Black keys and white keys and frets, oh my!

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Learning music– it happens all different ways. Sometimes by osmosis: Daddy plays or Mommy plays, so the kids pick it up. School bands, private teachers, lessons on YouTube, books from Mel Bay and others with CDs included so you can hear what you are trying to play.

My musical education started in grammar school. Would you believe in those pre-Prop.13 days of high taxes and great schools our small-town grammar school had not only a band teacher (whom we shared with the high school across the street) but a vocal teacher. Each class went there one or two hours a week and we learned to sing choral harmonies — skills I sort of forgot for a while but which made a swift return when I started singing folk songs and later bluegrass.

I am feeling sad today that I can’t remember that teacher’s name. She had gray hair, a very sweet smile, and she was really a dear woman. She taught me intervals: she would play a note on the piano and say, “That’s a C, what is this?” and hit another note. I got very good at picking out that second note. Not many of the other kids could do it, so I got to be a sort of teacher’s musical pet.

I was messing around with a ukulele we had in the house, and an old mandolin, which I now think of as the World’s Worst Mandolin, that my dad liked to noodle around on. I spent many hours figuring out a Portuguese folk song, “The Chamarita” that I heard every summer when our church hosted the annual Holy Ghost Festival.
There were some old ukulele instruction books around the house with 1920 songs, and I started picking up the chords and learning the melodies from Mom.

About age 12 I started agitating for piano lessons. My Aunt Marie, upstairs, offered to lend us her piano, so the heavy upright was somehow moved down into our living room and I began lessons with the local teacher, my mother’s old high school classmate, Vernon Faria.

I was starting “late” and was embarrassed to have younger, more advanced, kids hear me play my elementary pieces while sitting in the waiting room, so I persuaded Mr. Faria to let me be the final student of the day. After about a year I was playing songs fairly well, but as with so many other children, daily practice was a chore I often avoided.

I still remember Mr. Faria complaining, “You are getting to be a pretty good sight reader, but that’s not really the point.”

Then he came up with a book that showed how chords are built. Major triads, minor triads, sixths, sevenths, augmented, they were all there. The songs had melody lines and chord symbols. Many possibilities became apparent. I started playing “by ear” using the chord accompaniments I could figure out from the book. A huge breakthrough.

But eventually the new wore off this, too, and after about two years of lessons my parents pulled the plug.

Soon I had got hold of a guitar and began playing after school with some of my classmates. I started agitating for guitar lessons. Mom had a friend in that field too: Angelo Gistelli, a big-band guitarist who had made a nice living in the 1930s and ’40s when being a union musician was a secure career.

Mr. Gistelli told me to buy a piece of sheet music called “Moonlight on the Ganges.” It was by Sherman Meyers (lyrics) and Chester Wallace (music) and was made famous by Paul Whiteman’s band, probably in the 1930s.

Despite its romantic lyrics:

“Moonlight on the Ganges, my little Hindu,
When I whisper love’s sweet melody,
All our dreams and our schemes came true…”

that song was to become my bete noir for nearly a year. It started out with a series of descending ninth chords (that was the easy part) and then turned into one of those songs where almost every melody note is a different chord.

I struggled with it and never did really play it well, but it became the basis for a series of mini lectures on how chords worked. Mr. Gistelli knew his chords and knew his fretboard and he loved diagramming how this one note would change the chord from D-minor to B-major and then change one more note and it becomes G7.

My lessons were supposed to be a half-hour long, but often ended up twice that, only ending when Mrs. Gistelli would come in and remind him that his favorite TV show, the boxing matches, were about to start.

One of my most satisfying days in music was about 12 years later when my bluegrass band was booked to play a wedding in the historic Old Homestead in Crockett. After the gig I asked my friends if they would mind taking a moment to visit my old teacher.

By this time he was quite old, in a wheelchair in fact. We unloaded our instruments and played a short set of bluegrass for him. It wasn’t his style of music but I could see he was clearly moved that one of his students had stuck with music and was playing in a band, albeit on banjo, not guitar.

I often think of Mr. Faria and Mr. Gistelli when I am struggling to figure out some harmonically difficult song, where a melody note could indicate any one of several chords. My parents didn’t have much money and I know they stretched to pay for those lessons. But the payback was vastly more than they (or I) ever dreamed at the time.


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