Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Background Pianist

Of all the lessons I didn’t take regularly growing up, piano was the most useful. Everything I know about the piano I learned from my mom, my dad and my grandpa – a little because I think I went to his house a few times to take lessons. Most of the people I talk to acknowledge it is one of the best skills they acquired and thank their mother for making them stick with it -- even though they protested.

Fortunately, I didn’t need anyone to make me stick with it because I really enjoyed it. Even when I took violin lessons, I would get frustrated, put the violin away and practice the piano instead.

However, because I didn’t really take formal lessons, most of my piano skills are instinctual. I never learned music theory, what all the symbols mean, or proper fingering. And sometimes counting sets me back, but that’s OK. I know how to read music and if I practiced enough I could probably play most things.

Everyone who plays the piano and is a member of the LDS church knows if people find out you play, your calling is pretty much made sure for the rest of your life. You are the Primary or Relief Society pianist, the ward chorister or the ward choir accompanist. I really resented this in college because I wanted to know what it was like to be a teacher or serve on a committee or something, but I was always accompanying the congregation, the class or the choir. Always. My bishop even told me "If you play the piano, that's going to be your calling. That's just how it is. I remember looking at him, and at that moment, I decided next semester I wasn't going to put piano down under “skills” on my next membership application just to see what would happen. I was called to be a Relief Society teacher. That was a good semester.

Still, I loved to play the piano, it’s just that hymns were getting old (in fact that was the semester when I chose the most obscure hymns for the congregation to sing in our meetings. It was probably one of the more selfish things I've ever done. I didn't want to play "Count Your Blessings" ever again so I made everyone suffer through songs they've never heard just so I could play something different). When I moved to Portland after college, I discovered a piano in a big bank building across the street from where I temped. I don’t remember the details of how they decided to let me play their piano, but I rounded up some sheet music one day and played background for about an hour.

I’ll never be a concert pianist, but what I’m great at is background piano. And it’s not stressful at all because you’re not expecting people to listen. I’ve missed having a piano to play ever since I left the baby grand at my parents’ house, so I’m usually looking for other reasons to play the piano.

I volunteered at the LDS conference center to be a “watcher” for their annual International Book of Mormon exhibit. Basically I sat there and read for 3 hours and made sure people didn’t go down stairs or halls they weren’t supposed to. One day, the older missionary in charge of me said someone would be coming at noon to play the piano, but no one did. I REALLY wanted to go play the piano instead of just sitting there and watching people, but I wasn’t authorized. So I ended up inquiring with the person in charge of music, participated in an audition, he said I had “a nice touch” and now I am an official background pianist for the church buildings downtown (a people watcher no more). I have two basic locations: The Joseph Smith Memorial Building and the LDS Conference Center.

The JSMB is a more coveted location because it is more comfortable and homey, and there’s more traffic, and therefore, more people are there to listen – because, even though it’s nice to not have an actual captive audience, it’s nice to have a few people that care so you feel like you’re not there for nothing. It feels really good when people pass through, stop for a minute and then decide to sit down just to listen. That doesn’t really happen at the Conference Center because there isn’t really anywhere for them to sit down.

The piano sits in the lobby and I played there one night when there was a wedding reception in an adjacent room. A lot of the people from the wedding party came out and sat in the lobby to hear me play which was really nice. I’ve enjoyed some of the comments I get from people:

A father with his 9 year-old son, “That song is from Pride and Prejudice isn’t it?” Actually it was from Sense and Sensibility. Still, he knew his wife would be proud of him. I was.

The lady sitting at the registration desk in the room behind me, “Thank you so much for coming to play, it really adds to the atmosphere.” Aww. That’s always good to hear. It’s a volunteer job and often a thankless one.

An old man who works in the building came up and handed me a Hershey’s treasure candy. “Here, I thought you should have something.” Ah, he knows.

My first time playing at the Conference Center one of the elderly missionaries stopped me on my way to the piano and said, “You know what sounds really good? Phantom of the Opera.” Shoot. I didn’t have any Broadway with me. However, I did bring Les Mis the next time I played.

It’s funny because most people like to listen to music they’re familiar with – especially people who aren’t familiar with a lot of music. They feel really smart if you play something they've heard and they'll stick around and nod in approval. Last week I was playing the Gymnopédies by Erik Satie (dear Mom and Dad, I have your Satie piano book) and I noticed people begin to walk more slowly around the building and kind of sway to the back and forth rhythm. It was fun feeling like I had a little bit of control over these people, especially the kids. It was almost like they were my puppets.

One little boy, about 3 years old, just walked up to me and started to stare. Always flattering.

After that I played Gnossiennes No.1 and when I was finished a gentleman walked up to me and asked me what that piece was. “I have a recording of this on a CD at home, but I never knew what it was called,” he continued “It’s just lovely. It’s almost like, I don’t know, like it has a bunch of wrong notes in it, but somehow it works.” I understood what he meant, but I decided not to tell him that I hadn't practiced that piece very much so 20% of the notes I played were probably wrong.

I was also asked to play music outside the ticket office for people who were attending “Savior of the World”. I got there a little late and the crowds of people were kind of loud, but as soon as I opened up the hymnbook and started playing “Now the Day is Over” the crowd hushed and formed a line. Kind of like they were walking in to primary and the primary president had her forefinger up to her mouth telling them to “Shhh…” and be reverent. I felt really powerful until the noise gradually escalated to its previous level.

In conclusion, I would like to say that for me, at least, next to reading and writing, piano is one of my most useful skills, and I’m glad that I enjoy it. Even though I was resistant to tell people that I have the skill for fear that I would be pigeon holed for the rest of my life, I have no problem being the piano person.

Just last week no one was playing prelude in relief society so I just went up to the piano and started to play. The chorister asked me to stay there and play the hymns for class while I was at it. And I was happy to.


SRA said...

When I started reading this entry, I was going to suggest you try out to play piano at the JSMB. Glad you're already doing it. :)

leandparkermakes3 said...

I love reading your posts! Also, I think it is so neat that you get to volunteer your time doing something you love! How fun for you!

Jergs Family said...

That is awesome Laura! I've always wondered where they get the piano players from. Now I know that it's a volunteer job. How fun.

FYI - I read your first paragraph to John, just to reinforce the fact that I am RIGHT for having him take piano lessons!!! Thanks for the ammunition!

Ilene said...

It would be so cool if you were my primary pianist. We could slay the primary songbook together.

I love how you are conducting sociological experiments upon your audience. Only you are clever enough to do so.

Here is a funny side story. A new family moved into our ward and her husband put something like "my wife would make the BEST primary chorister." She was then called to be WARD choir director. The lady doesn't know how to read music. Poor lady; although I admire her faithfulness because she is doing her calling.

carter said...

Cool post, Laura. I don't think you were selfish by picking obscure hymns. You don't have to cater to the masses. I was music chairman in one of my student wards in college and I remember I picked a Durham hymn EVERY single week that whole semester. Little did they know...

Coincidentally to your post, I'm at a conference right now up at Aspen Grove for work and there's a piano here in the main presentation room and this morning I just sat down and played some "prelude" for people as they were milling around. I got lots of nice comments. Of course, I'm not as good as Laura. But hey, it's fun.

Becky said...

As far as hymns go. I don't know if this is considered "obscure", but it is in my ward. Try out Cundick's Thy Holy Word, 279. It's got a couple of lovely dissonances and I hope people out there are singing it.