Me and Music

Copyright © 2003, Glenn Story

Piano Lessons
Japanese Musi
Shakuhachi
Nutcracker

Piano Lessons

When I was three years old my mother had a friend who was a piano teacher. We would go to visit her on occasion and I would sit at the piano and “bang” on it–playing random notes and pretending I was really playing. Then one day my mother’s friend asked me if I would
like to really learn to play. I said “sure”. So at the age of three I began studying the piano. As a consequence I could read music before I could read English.

When I was in second grade my mother went to the hospital for some operation and while she was there she had an additional medical emergency. In those days there was no such thing as medical insurance and so this put our family into significant debt. We could no longer afford piano lessons, but my mother made an arrangement with her friend that I would get piano lessons, and in exchange my mother would iron her friend’s family’s clothes.

The following year my teacher asked me to play some particular piece I had been practicing and I said no, I didn’t want to. I thought it was perfectly reasonable to refuse her request but she didn’t. She thought I was being too familiar because she was my mother’s friend. So she suggested that I change to another teacher. That is how I came to study with a woman named Louise Reeves. It meant my parents had to go back to paying money for lessons, but they were willing to do that. People said I had a talent, so my parents sacrificed for my benefit.

One of the pieces Mrs. Reeves taught to her students was Malaquena by Ernesto Lecuona. (I looked on the web for a piano version to link to, but I couldn’t find one. Here is a guitar version.) I loved that piece and it was my goals for several years to learn to play it. Eventually I did. I do have an analog recording of myself playing it. Maybe some day I’ll digitize it. It was around this time that I started watching the “Young People’s Concerts” on TV, led by Leonard Bernstein. These programs deepened my understanding of the structure of music and enhanced my love of that music.

When I was in fifth and sixth grades my school let us listen to a weekly radio broadcast called the “Standard Hour,” so called because it was presented (commercial free) by the Standard Oil Company. It was designed for school children and featured various classical-music topics. Some of my classmates thought the program boring, but I loved it.

In seventh grade I took Boys Chorus as a school class. On the first day of class those of us who could play piano were asked to audition as the accompanist. It turned out my sight-reading skills weren’t good enough so I was passed over for another boy. I think it turned out for the best, since it gave me the chance to learn how to sing on pitch and to sing harmony–I already knew how to play the piano.

When I was in high school, my father decided he wanted to buy an organ. (I think I got some of my musical abilities from him, although he never formally studied music.) In order to buy the organ, he would have to sell my piano. The organ came with free lessons, which he gave to me. The woman who taught the lessons had, by some bizarre co-incidence, the same first and last name as my piano teacher. However, she was not go good a teacher, at least for
me: I had definite musical ideas that I wanted to express. So after the free lessons were used up, I went back to my original teacher, who, in fact, also gave organ lessons.

I remember, while studying the organ, learning the “Little Fugue” in g minor by J.S. Bach. I also remember that my teacher asked me to use that piece to give a short lecture at a recital on the fugue form.

Before too long, however, my father realized I was happier with piano and bought me a new one. I then went back to piano.

I continued taking piano lessons until I was in college. Then I joined the army. Just prior to my enlisting, my music teacher arranged a one-boy recital for me. I played most of the pieces I had learned in recent years. Of course half the audience was members of my family, but there were other people there as well. I must confess I didn’t play that well; I made too many mistakes. I was just too busy getting ready to join the army to practice enough. Or perhaps I
was too confident. Or too nervous during the performance.

Once in the army, I stopped playing piano. I still listened to music, of course. I had a radio and a record player that I bought. I remember that my barracks mates secretly through one of my records away, because they couldn’t stand to listen to it: it was atonal electronic music, and fairly strange to say the least.

Eventually I was stationed in Okinawa. I was married by then so I lived in a private off-post apartment with my wife. We rented our furniture and the rental company’s inventory included pianos so I rented one. I fooled around with it some, playing old pieces and improvising strange music into a tape recorder. But I never put much energy into it.

Once we left Okinawa, I was piano-less until my oldest daughter was around six years old. At that time she began taking piano lessons, so we bought her a piano. For a while I played duets with her for recitals, but her skills have since exceeded mine.

