soothing a savage breast
no, really, that's the actual quote. it's william congreve. look it up.
by adam kraemer
The drummer counts off the time.
"1, 2, 3, 4!"
And the band launches into its first song, the crowd cheering, starting to dance.
You make eye contact with a cute blonde in the front row. Then you make eye contact with her 6'2" boyfriend.
"Oh, well," you think to yourself. "I'm on stage and he's not. And the crowd seems to really be into us."
This is the story of how I started playing music, and how important it's been to me, and why playing in front of a crowd is such an amazing feeling. Maybe some of you have your own, similar stories. Or maybe you'll just want your kids to play music. If you don't play an instrument, or don't care if your children play, read it anyway. You might change your mind.
When I was in 3rd grade, we were brought into the orchestra room, one by one, and Mr. Raytek, the orchestra teacher and still the only man I've ever seen with a chin that somehow went straight down to his chest, told us to pick an instrument. I picked violin. I really don't know why, but it seemed like a good idea.
I took violin lessons, both at school and privately, for four years. I managed to move from 2nd violin, where, when you're 10, the most important skill they teach you is to turn the pages at the correct time, to 1st violin by the time I was in 6th grade. That was the money seat. That meant that what you were playing was most likely the melody and going to be heard by people. Admittedly, "Pizzicato Clock" isn't exactly Vivaldi, but it meant my parents could actually see me from the audience. They were my biggest fans.
As the band continues its first set, you find yourself getting into kind of a vibe with everyone. There are moments when the crowd actually disappears and you're really just playing for your bandmates - "Think I sounded good in rehearsal? Check this out." - and then the crowd comes back into your perception and they're cheering and dancing to the sounds you and your bandmates are producing.
You lean over and say something to the bass player and you both grin. It doesn't matter what you said, but the crowd's now focused on you, as if you just whispered to him, "Okay, next we let God take His solo."
As you finish the song, someone yells out "Free Bird!"
When I was in fourth grade, I also started playing piano. My mom, a piano teacher, had started trying to give me lessons on her own, as far back as when I was four or five, but we found that we were uniquely unsuited for a teacher/student situation, as every time she'd say something like, "That's an F sharp," I'd say, "No, it's not." So I was sent to Samantha Foreman, a high-school student who taught piano on the side. I remember playing "The Cossack Dance" and thinking the metronome in their living room was really cool.
By sixth grade, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find enough time in the day for practicing violin and piano, and still play with my friends and get to my homework. So my mom suggested I drop one of my instruments. Now I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to sing and play violin simultaneously. So I stuck with piano. Best decision I ever made. Thank God I hadn't decided to play violin and tuba.
Until the time I graduated high school, I took piano lessons every week, except the month I was at summer camp. I remember having to audition for a chance to take lessons from Samantha's teacher, May Harrow, one of the preeminent piano teachers in the area. An accomplished pianist in her own right, "Aunt May" (as everyone still calls her) had studied at Julliard, and the current trio she played with had even performed in New York at Lincoln Center. I passed the audition.
As the first set draws to a close, you scan the room to see if a) you have a clean path to the bar, b) your friends showed up, and c) there are any potential hotties who might just be impressed enough with you that you might later have an opportunity for mammarial bliss.
The guitarist is just finishing his solo on "The Rascal King," and it's time for you to pretend to be a horn section. This is made a little tougher by the fact that you were just a Hammond organ for a few moments in the middle of the song. You're really the only person who appreciates this, but at least you know it sounded good the whole time.
You look out at the crowd, trying to connect with them, to impress upon them their importance in the audience/performer relationship.
My parents bought me my first real keyboard for my Bar Mitzvah. It was a Yamaha DX-27 and utilized waveform synthesis to create sounds. This basically means that you start with a sine wave and manipulate it until it sounds not totally unlike the instrument it's supposed to be mimicking. Think about that little Casio keyboard you had in 1985. Mine sounded like that, only the keys were bigger. And it didn't have that cool samba beat.
