I played very little piano today, focusing more on guitar. It was a relaxed family day, so it would have been weird if I sat in the living room playing piano for hours. Instead, I played a bit with my brother-in-law, Jesse - we did “And Your Bird Can Sing” with me on rhythm and him on lead, a few Paul Simon tunes, and “Gone For Good” by the Shins. Jesse is a terrific singer and guitarist, so we can do some good harmonies and figure out stuff on the fly.
We listened to “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” two fun shuffles off of Bridge Over Troubled Water, thinking about playing them. We discovered that they are both tuned down a half-step to Eb. I used to wonder how you could tell something like that quickly without exhausting all other options first, but I’m getting better at doing it. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence - I assume that if it’s too hard for me to play, I’m probably not playing it correctly. If my voicings have a bunch of awkward stretches or it’s hard to get a good sound from a certain chord, I’m probably playing it in the wrong place or I’ve made a bad assumption. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: you might make guesses at the ones you don’t know or leave them blank, and as you work your way around you can make corrections or even have something click that didn’t before, just because you’re seeing it in a new way. I love working out songs by ear.
I dug out some old guitar books of my dad’s and played through them. The were busy, crappy arrangements of public domain stuff like “Greensleeves.” Given that my whole philosophy of learning music revolves around songs, I believe that the quality of one’s learning materials is the most important thing in music instruction - more important than the quality of the instrument, or even the skills of the teacher. So this by-the-numbers Mel Bay stuff was not very useful or satisfying to me - it’s really hard to make those pieces sound good, even if (especially if!) you play them exactly the way they are written.
And then…later on in the evening, driving with Jesse, my sister Ashley the birthday girl, and Jonah (my adorable sixteen-month-old nephew), I found a much more important use for my musical skills than hacking through some hacky guitar methods: I sang the baby to sleep. I was sitting next to him in the back seat as the sun was setting, leaning close and going from vigorous play songs like “Bingo” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to lullabies hummed gently in his ear. As I watched his eyelids droop, I felt a grace that served to put all of my musical strivings in their proper context. It is all for this kind of joy and love that I play.