Saturday, June 26, 2021

It's official - The Mainstay is reopening for live, in person shows next month! And Mainstay Mondays are returning! When the pandemic hit last year, guest artists were booked solid for many months out. Now we can finally perform those shows, or some of them, anyway. I'll be presenting 2 shows a month, one regional (or national) guest artist and one local (or regional) guest artist. It's a work in progress. For July, the exceptional guitarist Steve Herberman joins me on the 12th, and the Washington College Jazz combo alumni reunite on the 26th.

it's going to be fun to be able to host the first live, in person show at the Mainstay in 15 months. It was also fun to be tasked with making the official announcement. And fun is only one of the many words that I would need to use to describe my unique association with the Mainstay over the last 5 years. Grateful is, of course, one of them.

It's been over 3 months since I began a second weekly night of livestreaming. In contrast to the "Escape, From Home" piano hour, which resembles a cocktail/dinner hour set (sort of, until I start meandering, quoting, and being ridiculous. In other words, being myself), my newer livestream, "Inside the Process", engages with both music and dialogue. The objective is to bring one more into the experience(s) of playing piano and of being a musician in my world. It was modeled to be a continuation of "Pandemic Piano" from the Mainstay page; primarily insights into the music making process. I'm finding, however, a freedom to dive more deeply into sharing from my more personal music making experiences and perspective. The context of this being on my own Facebook page, as opposed to the Mainstay page, has moved the center of gravity in such a way as to throw open the gate to a field full of flowers (topics) from which to pick. For every topic I explore, often several more are brought to mind. It is clear to me now that I could do this (and enjoy doing it) for a long time. Maybe. As my schedule fills out (which is happening quickly, especially with the rehearsals and recording sessions you don't see listed on my schedule), it's going to increasingly become a challenge to keep it all going. Which may simply mean, as has been the bottom line for the last 15 months, that I have to remain flexible, and be willing to adjust along the way with the changing landscape. 

An added and welcome dimension of doing the livestreams is the new community it has formed: a mixture of those who have followed me locally over the years, alongside of new (and longstanding) non-local friends, facilitated by social media. I began YouTube posting in 2007, the difference now being that livestreaming takes the experience to the next 'relationship" place. I can't say that my livestream community is huge, but neither can I say it isn't vital. Like the "community" that formed around Mainstay Mondays, it is real. And, ultimately, why I do this. Whether it is viable (or ultimately, sensible) to continue long term, juggled along with everything else, remains to be seen, but I am hopeful. Grateful for all the opportunities I have, and for those who encourage me along the way.


Friday, June 11, 2021

 As I was drinking my coffee this morning, I pulled up my journal (blog) to look for a specific post, and was confronted with it being about 2-1/2 months since I last posted here. I haven't forgotten. In fact, just last night I was poking around with various draft entries (there are more than a few) attempting to find a (writing) zone somewhere in them. There are so many things to write about. Too many, really. And I find my journal entry attempts rather scattered, even more so than usual (which is saying something). So it landed with me this morning (when my creative thoughts are often more clear) to embrace the "scattered" by going over to the laptop (instead of returning to my normal morning practice routine) and writing about it. And the first place this takes me is to the acknowledgement that these "scattered" in-progress journal entries are just reflective and illustrative of where we are now, in the lunge toward a post-pandemic "normal". In fact, that's what most of the half completed journal entries are about: some individual project or component part of the bigger picture, as it is unfolding. I knew this was coming. And I suppose I also knew that it would require some adjustment, as the "return to normal" is really a new normal, at least for me. Just typing this affirms that I really have embraced the ideas and things posted in this blog over the last year and change; especially concerning the "sabbatical" opportunity of practice and growth. I suppose it is also affirming that a part of me is resisting the adjustment that is required now. But, as it is clarifying itself a bit as I continue to write, the adjustment is not so much to put one thing down and pick another thing up as it is to release my hold on everything, in order to embrace it all again. To embrace it as the big picture that it is now, and is becoming, not what it has been over the last year, as much as I might want to romanticize all of that. And, of course, how many times have you heard me say that I only have a wide angle lens? So, this little writing exercise seems to have been necessary (and probably overdue) to remind me that every egg I am juggling is actually an ingredient in the cake already being baked. Ahhh, a paradox ... NOW we're getting someplace.   :)

The picture above is from last night, prior to presenting a solo piano entertainment show (similar to what I would do for American Cruise Lines). It felt good. So does actually completing a blog entry, for the first time in way too long. Wide angle lens, Joe. Embrace it, it's where you can see things most clearly. 

I knew that.   ;)

Now, back to practicing.   :)       

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Well, this was a nice thing to find when I read this month's True Blue Jazz Festival newsletter: 

Artist Spotlight ~ Joe Holt, Pianist  

I can tell you definitively, as a Vocalist, you are nothing without a talented musician the likes of pianist, Joe Holt. Whether he’s on the gig as a ‘Sideman’ solo with you, or with a band…Joe is the standout performer on that stage. I don’t mean to imply he’s dominating the spotlight. Joe is there as an artist performing so fluidly, with the group or the singer, that the depth & grace of his musicianship may be lost on the audience. Joe Holt’s range of style is only surpassed by his ability to play those styles so incredibly well. And it’s that reason that Joe Holt is one of the most in demand pianists in all of the Mid-Atlantic region. Singers love him because he allows them room to truly deliver a lyric with all opportunity for any amount of emotion, subtlety, punch, or that slight slide off of a low drawn breath in to that next phrase…Joe is there with you as you tell your song story. To hear Joes’ mastery first-hand, catch Beth McDonald doing her tribute to Miss Peggy Lee, watch (& listen) for the sweet vocalization of Sharon Sable when she breaks out her Blossom Dearie Show, & of course Peggy Raley (True Blue Jazz Artistic Director) as she wraps the crowd around her little finger...  All these Ladies of Jazz & Song Styling are in the capable & sensitive piano hands of Mr. Joe Holt. Experience the gift of Joe Holt…check out his Facebook Piano Hour, or best yet...visit Joe’s Website for his Performance Schedule. He really is a truly, bluely one amazing artist at the piano!

What jumped out at me, and was actually quite validating, was the entirety of focus on me as an accompanist. I could imagine that some pianists would be disappointed, perhaps even annoyed, at this framing. But, honestly, most pianists are not (self-realized) accompanists first. While it is certainly true that I put myself out there as an instrumentalist and a soloist, I know who I am (in a earlier post in this blog, I arrive at the understanding that my solo performances are accompaniments as well; accompanying the experience of the audience). So I have to say that Eddie Sherman nailed it. I am not a performer who gets your attention by saying (or playing) "Look at me!". Rather, if I do get your attention, it's by drawing you in, to share in the experience with me. And sharing (and supporting) the experience is how I would describe accompanying, so there it is. One of the truest lines I've ever read is "When you grow old, you grow more like yourself". Don't call me "old" quite yet (old man in training though, for sure), but perhaps call me "appropriately maturing". At least I'd like to think so.  😊     