As the second set starts, you're gratified at the number of people who came up to you during the break to tell you how good you guys sounded. You try to play it off - "Yeah. I kind of screwed up during 'Counting Blue Cars.' I hope no one noticed." - but secretly, you're thinking, "This is the best band ever. Everyone wants to be me." Maybe you should hold off on drinking any more beer for a while.
I joined my first band in 9th grade, in large part because we were four of a relative few who knew how to play instruments. And we were terrible. Enthusiastic, but terrible. Among the songs in our "setlist": Love Stinks, Matter of Trust, Summer of '69, The Final Countdown, and Wipeout. Basically, whatever our guitarist's teacher had him learning that week. Dave, Leo, Pat and I were not good, but what we lacked in ability, we more than made up for in inability.
The summer after 9th grade, something changed. When we got back together, we discovered that Pat had apparently locked himself in his room for days with the Guns 'n Roses "Appetite for Destruction" songbook and suddenly he was good. Really good. Within a matter of months, we went from playing "Every Breath You Take" to playing "Purple Haze." And we all sounded good. We really began learning how to play our instruments. And it showed.
Someone in the back of the bar keeps yelling "Brown Eyed Girl" every time you guys finish a song. He's a friend of the drummer and he's been yelling this over and over since the middle of the first set. You'd have been happy to accommodate his request before this, but the song isn't actually one you've ever played together. Still, he's really starting to annoy you.
"Okay," you say, turning to your band members during a quick break between songs. "Does everyone know 'Brown Eyed Girl'?" After all, it's a four-chord song that every musician has learned on their respective instruments at one time or another. Your question is met with four affirmatives.
"Can we just do it, then, to shut that guy up?"
And for the first (and last) time your band plays "Brown Eyed Girl", totally unrehearsed, in front of a live audience. You're pretty proud of yourself. So's everyone else.
I played with a bunch of different bands when I lived in Boston. Some partly successful (the cover band I played with in Boston made some pretty decent money). Some doomed to failure (the woman I played with in Boston whose songs were really catchy but only played coffee house open-mic nights and sang all her songs flat). Some that never even got off the ground (the one where the guitarist decided to quit smoking and drinking in the same week and turned into such an asshole that everyone left).
Suddenly being in bands that needed to actually be good, of course, meant that the keyboard I had that sounded mostly like things that don't exist had to go. Against the better advice of the accountant angel who sits on my shoulder, I bought myself an Alesis QS7. It's gorgeous. This is a keyboard that has the capacity to do anything you can imagine. And if you plug it into a computer, it can do things you can't imagine. I love this keyboard.
Some time during the third set, you realize that you have no idea how the harmonies go on "What I Got" but there's a microphone in front of you and you follow the bass player's lead, singing his vocal part. Like the crowd's going to notice, they're so into the music. You love their intensity.
And now, for the first time since I moved to New York in 1998, I find myself getting back into that, and it feels great. As of this week, I'm working with two different groups - one on Tuesdays and one on Fridays. Both are original bands trying to make it in New York; one I'm joining and the other I'm just playing some gigs with (I think). I see no conflicts as of yet, and I'm really excited. Keep your eyes peeled for invitations, of course.
It's been too long.
As you hold the chord on the final song of the night, the cheers from the crowd echo in your ears. You feel like Sally Field (They liked us! They really liked us!). You try to hold on to the moment, to burn it into your brain. This is what it feels like. This is a moment you will never forget. You want to catch the eye of everyone in bar, let them know that you appreciate their applause, and you appreciate each and every one of the people who enabled you to play for more than just an empty room.
You walk off the stage, aiming to grab one more drink before you have to start the pain-in-the ass process of breaking down and loading up your gear. Friends come up to you, slap you on the back, and tell you how excellent you sounded. People you don't know who just want to meet a member of the band are telling you they enjoyed the show. That hot blonde in the front row... well, she and her boyfriend left during the second set, so there goes that idea. But regardless of a chance encounter with a groupie, you feel good. You guys defined an evening of music for a group of people, and they love you for it.
