First of all – I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of loving comments and emails following my post last week (and thank you all so much!). I have to admit, I was a little scared to publish such deeply personal thoughts and memories – but hey! One shot at life. One chance to be open, honest, unabashed.
This week – something a little more lighthearted but, I think, just as significant.
Last night I played at my usual house gig – at the White Mountain Hotel – and during my second set a sweet little girl came up to put some money in my jar and say, “You’re doing a really great job!”
I smiled and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Molly, I’m Heather. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
“What grade are you in, Molly?”
“Going into first grade.”
“Do you play the piano, Molly?”
“No, but I wish I could.”
Then suddenly she said, “Okay, bye!” and went back to her seat with her family.
A little while later, after Molly and her family had finished dinner and were waiting for their plates to be cleared and for their dessert menus to arrive, I could tell that Molly was getting bored. She was getting pretty fidgety, listening to all the grown-ups talk (it was a party of ten people), and she would occasionally spin around in her seat and catch my eye, wave and smile.
Then I had an idea.
The next time she looked my way I gestured with my left hand and said, “Come on up here again!”
Now, in all the years I’ve had this gig I’ve had a great many kids come up and visit with me at the piano. Usually they will sit with me on the bench and watch my hands as I play. Once in a while a kid might be a little older and will tell me that they’ve been taking piano lessons and on those occasions I’ll maybe let them play a song. The families of all of these children love these moments (as do I!) and they’ll come over and snap a few pictures and they’ll throw a little something in my jar. But that – the money – isn’t why I let the kids up there. It’s really because I love to share what I do – and it’s not often that I get to spend that kind of time with young’ns and play piano at the same time!
There was something different about Molly. She somehow didn’t strike me as a typical six year old. There was something very gentle and mature about her. So, here was my idea. After I waved her up, she came up and I said, “How would you like to help me make up a song?”
And she just smiled and said, “Yeah!”
So, with Molly seated to my left on the piano bench, I told her, “Pick any note and play it when I nod to you.” A lot of kids are rough with a piano – if you tell them to play it, they’ll bang the hell out of it. The restaurant and tavern were packed – a full house. Somehow, I knew I could trust her.
After a moment of looking very thoughtfully at the keys, she chose an F sharp and played it so gently with her little pointer finger. She looked up at me and I said, “Good!”
I then started to improvise off of her chosen note and then told her to “Pick another one!” and then she played, on my cue, a series of black notes – D sharp, G sharp, A sharp, C sharp, all her own choices. Somehow, she was tuned into my improvisation, because she almost always choose the note that I was hoping she would.
When we got to the end of that piece, I said, “Would you like to do it again?”
She very excitedly said, “Yes!”
This time I said, “Try the white notes this time. You have more choices!”
An improv in C major soon began, and she chose lots of white notes – A, D, B, G and so forth – with her tiny fingers bringing forth each sound so delicately. Her touch was so gentle, so precise! I was psyched. And she also seemed to fall into a regular pattern. I even said, “I think you’re a natural at this!” and she beamed.
Then she surprised me.
At some point, she looked up at me, then back at her hands and, when I cued her for a note, she went back to where she started – that F sharp.
At first it was a little jarring – I had been trying to keep things simple for her sake and sticking with C major. The F sharp was wonderful – a whole new direction – and she knew it right away. She shot me a look.
“Wow!” I said when she played it.
She asked, “Was that a bad note?”
I opened my mouth to say something and immediately thought better of it. How would I begin to explain the music theory of it? So, I just smiled and said, “There are no wrong notes.”
And you know? It’s true.
Victor Wooten has said that you’re never more than a half step away from a right note. Technically speaking, yes, he’s right. But I say every note is just fine – but you gotta own and embrace every note and make it your own, make it work. Even if it sounds or seems like a mistake – it’s all in how you deal with it after you’ve played it. That’s something I’m still learning and will probably always be learning.
I wonder if Molly will take up piano lessons in the fall when she’s starting first grade. Maybe she’ll play some other instrument. Or maybe she’ll do something else entirely. I do hope she’ll remember our little moment of shared spontaneity and creativity.
I know I will.