Japanese Music

However, prior to getting our current piano, I spent some time in Japan. The first time I went there was for a couple of weeks and I just payed tourist. The second time was for three months, so I knew I needed to make up a spare-time project to avoid getting bored. So
I decided to learn more about Japanese music. I went to concerts of Japanese music, bought Japanese record albums, recorded Japanese music from the radio. I also bought an English book by William Malm, probably the world’s leading authority on Japanese music outside of Japan. In all of these endeavors I had the help of Japanese people where I worked–mostly women. As in our own culture it seems like women are more likely to be interested in music and other art forms than men. When I returned from that trip I made a tape recording, lasting several hours, organizing and summarizing what I had collected. Since it was so long, I also made a shorter version which I gave to friends here as well as to the Japanese people who had helped me.

Part of the music I collected was the vendor of a kind of toy shakuhachi made out of what appears to be plastic water pipe. Now, when I hear that recording I am amazed that there was a kind of telepathy between us, since I didn’t speak any Japanese and he didn’t speak much English. He was playing modern popular music, whereas I wanted him to play Japanese folk music. But I didn’t know how to ask. Just at that point he asks someone else standing there, “Eigo de ‘minyo’ nan toyu?” Which I now know menas “How do you say ‘folk song’ in English?”

Shakuhachi

A couple of years later, I got the opportunity to live in Japan for a year. (It turned into two years once I got there.) So I conceived a more ambitious project: I would learn to play a Japanese instrument. I chose the shakuhachi,an end-blown bamboo flute.

Once I decided I wanted to learn to play the shakuhachi I needed to find a teacher. I didn’t think I could understand enough Japanese to study with a Japanese teacher. Then I went to a concert given by John Neptune. He plays a wide range of music, including jazz, on the
shakuhachi. I telephoned him to talk about lessons. He did indeed teach. I asked him how hard the shakuhachi was to play. I gave this analogy: If you take someone who has never seen a piano before, and say, “here play these three notes,” the result (assumuing you picked harmoneous notes) will be quite pleasing. On the other hand, if you take someone who has never played violin before and tell them, “just draw this bow across these strings,” the result can sound like you’re torturing a cat. Where, I asked, did the shakuhachi fit on that spectrum. He said it was beyond the violin. The first time you play a violin you will make a sound, although not necessarily a pleasant one. The first time you play the shakuhachi, he said, you won’t make any sound.

Neptune taught lessons according to the traditional Japanese style of scheduling. American music teachers have standing appointments with their students; both know what time each week the lesson will be held. In the Japanese tradition, however, the teacher makes known their available hours and students show up when they feel like it.  If you show up and there are other students waiting, then you wait “in line”. All listen to the student who is currently receiving a lesson in the belief that they can all learn from it. It makes perfect sense if you aren’t worried about how much time you will spend waiting.

The last discouragement with Neptune was that to get to his house for lessons, I would have to travel through Shinjuku Station during rush hour. Shinjuku Station is literally the world’s busiest train station.

Then I ran into William Malm, the author of the definitive book on Japanese Music I mentioned above. He was giving a lecture at”International Friends of Kabuki” a group to which I belonged.

Kabuki, of course, is the Japanese theater form. It makes extensive use of music, which may be one reason I really came to like it. Anyway, Professor Malm was giving a lecture on the use of music in Kabuki. After the lecture I ran into him at the train station. I struck up a conversation, and told him of my idea to study Shakuhachi and my conversation with John Neptune. He said I should not be discouraged by Neptune’s negative words. He said I could buy a cheap wooden shakuhachi at a department store and try it on my own. He said it didn’t take that long to learn to make sounds. If I succeeded then I could go take lessons.

It wasn’t too long after that, by an amazing co-incidence, that I ran into the street vendor I had met three years earlier that sells plastic shakuhachis. I bought one from him for the equivalent of $6. As Professor Malm had said it didn’t take that long for me to start
making sounds.

Then my wife and I went to a concert by another American shakuhachi player: Christopher Blasdel. I remember walking in a blinding snow to get to the concert hall and having the snow melt off my head making my hair wet once we got into the hall. Later I called Chris and he did indeed take students and he scheduled lessons, in the American style. So I started taking lessons from him. He got me to buy a wooden shakuhachi as Professor Malm had suggested. That cost the equivalent of $60.

