I got rhythm

If you look at the “About Me” page of this blog, you’ll see a picture taken at my 8th grade talent show when I was 13 years old. I look like I’m enjoying myself, but I don’t remember it that way. Playing the piano in front of a formal audience was usually traumatic for me as a child. The recital required each year by my teacher ruined my weekend—the whole weekend, since the torturous event was always held late Sunday afternoon. And then once the recital started, it was another long while before I could relax because, as one of the advanced students, I was placed at the end of the program.

I still know what I played for that 8th grade show: “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a piece that won the Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963 for pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi. If you think you’re not familiar with his music, you might be mistaken. Chances are you’ve heard something he’s written. Guaraldi scored more than a dozen animated TV specials based on the Peanuts comic strip, giving us memorable tunes like “The Great Pumpkin Waltz,” “Linus and Lucy,” and “Christmas Time Is Here.” In his 2012 book titled Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, author Derrick Bang calls Guaraldi “… the fellow to put the jazz swing in Charlie Brown’s step.”

The version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” that climbed to the top of the pop charts in the U.S. in May of 1965 was not the one recorded by Vince Guaraldi, but a reworked “jazz light” version of the song by the British easy-listening group Sounds Orchestral. It was this blander rendition that I chose for my talent show entry. I don’t know how I decided to play this particular piece. I’m quite sure I never studied it with my piano teacher—those lessons focused solely on classical music—so I was on my own to learn it. I remember finding the rhythm tricky, and struggling to keep the beat steady with my left hand while fitting in the right hand chords. But I have no memory of how skillfully (or not) I played at the talent show. I doubt I nailed my performance.

When I fretted over an upcoming childhood recital, my family always told me, “No one will notice if you make a mistake.” I never believed them. It depends on the audience, of course. A discerning audience obviously notices more than casual listeners do. And while it’s true that some mistakes go undetected, hardly anyone misses a wrong note in the melody line of a well-known tune. The way the blunder is handled makes a difference. People definitely will catch a mistake if I stop and go back to correct the note. I will also destroy the rhythm of the piece if I backtrack. I’ve come to understand how important it is to keep going after a musical slip-up, preferably with no grimaces to call attention to what has happened. The audiences I perform for these days want to hear the music played smoothly, rhythmically. They’ll forgive the occasional clinker, if I move on.

I’ve logged a lot of years at the piano since that 8th grade talent show. Today, in addition to my solo piano volunteering, I’m a member of an 8-piece group that plays big band music and jazz. The keyboardist (me), the drummer, and the bass guitar player make up the rhythm section of the band, providing the pulse, supporting the other musicians. So how are my rhythm skills now? Let’s just say I’ve come a long way. I might even be able to play “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” the way that Vince Guaraldi intended.

Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Piano performance, Reminiscences, Songwriters. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to I got rhythm

  1. Sandy Shores says:

    I can really identify with this, Paulette. I used to hate my piano recitals. And because we were not allowed to have music, we had to memorize our pieces. Unlike you, when I graduated from high school, I stopped taking piano lessons. I have regretted that over the years, but not enough to start in again. LOL I hated playing for anyone other than myself, and that holds true today. Perhaps the 8-piece group might try playing “Cast Your Fate To The Wind???”

    • I was expected to memorize my recital pieces, too, but I wasn’t given any instruction on how to go about doing that. So I just practiced the piece over and over, hoping that muscle memory would do the job — not a wise choice for a stressful situation like a recital. Predictably, my memory failed in the middle of one of my performances. I was so upset by the experience that my teacher allowed me to use sheet music after that.

      • Roger Wise says:

        Back in the 60s I had a trio that played jazz and show tunes. The piano player, a friend from the very first band we played in, always had to have the sheet music for every tune in front of him. He seldom looked at it but if you took it away, he couldn’t play it.

      • That’s interesting — and a bit baffling — isn’t it? Not uncommon behavior for a pianist though. I’ve spent years trying to figure out why…

  2. Roger Wise says:

    I have no doubt that you would be able to nail Cast Your Fate to the Wind in true Vince Guaraldi fashion. That delightful tune recorded in 1963 included Monte Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums and it ramains one of my all-time favorites. Bailey still plays regularly in the San Francisco area and has released several instructual books and DVDs on his remarkable drumming technique.

  3. Pingback: Walking on sunshine | Volunteer Pianist

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