Monday, March 08, 2021

  When the pandemic hit last year, the Mainstay was quick to offer on line streaming programming as a means to serve and remain connected to their audience. Because Monday nights were already an established regular thing in their programming, they chose to jump in there. I was given the initial opportunity, and suggested a streaming hour titled the "DIY Cocktail Hour". This opened the door for an eventual evolution of Monday night programming for the Mainstay, leading to a variety of virtual concerts and interview shows. This evolution in programming allowed me to move the cocktail hour concept to my own Facebook page (on a different evening of the week). Understanding that I had essentially given the title "DIY Cocktail Hour" to the Mainstay, I renamed my livestream the "Escape, From Home" piano hour, which began weekly streaming on my page May 21 of last year. I remained in the pool of presenters for the Mainstay, evolving the concept to a program sharing music, stories and insights in a look behind the curtain approach I called "Pandemic Piano". The Mainstay will be winding down its Monday night livestream series over the next couple of months, and my last "Pandemic Piano" stream will be this evening (3/8). Can you guess where I'm going with this? That's right, I'll be rebranding the concept (like I did with the DIY hour) and moving it to my own Facebook page beginning next week, stepping up the frequency from once a month to every Wednesday night. Wednesday 3/17 will kick off a 6 week trail period of the new "Inside the Process" livestream (As I type this entry, the alternate title "Making the Sausage" floated inside my head, but I think I'll let that one roll by.). This will be a more conversational stream as I share stories, songs and explanations, bringing you more inside my world and my process. My intention is to keep this new concept as a permanent companion to the Escape hour, provided folks are engaged by it and I can handle the discipline. So far, my weekly livestreams have evolved and grown into what I'd hoped they would be. I'll continue to seek to make the best contribution I can, trusting that, in the process, everything will find its place.   

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Last Sunday was the first live in person gig for me since Jazz Festival weekend in Rehoboth last year. It was fun. Fun to perform with someone else, for starters. Fun to actually go somewhere. And fun to have the feeling that the last year devoted to increased practice time is actually amounting to something. 

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a big deal important show or anything. Not even a real piano. But still, a very nice Valentine's Day brunch, where Beth McDonald and I were the ambient (of sorts) entertainment. Beth and I have a long history of performing together, with an established rapport, both on and off the stage. The gig was a reminder that when a rapport is multi faceted and a piece is missing, putting that piece back is a bit like opening the window blind in the morning and letting the sunshine in. It feels good.

There have been some in person gigs scattered across the last year, but primarily I perform from home, livestreaming by myself. I thought I was fine with that, but the experience of actually being somewhere, with more company than just myself reminded me of life outside the blinders. There is a social component to making music (actually, layers of such), that even a social curmudgeon like myself (that actually enjoys playing solo piano) realizes that he misses. And it's just nice to be somewhere, enjoy new food and surroundings, and be around friends. 

Even though I am in my own presence every day as I practice and play from home, and am experiencing the continued creative growth, having a few months between gigs is kind of like not seeing someone for months and immediately noticing whatever has changed, that hadn't stood out so much to others around them, as it was happening gradually. It was nice to feel the sense of command in a performance situation that I (continually) practice toward. 

In pandemic world, one big reason that it is easier for me to navigate, even thrive, compared to many musicians, is that I am primarily a soloist. Or at least primarily self contained. But music is ultimately about the many layers and levels of connection, and even a reclusive, nomadic, introvert soloist needs that. It was good to be reminded.   

Saturday, January 23, 2021

 I recently came across a fellow musician's Facebook thread that reminded me of what most (of us) musicians understand about ourselves; that we listen to (or experience) music differently than "regular" people. I had never questioned (and I doubt many musicians do) the assertion that a musician listens to music more analytically, engaging in such a way that the idea of "background" music becomes a challenge, at best. Because we are now listening with more of an intellectual awareness. Back in the day (when I was teaching regularly), I would tell new students to prepare for the way they listen to music to change as they grow artistically. At the time, I knew nothing else. Now, after decades of unpeeling the layers of discovery surrounding the rapport between performer and listener, and the connection between the stage and the audience, I find myself in a different place, both as a listener and a performer.

Music is an experience. Right? Or is it something that we experience, which is really something else?   Perhaps it could be said that some (perhaps many) musicians listen to music to understand, as much as (or more than) to experience. Particularly jazz musicians. Perhaps it could be said that when music becomes a (more) academically, or intellectually oriented pursuit; the goal, or perhaps even the meaning of music moves in that direction as well. When I was in college is when it really became clear that music is often taught (and therefore understood) as the assembling of component parts, like as the pieces of a puzzle. And of course, from one angle of view, it is. The most effective practicing is that which narrowly focuses on one specific area, idea or concept. But that is not how music is generally experienced. Until it becomes that (or you let it). Perhaps it can be said that (at least) some musicians don't turn off their brain when they put down their instrument. Or for that matter, when they pick it up. This is related to a fundamental principle that Kenny Werner teaches in his "Effortless Mastery" writings and seminars (I recommend the book). He asserts that, for many performing musicians, performance is sometimes (or often) indistinguishable from practicing. Working things out, thinking things through, setting a predetermined goal or outcome (and whatever other purpose driven agenda) becomes the focus, as opposed to being/creating/living an experience. Because, for the listener, music is that; an experience, an experience which (we) musicians provide. And share. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Christmas Eve happened about a week early this year. Or at least I pretended it did, emailing the hymns for the Christmas Eve service at Heron Point the week before the fact. I'm getting used, in some respects, to the current realities. Until I'm reminded that I'm not. Especially in this year of firsts, or first year for everything, when things are as we've never imagined they would be. The difference in this (pandemic driven) circumstance is that the changes are not permanent. Until we realize that they are; though perhaps not in the same way as the loss of a family member or loved one, or other circumstance where we grieve over someone or something that is never coming back. Because life as we knew it before early March is coming back, maybe even soon, right? Which brings me to one of those multi-pronged forks in the road where all I can do is stare at the landscape of potential paths and destinations, and then sit down.

A recurring theme in this blog is my (growing understanding/acceptance of, and) acclimation to having only a "wide angle" lens though which to see things. Embracing this has allowed me to connect more deeply and consistently in musical expression, but does me no favors with forks in the road such as these. My particular situation is complicated by being in an industry  (though that seems a funny term) that is impacted by this pandemic as no other. Music performance opportunities disappeared suddenly and completely at the start of the pandemic, and will be among the last things to fully come back when it is over. And by fully come back, I mean resolve to a place where it exists from that point forward. We are watching things (habits/expectations/priorities) change around us. And some of these changes will linger in the fabric of society in places and ways that we will only really know once we really get to that light at the end of the tunnel (whatever that actually means).

One of the forks in my comprehensive (wide angle lens) view of the road takes a path that few may want to acknowledge openly, if consider at all. What if the current Covid circumstance is the first volley, or the first domino in a string of events which steer our society to a new place, or new era? Actually, as I type that, it is apparent that this is already the case, as new habits have formed and new procedures have come to the front in our daily and societal lives. So really, it is just a question of degrees, in terms of what daily life looks like when this is entirely behind us. And maybe it looks just like it did before, although the lens through which I view has trouble seeing the path to that. From the beginning of the pandemic, the focus of most everyone, including our political leadership (at least publicly) has been to steer things in such a manner that we will be able return to the way things were (and therefore always should be, right?) as soon as possible. It didn't take long for this to really concern me, particularly as I watched some other musicians in my social media universe throw up their hands and begin tapping their feet and looking at their watches saying "Are we there yet?", with the expectation that this circumstance was no more than a burp, that would resolve itself to exactly the way things were before. Sitting and waiting, particularly with the disengagement that many, in the culture at large, seemed to have (How much Netfilx can one watch, really? On second thought, I don't want to know) is something I just can't relate to. Or feel good about, for the sake of society at large. But each of us have our own lives to lead, and I've already owned the idea that my path is off to the side (or somewhere) away from the mainstream, and uniquely my own.

