The ‘keys’ to success

Songs of Myself


I stood in front of the merch table with my too-indie-for-you 16-year-old friends, quivering with excitement and nerves as I prepared to meet my idol. It was a school night, and I’d convinced my parents to let me attend a Jukebox the Ghost concert via a highly persuasive PowerPoint presentation. Jukebox was the opener of the night (we didn’t give a shit about the headliner), and we had flocked to the back of the venue to meet the adorable bearded men of our favorite indie band. In particular, I idolized Ben Thornewill, the band’s handsome, goofy and extraordinarily talented pianist. “I love the way you play piano,” I told him excitedly, blood rushing to my face. “I’m a piano player myself.”

“Oh cool, what style do you play?”

I panicked. Here I was, a bumbling fangirl with a penchant for occasionally tinkering around on the piano, faced with a classically trained professional pianist asking me about my technique. I was no classical pianist. I preferred piano covers of My Chemical Romance songs to anything resembling Mozart or Chopin. My breath hitched in my throat.

“Uh … contemporary, kinda?” I managed to croak out. Oh God. He was looking at me weird. Contemporary is definitely not a style of piano. I retreated slowly, devastated at the colossal fuck-up I’d made of my first meeting with the man of my dreams.  

I’ve been playing piano for years and years, but I still feel like an amateur in front of most other piano players. I can read sheet music, but I usually eschew it in favor of messing around with chords to songs I like. I’ve tried to learn classical pieces, but I always get bored. All I really want to do is play something I can sing to. This doesn’t necessarily translate to stellar piano skills, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun for me than some soul-sucking scale-playing exercise.

My earliest memories of the piano include my grandpa playing the 12-bar blues. I would watch him play his Baldwin grand piano, mesmerized by his incredible ability to improvise. He played passionately and relentlessly, his fingers remembering the keys like old friends even as his eyes started to fail him. He taught me how to play the blues when I was little, and slowly, I began to plink out the notes, following his lead. I couldn’t get the hang of improvising just yet, but I desperately wanted to play the piano just like him.

I’m still no jazz pianist, and I lack technical skill. But the kind of piano player I want to be is still one just like my grandpa: a player who is less concerned with sheet music and more concerned with feeling the music. Someone who plays by ear and who plays from their heart.

I took a DeCal last year called “Right-Brained Music.” Every week, we gathered together to see what kinds of noises we could make out of our instruments without getting anywhere near sheet music. The student teaching the class was a ridiculously talented piano player. He played an arsenal of instruments with enviable skill and had never so much as laid eyes on sheet music. Gradually, he taught us how to improvise, encouraging us to mess around with our instruments and fall into the rhythm of free-form playing.

I loved the freedom in this type of playing. There were no limits, no boundaries to the music. Improvising with other people can go on for hours, just feeding off the thoughts of another musician and adding yours without taking time to stop and overthink it. It’s the purest, most natural-feeling way to play music.

I was in a band with my friend for a few years in high school. I sang and played piano, and he played the drums. We had our formula down — I would write the songs, and then I’d present him with the finished product, to which he would improvise a percussion accompaniment.

This worked fine, but something changed when I jammed with him the summer following the semester I took that DeCal. For the first time, I just sat down at the piano and we improvised together. Simultaneously, we crafted new melodies and beats that neither of us had ever thought about before that exact moment. I finally felt a little closer to the piano player I’d always wanted to be.

One day, I hope I’ll inherit that Baldwin grand piano my grandpa used to play. I’m still a far cry from the spellbinding skill he had, but it’s him I think of whenever I want to improve my playing. And if I do ever end up with that piano in my home, perhaps with kids or even grandkids of my own, I’ll be sure to give the blues a spin. Just for you, Grandpa.

And if I ever get another face-to-face with Ben Thornewill, I hope to God I’ll remember that contemporary is not a style of piano. Maybe I’ll never be a virtuoso classical pianist like him, but the way I play is valid, too — playing whatever I want and saying to hell with sheet music.

Madeline Wells writes the Thursday arts column on trying to make it in the music industry. Contact her at [email protected].