I've been playing piano since I was 7. My mother drove me to piano lessons every week and I drove my brothers to insanity nearly every day practicing. I'm sure that to this day they bolt up in bed at night in a cold sweat, shuttering at the sound of "Fur Elise" playing in their head.
As the years went by, I began to get fairly good. In Junior High I played piano for our school choir (sang some, played some) and the same happened my Freshman year of high school. It worked well for the teachers because I was the best accompanist around, meaning I was available every day and I was was free of charge.
As the end of the school year drew near, it was decided that the choir would sing for the graduation ceremonies. If I remember right, the choir would be made up of only the Seniors in our choir. I, being a Freshman, would not be a part of it.
Or so I thought. My teacher asked me to play for one song.
OK. Please put yourself back in time a bit. Remember your freshman year of high school? Remember how cool those Seniors were? So grown up. So mature. So above you in wisdom and coolness. By the end of the school year, they might as well be college kids, which makes them ever-so beyond your lowly status of Freshman. he fact that you are about to become a Sophomore is lost on the fact that you are still a high school baby.
And graduation… That's an entire football stadium of an audience and I was 14. Do you think I was a bit nervous??!!
But I have never been one to turn down an opportunity and so I nodded in agreement.
Practice, practice, practice. I took my entire family down the road to insanity as I practiced the same song over and over for weeks. This song had to be perfect. Zero mistakes. The right tempo, the right notes, the right amount of pressure on the keys to effect the depth of emotion and dynamics that the song called for.
Right. It was a sappy pop song and I was 14.
When the day of graduation arrived, my choir teacher let me know that I would be playing on a keyboard.
HOLD UP! Wha-wha-what? A keyboard?!? (Why I expected them to wheel out an old upright piano to a stage at the 50th yard line, I have no idea.)
I can assure you that a piano and a keyboard are NOT the same. They both have 88 black and white keys...ok, not always. They both stand at exactly the same height...ok, not really. They both have a damper pedal...uh, you would think.
Trust me, the two are not the same, especially to a 14 year old freshman in high school who had never had a pop gig at an outdoor venue before. I think the particular keyboard I was to play on did have 88 keys, but was missing the pedal and...well, felt like a keyboard!
Here's some good information for anyone looking to buy an electric keyboard or digital piano:
Most digital pianos have keys that are weighted, meaning they "feel" more like a good 'ol acoustic piano. If you press softly, you get a soft sound. As you press more firmly, the volume gets correspondently louder. You get a nice range of dynamics this way.
An electric piano or electric keyboard does not have weighted keys, thus making it so that no matter how hard to press, you will only have one volume (unless you alter the volume by turning the entire keyboard up or down like a radio, of course). If you get to a soft part of a song, you still get the same blaring noise. If you want to gradually increase the volume, thus creating anticipation in the song, you get the same boring sound. No dynamic range of emotion. Blah...
And then there's that...that... that horrible sound! I don't know exactly how to describe it, but have you ever gone to a website that has music played automatically and it sounds like a robot playing? The notes sound... completely synthetic, sort of like a "boing, boing, boing," instead of a "la, la la."
And that's what I was presented with to play on for graduation ceremonies. Oh, dear.
The stage was assembled, the choir risers in place, the sound system all set up, and the evening came. The missing pedal was found (hooray!) and hooked up. Everyone found their places and it was time for the ceremonies to commence.
I sat down in my folding chair in front of the keyboard - which slanted slightly to one side when I sat down as one chair leg sank through the grass - laid out my sheet music, placed my nervous, restless fingers in my lap, and waited for the signal.
The choir director got the attention of his choir, put his hands in the air, and nodded to me. I raised my hands to the keyboard and began to play.
Oh, my...that boingy sound. Must ignore. Must keep going. Must pretend that I don't look like a 5 year old with my chair so much lower than the keyboard.
Whoa! The boingy sound is accumulating into one big mass of sound. Follow me here. The volume level is not changing, but the number of sounds are accumulating, note by note. The C, D, the E, F and G ...they are all sounding at the same time!
Wait, no, it's not.
Yes, it is!
No, it's not.
Yes, it is!
This is beginning to sound like a 2nd grade playground argument.
I lift my hands from the keyboard and my foot from the pedal, expecting the sound to stop (makes sense, right?) but it doesn't. A muddy, foreboding, thick "boing" is still sounding! Oh, my gosh, it's haunted!
Three measures into the song and already this is turning into a disaster.
Insert another music lesson. The pedal I have been referring to is called a damper pedal. When you press a key on the piano, the note will stop sounding once you lift your finger. If you press the pedal with your foot and play a note, then lift your finger, the note will continue to sound until you lift your foot from the pedal. Without that pedal, you have a boing festival of notes with no connected sound. The song does not flow; It simply bounces.
Ok, so what is going on? I just lifted my hands and my foot, but the music is still sounding. Is the pedal sticking? Is it not springing back up as I lift my foot? I continue playing while sticking my toes between the base of the pedal and the pedal itself, lifting it to it's appropriate position.
Didn't work. Gigantic, high tech boing still arguing with itself. As I continue playing, I pump the pedal a few times. The sound stops and then starts again. Stops, starts, stops, starts. Yes it is! No it's not. Yes it is! No, it's not.
What in the world?!?
And then I realized the problem. It was working backward! It should have been sustaining the notes when my foot was depressing the pedal, then letting them go when I lifted my foot. I should have heard the notes being played together in harmony while my foot was resting on the pedal, but the exact opposite was happening! As long as my foot was down, the notes were not sounding for longer than a second. As soon as my foot was up, the notes sang and accumulated without stopping to take a breath.
A backwards pedal? I'd never, ever heard of such a thing! How in the world am I supposed to do what comes naturally...backwards?!?
I'm trying as best I can, making it work in some spots, failing miserably in others, when out of nowhere came a beautiful summer breeze to cool my beaded brow, toss my hair over my shoulder and...
...take my sheet music right with it. As if things weren't bad enough already.
I reached out to grab it from out of the sky, but there were too many pages and there they fell, gracefully onto the soft grass, out of order, upside down, in-right, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time. (Excuse the song reference.)
I, not so gracefully, tried to play the song from memory, but at 14 I was not equipped to handle this sort of catastrophe. I had to simply get up from the piano, collect my music, and return to my chair, head down, trying my best not to cry.
I held it in until I was alone in my bedroom and then the tears flowed. I had made a complete fool of myself in front of hundreds of spectators and a large group of now-high school graduates. My only consolation was that I would never see those graduates again and would never have to see the look of, "You ruined my graduation," in their eyes. That's how I imagined they would look, anyway.
I'd like to say that there was a happy ending to this story, but perhaps I can offer you is this:
To all the budding musicians out there, you will crash and burn at some point, whether it be by a failed memory or a freak of nature like a cool summer breeze. It is at that point that you will enter the world of a true musician. Handled well, you will enter this world as a classy and professional musician and I will be standing at the door, waiting to give you the high five of a job well done and the shoulder of experience to cry on.