How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

When I was six my parents arranged for the kids to meet a piano teacher. My sister was deemed to have talent, so she entered a program of piano lessons. The meeting must not have gone well for me. Afterward my father explained that I was musically impaired. His exact words were, “You couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” I had no reason to doubt him.

We were obliged to sing in my grade school, especially just before the holidays, when we performed a concert of Christmas carols. I dutifully performed, only I decided there was no reason to spoil the good singing of others, so I lip-synced the carols. Like Milli Vanilli, I got caught. That led to an epic showdown with my teacher, Miss Steele, the low point of my educational career.

While I couldn’t sing or play an instrument, I had ears. I thrilled to the popular music of my youth. I amassed a sizable record collection. In college I discovered classical music. Guys in my dorm introduced me to folk music. Occasionally I fantasized about making music, but mostly I accepted my fate as someone for whom that was impossible. Sometimes, to tell the truth, that seemed a blessing. I often woke up early in the morning to the sound of my sister plonking away on the piano when she would rather have been in bed, but piano practice was mandatory for her for years.

In the first week of graduate school I walked to the Scholar coffeehouse on the West Bank. The first act I caught—Koerner, Ray and Glover—amazed me. A day later I went back. The performer was a kid from Saint Cloud State who played 12-string guitar. The torrent of music coming from Leo Kottke’s guitar almost blew me off my stool. I’d never heard music remotely like that before, and it was one of the most thrilling events of my young life. I began hanging out at the Scholar, walking through blizzards if necessary in order to attend every gig Leo played.

It was inevitable: one day I bought a guitar, a classical model with nylon strings. At first I was delighted to be able to make any kind of music; just strumming a C chord made me giddy. I moved on to finger-picking, emulating my coffeehouse heroes. I grabbed every spare moment to practice. I took guitar lessons, starting with Carter family tunes and moving toward John Fahey compositions. Slowly, very slowly, I got better. I bought a steel-stringed folk guitar. Then—you knew this was coming—I got a 12-string. (I’d love to get back all the time I wasted trying to get that danged thing in tune.) And I practiced, practiced, practiced.

Alas, all those years when I did not sing or play an instrument had set limits on what I could accomplish as a musician. My brain and fingers could never coordinate well enough to enable me to master difficult material. I could do cheesy imitations of some Kotte or Fahey pieces, and that felt like a miracle. But I slurred many notes and muffed others. I had to cheat by simplifying the arrangements because my technique was so sloppy. After getting better month by month, I hit a wall I could not get past it. And I remained stuck there for years.

I finally realized the most graceful thing would be to accept my fate and simply enjoy the limited music I could make. While I was never going to play well, I was delighted to play at all. Then arthritis arrived, and I could no longer even play badly.

My performance career with the guitar now feels like some doomed romances from my past, romances that were fabulous in some ways but which failed. Sometimes things don’t work out, even if you passionately hope otherwise. I’m lucky to have those memories now and I’m sure I am a better listener than I could be before playing the guitar.

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Do you sing or play an instrument? What has that meant to you?

53 thoughts on “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?”

        1. Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson were very much members of the Sorry Muthas, as were Cal Hand, Papa John Kolstad, Soupy Schindler, and Bob Stelnicki.

