Self-Taught and Proud of It

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Some may disagree, but I think I’m entirely on the mark when I say that music lessons aren’t for everyone.

I speak from personal experience. When I entered high school, I’d been playing piano for a little over two years and I was hooked, plain and simple. I played at home on our living room spinet, I played in the houses of friends and relatives and I played during class while I studied algebra, fingering scales on the wooden desktop.

When I heard there were practice rooms in the music department–each with its own piano–I established a lunchtime routine: I’d wolf down a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria, then make a hasty dash for the music department with its tiny practice rooms and a vacant piano.

The music department was a ghost town at lunch but I quickly learned that I was trespassing. A red-haired kid informed me of this as he shook the spit from his trumpet valve. Those rooms are for band members only, he said. I sized him up and he seemed harmless, so I lied and told him I was thinking of joining. He shrugged and turned his attention back to the trumpet.

Weeks passed without incident until one sunny day in early October. Hunched over the piano in Practice Room B, I was pounding out a rousing rendition of Maple Leaf Rag when I became aware of someone standing in the doorway, arms folded.

I stopped mid-passage and turned to see Mrs. Buckholz, one of the music teachers. I braced for the expected reprimand but she just smiled and unfolded her arms.

“You play beautifully,” she said. “How long have you been taking lessons?”

“I’ve never taken lessons,” I answered proudly. “I taught myself when I was eleven.”

“You never took lessons?” She sounded disgusted. She sighed, refolded her arms and abruptly turned to leave.

Such a waste of talent,” I heard her mutter, out in the empty hallway.

Mrs. Buckholz had one more thing to add, right at the end of lunch period. She didn’t look up from her desk but she quietly addressed me as I went to leave.

“In the future, please spend your free time elsewhere. Those practice rooms are for school band members only.”

I’d been banished from the music department, tried and found guilty of wasting my talent. Boy, did that stick in my craw. Now, I don’t dispute that many musicians have benefited from formal training, but how exactly was I wasting my talent by acquiring knowledge on my own?

I had learned by ear, inspired by an unlikely hit song in the summer of ’74. From the movie The Sting, “The Entertainer” had been written before the invention of the airplane. Yet it made its way to #3 on the Billboard charts, ragtime made hip by a Newman/Redford blockbuster.

It grabbed me, that song, and I had to learn how to play it. I bought the 45 (MP3s were still a quarter century away) and I placed it on the turntable, which now sat atop the piano. For the next two weeks I played that record endlessly, each time discerning a few more notes that sounded more or less correct when I played them on the keyboard.

Eventually I picked up the sheet music because my rudimentary version didn’t sound entirely accurate. The written music would enable me to play the song exactly as it sounded on the record, but first I’d need to teach myself how to read the notes. The process is really just reverse engineering and it’s something that everyone does in their youth. Kids learn to talk before they learn to read; the opposite would be impossible. So, if the record was how the song sounded, then the sheet music was how the song looked. And once I made that correlation, the sheet music began to make sense.

My disappointment with Mrs. Buckholz did not last long and by the end of October I could not have cared less. I had started a band with a guy who played drums and it was farewell to ragtime and greetings, rock and roll. No one now could accuse me of wasting my talent. Self-educated rock musicians are by no means unique.

And if some highbrows dismissed rock as musically inferior because its composers were for the most part unschooled, they might’ve been surprised to learn that there were precedents in place long before John Lennon was born.

Irving Berlin could not read music and, in fact, he could barely play the piano. He’d plunk out his melodies on the black keys if possible–he found them easier to play–and then hand the tune over to a professional arranger who would spruce it up with some appropriate harmonies. This unsophisticated method spawned timeless classics like “God Bless America” and “White Christmas”, the best-selling single of all time until Elton John surpassed it.

Musical knowledge can be useful, of course, but it cannot replace innate talent. I’ve known trained pianists who could play with breathtaking dexterity, provided their sheet music sat squarely in front of them. But yank away the pages and their fingers would freeze, helpless, in mid-arpeggio. I never understood how they could only play something when they were reading it off a page. Go to a Broadway show and I’ll wager there’s not a single actor onstage holding a script.

Now, I’ll admit there are circumstances under which musical training would be an absolute must. If you plied me with enough martinis, I might agree to conduct the New York Philharmonic but I’d be facing the orchestra with an idiot’s grin, scratching my scalp as I fumbled at the score.

And of course there are some professions where formal training is demanded by law. To go under the knife with a self-taught surgeon would not be particularly prudent, even if the price was right. And who would board a plane if they knew that the pilot had obtained his license from an online flight school?

But the arts are different, as history shows, and my musical skills have served me well. I’ve played on albums and radio jingles and performed in theaters and TV studios. I even almost toured with an 80’s pop star, but the tour was cancelled when her record sales tanked.

So if Irving Berlin and I could do it then you can, too, if you’ve got the gift. By all means take lessons if you’re so inclined but if you’re not, don’t let a school music teacher rain on your parade.

A waste of talent, Mrs. Buckholz? The only waste of talent is talent not used.

write by Kenelm

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