The chatter and laughter of people at play was the only evidence of an audience beyond the bright lights of the stage. Glasses clinked, pans rattled in the kitchen as patrons ordered pizzas and beef sandwiches. The drummer rapped his sticks together, setting the tempo, “1-2-3-4!” The rock rhythm of the snare and tom drums prompted the bass and guitar, cuing the singers for their entrance. The small auditorium filled with applause and cheers.
What was I doing? I was a classically trained pianist, a respected piano teacher, and church musician. The lead guitarist had told me to play chords. Okay, I could do that. I looked at the lead sheet, that code of musical notes and lyrics with chord notations jammed in apparently haphazardly. My hands hit the piano keys, ready to improvise, knowing there was a good chance that the chords on the page wouldn’t line up with the lyrics or would be incorrect. Improvisation was key. For “paper-trained” musicians such as myself, drilled in the sanctity of the written manuscript, improvisation can be a challenge.
The beer that I had consumed earlier did its magic: I pretended to know what I was doing. Luckily, most rock songs are based on three chords. By listening carefully, I knew when to modulate chords. Occasionally, I threw in a piano ornamentation for glitter. Knowing that the audience could barely hear me over the noise, I let go, pounding out chords and arpeggios and riffs as the spirit inspired.
I played with this group for two seasons of our community theater. Okay, the season lasted only 8 weeks with 6 performances each. It was in a church basement. Totally amateur. But I learned to follow, to use my ears, and trust my instincts. I learned to have fun with music.
That was 40 years ago. Meanwhile, my position as a church music director offered opportunities for me to spread my wings beyond the traditional hymns, organ, and choral repertoire. I enjoyed teasing my choir, musicians, and the congregation with contemporary Christian music, old music performed in new ways, and, hallelujah!, clapping and swaying in a Lutheran church! Much of my inspiration rose from that band of long-ago.
After 50 years, I retired from church music. COVID hit, and music requiring close physical contact disappeared. With the taming of the pandemic, I now sit with a group of experienced musicians practicing Eric Clapton and Joni Mitchell ballads filled with strange chords. I was careful to sit out when lost during the first session, assured they would dismiss me politely. Perhaps feeling unthreatened, they invited me back.
Grandma Moses began painting at 78. Is there time for me to become a rock star? I may need some new clothes.