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  1. I have played piano since I was very young though lessons didn’t commence until I was in 4th grade. Unfortunately my hands never grew beyond child size – can just barely reach an octave on the keyboard – so I was never going to be a concert pianist (my dream as a youth and the main reason I did not make music my career). Lessons ended during my senior year of high school. But I eventually found my niche as an accompanist while still in junior high school. Currently I volunteer as the accompanist at two middle schools in Minneapolis and also do some free lancing for other choir conductors around the Cities. While traversing my turbulent teenage years, the piano was my therapist. Mom could tell my mood by how loudly I played. I also have sung in choirs throughout elementary and high school and currently sing in my church choir.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. K-Two I really want to ask folks like you who played an instrument what you think now of parents who push their kids to practice? I can see it as a good thing or a bad thing. Few youngsters are going to find the discipline all on their own, so it might be that parental pressure is needed. I’ve heard people say they hated that pressure and yet others say they’re glad they were pushed to practice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had 5 different teachers over the years of whom only one was really good. For the first 5 years of lessons, I could practically sight read most of the music and didn’t do much practicing of the lesson stuff – did play “fun” music a lot. My folks never had to push me to sit at the piano but I don’t think they knew how little I actually practiced my lesson material. The 4th teacher was tough – but she also exposed me to “real” classical music and knew if I hadn’t practiced. I had to practice a lot and appreciate it much more now than at the time. Now I regret that I didn’t have her for more than a full year (her husband took a job in Illinois – very sad final lesson for me). Parental pushing is a fine line. For those kids who are really serious and motivated to learn, some pushing is OK. For those parents who sign their kids up because they (the parents) want their kid to learn, pushing too hard might have the opposite effect.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Steve, I admire the fact you were able to learn guitar at all.
    When I was in about 4th grade I took some guitar lessons one summer. But then started playing trumpet in 6th grade and played that all through jr and sr high school.
    Played a little bit more after school but didn’t keep it up.

    Mom wanted a piano. I convinced her to buy one of those small home organs instead. The letters of the keys lit up. I played a lot with that. Made up chords, made up rhythms. I’m pretty sure mom never liked that organ. At the lighting class I took last month, one of the sessions was about knowing music and how helpful that is when lighting music. I’ve always had a good ear, but I never really made that connection that I can tell when the end of a song is coming; knowing the verse, bridge, verse, ending and how important that is.

    But I’ve never lost my appeal for stringed instruments. I have the 5 string banjo and I took some lessons on that. I bought a ukulele and never got beyond ‘plunking’ with it. No diligence on my part to practice.
    And even with tims suggestion of ‘leave it out and pick at it a little bit every day’ didn’t help if I don’t plunk at it.
    Because, you know, tuning… the only thing worse that bad banjo playing is bad banjo playing on an out of tune banjo.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Nice post, Steve – esp. like “and simply enjoy the limited music I could make. While I was never going to play well, I was delighted to play at all.” This is what I wish for most people who try any musical endeavor. Sorry about the arthritis!

    I took piano lessons starting in 2nd grade, and I ditto pretty much everything said by K-Two above about teachers and parental pressure. You have to know your kid, and esp. if the teacher isn’t on top of things, there’s not much reason to practice.

    Since I play by ear, I was able to pick up the guitar without lessons and just do chording – in the late 60s, I didn’t need to learn chords and scales to accompany an ad hoc group of singers. An even though I don’t play anymore (hand cramps up), the memory of how to chord helps out in the little guitar group I sing with at UU.

    It turns out that singing is my instrument of choice, and I love choral singing (with a good director). Singing has given me an identity here in Winona, and I can sometimes get other people to sing. I’m one of the leaders in two informal groups – a Comfort Choir, and a monthly Song Circle.

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    1. BiR: thanks! I had an experience that exemplified how performing music makes one a better listener. We caught a concert at the Guthrie featuring the Roches. There were three (one has since then died). A friend who had sung a lot was with us. She pointed out that one of the sisters (Maggie) sang below her natural pitch in order to produce the harmonies they sought. Teri sang soprano, which was natural for her, and Suzzy sang alto, natural for her. Maggie went as low as she could to provide the deeper end of the harmonies. That meant, also, that she got fewer leads, but the Roches were a great sister act and I think everyone enjoyed her part in it. Not having sung in a choir, I wouldn’t have picked up on that.

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      1. The Roches were wonderful. I was lucky enough to catch them live several times, once with their brother David. Suzzy still tours from time to time with her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, occasionally augmented with Loudon Wainwright III, Suzzy’s ex and Lucy’s dad.