And, as you drive home, the outside temperature so cold that the LCD display on your keyboard was actually sluggish at the beginning of the night, you realize how lucky you are to have this skill, this talent. That you can do something that others will pay to see. And if you're truly smart, that's not a feeling you'll ever let yourself forget. Because that makes it all worth it.
This column is dedicated to every music teacher I ever had: Mr. Raytek, Ms. Harnitchek, Samantha Foreman, Susan (something), Aunt May Harrow, and most especially my mother. Thank you all.
For more information on the crisis facing music education in schools, visit American Music Conference.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.10.05 @ 10:35a
Let's jam sometime.
1.10.05 @ 10:55a
Oh MAN - I want to see Walker and Adam jam! What a riot that would be!
Seriously, good luck. Nice that you rediscovered how important it is to you.
1.10.05 @ 12:02p
I've always played for myself, in my room. It's nice to be able to make music with other people again.
1.10.05 @ 12:37p
Is that a euphemism?
1.10.05 @ 12:44p
No, you're thinking of "flogging the dolphin."
Not really what I was hoping this discussion would be about, though.
1.10.05 @ 6:48p
Okay, um, anyone know what I'm talking about?
Or, um, anyone thinking of getting their kids music lessons?
Or anyone annoyed that schools are cutting their music budgets faster than you cut out of work?
1.11.05 @ 1:01a
Okay, um, anyone know what I'm talking about?
You're talking about picking up easy tail in a bar because you're a rocker, right? Studies show chicks are 15-20 times more likely to talk to you if you are 'in the band' as opposed to merely 'in the bar'. (Note: Actual results vary depending on the subject. Side effects may include over-inflated self-esteem, false confidense in sexual prowess, terminal ego-centrism, one or more communicable diseases, bar brawls, paternity suits, lead singer envy.)
Seriously, though, my daughter is getting ready to start piano lessons, but she wants to play guitar. We've got both at the house, plus my big kit and a pint-sized trap kit in case they want to play drums.
I'm disappointed with public schools for a large number of reasons, and that is one of them although I'm sure how high it is on my list.
1.11.05 @ 2:30a
Honestly, Adam, I'm not sure what you're talking about. Not that it isn't well written, I'm just torn between your rediscovery of your interest in music, or the fact arts and culture are the first to suffer whenever schools cut back funding on educational programs, but they never ever cut funding to sports programs.
I mostly like the fact you can play Wipeout. I was never that good. I can read music, and play the piano and organ, and never really got into it. I wanted to be the singer, in the spandex and leather (it was the early 80s), but can't carry a tune.
1.11.05 @ 8:53a
I think it's incredibly insane that school administrators think that "book learning" is enough for children. I just don't know what I would have done without choir to look forward to. It's as if a caste system is being established in America: only the rich kids whose parents can afford music lessons will benefit, rather than all children receiving a well-rounded education.
1.11.05 @ 8:55a
I haven't sang on stage in a verrrrry long time. I'm afraid I'd freak out.
I did, however, sing Prince and Al Green at the top of my lungs with Walker at IMV, and was not bothered at all by hitting a few off notes.
1.11.05 @ 10:32a
The only Karaoke song I will perform is "Informer" by Snow. Sadly, there's a Karaoke bar right behind my office that actually has the song.
Regarding music programs, the thing that a lot of these administrators are ignoring is the slew of studies that show time after time that kids who start learning music at a young age do noticeably better than their peers in both general cognative and spatial learning, and that this trend continues throughout their schooling.
dr. jay gross
1.11.05 @ 4:06p
Adam, you just scratched the surface, but your call needs to be felt by the narrow minded educators that think music has nothing to do with academics.
A very good friend of mine, a pharmacist, (also a medical doctor) is a very accomplished keyboardist and travels on request to give recitals in jazz and classical organ and piano. He feels that the mathamatics and memory associated with music and the rhythm of its associated scoring is interwoven in many other scientific disciplines. To ignore the teaching of music is to stifle the thinking and creativity in the scientific and healing arts. The energy put into learning to play an instrument is not simply the mastering of that instrument, but the ancillary discipline that comes from that learning.
