Music as a life component

For as long as I can remember, music has been something that I automatically dissect, analyze and log into my memory bank, rather than something simply to enjoy.

I’m not complaining.
Examining the entrails of a composition — be it classical, jazz, pop, blues or rock ’n’ roll — is as basic a life force for me as walking, eating or dozing.
I expect I share this orientation with millions of others for whom music in some form or other constantly pervades their consciousness, usually subtly, but sometimes front and center. It’s something I’m comfortable with, and life would seem strange and disorienting without it.

Mom was the K-12 music teacher in the Jefferson schools before she and Dad were married. Back in the 1930s, a female teacher had to be single, so Mom gave up teaching after the wedding. But as each of us five kids came along, she started us out on piano when each of us was about 4 or so.

As the oldest, I provided her the initial challenge that each of us gave her in turn: procrastinating about the daily half hour of practice she demanded.

Dad had given her a studio console piano rather than a ring as an engagement present, so we each were required to sit at the Gulbransen in the den and run through our keyboard lessons for at least 30 minutes every day.

It must have been wearisome for her to hear perpetual whining from five kids, but she had spent several years trying to turn an entire school full of youngsters into musicians, so maybe narrowing the load down to just five of us was relatively benign.

After a year or two of Mom’s tutelage, she sent each of us in turn to a local piano teacher. In my case, and I think for most of my siblings, the first such teacher was Blanche Ryerson, and later as we progressed, we went to Letha Russell, who lived just half a block west of us on Harrison Street.

I was so small when I first started at the keyboard that Mom obtained some extensions for the pedals, vertical metal rods with something like shoe lasts on top where I could rest my feet and push the pedals when necessary.    

Brother Bill, a year younger than I, was quite unhappy when I graduated to Mrs. Ryerson’s tutelage at age 6 or so, Mom recalled years later.

I will now embarrass him with the following tale.

Seeing him sad at being left at home when I went off to Mrs. Ryerson’s, Mom would put his jacket on him, put his piano books and a quarter in his hand, and send him out to walk around the block. When he got back to our house and rang the bell, she let him in, took off his jacket, took the quarter and gave him his piano lesson.

He apparently was mollified by this ploy.

Mom and our piano teachers soon discovered that Bill, Tom and I had perfect pitch. We could tell what note or chord was being played without looking at the keyboard, and that has continued throughout our lives. It was several years before I realized that not everyone could do that; I thought it was a natural thing for all human beings, like identifying colors.    

However, researchers have discovered that as people with perfect pitch reach their elderly years — which at least Bill and I have accomplished — they have a tendency to identify the notes as being higher in pitch than they actually are (it has something to do with changes in the inner ear).

My first venture with an instrument other than piano was in fourth grade, when all of us in that grade learned to play the song flute. The song flute is similar to the tonette or the recorder — you put your mouth around the mouthpiece end of the straight plastic tube with holes down the top side, and cover various combinations of holes to create various notes as you blow into the tube.

In the summer of 1959, the year I graduated from high school, my brothers, Dad, Tom Cooper and I took our first canoe trip to the Boundary Waters on the Minnesota/Ontario border. Brother Tom, who was 12 at the time, took along his song flute and serenaded us as we paddled down the lakes.

When I reached junior high, music became more important to me, due to factors that were both push and pull.

The “pull” was because I was playing in band and relishing the camaraderie and the musical experience, even though I played the flute.

I selected the flute in fifth grade, not realizing that few people would hear me play throughout my entire school career except for the rare occasions when the flute section was featured in a concert number. The rest of the time, my flute sounds were pretty hidden.

I had wanted to play trombone when it came time to select instruments in fifth grade, because my older cousin John played the trombone, but my arm was too short to reach seventh position with the trombone slide.

Band director Milton Trexel suggested the flute, stating that he needed more flute players, so I innocently agreed.

In my senior year of high school, I complained to band director Robin Snyder that I wanted to play something in marching band that could be heard, and he assigned me the sousaphone.

Everyone else who played the sousaphone in marching band was at least 5 feet 11 inches, so the sousaphone line looked odd, with a depression in the line of about six inches or so because of me, but at least I could be heard.

The “push” causing my heightened interest in music in junior high was because of dancing.

I was pretty shy in junior high, in part because most of the girls in my grade were taller than I, or at least seemed so.

The popular and cool guys in junior high learned to be great dancers, but I steered clear of dancing as much as possible; at sock hops in the gym, when it came time for “ladies’ choice” dances, several of us newly pubescent males headed for the boys’ rest room, where we hid out until we thought it was safe to return to the dance floor.

Music was my salvation.

Mr. Snyder created a Dixieland jazz combo of several of us, with me on piano. With that “out,” I could concentrate on playing music rather than dancing to it. I now had an excuse for not learning to dance very well.

To this day, I would rather play piano than dance, to my wife Kathy’s constant disappointment, since she loves to dance and does it very well.

Because I’ve been around for a long time, I’ve amassed a pretty sizable repertory of songs I can play on the piano, both classical and popular.

It gradually dawned on me that 90 percent of popular songs prior to 1964 or so followed either the “Blue Moon” chord structure or the 12-chord blues pattern.

That realization meant I could play most popular songs of my school years.

If I outlive my financial resources, I may look around for gigs at a supper club or piano bar on occasion.

The biggest challenge by then will be staying awake up to closing time.

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161