If you've read this blog, you know that I've embraced this time (and still do) as a kind of sabbatical. But it is bigger than just having more time to practice. It's about being prepared. So what am I preparing for? Actually, this hasn't changed at all. My job (or objective) remains the same; to manage myself in the space, at the piano, so that every time I sit down to play, the connections are open, and what I uniquely do can happen. And it still can, and does. Not as frequently, at the moment, and with different trappings. But my "job" remains the same. The picture above came up in my Facebook memories today, from the "piano bar" days at JRs pub in Chestertown. Actually more like a "piano room", combining drinks, dinners, conversation and listening into a rather perfect social cocktail (for the demographic it attracted), although you can't see the piano from this angle.  And it revolved around me doing my job, much like my current Escape From Home piano livestream. So, for all the uncertainty about the future, and all the moving targets, there is a constant between now and then: us. Today is the last day of 2020. Some will say good riddance, but I'm going to try to keep my focus not on the things that seem to be out of control, but on the space around me, and my connection to it. Because tomorrow will likely look much like today. And we bring ourselves and who we are to each new day. Not in expectation of circumstances readjusting themselves so that things can snap back to the way they were (though that would be nice, or perhaps comfortable), but with a surrender to the moment. And, just now, my dad (who passed away in October) taught me something, as I recall a conversation with one of the ICU nurses at the VA hospital. She questioned my dad as to why he refused to take his shoes off in bed. He said "Because a Marine is always ready". So there it is. I've been wandering all over the landscape, and he summed it up in a sentence. High five, Pop.    :)

Friday, December 11, 2020

I'd imagine that name dropping is human nature. Some of my well connected musician friends on Facebook seem to not be able to post a picture or recount an experience unless there is a name to drop. Makes sense, until I question if it really does. Then it becomes something else, and something I had to wrap myself around before i was comfortable posting my own pictures and sharing my own stories on social media. Are they of lesser importance, or worth less, because I likely can't immediately impress you with optics before any attention is given to the meaning, or essence of the story I'm sharing? If so, then what is the story about? 

I'm in that place in my career, or path (or life), where there is (increasingly) more where I came from than where I'm going. Like everyone, I have a history of experiences. And the longer I live and work, the more I have. Typically, I'd be among the first to say to keep facing forward. "Forgetting what lies behind, press onward ...". But there is a place and a context for everything, including looking back, once you reach a certain point on the path. Many experiences to recount, stories to tell, lessons to revisit. Earlier in this blog, I recalled the moment I realized that I was transitioning from one listening to the stories of the older guys, to one telling the stories of my own (particularly for the benefit of the younger musicians). At this point there are many stories to tell. And if I'm to believe what I'm told, these stories, and the lessons they hold, are meaningful, even important. One young musician in particular surprised me one day when he said, in effect, that he listens to everything I say, intently, and ponders on it. And that just encourages me to continue seeking to encourage and inspire others with my own experiences and the lessons I have learned from them. But there have been times along the way when I've wondered about the impact of the stories I have. Or perhaps the validity of sharing them in the manner that I do, at least in the perspective of some. In the contemporary context of what it means to be successful as an artist, some may conclude that I'm not. The current popular culture seems to pin everything on popularity, or being a star. That I couldn't care less about, seriously. And that's a good thing, because what I do is way off to the side of anything to do with contemporary culture. What I have always cared about is being able to survive the experience, professionally. To live another day, then another... Or put another way, to make a living playing music. It isn't easy (especially as a free lance musician). It sometimes isn't pleasant. And it isn't a life (or income level) that most would be willing to lead. But having lived it, essentially my entire life, I do consider that I have succeeded. My thoughts about what it would mean to succeed as a musician were always in this place. And to define this place more broadly, it would be the place where I find myself; where I can make a contribution today, and by virtue of that contribution today, have the opportunity to work tomorrow. I can honestly say that at no point along the way did I ever seriously consider perusing "the big time".  I've always been honest about myself. Or honest enough, at least, to know where I fit in, what I'm capable of (not just musically but also temperamentally), and what I'm not. My permanently affixed rose colored glasses don't obscure this view, they just allow me to stay the course on the path I continue to travel. 

One example of being honest with myself was in college, when my music theory professor spoke to me after class, saying something like "You don't need to be here. Go to New York and get yourself in the scene". I thought about it seriously, and knew that I wasn't ready, especially personally. Looking back on it now, I never even considered that New York is where I could meet important people, or network and eventually play with well known musicians. Or that a career was waiting there for me to step into. Not to say that there weren't times along the path that I made calculated moves toward a goal I set for myself. But the best moves I've made have been the ones that watch the flowers grow around me and then create a bouquet from them. Which can make for a sweet smelling landscape, actually. 

On one of the infrequent occasions when being driven to a show (by a professional driver), I was asked what would seem to be an appropriate question of the musician he was transporting to New York to play a show; something to the effect of what big names I had played with. I'm not a young guy, and have been at this a long time, so I'm sure he was expecting an interesting (maybe even an exciting) list. As this is something I seldom think about, I stumbled all over my response (including the few names I could mention, while trying to explain that this wasn't the point). Some of it may have made sense, particularly the part about me primarily having been a solo player working in niche markets (a double drag on the idea of networking with other musicians). Having the opportunity to ponder over it, a decent sound byte answer could have been "that's not the path I took". But in either (or perhaps any) case, a prejudice concerning what success in music means (such as, if you're not famous yourself, then there must be famous people involved) gets in the way. Next time I'm asked that question, I'll try to have a better answer. Or at least a shorter one.

 I'm proud of my career and what I have accomplished in it. (Way) back when I started, my goal was rather simple, at least conceptually if not practically. I sought to make a living (such as it is) playing music. Is that an accomplishment? In this business, it is. I've always believed that there was something to for me to contribute. And when you have something to contribute, there will be a place for you. Affix rose colored glasses here.   

Friday, November 06, 2020


It is more than fair to say that I had very supportive parents. It is also fair to say that my career choice (to the extent that it was a choice) was not the direction they had in mind for me. But, as I said, they were  more than supportive. They may not have thought much of it at first when the toys I asked for as a child were mainly (toy) musical instruments. But it quickly became a thing. These weren't the only toys I accumulated. Christmas and birthdays and such were replete with Hot Wheels and action figures and other "normal" toys (that I didn't ask for). And sports equipment. Lots of sports equipment. And lessons on switch hitting in the backyard, complete with a pitchback, basketball hoop, and hanging spare tire to practice throwing the football. I was the only child. Dad was a Marine. The culture I would grow up in was a given. But so was who I am. And the older I became, the more freedom I would have to loosen the grip on one path and tighten it on the other. I certainly wouldn't blame any parent for not desiring an unstable career (such as in the arts) for their child. But in the end, I would blame the parent for not (eventually, at least) allowing their child to grow up and be who they are. But parents are susceptible to  worrying about their children. Of course. And want the best for them. Of course. My mom said to me 20 or 30 years ago "If I would have known that you were going to make a career out of playing the piano I would have never gotten you piano lessons". Which was quickly followed with a smile and a "Just kidding". She sorta was. But I get it. And my dad was never able to let go of wanting me to get a real estate license or an accounting degree or something, and work music around that. Al least until I finally found the magic response that made it stop: "I have my hands full with one career, how to you expect me to manage two?" My dad was always proud of me, especially in his last years, when he moved into a retirement community that I was already working for (as a music therapist and an entertainer), and was able to more closely experience the connections that can happen when I play. My mom was too. I know that. I was blessed with good parents. And blessed to have them for a long time. 