Thanks for the teachers that are patient enough to guide their students into music.
1.11.05 @ 6:37p
Not to mention, in no small part, the hand-eye coordination it takes. The learning of rhythm. The studying of a non-verbal language.
1.11.05 @ 8:39p
If I had to rank what we should be dumping money into curricullum-wise, I'd say
1. Math/Science/Language Skills
2. Music/Art Skills
3. Health/Well-Being/Social Values Clarification bullshit.
But that's just me.
1.12.05 @ 7:17a
Dan, as someone who now (as of October) works as a staff scientist doing science curriculum development for K-12, I agree wholeheartedly. Not that I don't think health and well-being education isn't important--in fact, we take every opportunity in our curriculum lessons to include health and fitness when we can make the appropriate connections between health or fitness and the science concepts being taught in that unit. We also use icons to let teachers know when we've incorporated key math and language arts concepts specified in state academic standards, and make an concerted (ahem!) effort to include those standards rather than them being coincidental.
However, as someone who has grown up with music (banging on the piano at 6 am at the age of 6 guaranteed 7 or 8 years of piano lessons!), I truly believe that the skills learned in music translate to other areas of study, and also open students' minds to an appreciation of culture. Not only that, but there have been numerous studies that show that students who are active in musical studies learn better and perform better academically. As someone pointed out, when you learn music you are learning a new, if non-verbal, language. That must stimulate the language centers of the brain. It's only logical. Music is like any other written language, in that it has a certain "grammar" to it, complete with punctuation and rules about usage.
While we're at it (although this comment is probably more suited for today's feature column), the music industry as a whole really isn't doing anything to promote the study of music as a worthwhile endeavor when it continues to pop out manufactured, cookie cutter artists like an overly fertile sow. How many Christina/Twitney/Hillary/Lindsay copy cats are needed before the consumer public finally says "enough"? As for "American Idol" (gags)...enough, already. Every time one of these artists gets the full support of a record label and marketing team, it tells the world that looks are more important than actual musical talent. Bull. Then again, there are a few rock artists who might prove that assertion to be at least partially false.
1.12.05 @ 12:27p
I don't understand why you think our educators want students to get a "well-rounded education" or that they care if only rich kids can benefit from music training. We're in the No Child Left Behind era. The goal of the American educational system is to make sure students can be single-minded enough to pass tests. Well-rounded? Feh!
Well-rounded people would recognize flaws in the system and fight for ways to change it. People trained on passing tests recognize the significance of repetition, following the rules, and doing what our Dear Leader wants us to do. Thank god we have good people like Armstrong Williams to take government bribes to spread the truth about the benefits of No Child Left Behind.
1.12.05 @ 12:50p
If health and well being are bullshit, I hope I'm dead before the children of today get their PH.D's. My wish was almost granted on 12/20/04.
Why? Because my doctors decided that pills will cure all my problems. They have never once suggested looking into how to change my diet and such that could benefit me in many ways. It has taken me avoiding them for the past three weeks just to keep myself out of the E.R.
I agree that music and self expression are important. But for children to grow up thinking that being a couch potato and eating at McDonald's is a life time plan is crap.
Children need to know about their bodies and how to deal with their emotions. If they don't, they grow up thinking that doctors are always right and this is hardly the case.
The US is the fattest country going according to the news and other forms of media. While I cannot say that I've investigated Beethoven's dietary habits lately, I'm sure his creativity didn't come from sitting on his butt like a slug popping pills for every ache and pain.
As for the "No Child Left Behind Act"...it has it's pros and it's cons. We still have a serious problem with high school grads that don't know how to read. They can play a killer game of football, but beyond that there is no common sense, or the desire to think independantly.
With this being said, I think I'll go plop in a CD, and sing myself hoarse.
1.12.05 @ 4:19p
Music is partly math, divided time spaces in which you can place one of thirteen things, one of the twelve notes or silence.
1.12.05 @ 4:48p
More mathematical than just that, too, if you start to look at sound waves.