The Lego Movie is one of my daughter's favorites. Our protagonist, Emmet, is a normal nobody. A construction worker who builds everything according to “the instructions.” Later it is revealed that Emmet has a secret “off plan” idea – the double decker couch. His comrades are far from impressed and say it’s literally the worst idea ever. Anyone on the top deck would have their feet dangling in the faces of those on the bottom deck.
However, that really bad idea eventually plays an important part in enabling a nobody like Emmet to save everybody, and elevates him from a simple construction worker to a Master Builder.
As I think about Emmet's journey, it reminds me of how I learned to play piano. My mom started teaching me to play when I was about three. She had a big book of Beatles music and played it cover to cover, over and over. One of the first pieces I learned to play was “Hey Jude”, mostly be ear.
Our piano was an old upright Cabinet Grand that once belonged to my great grandmother, Etta. She taught her three daughters how to play so that they would always have the option of supporting themselves as music teachers.
When Etta passed away, my parents got a moving truck to drive the piano all the way from Weatherford Oklahoma to our farm in Dairyville, California so I could learn to play on it too.
When I was about six my mom hired a college kid named Autumn to come out to our house and take over teaching me piano. Autumn told me she was teaching me using “the onion peel method.” At the time I had no idea what she was talking about and mostly ignored it.
I loved Etta’s piano and played with it like a toy. My little brother would crawl under it and hold down the pedals as I played, giving it an echoey, soupy vibe which sounded sorta cool. So, I started keeping the pedal down pretty much all the time, even when little brother wasn’t helping out with that.
Little Brother, Mark
Autumn was not into the soupyness and tried as hard as she could to instruct me on the “right” way to use the pedal. But she failed.
When I was about age eight my parents started driving me the twelve miles into town so I could learn from a “real piano teacher”, Mrs. Laymon-Rishel. She used a wheelchair to get around but this did not slow her down one bit. Whizzing around her piano studio with the confidence of a race car driver and rolling to the piano at full speed to play with wild abandon put me in awe. She was puzzled as to how I could play the piano by looking at the notes, yet have no idea which note was A,B,C,D etc., either on the piano or the page. I had no idea either, but guess maybe it had something to do with the onion peel method.
None of that really mattered to me. I was busy writing my own compositions and re-creating the classics. Why shouldn’t I play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata ten times faster than Beethoven had intended?
Why not use the pedal with Bach? He had a harpsichord that sounded like a jar of rattling bones while I had a really cool instrument with not only strings, but hammers and sustain!
Me, about 9 or 10 years old, with Great Grandmother Etta's piano.
Mrs. Laymon-Rishel circled all the tempos, time signatures and dynamic markings until my music score looked almost like my little brother had got his hands on it. But, despite her best efforts, I was not following the instructions.
My mother was a children’s book author. Here are some pages from one of her stories, Mrs. Merriwether’s Musical Cat.
It is about a piano teacher who struggles with her students until an amazing cat she names Beethoven comes into her life and magically makes them all play much better.
One of her students, Morton Highbrow, mangled Mozart and Mendelssohn, and butchered Bach and Brahms. Like Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Laymon-Rishel was probably wishing for that cat whenever I came by.
But I was in love with the music, and playing it the way I wanted to. The colors of Debussy smushed together like a Monet painting, Khachaturian got me dreaming of elegant couples dancing and swirling in the moonlight. Chopin evoked feelings I didn’t fully understand, but thought I might when I get older.
In college I majored in music – well, “Piano Performance” to be exact. Here I managed to play things the “right” way most of the time. But, my old ways lived on late at night in the practice rooms when only the janitors were around to hear all of my wrongness.
The truth was, I loved playing the piano the wrong way.
Upon graduation I felt free to stop following all instructions. All of my teachers were truly wonderful, vibrant and inspiring. But, like Frankie, I needed to do it… my way.
I hope to be on the way to building that double decker couch. Gaining the true title of Master Builder may be a lifelong process, but I’m striving for it, and so grateful for the opportunity. So grateful for my parents who brought that piano all the way out from a little town in Oklahoma, grateful for my little brother for planting seeds of inspiration, and grateful for the teachers who taught me the rules so I can break them. And I'm super grateful for those who listen to my wrong playing and appreciate it.
Yep, this is a photo of my parents, little brother Mark, baby sister Sarah, and that's me looking like a chipmunk, top right.
You can hear my re-arrangements of the classics on my new album, Timeless.
I’m curious to hear if there is anything you celebrate doing in your life the wrong way? Please comment below and let me know.