My dad passed on last month, days before his 96th birthday. My mom left this realm 7 years before. It won't be the same from here on. Torches pass. Pages turn. And, ultimately, each day is a new opportunity to find oneself more deeply, for the purpose of being that person you were put here to be. And make the contributions to this world that you can. While you can.  


Wednesday, October 14, 2020

  The annual True Blue Jazz Festival is this weekend, and with it another opportunity to stretch the wings of quartet concept that was introduced in a special edition Mainstay Monday earlier this year. All 4 of us knew each other, but had never been assembled as a single unit. Amy pitched the idea to me of bringing this group together to pay tribute to the Stan Getz and the Oscar Paterson Trio album (1958), something that she and Scott already had on their drawing board. The 4 of us share a center of gravity (or love) of classic, hard swinging jazz, so this was perfect.  With the help of a sponsor, we presented the concept for a Mainstay Monday show in February, and had a blast. A few months ago, Amy was given the opportunity to suggest a group for this year's True Blue livestream event, and pounced on it, on behalf of this project (go Amy!). Now that we've ventured beyond the Mainstay (and beyond the realm of "what's Joe going to do this week?"), we needed a group name. In one of my (few) linguistical (or linguisticated) accomplishments, I suggested the combination of our 4 last names: Sholbertshire. It doesn't tell you anything about what we do (though swingtet does tell you something), but it's fun. And another livestream opportunity is in the works, so this concept will live on (to swing another day). 
The music of Oscar Peterson strikes a chord (or a flurry of notes) deep within me. So much so that I've long held a dream of getting to the point where I could credibly release a recording titled "Oscar In My Soul". I don't have anything near the technical facility of Oscar, but I do believe I have a connection to the feel (or feeling) that he expresses with every note. More than the amazing technical displays of note flourishes that Oscar is capable of (and sometimes overdoes), his deeply musical and soulful delivery of each note is what paints a mural in my heart. Years ago, I wore out a cassette tape, listening over and over to Oscar playing a single note ("plink") at the end of a phrase. And it may be fair to say that this single note has been among the most influential music I've encountered. I have practiced to this ideal from the day I first heard it. So what a wonderful opportunity to share in this concept with these 3 hard swinging, soulful cats. And, despite that this in in tribute, in part, to Oscar Peterson, my goal is not to play so many notes. Rather, to express, in each one, the connection I feel, in my soul.

Friday, October 09, 2020

My thoughts may have sharpened a bit lately, distinguishing between 2 approaches to musical performance. Or perhaps 2 prototypes, or something. These aren't mutually exclusive, and to some degree, overlap in all performing musicians, I would imagine. But I do think these may represent contrasting starting points of individual temperament, considered as something like opposite ends of a continuum: 
Performance as proclamation versus performance as expression/channeling/connection. 
And it may be fair to say that some, if not most musicians could probably identify where they are on this scale, in their approach, if they thought about it. As for me, I appreciate the contributions of many great pianists, though have found that the ones I am most drawn to (or that most deeply penetrate my heart) are those whose primary trait is (as it strikes me, at least) what is expressed through their instrument, as opposed to what is produced by it, if I can make that distinction. And, as I already mentioned, this dichotomy seems to me to be more of a function of the temperament of the musician. We all have things that work for us, and we all have things that don't. Case in point: I was listening to classical music radio in my car some time ago, and was captivated by the pianist. The playing felt intuitive, like the personal expression of the performer (which is always what I want to hear from classical music, while, of course, remaining true to the composition/composer). As the piece ended, I held my breath in hopes that the announcer would come on and tell me who the pianist was. He did. It was Lang Lang. So it didn't surprise me to later read an interview where Lang Lang gave this advise to students, "Don't just play the note, feel the note, and make every new piece your best friend". Yes. I realize that some classical music folk don't like Lang Lang, and I get that. But when he expresses what he feels, I can feel it too. Not formulaic or mechanical or calculated (not always, anyway). Felt. Some weeks ago, in this blog, I made reference to reading an interview of Smokey Robinson where he declared that he certainly wasn't a great singer (he went on to list other singers, like Celine Dion, who do have great chops and know how to use them), but he can feel what he sings, and believes his audiences feel it with him. Yes. And the jazz musicians that have impacted me the most deeply are perhaps less those that I am in awe of technically (save, maybe Oscar Peterson) and more those who move me to tears, or leave my heart full. I'm presenting this expression vs. proclamation as a dichotomy, which, of course, it isn't. Or not exactly. Or perhaps it is. Actually, now that I am confronted here to write cogently about this, it is probably both/and. Or, perhaps another way, both are required, to a point. And whatever I do with this corner I may have just painted myself into, the bottom line is something I've said for nearly as long as I can remember saying things; that we express and reveal who we are when we make music. And Keith Jarret may have a point when he says (at least about improvisational performance) that, for a musician, it is less important to work on the music and more important to work on yourself.
As we travel the path, this may become increasingly true (for me, at any rate). 

Saturday, September 05, 2020

 Throughout my professional life, and even going back to high school, there has been a recurring theme, or story (or drama). I'll find (usually not directly) that there is some other pianist having a competition with me. This can go on for months, or years, with me being blissfully unaware. When it is brought to my attention, nothing changes. Apart from some minor level of curiously, or amusement (or sometimes annoyance), it has little impact on me. Actually, apart from purposing to use the knowledge appropriately (and ultimately, for good), I honestly don't care. I have never considered this pursuit a competition among musicians for finite resources (or prizes) won at the expense of another's loss. But apparently some do. Rather, in my view, it's up to each of us, individually, to find our place; to understand one's best and deepest contributions to make, and live there. This ties back to the primary thing I attempted to teach my kids about money; particularly when it comes to working. We are paid for the (value of the) benefit we provide to others. If we have a contribution to make, we can find a place. And as for my musical contribution, yes, I do feel I have one, and that it is uniquely my own. Furthermore, if I were falling back (as those who are in competition tend to do) on seeking to be the best (or, at least, better than those who are targeted to "beat"), I would end up quite discouraged. The landscape is full of pianists greater than I; who can do things I can't, who have skill sets I don't, and are comfortable in situations where I would struggle, at best. I'm not beating myself up here, just being honest. I know who I am, and embrace what I can do well. My pseudo tongue in cheek way to say it is that I can indeed, do something better than anyone else - be myself.   ;)

On one of those rarer occasions when the "competition" was brought out in the open, and spoken to me directly, a fellow musician told me that I was the better pianist, but he/she was the better musician. I'm sure I had given this person a look that could have been interpreted as my being offended. Actually, it was the shock that someone was actually willing to say that out loud. I don't care about opinions, including, at this point, my own. Yes, I am capable of tripping over something, but just as capable of getting up and brushing it off. Let's just all go on and make our contributions, shall we? 

