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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

I noodle on the piano

I noodle on the piano. One of my college teachers years ago called me a “piano player” and not a “pianist.” I took the term.

I started taking piano lessons when I was in fourth grade from Mrs. Edward Rogel. It was l953 and I was 9 years old. My parents bought a new spinet piano for me to play. My first school assembly piece was the “Merry Widow Waltz” by Franz Lehr (from the l953 movie The Merry Widow starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas) which I played in a 4th grade assembly at Lincoln Elementary School in Ellensburg, Washington. While I did not come from a musical family, my dad did take piano lessons for a brief time when they first brought the piano home. Practicing the instrument fit my personality. I was told that I should practice at 6:30 each morning before school and so I did. No pushback or argument. I did what I was told, and from time to time I got some ego stroking from the community. I played in school assemblies until I graduated from high school in l961. Additionally, I was in recitals throughout those years, first for Mrs. Rogel and then from Mrs. Herbert Bird. The husbands of both my piano teachers were employed at Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University). During the Rogel years, I played in the Washington State Music Teacher Association auditions. I have a framed “Certificate of Merit” giving me an “excellent” grade of 94 for the “Junior Division” in l953. I even have little pins that tell the world that I was first an “apprentice” and then a “journeyman” of the “Musicrafters of America.” In l954 (as a 10 year old), I wrote a nifty arrangement of the song “The Horn Boogie” and sent my masterpiece to Belwin Publishers in New York City (actually, Rockville Center, Long Island) for publishing. Max Winkler of Belwin kindly wrote back and said, “We cannot grant you permission to publish your arrangement of this piece” because it would violate the copyright laws. So much for my budding career as a music arranger and director!

During junior high in the 1950s I was asked to accompany the Morgan Middle School chorus but I couldn’t make the grade. I remember trying to play “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and couldn’t learn the notes fast enough. The teacher (Jack Snodgrass) finally gave up on me. It was apparent that I was destined to be a soloist. Back in those days chorus or band were required subjects for junior high kids.

During high school, I was somewhat unusual as a piano-playing guy in the late l950s. I was (am) built like an interior lineman on a football team. Short legs, long arms and stubby fingers – ape-like. And here I was, playing in recitals and school assemblies with some of the cutest girls in school.  The only guy among all these chicks; how cool was that! I was the lead in a new high school musical called Swingin High, written by Lacey, Weirick and Polhemus and directed by music teacher Coyne Burnett. While in high school I formed a folk singing trio called “The Anonomy Trio” with a couple of upper classmen. We played around town and one spring day drove to Seattle and recorded a demo record on “Listen” label which was the local affiliate for Dot records. Big time! We cut three records, one for each of us. Later I would form another folk group called “The Eddystones” and we would play around town some more. I played the banjo and was the manager. During high school I was in several student musical concerts as a singer (I was a king of “Tar,” as in “Oriene Tar,” in one Christmas concert!). Move over Gordon McRae! As a senior, I tried to get a small dance combo together with me on the piano but it never panned out because I wasn’t suited for jazz arrangements and popular music. I was doing serious, classical music with Mrs. Bird after all and I didn’t know how to play popular music with a group. I did buy three collections of popular songs during my high school years which I fooled around with basically on my own: “Rogers and Hammerstein Song Folio,” “Rogers and Hart Songs” and “Eddy Duchin’s Pianostyles.” I still have the music after all these years.

When I went on to college (first at Central Washington University) and then on to the University of Washington) I joined the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at the U of W. I wanted to play the grand piano the Alpha Delts had in our living room. Some of the other guys could play and I wanted to join in. However, my musical background was not suited for group sings around the piano. During my freshman year at Central I took private voice lessons from Wayne Hertz (as in the Hertz Music Building). At the UW I auditioned and was costumed for a student opera (if I remember right it was Mozart’s Don Giovanni) but I quite before the first performance. I was also a member of the select University Chorale under Charles W. Heffernan which recorded an album in l963. That turned out to be the apogee of my singing. It was in the early 60s and we still dug Sinatra, Como, Bennett and Crosby. In short, it was still the musical age of ballads, torch songs and lovely tunes and harmonies. The Alpha Delts often serenaded sororities and I was asked to solo (“Silver Moonlight Memories”) on a regular basis. In l962, the ADs represented the U of W fraternities at the Seattle World’s Fair because we had won the annual Songfest competition in l961. It was a big deal. But I couldn’t play the music of the time. I remember calling a talent agent in Seattle and telling him I wanted to play in a piano bar in Seattle and asking him what it would take. He told me that I would need two hours of memorized popular songs to get a gig in some lounge or bar. Once again, much for my budding career as a young Peter Duchin! However, I did get to play a couple of snappy pieces in my graduation ceremony from The German Language School in Cologne in l966. So all was not a failure.

After college I moved around a bunch and didn’t have a piano and it wasn’t until I moved back to Ellensburg in l980 (15 years after college graduation) that I began playing an old upright that my parents, once again, provided for me. It was wonderful to be on the keys again, even if I needed a lot of refreshing. I started with the hymns from the Trinity Hymnal and in addition to honing my lapsed skills the playing nourished my Christian faith. A seminary professor of mine, Dr. Robert Rayburn, told us that next to the Bible the most important book for the Presbyterian minister was his hymnal. That truth was borne out in my life. The God-given voice that I used to sing was eventually used to broadcast news in Seattle and anchor a classical musical program in St. Louis. My radio career fizzled like my singing career.

My daughters practiced on that old upright piano growing up and one took to the instrument. I remember accompanying Karissa (my older daughter) for a violin recital at Central Washington University when she was in high school. My job was pretty easy and I practiced a bunch to be on my game. When the time came, I froze and my poor kid ended up playing a solo. Jack Snodgrass would have nodded in recognition of my abilities. What a loser!

Today, I have a baby grand piano in a separate “music” room in my house and lovingly hanging on the walls is a framed rejection letter from Belwin, pins and certificates from my grade school years and an autographed picture of the great lyricist, Sammy Cahn whom Karissa and I saw perform at the Ford Theater in Washington, DC in l988.

Well, I continue to noodle away on the keys, pretending I can really play the piano. It wasn’t too long ago that after an extremely long day of work beating back the forces of darkness, after dinner with my wife, after a bit of FOX news and dose of a Fred Astaire DVD or easy-to-read book, I would sit down at the piano around 9:30 or 10:00 and play some tunes. It was a nice way for me to relax and Kathy could go to bed listening to my imitation of Bobby Short. Things have changed a bit in recent years. Now 9:00 is my Ambien time and if I tarry too long at the keyboard my face falls into middle C. The best time for me to play is right after my morning Metamucil and Tylenol for my back pain. I can get a couple of tunes under my belt but I am consumed with guilt if I play too long because I still am working to beat back the forces of darkness during the daylight hours. I am at the age that I wait for the time when I will spend my hours singing to Jesus in the Rainbow Room in the sky and playing the wonderful tunes written by all the sons of Abraham for the American Songbook.

In the meantime, I will be blogging about the music of my life, the great American Songbook.

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4 Responses

  1. songbook fan says:

    Dear Mr. Robert Case,
    I am looking for (possibly) missing parts of your American Songwriter series – No. 1, 5, 6, and 7. Are they available online? Another Q – Is No. 18 (Ray Henderson) the last in your series? Please advise by email (and please do not post this email). Many thanks.

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