After a while my teacher said it was time for me to get a real shakuhachi, hand made from bamboo. He spoke to a shakuhachi maker that he knew and arranged to have one made. That one cost me about $600. I mention the prices of these three instruments because I’ve always been struck by the fact that each one cost almost exactly 10 times the previous one.

I was thrilled to own my own shakuhachi. But unfortunately after a few months the bamboo cracked and the instrument became unplayable. One could argue that this failure of the bamboo was the maker’s fault for choosing a poor-quality piece. But one could argue as well that it was just bad luck. My teacher arranged with the maker a deal: the maker gave me a new shakuhachi, not so expensive or well made as the first. In this way both the maker and I shared the cost of the failure of the original instrument. It seemed a very Japanese way of resolving the issue. It was also typically Japanese that my teacher act as a go-between in the resolution. Indeed, since it was he who recommended this shakuhachi maker to me, my teacher had an obligation to help resolve any such disputes.

I continued to take lessons from Chris the entire time I was in Japan. I once told him I was embarrassed by the little time I could find to practice, but he said even if I only played once a week at my lesson it was better than nothing at all.

When I returned to the United States, I had the name of a Japanese man to contact to continue my studies. He lived too far away but recommended the name of a Japanese American who lived close by. I thus continued to take lessons for several years. But then I broke my shoulder and had to stop for several months. After that I chose
not to restart my lessons, as I was too busy.

I never considered that I was proficient at the instrument, at least not enough to satisfy myself. The Japanese have a saying: “It takes four years to learn to shake your head.” It is a reference to the fact that a shakuhachi player moves his head from side to side to
produce vibrato. I did learn how to make vibrato, but I never felt like I had the dynamic range I wanted to be able to express myself.

Nutcracker

For some reason, the music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker has played a part in my life from an early age.

When I was very young I had a record player that only played small 78 rpm records. Most of the records I had were “Golden Records” a brand name for children’s records, manufactured on yellow plastic. One of these records was about Tarzan. The “A” side “Tarzan’s Song”, the details of which I no longer remember.

The “B” side had “Tarzan’s dance”. I didn’t realize it at the time but “Tarzan’s dance” was really the “Chinese Dance”from the Nutcracker.

When I was older my father bought a new phonograph that came with one free LP recording–a kind of sampler of classical music. I used to listen to that record over and over, and it certainly influenced what later became my favorite classical music. One of the excerpts on that record was the “Russian Dance” from the Nutcracker.

A few years later I received a recording of the Nutcracker Suite as a Christmas present. Now I could hear a broader ranger of music from the ballet.

In sixth grade we students were given an opportunity to see the local Glendale Symphony Orchestra. I remember that they played one piece with which I was already familiar: the “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker. can remember being so excited about this event! It was my first time to see and hear in person a symphony orchestra. The sound was so beautiful and so much better than what I could hear in TV and records. I also remember being surprised that the opening melody was carried by the cellos; I had thought it was the violins.

As a young adult, before we had kids, my wife and I attended the San Francisco Ballet performance of he Nutcracker. We liked it so much it because a tradition for several years for us to attend.

It was many years later, and my older daughter, Elizabeth, had been taking ballet lessons for several years. The school where she studied ballet decided to put on a performance of Nutcracker. The school was asking for parents to volunteer to be on the stage crew.
I think I was the only one to volunteer. I ended up running the follow spot, but I was intrigued by the board that ran the rest of the stage lighting. I asked the operator to teach me how to use the board. He did, and the following year, I ran the light board. I have been running the light board for Western Ballet ever since, even though neither of my children still study there. (One is grown and the other lost interest.) During the years that my daughters studied with Western Ballet, I watched them grow from rolls for small children where they basically just wave their arms over their heads and run around, to more sophisitcated roles, dancng en pointe. In Elizabeth’s case she danced the role of Clara, the
young girl who falls in love with the Nutcracker Prince.

The first American production of the Nutcracker ballet was done by San Francisco Ballet in 1944. In 1997 I had the thrill of watching my daughter Elizabeth perform in San Francisco Ballet’s production of Nutcracker. It was a small part. Nevertheless I was proud.

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