One of the greatest gifts I received growing up was living in a world where there was always music. Both my parents were big music lovers. When my mom was in her late teens and early 20s, she sang in a couple of big bands including one that was well known in Milwaukee. She sounded like Doris Day and looked just as beautiful. (That's her in the picture.) There are a few recordings from back then including when she sang again in her early 40s making demos for a recording studio. I made a compilation of her recordings for a Christmas present one year. She was definitely the real deal. When my dad was in college, he played first chair trumpet in the jazz band. You can see one reason they hit it off when they met in college, can’t you? It was as if their union was brought together by music.
So no matter if we were home, or in the car, the music would play. Interestingly enough, we also had a piano in our house, which no one played. When I got a little older, I would try to figure it out, but I had no clue what I was doing. I would ask for help, and someone showed me how to play chopsticks, but that was about as far as it went. By the time I was 7, I was definitely old enough to know that I could get some piano lessons from a teacher that was more patient than a family member. So I asked my mom if I could have lessons.
Unfortunately, my 3 siblings who were older than me, were already getting things that were draining the pocketbook and the time it took to take everyone to everything. My brother was taking guitar lessons, and my sister was involved in several dance classes. The reason my mom gave me for not giving me piano lessons was simply, “Your sister had piano lessons for two years and she never practiced. The answer is no. I’m not going to waste my money on that again.” I would ask again periodically, but to no avail.
At the age of 8 things changed due to a series of events. My parents divorced, and my older brother went to live with my dad. Then a year later, my sister moved in with him as well. (In Wisconsin, the law stated that at the age of 13, the child could decide which parent they wanted to live with.) We went from 6 people in the house to 3. One evening, my mom asked her friend’s daughter, Georgia, who was about 13 at the time, to babysit my brother and I. Oddly enough, and to my great advantage, the piano was in my bedroom. Due to a fireplace, and picture windows on two walls of the living room, there was no place for the piano, so it ended up in my bedroom. (Another reason I angst over trying to play it. It was in my room!) Georgia told me that if I went to bed with no arguing, she would play the piano for me. I’ll never forget it. I was tucked in and full of anticipation. She played “Love Story” which was the theme song from a movie. It’s a very melodic and emotional piece, and it took me to places unknown. I was in awe of how the piano moved my heart. I told myself at that very moment, I am going to play like that someday! The desire launched from my heart like a rocket.
I shared my dream of playing the piano with Georgia, and told her I wanted to play like that someday. She told me she had a really good piano teacher, and I could get lessons from her. I was so excited. Georgia ended up telling my mom, and when I woke up the next morning, my mom was finally in agreement to let me start lessons. She made me promise that I would practice every day. That was an easy commitment for me to make.
I had lessons from that teacher from the age of 9 – 15. When I was 14 or 15 years old, she told me she was running out of things to show me and it was time to take from another teacher. I really didn’t want to. She was not only my teacher, but she became a friend and confidant that genuinely cared about me. She told me she could show me one more thing, if I was interested. I said yes, without even knowing what it was going to be.
She pulled out a theory notebook and had written a couple of melodies out with the name of the chord above each measure. I still remember the first two songs she did – “The Way We Were” (yes, this was the 70s), and “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. She showed me how to play the melody with my right hand and create a supporting left hand using simple bass notes, scales, and chords. It was incredibly awkward at first and sounded terrible, but she helped me to persist. This gift of knowledge is what launched me into songwriting.
I started when I was 16 years old, and dealing with my first big boyfriend break-up. By now we had lost our nice home due to the divorce and my dad filing bankruptcy. The new place was a small townhouse that we rented and the piano was now in our living room. I remember sitting at the piano, while the TV was on. My stepfather and brother were watching it, and my mom was working real estate hours. I quietly played the keys and whispered words that were on my heart. I can’t fathom it now, but I was able to tune out the TV and the people in the room, and whisper my songwriting as if I was covered in a protective dome and no one heard me. I focused deeply, and eventually finished the song. It gave me great relief to play it over and over, expressing my emotions through the music. I would only play it when people were not in the room, or very quietly where no one would make any comments about it. It was an incredibly personal process. I turned to the piano more and more. By this time, my high school friends were exploring taboos, and drinking at parties where parents would either allow it or not be home at the time. I had zero interest in being part of that. I had enough destruction of alcohol and drugs in my immediate family, and knew I never wanted to partake in any of that.
It became quite a lonely time for me. I worked at a restaurant every Friday and Saturday night for $3.00 an hour, was involved with school and gymnastics, but came home to a mostly empty house. My brother was getting into trouble, I no longer had my piano teacher as a confidant, and my only place of expression was at the piano. It became my refuge and my place of prayer. I asked through the music, and sometimes I would sing out the answers, but always, my heart had a chance to express, which brought release, and eventual healing. 40 years later, writing songs continues to be a balm for my heart, mind, and soul.