I lean back in my office chair as my 10-year-old daughter Kate settles onto the bench facing my electric piano that alternately serves as my instrument of musical escape and convenient resting place for the piles of paper that attend my job as a journalist.
Opening her book of Hannon exercises, which she's virtually memorized, she starts playing, her fingers flashing flawlessly across the keys. She's gotten so good at them that my wife and I often insist she slow down.
Music is my avocation. Periodically, I get to kick out the jams rocking with my rhythm and blues band. I've been a guitarist for 30 years or so, but a keyboard player for only about four. I'm completely self-taught. I can comp chords and play background pretty well, but I'm no soloist.
Learning to play keyboards amounted to waiting for my mechanical skills to catch up to the knowledge of chord structure already in my head from years of picking and singing. I'm not an accomplished reader of scores, but I can translate the dots. I know what a glissando is and can tell the difference between legato and staccato.
So when Kate started playing just a couple of years ago, it was easy for me to help. That's not so true anymore. In fact, I have to make a conscious effort sometimes to avoid giving advice for fear I'll teach her wrong. The last thing I want to do is feed her my poor playing habits. I must defer to her two accomplished teachers.
Kate's musical mind is a fresh slate, absorbing information and technique so quickly it's almost scary. Where once she played exercises so easy as to be boring, now she tackles ditties designed to introduce new techniques or reinforce specific fingering mechanics, pieces I struggle to play.
She bounces between treble and bass clef notes as if there were no space between them on the page, while I, if forced to play from scores at all, wrestle constantly with the fact that the lines and spaces in each zone have different names.
That's not a problem playing with the band, where our individual parts are all in our heads and the only thing I have to be conscious of is keeping my left hand as inactive as possible to avoid stepping on the bass player's lines.
We don't use scores, except on those rare occasions when we have to open the jazz "Real Book," as sometimes happens when playing the early sets at annual corporate dinner parties or wedding dates. Even then, I generally ignore the dots, improvising instead around the chord names typically written above the scores.
Since she began playing, Kate has insisted she wants to join our band a group of six guys, four of whom have already seen the backside of 50 and two others rapidly approaching that milestone.
Today, we're called Too Fat To Fly. I've jokingly told Kate, though, that when she's 16, we'll dress her in some hot outfit, put a microphone in her hand, stick her out front, and change the band's name to Kate Jailbait and the Bodyguards. The jailbait part still goes over her head, but that'll change soon, too. Like most of her friends, she's almost 11 going on 15, if you know what I mean.
The truth is, of course, that by the time she's in her mid-teens, she's not going to want to play with a bunch of guys pushing 60. She'll be jammin' with her pals and making music that talks to her generation music I may not like, but whose attraction I will fully understand.
Her exercises already include blues riffs and simple jazz structures. She's learning to boogie bass lines with her left hand while her right is stinging minor thirds and flatted fifths. Can playing over minor-seven-flat-five and suspended fourth forms be very far off?
Kate's no child prodigy, mind you. Occasionally, she'll go to tears, pounding the piano MY piano in frustration over a new piece of music. She also has myriad other interests, and sometimes we are forced to do battle, insisting she accomplish the required amount of daily practice. But that's OK. She's a typical kid ready to stop after 10 minutes one day, willing to sit and work for the better part of an hour the next. It all depends and I'm satisfied with that.
I've learned much that has helped my own playing for having had to pay close attention to hers. Watching over her shoulder to see if she's playing a part correctly, I've become a better reader not a good one, just better. I now do Hannon's to warm up. It's a good habit to have.
I pull out the "Real Book" more often, too, picking up ideas I can use in the rock 'n' roll we play. I'm happy Kate's taken to music as well. She seems to like all kinds rock, jazz, and country, even classical. She's as likely to listen to Ludwig van Beethoven as Garth Brooks, Natalie Cole as Country Joe McDonald.
But as far as playing goes, she's quickly outstripping my abilities. I know that some day soon, she'll be listening to me practicing a song for the group and she'll step up to say, "No, Dad, try this. It'll work better."
Come to think of it, if she ever actually does join my group, I could find myself out of a job.
Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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