So, rather than seeking to be the best, instead, I seek those spaces I can fill up. And seek to be the best version of myself I can be.   :)


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

I look for (but not directly toward, else they would seldom happen) those moments which bring clarity. They often come early in the (my) morning, particularly when walking or practicing, often coming in what I call "balls of yarn"; a conceptual understanding to unwind (usually at a later time). Some of the entries in this blog are the result of unwinding yarn balls. The following highlighted sentences are kind of an amalgam of the two. They all have to do with "managing the space", and are things I ponder on often (or pretty much continually). This all has direct application to playing music, for me, but can also be presented and understood in general terms, which is what I'll attempt to do here: 

In order to see something clearly, pull away from it.
This is my wide angle lens thing, and something that has become much clearer in practicing, recently. I'm a conceptual guy. Pull back to see the bigger (or better, the entire) picture and I can much more easily access the individual moving parts. Focus on a point of detail (apart from its context) and I'll find myself lost in the maze.

To see the entire picture is to see in a different way.
I am only beginning to come to encounter and absorb some of the science behind this (which is adding some understanding to what I've already been uncovering), so I won't even try to go there. Suffice to say, we can see beyond what our eyes can find. 

Remember that context and associations provide meaning.
And meaning to me is everything. What something is can only be understood (for me, at least) in terms of what it means. If this seems nonsensical to you, then you are blessed with not having a single wide angle lens through which to see everything. And if so (that it is nonsensical to you), then the way that you see things is also nonsensical to me, and I am blessed as well.

Seeing something in isolation has little meaning to me.
Same thing, from the opposite angle. Seeing things from multiple angles is important. And this, I would (want to) believe, would (or should) be true of everyone. In fact, this strikes at the heart of the current "political" state of affairs. I'm attempting to create a dedicated blog entry concerning this. It may happen, or else it may just seep tacitly into some other posts (which may have been the case just now, if I hadn't come out and said it).  

To see what something is, look closely.
Sometimes you need a microscope to properly see what something is, even if it means you have to borrow someone else's. In my internal process, few things are labeled, though I have come to learn that labels have their own importance (especially when trying to communicate something to someone else). Music theory class in college was a good illustration of this. The class that causes a significant percentage of music majors to drop out of school was, for me, "Oh, THAT'S what you call it" class. That was important.  

To see what something means, step back for a larger view.
You'll never begin to understand the interrelationships of the big picture if you never put down the microscope. Distancing yourself from your subject may not mean moving away from the particular thing or idea, rather toward the context or the meaning. Put another way, to have a sense of what to do with something, step back from it.

The preceding has been a glimpse inside my head. Which, by the way, never turns off, though I am getting better at putting it down (or letting go) and staring at it.    ;)

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Washington College Jazz Combo at the Mainstay, 1/27/17. From left - Michael, me, Lis, Ben, Kevin. 
Gabby and Maura (pictured here with Ben and Kevin) came on board soon thereafter.

At Washington College, I have the smallest possible faculty position; a single one credit course. I direct the jazz combo, and am delighted to do so. I'm not there because I am a professional educator (in the academic world, with a post-graduate degree). Adjunct faculty positions allow for those with relevant professional skills and experience to make their contributions in higher education. Or something like that. More simply put, I have a strong rapport with the students and fill the bill in that setting. I was already involved as an "advisor" for several years before I was given the position. One of those organic things. We (the students and I) were all there because we wanted to be. We really wanted to be. It was our thing that we "owned". And as a teacher, inspiring ownership is the primary objective; job one, as I see it. In a group setting, in particular, that will feed on itself. In our case, so much so that when the pandemic hit, mid semester, we had already fulfilled (exceeded, even) our rehearsal/performance requirements for the entire semester. As such, I was probably the only active facility member who didn't have to pivot and finish the semester with online learning. This was particularly problematic for performing ensembles, as you might imagine, and even more so for me, as, with satellite internet, two way streaming wasn't an option. I was able to assign grades and call it there (to the profound disappointment of the students and myself, but it is was it is. or was). As for going forward at the college (for reasons both involving and beyond the pandemic), major changes are in store. One of them is reduction in adjunct faculty positions. Happy to say that jazz combo (I) survived the cut, but as it turns out, not the pandemic, for this semester at least (as there will be no on campus activities this Fall). But it is nice to know that that space is left open to be filled when the circumstances again will cooperate. As with many things in my world, they don't exist because I assembled the jigsaw puzzle in the prescribed manner. rather they are like flowers in the garden; nurtured into being in the larger scheme of things, and maintained with care.  

Sunday, August 02, 2020

I'd not thought much about the term "old soul" until recent years, as the term has been thrown around concerning young musicians mysteriously connected to musical traditions of generations previous. Now I'm realizing this applies to me also, and perhaps not just because I find connection to music before my time. I think I'm just flat out old fashioned. 

And if not that, something. Driven with purpose, perhaps. If you've been reading this blog over the past few months, you know the perspective I've embraced from the beginning of this pandemic; that I'd been given the gift of a "sabbatical", giving me time and opportunity to deepen my relationship with the piano, and the space. In recent weeks, I've had to begin the adjustments that I knew would be coming, as opportunities to work (which I would define as making artistic contributions for which I receive compensation) expand. It will be a long road back to "full (self) employment", even as it's been a bit of a journey to get to where I am now, somewhere in the middle. It's been a combination of making adjustments to the emerging new normal, and deepening my understanding of, and connection to who I am. One circumstance, early on in all this, was particularly illuminating. I was encouraged by a friend to apply for a small (unrestricted) grant, provided by a local organization for professional artists whose work had been sidelined. Given the small scale of this, I would imagine the process took a lot less time to complete than a typical(ly more involved) grant application (Just assuming, as I have no experience with these things). It took about an hour. Soon after hitting the send button I felt uncomfortable, and knew why. I had just spent an hour in a process of asking for someone to give me money, when I could have used that hour to make a contribution (given the opportunity). I don't intend to apply for a grant like that again, and if I would, I'd ask instead for it to be a commission. I would much rather spend my time making a contribution than (simply/only) asking for one. The lesson that this taught me (or more accurately reminded me, as it was something I already knew) is that I don't want to ask to be given money. I want to be able to earn (make a contribution in order to receive) it. In order for this to work, I need to put everything (internally and externally) in the proper place, as much as I can. I believe in what I do, and that I am called to do (be) it. I believe I am given a path to follow, one not for me to construct, but one that opens to me as I place myself (my self) to the side and allow it to be found. I believe I do what I do for the benefit of others, and that I will be taken care of in the process. 
And nothing in the last 5 months has suggested to me otherwise.   

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

One of the most important formative experiences for me in the music business began when I was 18 (or perhaps 17, not entirely certain), and Joe and Paul Midiri decided that our little trio (modeled after the original Benny Goodman Trio) would enter ourselves in the Monday Amateur Night contest at a local club; the Crazy Horse Saloon, in Barrington NJ. Not far over the river from Phildelphia, this, by the time we decided to go, had become one of the big weeknight events in the greater Philadelphia market, with a full house, most every week. As for Joe, Paul and myself, I'm sure it helped that the celebrity host (Ken Garland, from WIP radio in Philly, which was big at the time) was an old trumpet player with a bit of big band background. So he got where we were coming from, beyond the novelty of young kids doing the "before their time" thing. I knew nothing about this amateur night going in, and I doubt that Joe or Paul knew much more. The Crazy Horse wasn't the place or vibe where we would have been inclined to hang. So perhaps we had a bit of a fish out of water thing going on. Though, for me, the Crazy Horse would soon become the training pool in which I'd be swimming laps and getting into shape.

