several weeks and many piano sessions later, a student at one of the dorms approached me and said she had recorded an hour of my musical wanderings, and had been studying while listening to it. She graciously gave me a copy. My first recording! As I listened to it later, I found myself quietly thinking, “There’s some good stuff here”. I even heard technical sections with a certain level of expertise that I was not aware I could play.
I nervously sought out one of the music professors, the resident composer, and asked if he, his tweed jacket and goatee could listen and give me an appraisal. I came back a week later for the verdict. He said it was rambling and disorganized, but despite that, exhibited real talent. My angry and rebellious self heard only his first words, and I stormed away, severely disappointed. “Just what I expected from Professor Tweed-Jacket!” I have long since realized that he was being honest, and that he was right.
The maelstrom of music and emotion I was experiencing during this time quickly swept away all vestiges of my life and relationships, and left me free, full of fears and alone. I dropped out of school, abandoned my scholarships, and took a job as a dishwasher to the astonishment and dismay of both parents and friends. Throughout the next twenty years, I performed in several different bands while working a wide variety of jobs. These usually involved hard physical labor, which I discovered I loved. I unloaded fishing boats in Alaska, drove forklifts and delivery trucks, worked in a state mental institution and any number of warehouses. I eventually arrived at the level of general manager, a position I held for five years before the axe fell in 1994. With the amazing moral support of my wife, I took the leap and began playing professionally in the autumn of that year. It was then that I encountered for the first time a deeply moving relationship with the grand piano. In her highest form, she is a black-as-coal, nine-foot beast of thunder, elegance
I found paying work as a pianist quickly enough that I was able to release my first CD one year later. I now have four recordings of my own and have keyboard credits on a fifth, a Native American Flute album called “Courting The Heart Of The World” by my friend, Saggio. I am fifty-eight, and eighteen years into my life’s work. I am writing for the next CD, and more in love with the mystery of music than ever. I awake every morning unsure of quite a lot. I am, however, increasingly less fearful and more excited at the possibilities inherent in not always knowing. Against the wisdoms and remonstrations with which the first nineteen years of my existence were imbued, I am learning to embrace the lack of certainty as the deeper and truer nature of life, and the key to living it fully.