        Suzzy and Lucy performed on April 9th at a sold out show at the Bryant Lake Bowl. I had tickets to see them on the 11th at a house concert in Delano. Unfortunately that concert was cancelled due to the snow storm.

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        1. PJ I just learned the Roche sisters put out a number of albums I hadn’t heard of before (some solo, some duets). I hope you have heard an unusual one: Suzzy and Maggie did a religious album called “Zero Church.” Wonderful songs, and moving.

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    2. Your comment about playing by ear. I would do that too; just keep hitting keys / notes until it sounds like what you want it to sound like. I thought everyone could do that.
      And I asked my niece, who is a very accomplished pianist, to figure something out and she was aghast at the suggestion. She does NOT play thing by ear.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought that too, Ben, till I took an Ear Training class in college (to learn intervals and different harmonic modes…). People seem to have it to varying degrees – my mom is the queen – just about any song she ever heard she could play with accompaniment.

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  4. For a while my sisters and I had piano lessons. I never progressed. I’m pretty sure the piano teacher must have talked to my mom and declared me hopeless, because soon my lessons ended while my sisters’ continued. I was glad to be free…

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  5. My brother played drums. And my older sisters were older than me by enough years that I never knew anything about them playing music. But we do still have an accordian in the closet that one of them played.

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  6. I took piano lessons from 2nd through the equivalent of 5th grade. The first three years I was at the boarding school. My practice time was every evening after dinner and before home work. That had two advantages. One, I was exempted from having to help do the dishes, and two, there was no one to supervise my practicing. As a result of the latter, I spent precious little time practicing scales or other assignments, but spent most of my time playing “pretend” music or picking out tunes by ear. I was not a very good piano student.

    The fourth and final year of piano lessens was horrible. It was a year with a lot of upheaval for me. I was back in Stubbekøbing school, and having skipped a grade, none of my old classmates from first grade were in my class. I was a year younger than my new classmates, none of whom I knew. To make matters worse, two girls in my class decided that because I had attended a boarding school I must think I was better than everybody else, and they set out to disabuse me of that notion. They harassed me at school constantly, and would sometimes ambush me on my way home from school.They beat the crap out of me on more than one occasion. Then mom would get upset with me because I would return home with torn dresses and other visible signs of having been in a fight, and she’d let me have it too. It was an awful year. To ad insult to injury, when I did try to practice at home, mom didn’t want to hear my halting versions of The Blue Danube Waltz, Für Elise, or Radetzky March, she wanted me to play pop tunes she could sing along on, but they were nowhere on the agenda. Halfway through that school year my piano teacher told mom that she could be spending her money more wisely. And that was the end of my piano playing.

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      1. Actually, BiR, I enjoyed my piano lessons, and I was beyond proud of participating in a couple of recitals. I learned to read music, understand chords, and discovered music I never heard at home. While it was certainly never in the cards for me to become a concert pianist, an accompanist or anything remotely related to a professional musician, it did give me a foundation for appreciating music of all kinds.

        I have sung in various choirs, first in school, and later various community choirs. Choral singing can be a lot of fun. To wit:

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      1. My daughter was just visiting me. She wept when she saw video of the cathedral burning.

        She told me a surprising story. An uncle of my son-in-law chased a fleeing German soldier in WW2, shooting at him. He missed the soldier but hit Notre Dame. When my daughter and son-in-law took a honeymoon trip in Europe they visited the cathedral and found the bullet holes (below the Rose window).

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        1. Had coffee across the street and looked at paintings went inside@nd checked it out. Loved them flying buttresses

          Don’t feel bad for beauty that dies. Feel grateful for how beautiful it was

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        2. Wow, tim, that strikes me as an incomprehensible thing to say. How do you just dismiss so flippantly the demise of such an architectural, historical and cultural treasure? Sorry, I just don’t get it.

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        3. As Will said: “for, brother, men
          Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
          Which they themselves not feel. . . . “

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    1. On December 30, 2010 I was part of a choir that performed at Notre Dame Cathedral. It was the opportunity of a lifetime – especially so now. I am heartsick at the destruction.