The brothers and I didn't know that the night we decided to enter was the next to last week of their recurring 13 week cycle. This meant that whoever won that night would be back the following week with the 11 previous winners for their quarterly "finals". As most of the acts were singers, there was a Fender Rhodes piano (this was the 1970s) already set up, belonging to the house accompanist (no drums though, so Paul had to schlep some in) so I could just sit down and play. Needless to say, we were the novelty act of the evening. For that, or whatever reason, we left the Crazy Horse that night with plans to come back for the finals the following week. I don't know that we endeared ourselves to any of the 11 other finalists; showing up to win the last week of the cycle, coming back the next week to win the finals (with the grand prize including tickets to an upcoming Benny Goodman concert, it seemed that Ken Garland may have had his mind made up going in), but that's how it went down. 

But something else happened that night. At the end of the evening, the house accompanist pulled me aside to tell me that he had put in his notice with the agency he was working for, though they hadn't yet secured a replacement. He offered me the gig. A week (and a few phone calls) later, I was lugging my own Fender Rhodes piano into the Crazy Horse Saloon to begin an 18 month adventure and an invaluable experience. I'll often say that the stage is the best school for musicians, and that was certainly true for me here. I would arrive to be set up well in advance so that the contestants who needed piano accompaniment (which was most of them) could have a brief time of rehearsal with me. I already had some experience with accompanying vocalists by this point, but not like this. I had a crash course in sight transposition from night one. The recurring theme quickly appeared, which I would learn to anticipate, sort of. In the rehearsal period, we would determine the singer's comfortable key for their song (sometimes they knew, but most often they didn't). An aside here to mention that deferring to the comfortable range/key of a vocalist, when possible, is job one for an accompanist, from my viewpoint. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but to me, the task of accompaniment is to support the person you are accompanying, and not to make it about yourself. Looking back, I'm glad I understood this early on. Back to the rehearsal time - for the inexperienced singers (which were most of them), whatever key we agreed to would often go out the window when it was time to perform and the nerves kicked in. I would start in one place, and they would start somewhere else (and always higher). And here's another place where not all will agree. Some will say that if a key is agreed to, you hold your ground and insist the singer find you. Okay, for professional vocalists, sure (and that should never be an issue anyway). But for nervous amateurs, if they can't find it to begin with, it would seem unlikely that they would be able to find their way back to it. So I would try to find them. And since I would have a lot of opportunity to practice, I became better at making it happen rather quickly. In the article pictured above (click on it to enlarge), I'm quoted as saying "Sometimes, if a singer goes off key, I have to figure out where they are, modulate up to them, and hope they're still there when I get there."     ;)  
Of course, to whatever extent people in the audience may have been clued in to what was going on, much more was happening out of view (even if there was no curtain to hide behind). One of my favorite memories (which, if you know a bit about music theory, is pretty funny) is when one of the contestants said to me during the rehearsal time: "My voice teacher said to take it down a third, but you can just take it down a quarter if that's easier". My least favorite memories mainly revolved around the host. It was not a well kept secret that Ken Garland could be (to put it mildly) difficult to work with. I got to experience that multiple times, from multiple angles. Fortunately, I think (in his own way) he kind of liked me (or at least appreciated that I knew what I was doing), which allowed the pendulum to swing back and forth, at least, rather than being stuck (on stupid) in one place all the time. After 18 months though, I'd had enough. Back then, I would privately joke that I deserved a medal for hanging in so long. (Much) older (and maybe a bit wiser) now, I can see difficult "working" relationships like this as the norm for many who are employees with unreasonable bosses and working conditions and stuff. There is always a bright side, out of view to whatever appears dark at the time. 

So, after a year and a half, I "graduated" amateur night school. No formal degree, just the prerequisite training for the experiences/school to come. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

In late 2005, I rejoined the Midiri brothers quintet/sextet and, from 2006-2008, played the traditional jazz festival circuit (which, at the time, was still alive and somewhat vital). Many of the festivals were on the west coast, but there were others, scattered about. During that time I was able to give each of my children the experience of travelling to one of the festivals with me. Each of these trips was it's own unique adventure, and one that I'm grateful I could give my kids, even if I was able to take each one only once. 

The first year I played the festivals (2006) I took Joe, Jr to Pismo Beach, over the weekend of his 18th birthday. As it was the first year I was on the festivals, it was both my, and my sons first trip to Pismo. He was the one, of the three, that was most engaged (and still is) with music, on a personal level. I didn't push any of the kids into playing piano, rather, encouraged them to have a connection with music, and the arts in general, in whatever way resonated with them. For Joe, it's the drums (he has kept a connection to it, still playing now, in the worship band at his church). So he was engaged with the festival more like one of the musicians, checking out the sets of the other bands, finding who he really liked, and even hanging with some of them. He also went shopping on his birthday, because he could. That was another thing altogether. It was a good weekend.  

The next year (2007) I took Robert, who was 10 at the time, to the Juave Jazz Festival in Decatur IL on a snowy weekend in February, where we were late in arriving because of flight delays due to snow. And even later in returning home for the snowstorm that crippled the local airport that weekend. It created an adventure for us beyond the more limited festival environment (everything contained within one hotel), which gave us lots of together time, and was fun.

The final year, Charie' (then 15) came with us to Mammoth Lakes, CA, which was my favorite festival destination, in the High Sierras. Since I'm not a skier (and had never been to a ski resort before first going to Mammoth in 2006), the idea that summer could be an off-season caught me off guard off at first. Having lived all my life on the east coast, my image of an off season was a beach resort in winter. But just like the Golden Inn in Avalon NJ created special theme package weekends in the winter (see blog post from a few weeks ago), a ski resort town would host a jazz festival (among other summer activities) to keep the travelers and tourists coming. Charie' loved the trip. She did interact with the festival, a little, but was much more interested in the shopping opportunities. And our trip to the top of Mammoth Mountain (photo above). It remains a nice memory. All 3 trips do. it's nice to feel that all the boxes have been checked. 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

