Only trouble is, gee whiz

I’m always impressed when a bandleader calls out a song and a key (“Proud Mary” in D!), and everyone starts playing. I’m not that kind of musician. I rely on printed sheet music. How did this happen?

I think that the way I learned to play the piano probably has a lot to do with it. I studied classical music, which emphasizes being absolutely true to the notes as written, without improvisation. And unless my teacher required me to memorize a piece for a recital, I always used sheet music. Eventually I came to depend on it.

Another likely factor is that learning to play the piano doesn’t necessarily involve the kind of ear training that, say, learning to play the violin does. If I play a B on a properly tuned piano, I produce an in-tune B. That’s all I have to do: press the B on the keyboard. (If the B is out of tune, the problem falls to a piano tuner to correct, not to me.)

In contrast, the fingers of a violinist must be placed in a precise pattern on the string in order to produce a B. Then the player must listen carefully to determine whether the B is in tune, adjusting the fingers if it is not. In fact, students of the violin are often taught to hear the in-tune B mentally, before drawing the bow across the string, a process call audiating. That kind of attention to pitch is essential to being able to play an instrument by ear, but it wasn’t part of my piano lessons.

When sheet music gives me only chord names (e.g., Dm7-5) instead of actual notes written out in full, I falter. I can interpret the chord notation but it’s slow going, with so much lag time between when I see the chord name and when I form the chord with my fingers that it’s not a practical way for me to play the piano. The same goes for requests from singers who want me to transpose when I accompany them, raising or lowering the pitch to better suit their voices. Not my forte.

Composer Irving Berlin, a self-taught pianist, played only in the key of F-sharp major, using primarily the black keys on the piano. They’re elevated and more widely spaced, and he found it easier to move around the keyboard that way. To change the key of one of his songs, he moved the lever on his transposing piano, which he called his “Buick.” Moving the lever shifted the keyboard, causing the piano hammers to strike higher or lower strings, altering the pitch. This allowed Berlin to continue playing in the key of F-sharp, while hearing how his songs sounded in various other keys. (Once Berlin was happy with his composition, he had a transcriber write down the notes. Berlin couldn’t read or write music. At least I’m ahead of him there.)

Talking about key signatures reminds me of Sister Anne Margaret, the nun who taught my advanced biology class in high school. She once commented, when her room full of high-energy teenagers was difficult to keep on task, that we were carrying on “in the key of gee whiz.” I’d like to be able to play in that key.

Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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