The Piano Man


Well, I am going to see the real Piano Man tonight at PNC Park. Billy Joel has always been a real talent in my eyes and although I don’t expect to see him run all around the stage like the last time I saw him, I know his music is timeless. Thinking about the piano, let me tell you a few tales of my piano experience over the years.
It all started when my mom signed me up for piano lessons at 7 years old with Mrs. Chang from the neighborhood behind ours. I was excited to see if I could play and when I got my first music book with the songs “Birthday Party” and ” Sandman”, I worked hard to play them correctly. Mrs. Chang had her mom fill in from time to time and although she was a gracious older lady, she had this habit of passing gas during my chromatic scales. She would bounce one off the piano bench while sitting next to me and it was alarming/amusing as I was midway through the scale.I told my mom who said that it was part of the culture of Asia and nothing should be thought of it. Probably her way of making sure I did not quit.
Fast forward a couple of years to a new teacher down the street. Mrs. Manson was a little more demanding and her social graces more “western” so to speak as she politely scolded me if I did not practice to her satisfaction. My mom would always retrieve me from the field across the street and tell me to start walking to my lesson. I had to step up my game when Mrs. Manson had us do recitals every month with the other students who were mostly girls. As I sat down at the piano with a shirt and tie, the nerves always started to rattle because I did not want to look bad in front of a bunch of giddy grade school girls. It usually started with a clunker and Mrs. Manson would say, ” Start over again Patrick.” The sweat beads began to flow.
What turned the tide for me was when our backyard neighbor, Dorothy Morgan, gave me some music books featuring show tunes from Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe. I found out that I could play these tunes and accompany my mother who had perfect pitch and a beautiful voice. I can remember many parties at my folks where I would spend time playing for my mom to the delight of her guests. This continued when I became the default piano player at Christmas parties. Our spinet at home had many gin and tonics, beers, wine and other alcoholic drinks spilled in the keyboards over the years as revelers at my folks house would constantly bark in my ear,” Play White Christmas……dammit.”
Moving forward, my path to musical anonymity was aided by taking some piano electives at Allegheny College. I had the good fortune of studying under the tutelage of Lucille and Frederic Marantz who were noted classical pianists and performed nationally. A lot of the students in the music program, were studying to go to Oberlin or Julliard and yours truly struggled not to hit the cracks. At our college recitals, I would often come straight from the tennis courts, a ball of sweat, and bang out Scott Joplin’s “Pineapple Rag” as my performance piece while the other more refined and serious students played their sonatas and various piano pieces from the classical composers. Drs. Marantz saw me as a bit of an anomaly and a breath of fresh air in a program that was pretty structured as a feeder to Oberlin and Julliard. Allegheny was probably the high water mark of my piano playing.
I continued to play and had some funny experiences playing in bars and parties along the way which resulted in free beers and laughs. I even had an experience sitting in on Bourbon Street with an old time rag band in a bar. My friend Norm put me up to it on a business trip and the guys were kind to me by playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” which was a slow march and allowed me to keep up with my three chord progression in a major key. The sweat beads started to come again but I was happy to have performed as such on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
My piano sits a little idle in my house currently but as I get older, I see the need to keep up what meager skills I have. So I am sure that the Piano Man will inspire me to once again get partially serious about playing and if Janet, Joan and Jack can stand the occasional clunker and crack playing, I will fill the house with some kind of music. The moral of the story is that you are never too old to pick up a musical instrument. Encourage your child, grandchild, spouse, or whomever to play. It is good for your mind and you never know, people might ” put bread in your jar, and say Man! what are you doing here.” Thanks for reading.

“Play us a Christmas Song or else I’ll………….

photophotophoto Well this weekend was the opening day of ski season at our local area Seven Springs, and as I have done for the last 52 years, I made my way to opening day and met up with my ski group with whom I have skied for over 40 years. Some of these guys I see mountain biking and others I don’t reconnect with until the snow flies. But it is always good to see them, ski with them, and find out how the family is, what is new in their lives, and check out the new gear that they have. It is always great to make those first turns with waxed skis and tuned edges. Flex the ankles, push off, pressure the tongues of the boots and make that first carve. Ahh yes! What a great feeling and great to get a break to ski in November.