I keep coming back to what I love; the music that moves my heart and can make me cry at the drop of a hat (don't reference the above picture, yet). Sure, at a given moment, most any stripe of music can move my eyes to water. But, for whatever reason, a hard swinging, deep grooving rhythm section (such as Oscar Peterson or Count Basie) can shut me down. It reaches into my heart, deeply. And if I am to follow my heart, I need to pay attention to just these things. And although it is only in the last decade or so that I've had even a remote understanding of head space vs. heart space (or knew of that heart space, much at all), it has always been there. I have always been who I am. When I was about 11 or 12, I stumbled onto a AM radio station, on a Sunday evening, with a signal that barely came in. But it grabbed me immediately. And every Sunday night thereafter, lying in bed, I would tune in, struggling to find the sweet spot on the dial (which would always, at some point, become a moving target). Sometimes the signal would improve, and I was delighted. Sometimes I would lose the signal altogether, and I would cry with sadness. It was my own private personal space. Thing was, I didn't know what the music was actually called. Eventually I was able to describe it as "old time jazz". But that still didn't really help me put a finger on it in a record store. Then, on one good signal night, I heard the word "Dixieland". It was all I needed. The next day, I walked (maybe I ran) to the neighborhood 7/11, which, believe it or not, had a record display. And I saw the word. Dukes of Dixieland. I bought my first record (now reference the above photo. I still have the record). I got a bit lucky, as this was a more swinging Dixieland approach, with a upright bass playing mostly in 4. So the itch was scratched. which, of course, only causes more itching. The chain reaction that connects that "now" to the current (and every other) now, weaving and creating the tapestry that it does, was underway. This discovery, at 11 (or so) years old, was one of my most important. Not because I bought a Dixieland record. But because a clear path was cut right in front of me to (unknowingly) begin the practice (or maybe better, discipline) of following my heart. And now I know. And now understand (I use that word cautiously these days) that in order to be myself, and to truly speak with my own voice, I am to bring all things into and through my heart. 
The young (around 30 y/o, I think) jazz saxophone phenom Chad LB, in an interview I read recently, expresses, in relatively simple language, what I can now recognize as mature wisdom. "Really focus on what you love about music... Let that naturally help you approach music. The most genuine musicians play the music they like."  For all that I might want to expand on the verbiage and nuance of expressing this, he actually nails it. So I'll shut up now.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

After months (at least) of thinking about it, I stepped over the starting line and opened a Patreon. If you are unfamiliar, simply put, this is a site/service that manages "patrons" for artists. And this might be something I should have done a long time ago. But that's also like saying that I should have dropped out of college after my music theory professor said to me "What are you doing here? You should go to New York and start networking there". In both cases I know why I didn't, and in both cases it was the right decision, for different reasons in each. For the first one at least, it wasn't time. Well, perhaps it could have been (a) time, had I decided so. But organically, with all the puzzle pieces considered, no.
I live in an area which, dispite the immediate rural surroundings, is very supportive of the arts and artists (of all stripes) who live here. And over the time I've been here, I've built (or better, there has organically grown) a "community"; getting well into gear during the "piano bar" years at JR's, and gearing up even more once "Mainstay Mondays" began, 4 years ago. As I have watched this happen, I'm struck with the thread that has run through this since the beginning (when I started gigging as a teenager in the 1970's). It is a double edged sword, of sorts, that has both hurt and helped me. And ultimately is why I've eventually been led to one thing, but never to the other. Because I've always been one to, in general terms, prioritize my relationships with followers and fans over those in the typical musician's network. Part of this is circumstantial, in that I can because of what I do, as opposed to other instrumentalists, like drummers or orchestral players, who must depend on calls from and connections to other musicians and organizations. But, to go deeper here, it probably also has something to do with why I play what I play, and play the way I do. Because it's more in my nature to be self contained, or a bit of a lone ranger, than move primarily within a broader social or organizational construct. I've always been self employed and self motivated. I've always prioritized my own space (in a recent email to a friend, I referred to the stay at home order at the time as an introvert's dream). And, though I enjoy, and need to make music with others, I'm most deeply in my element with playing piano by myself (or accompanying, while playing piano by myself). It's not that I avoid relationships with others. In fact, playing the piano creates a relationship with those around me, which are often (for better or worse) the relationships I am most comfortable having (though not exclusively, of course). This predisposition didn't serve me well for the few years I traveled on the festival circuit with the Midiri Brothers band, where I was more eager, honestly, to expend my social energy finding and connecting with those I was playing for, rather than the other musicians who were there more for the hang. I feel for these musicians today, along with all musicians, and all others, whose connection lifelines have been cut off. Though my gigs all evaporated at the same time as everyone else's, my relationships with those who follow and support me didn't. And thanks to the Mainstay immediately offering me a couple of livestream opportunities, I was hit over the head with what I needed to do for myself. My network; my community, is already in place. And now is the time to put my primary energy into developing that more with an on line presence. Sure, I could have done this (to this extent) before (in fact, I'm pretty far behind the curve compared to some). But I've always had live performance opportunities, and have seen them (regardless of what or where they were) as the center of gravity of my connection to others. It worked. I was satisfied with it. But when this pandemic hit, I took it as a blessing; a "sabbatical" of sorts, and an opportunity to spend much more time at the piano strengthening my connection, rather than panicking or worrying. And this is an important part of the reason why. I didn't feel my calling or purpose changing, just the trappings. I'm blessed to know who I am, and blessed to know the sense of a calling. I wish that for everyone.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