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  7. Coming from a little school into a huge seventh grade was intimidating. For some reason I was put into chorus so I went where I was told without the knowledge that this was an elective. I never knew that I had choices. To this day I cannot read a note of music but I was expected to sing second soprano. What is that?! I just sang the melody part. We practiced with Moon River. I still can’t abide what is an iconic song. I can play three cords on guitar which means I can sing and play most every country song.

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    1. I tried to learn to play the guitar when I was in college. The only song I ever learned was Tom Dooley; that should give you some indication of how extremely limited my guitar chords were.

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        1. Thanks, Steve. I consider it my musical gift to be able to appreciate such a broad spectrum of musical offerings.

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  8. Daughter started on piano at age 5. She was learning to read music quite well. About a year after she started piano, a friend of ours came over with his fiddle. Daughter just about wrestled him to the ground to get it away from him, and begged us for violin lessons. We found a Suzuki teacher in Bismarck. It is a play by ear method in which you learn to read music later, rather than right away. She took to it really well, but then she started to play piano by ear, too. She eventually learned to read music for the violin, and played until she graduated from high school. She also did real well on the French horn. She also sang in choir in college.

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  9. I played the bass clarinet in high school and all through college. It is not a soloist instrument, but rounds out a wood wind section. Husband still plays the cello, but not as much as he would like. We sing in the church choir and play in the hand bell choir.

    Husband has a guitar, a dulcimer, and an accordian, none of which he has time to play. He doesn’t know how to play the accordian but has hopes he can still learn. He is quite a good blues harmonica player, and plays occasionally with our native friends in a group with whom I occasionally play the electic bass. I can play the piano but I am pretty rusty. I have been thinking sbout getting some of my old piano books out again.

    Son has a lovely bass voice and was a good trombone player in high school. He has fine motor problems from being born prematurely so piano was not an option. The trombone was a perfect instrument for him.

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    1. I’ve known of a few families where everyone played some instrument and sometimes sat down together to make music. That is such a romantic image of familial togetherness! I keep being surprised as you say more about your husband. He has many sides, doesn’t he!

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  10. My guitar and I get along well. It has zero expectations and is very forgiving. A fistful of years ago I joined a group of guitar jammers at the Lind’s in uptown one Friday a month. Found a group who play every Wednesday for 3 or 4 hour and it’s really nice to have a place to play. I play ok and sing good so I enjoy the ability of people to keep me cranked up. I’ve been playing better in my living room sincerely you group time reinterred my life.
    My kids all took lessons. Son 1 guitar piano sax and ended up being a solo vocalist who joins a choir wherever he goes. Accompanies himself on guitar, or piano.
    Daughter played piano and then Percussion. She can’t sing but is good on both piano and percussion.
    Next son was cello trumpet and guitar. Can’t sing either
    Next daughter was piano and oboe went into musical theater as a diva and is loving life.
    Last one(so far) is a piano player trumpet player who ended up on guitar and a folksinger. She like her sister took classical voice training but like the folk stuff both today and old stuff. I
    I love the music in my life. It is my therapy and my real love. Pandora lets me plug in yo yo ma, John prine, Joni,the Beatles, and bob dylan, show tunes, gypsy jazz and pink martini. I heard today on some motivational I plugged into that you spend more time at work than anything else in your life and that it is really a good idea to do something you love.
    1st son just took a job selling musical tours to chiors and groups (like renees hand bell choir to the carnagie hall ditty) which he loved when he went to Prague and rio with his college choir. He has gone to Germany to visit the homes of Beethoven and all this guys over there.
    And he sings like an angel. Doing a lead in the Easter presentation of the messiah in Phoenix on Sunday
    I just added make you feel my love by Dylan/Adele for my weekly therapy session
    Thanks steve

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    1. I don’t. At times it’s just too much of an effort to figure out what you’re trying to tell me. Caps and a little punctuation helps. Take pity on an old woman, tim.

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