Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Brief Musical History

An amazing thing has happened in the world of Smackie Onassis. I have access to a keyboard.

I'm sure I have mentioned that this past year has made up the longest time I have ever gone without having regular access to a musical instrument. Literally, the longest time I have ever gone. My parents have told me that I started singing complete songs (my repertoire consisting mainly of 'twinkle twinkle little star') at the tender age of 18 months. Following that, I was signed up for an Early Childhood Music class at the local conservatorium as soon as I was old enough. I continued with that until, after much begging, my parents decided that I was no longer too young to take piano lessons, at the age of eight.

From there, I never looked back. I just kept adding more instruments until I was drastically overcommitted, but loving every minute of it.

My musical training was a bit weird in some ways. When it came to piano, I was taught in a completely classical style, very rigidly following sheet music. I didn't know a thing about improvisation, I didn't even know that much about chord structures. I just knew how to play whichever song was placed in front of me. This made for a challenge when I started learning jazz saxophone.

In my piano lessons, I was still learning how to play Debussy and Chopin the way they were meant to be played, with strict instructions from a tiny Ukrainian woman. However, afterwards I would wander over to my sax teacher's rooms and the musical world as I knew it would be turned on its head. A man with a goatee and tattoos would play a chord and I was able to play whatever combination of notes sounded right. It wasn't written out for me, not in any way I had previously known. It was the first I learned of improvisation, and I struggled for so long to get my head around it. Even though it was the saxophone that eventually led me to tour the country playing songs, piano was always my first love, the instrument I always thought I was better at.

I was also studying voice for some time, which was the instrument* that I used for enjoyment more than any others. The only thing that bugged me was my apparent inability to accompany myself. Because I was much more used to tapping out elaborate melodies on the piano than playing simple chords, I had a lot of trouble trying to get it right. It was something that confused every other musician I knew, just because of how incredibly counter-intuitive it was. Because I was so busy, it was a while before I took the time to learn how to do it right.

The way it happened is an interesting story. My first serious boyfriend (I'd had short-lived relationships before that, but none that had been that important to me) broke my heart. When my parents saw that I was still upset the day after it had happened, they decided that the best thing for everyone was to have me committed to a psychiatric institution. I mean, I've never been a parent so I'm not sure I have the authority to question their decisions, but I feel like maybe this was a bit drastic. A hug and the reassurance that things would be ok, maybe a bowl of ice-cream, that probably would have done the job. But my parents were never good at those things, so it was the psych ward for me. I don't know, maybe they had listened to one of my songs.

It was a strange experience, waking up every day in a room with four other people, being brought breakfast on a little tray. It was especially weird hearing the things that the other inpatients would say, the stories they would tell. I remember feeling like a total fraud. I knew full well that the only reason they had accepted my admission was because of who my father was, but I didn't want to feel like I was wasting anybody's time. So, I played along, even embellishing some of my own stories out of fear that I would be found out. Even in a psych ward, I didn't want to look like a fraud.

The way that I got through it, week after week of being a (relatively) rational person locked up amongst the type of people who insisted that it didn't matter what anyone said to them, that they were going to throw themselves under a train the moment they got the chance, was through music. It's a total cliché, I know, but it was what happened. There was a common room that had an old, dusty piano in it. I'm not sure how often it was played, but I'm willing to bet it was never played as often as when I was there. I would spend hours poring over any music sheets I could find, playing every song I could remember. The effect it had was very strange. Some of the other patients seemed to think that I had been hired to play music for them, and started making requests. No-one was more surprised than me that I could actually fulfill these requests. An old woman requested Grieg, so I played Anitra's Dance from the Peer Gynt Suite. Someone asked for some Chopin, I played one of my favourite Nocturnes. The general selection was surprisingly high brow.

There was a man who came in every afternoon. I think he was an Occupational Therapist, I'm not sure, but he believed very strongly in the healing power of music. Every afternoon, he would come in with a guitar, hand out lyrics and assorted percussion instruments and encourage as many patients as were capable to sing along with him. At first I stayed quiet and let him do his thing, not wanting to draw attention to myself. But one afternoon, he arrived when I was a world away on the piano. He listened, and encouraged me to accompany him during his regular afternoon slots in the rec room. Self-consciously, I agreed. For the rest of my time there, I played along with him every afternoon. I was lucky enough to be a skilled sight reader, so any music he handed to me I could usually pick up fairly quickly. Sometimes though, the music he gave me consisted just of lyrics and chords. This is pretty standard, but it wasn't something I was used to. It was my musical weakness, I guess. 

But, I had very little else to do at the time, so I worked hard on it. I was glad to have something to actively work on. An afternoon slot in the rec room of a private psych ward isn't the ritziest of gigs, but it was good enough for me. By the time I left, I was able to accompany myself on the piano in a way I'd never previously been able to. I was glad that it hadn't been a completely useless experience. I remember saying goodbye to that OT, whose name I can't remember, as well as all the nurses and doctors. They all joked that they should hire me to come back every afternoon to play the piano, but I have never since been back.

So, here I am, with a keyboard again. I have found it surprisingly easy to get back into. I have been looking up chords on the internet, playing my own ridiculous versions of songs I have loved for a long time. I have said that my life will be complete when I can perform a cover of 'Object' by Ween, and now I am actually able to practice it in the comfort of my own room.

I was reminded of that story when I realised that I probably wouldn't be finding it so easy to play right now if it weren't for my brief rendezvous with our nation's fine psychiatric facilities. It feels like a strange thing to say, but there it is.

-Smackie Onassis

*Man, I know how pretentious it sounds to refer to your voice as an instrument, but it is totally the easiest way of describing it.

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