I truly enjoyed my time, and the many unique experiences, at the Showboat in Atlantic City, back in the early 90s, when I just about lived there (or it felt like it). And if it weren't so long ago, before the age of phone cameras and social media, there would be many fun pictures and wacky hijinks (and other stories) to share. Hopefully, as I go through old boxes and photo albums, I'll find things and post them, here and on Facebook. My initiation to the alternate universe of the Showboat (and other Atlantic Casinos) was as one of the 3 full time pianists who played daily shifts in the hotel lobby. Other than the restaurants and showrooms, this was one of the areas where you were a bit more removed from the huge casino floor, or at least not right on top of it, depending on where you were positioned. And I was far enough away from the casino entrance as to be a place to hang, away from all the gambling hubbub. Or at least the gambling (I was positioned in between the hotel reservation desk and the escalator up to the bowling alley - another alternative universe within the universe). It would have been a nice place to listen to music, watch the crowds go by, etc, had there been any seating, which of course there wasn't. But that didn't stop folks from congregating around for awhile (some with portable folding chairs) to listen, sing along, or hold conversation (with me). There was one gentleman I would see from time to time, spending long periods standing by the piano listening, sometimes conversing to help pass the time while his wife was gambling inside the casino. It eventually dawned on me that, with this gentleman, I was serving a similar function as a park bench in a shopping mall; as a place for displaced men to hang out while their wives or girlfriends were in the stores (spending, or losing money, in any case). But this guy was clever about it. He managed the money (and to some extent, his time) by giving his wife a $20 bill and waiting for her outside the casino. She wan't limited to $20, but she would have to come up (or out) for air for another round. So while he and I talked, one of his eyes (and one of mine, too, since this was often the subject of conversation) would be focused on the casino entrance at the other end of the lobby, waiting for his wife to emerge. And once there was a sighting, the conversation immediately turn to speculation with each of us trying to interpret the symbols: What was her facial expression? Was we carrying her coat or was she wearing it? Was she going to stick her hand out? And that was the big one, as he and I would watch her hand while talking like two play by play announcers. Keep your eye on the ... "Here comes the hand, better get out your wallet. Maybe next time". One thing I've always been conscious of throughout my time in the music business is knowing what my role is, on any given gig.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The other night I found a newspaper article about the house pianist/amateur night accompanist gig I had when I was 18 (which will be it's own blog entry. This is going somewhere else). This helps to bring something into focus as I ponder it. This would probably also be the case if I were contemplating the church organist/music director position I assumed when I was 19. So what was I doing, at least a lot of, early on in my music career? Not seeking recognition as a soloist or featured performer so much as I was engaging others in a supporting role. In other words, I was being who I am (which is easier to understand now, 4+ decades later). I am, at heart, an accompanist. I am not a natural soloist, at least not as much. Even if I do a lot of solo playing, with some of it in a "front and center" position. It's not that I can't command things all by myself (in my own way), but it's not where all my strengths best come together in one place. But they do in accompanying. And I'm returning to something I've pondered on in the past; that for me (and has been hanging out there for me to come back to, apparently); solo performing is also accompanying. Accompanying the listener. This is one of those concepts that I've believed is the case more than I've figured out how to explain it (at least until now). But it just fits, so well. When I perform, I don't have any personal statement to make, or goods to deliver, other than to be expressive. And that's one of those things that grows (or sneaks up) on a listener, as opposed to the flashy, attention getting maneuvers that can typify solo, or featured performance. I can win an audience over. I do it every time I perform on an American Cruise Lines ship (where usually the only people in the room who have seen me perform before are the crew members). It's just a process, drawing them in over the succession of the first few tunes. Not something I hit them over the head with, or wave in front of them like a bright banner.
So what is my relationship to the listener, or an audience? It's not to dazzle or impress them. It's to engage. To connect. To welcome them into a shared space, where we experience together. Now I could read those last 3 sentences in the context of accompanying, and it would make perfect sense. Performance, for me, is not exhibiting, demonstrating or proclaiming something. It is an engagement; communication through expression, where what is felt can become a shared experience. And there it is. I think I just learned something. And will ponder some more.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The last few weeks have sent many of us into uncharted territory. Our lives have been abruptly suspended, or upended. And those of us who are not physically suffering with the COVID-19 virus can sense the trauma lurking outside the boundaries of our shelter in place spaces, if these spaces are even totally safe. I live alone, in a small house that I have renamed Social Distancing Central. I am safe, and any circumstance or decision that would have me otherwise is totally within my control (like, am I willing to live without bananas, which will run out in a day or two). This blog post is not concerned with what I've already written about in recent blog entries; How I view my work. How I'm not worried about the near complete loss of income for a time. How this social isolation becomes a "sabbatical" where I can practice, explore and grow using this gift of time and opportunity (Yes, a gift, and one that I have already unwrapped and intend to put to good use). This is about something that hit me today, provoking me to ponder and to acknowledge (again) the bigger picture; that we often don't see, or that we lose track of, obscured by the urgency or the weight felt over our current circumstances. And perhaps this has something to do with why it is not that difficult (at least not yet) to be rather Zen about it all right now, within my own space. I turn 60 in a few weeks, which provokes reflection anyway, so my thoughts today turned to how many places I've lived. or more specifically, how many times in my life I have moved. 21, if I'm remembering everything. Not that I actually remember moving from the Marine Corps base at Camp LeJeune when 3 months old. But the rest I do. By the time I was 7, we had moved 5 times, landing in Southern NJ when my Dad was transferred to the Marine Corps Supply activity in Phila. after returning home from Okinawa. While he was overseas my Mom rented a little house in Ashland, KY, up the street from my Aunt. Mrs. Wilson was my first grade teacher, at the school a few blocks away on Holt Street (which made me happy). On Halloween, I was excited to trick or treat at Mrs. Wilson's house in my impenetrable disguise, only to be disappointed when she opened the door and greeted me with "Hello Joey", recognizing my shoes. Ashland, KY, off the Ohio River bordering Ohio and West Virginia (our TV stations were in Huntington, WV, as was my favorite amusement park), was my normal for a year and a half. Soon after we moved to Bellmawr, NJ, I was upstairs watching the Philadelphia TV newscast when the weatherman announced "The weather forecast for the tri-state area is ..." I lept with excitement, running downstairs to proclaim to my mom that we hadn't moved so far way after all, since we still lived in the tri-state area. We search for whatever stability we can find, I suppose. 

Bellmawr, NJ would become my new and unexpectedly permanent normal for the rest of my growing up. (Though there would be times of looking over our shoulder waiting to learn when and to where the next transfer would be. Once I remember starting to pack, though I don't remember where the next destination was to be. Utah, perhaps?). My dad was compelled to retire on disability in 1973, by which time he was Supply Chief, reaching the rank of E9. (He'd still be active duty today if he had his way. Once a Marine ...). It is highly unusual in the military to remain in place for 7 years, but I'm grateful for that. I had a "normal" growing up. Fast forwarding, I'm also grateful to have been able, for the most part, to give that (a normal growing up) to our kids. We were renters for many years, working our way from Southern NJ to Newark DE, to Elkton, then Galena, MD (by then our friends were joking with us, as we kept moving south, that by the time we retired we'd already be in Florida), with several additional stops before landing in Chestertown MD.  This is where the opportunity presented itself to buy the house we were renting at the time, and to give our kids the gift that I had been given: a place to say "I grew up here". Prior to that, it was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Some self imposed, like making a decision because we felt led to, or because we could. And some just imposed, like the several challenging landlord relationships we faced. One instance involved our next door neighbor landlords divorcing and the husband offering to pay me to carry on at all hours of the night to disturb his ex . Did I mention searching for stability? Much of the time stability (or perhaps, sanity) felt out of reach. 

In more recent years, as the page turned on a season of my life, I found myself in flux again. But it was different this time. Being upended didn't necessarily feel less uncomfortable. But it felt more purposeful; tied to a bigger picture, tethered by a trust that I was on a path, and feeling connected to all of it. At points along this journey, I came to some particular realizations, both about myself and the journey. One was to realize that the person I am is one who only has a wide angle lens from which to see beyond myself (as well as within). Embracing this has helped me to make the adjustments to see more clearly. Another realization took the form of a commitment made to myself; to avoid forming conclusions. Insisting on understanding something (anything) that is tied to a bigger picture (as ultimately, everything is) places a barrier on my perception, allows preconceived ideas to cloud my vision, and chains me to myopic self interest, of one form or another. Life was teaching me, and more now than before, I was listening. And learning to trust. Not in my ideas, thoughts or even beliefs, but in that which connects me to that bigger picture. Call it intuition, call it trust, call it faith. Whatever my word is, your word is your own. Every seemingly jagged edge on the path has, in retrospect, simply been a turn. All paths turn. Every upended circumstance is for a purpose. Although, I'll admit that I don't like phrases such as "everything happens for a reason". I know some find comfort in that. But for me, this can become just another place to chain ourselves to seeking contentment in our own understanding, even if we are willing to defer knowledge and say "someday we'll know the reason". Maybe so, maybe not. Who cares. 

So now I, and all of us, are faced with uncertainty. And I could say that, for me, all of my life has been in training for this moment. When I had the thought earlier today to count the number of times I've moved (some of them not of my own choosing. and who knows how many more there might be), my wide angle lens rested on a place of comfort. Not comfortable circumstances, necessarily, but comfort in, first of all, that there IS a big picture. As we move through (what we perceive as) time, having the experiences that we do, we don't leave those experiences behind us as we move on to the next thing. These experiences are our story. And you can read a story like turning pages in a book, but you can also pick up the book and hold the entire story in your hand. And this is what I see, even as my book is still being written (as I can perceive it). And yes, I do believe that my book is held for me, even as I will tell you that I don't have the need to understand that in my own thoughts. It is beyond the limits of my mind to figure it all out. But not beyond the limits of my heart to embrace it. With social distancing as the norm, we are forced to refrain from embracing (as uncomfortable as that is for someone who lives on hugs). There is a time to refrain from embracing (with our arms). There is a time to embrace (with our hearts). For everything, there is a season.