As I said my goodbyes for the day, I passed the Mountain Club on the way down County Line Road. My mind drifted to all the good times at that club playing the piano during the Christmas season. I will tell you a little more about that but first I need to explain my roots in music. My mother thought it would be a great idea for me to take piano lessons as a young child and as I made my way to Mrs. C’s house, I had some trepidations. I will not divulge Mrs. C’s name for reasons yet to be told. Mrs. C was a demanding Asian lady who knew full well when I did not practice my scales. She was very particular with my finger positions and demanded accuracy as I made my way through the octaves. On occasion, her mother would teach me and she had this interesting habit of passing gas during my scale interpretations. It was a little unnerving as I hit some real clunkers when she would bounce one of those gas bombs off the piano bench. I told my mom when I got home and in typical fashion, my mom gave me some BS by saying that it was acceptable in the Asian culture to pass gas and that I should not think a thing about it and just play my scales. I found that explanation unusual and soldiered my way through the lessons with old lady C as best as I could. I was thankful when I started to take lessons from a new lady down the street named Mrs. Manson. She was equally demanding in all respects but on occasion, her daughter Carlene would teach me. Carlene was a gorgeous grad student with long blonde hair and was a real stunner. As a young teenager with the hormones raging, it was again hard to concentrate during the chromatic progressions with her sitting right next to me. I often tried to get out of my lessons when I was playing football across the street but my dad called me to take a shower and get moving. As I walked down the street with my hair freezing in the wind, I always hoped that Carlene would be filling in. It was a good thing she was not sitting next to me in the recitals because the nerves would surely have detonated my piece and I would have embarrased myself by playing the cracks all during my turn at bat. Her boyfriend showed up one day and as a youthful brat, I was jealous. “I’ll bet he can’t play the Flight of the Bumble Bee as well as me!” I wanted to take him out, but he was a little large for me.

High school was fun with my piano playing moving towards Billy Joel, Elton John, and Leon Russell pieces. I could do them some justice but only in a crude high school manner of getting most of the notes right with the clunkers being ignored by my understanding friends. I really enjoyed playing for my mother whom I accompanied while she sang. My mom had perfect pitch and sang at the Pittsburgh Playhouse for years. It was a treat to accompany her and it gave her great joy to have me play for her. This led to many Christmas carol parties at my parents house but that will be the subject of another post. Suffice to say, I did my fair share of playing in high school.

Moving on to college, I continued to take lessons as electives. I studied under Mrs. Frederick Marantz who was a real professional. Her husband looked and played like Artur Rubenstein and it was a real joy to hear him play that Steinway in their living room. When the both of them played, I should have sold tickets. What a treat to hear those two people play with amazing talent and skill. I felt like such a rube when I arrived fresh from the tennis court in my t-shirt and shorts dripping on the Steinway. Mrs. Marantz was so kind by saying that it didn’t matter how I showed up as long as I had practiced. While her other students were playing classical pieces and preparing to enter Oberlin or Juilliard, I was playing Scott Joplin and ragtime piano. The Marantzes thought it was amusing and I was kind of a novelty at the recitals. But they all knew I was in it for the fun and my talent was limited. No Oberlin or Juilliard for me, but I could still bang out the ragtime or the Christmas carols when needed.

So, if we were fortunate enough to have snow between Thanksgiving and Christmas,the apres ski was a lot of fun. I was teaching skiing with my group on the weekends in my younger days, and Craig Morris our ringleader got a pickup truck filled with hay and we all would sing Christmas carols all over the mountain on one Saturday night before the holiday. Because of my limited training, I was the musical director and printed out all the song sheets. This became a pretty popular affair and the people on the mountain whose chalets we visited became incensed if we didn’t make a stop at their place to drain all of their beer and booze. It was like a rite of the season for our motly crew to visit and sing off key for their enjoyment. Their penalty was going to the beer distributor the next day to refill their fridges. Craig and I used to always put this show together and it ended up at the Mountain Club. The first year, I was a little shy to play the piano until I suddenly was placed on the piano bench rather abruptly by our skiing pal Joe Scott who in the holiday spirit said,” Play some Christmas carols or I will kick your ass.” We all laughed and I obliged and we drained all the resources from the club including food. We were a roving band of gypsies that’s for sure and as I drove down the mountain on opening day this year, I could still hear those carols as I passed the Mountain Club. It seemed to me that the sounds muffled as I approached the turnpike for the trek back to the burg. But those days will never be forgotten and it all started with the flattulance of an old lady and the beautiful strains of my mother’s perfectly pitched soprano voice. I am happy that I have that skill. I have had a lot of fun expecially during the holidays with it, and although I am no Rubenstein or Fred Marantz, I can play the cracks as well as anybody expecially on a beautufully polished Steinway grand piano. Don’t listen to me too critically and you will enjoy my enthusiasm even though the occasional clunker might resonate. Thanks for listening, er ahh reading. Think Snow!!!