Unringing the bell

Watching this clip that Kyle Boreing dug up on youtube of Roger Bennett describing strategies for southern gospel pianists (particularly letting the bass guitar keep the down beats and learning to play in the hold), I recalled the set of instructional videos Bennett put out 15 or 20 years ago. I don’t think this clip is from that series, but they’re every similar.

When I was just starting college, I bought Bennett’s entire set, self-assured that it would transform me into a piano-playing star.

You see how well that worked out for me.

In the actual event, the videos were less a magic elixir and more a source of almost unbearable ambivalence. On the one hand, the videos pretty quickly showed me the very near limits of my own ability. It seemed like every few seconds, Bennett was saying something like, “this lick here is really easy … you just blah blah blah blah” and away he’d go, fingers trailing clouds of glory. Up to that point in my life, everything about the piano had come pretty easily. But here was a whole new level of demands and possibilities that I was neither equipped for or able to catch up to.

Though I didn’t how to talk about it at the time, what I was beginning to comprehend was the difference between being a church accompanist, which I had mastered pretty well, and being a player, which I knew next to nothing of and for which church accompaniment is probably the single worst preparation, since it’s all about playing the melody for the masses in big, full, reticulated chords and keeping time on the downbeat. Or, in sg terms, playing singer’s lines and stepping all over the band.

So there I sat in front of the television. No formal training in my formative years, more than a decade of self-taught bad habits hard wired into my motor memory, and a life that was increasingly demanding my attention at another kind of keyboard all converged to force a rapid, downward revision of expectations for musical achievement. Thanks a lot, Roger.

On the other hand, Bennett’s videos were can’t-look-away documentaries of his masterful technical fluency and easy gracefulness as a player. He could disassemble every lick, fill, run, and filigree down to each separate tonal member, locate its place and function in the musical thought, and then put the pieces back together with an astoundingly unself-conscious confidence.

No real player of any skill could fail to be captivated, and if there was any compensation for the pain of having my own limitations brought into such unflatteringly clear focus, it was in seeing Bennett demystify the ivoried language of heaven to my young, gospel-loving heart in a way that somehow only intensified the mysterious hold the music had over me, even if I wasn’t destined for red-socks and Pianorama. It turned out to be like watching someone unring a bell. Bells go on ringing, but they sound somehow wonderfully, wistfully different to you forever after.

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  1. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    What Bennett demonstrated is something I believe I could probably do…at least, I think I could duplicate that one exercise of playing chords in the left hand on the weak beats and sticking in the fills he defined for “Wedding Music.”

    As for inventing a different lick using the same principles, that would take more work.

    I’ll need to sit down and work on it before I know if I’ll be able to apply it, but it appears to be useful.

    Granted, it helps if you know some chord theory in advance.

    Clicking through the suggested videos that come up after Bennett’s plays, I thought Jeff Stice’s tutorial was pretty good, and I liked Martin Guresko’s percussive exercise.

  2. glenpaynerules wrote:

    Thank you, Doug. That brings back so many great memories. Was that from perhaps the Raintree Piano course? I purchased the audio and books for that in the early 90’s. It was sold through The SN. I worked at those licks and songs for hours on end.

    I’m happy to say my hard work allowed me to make demo tapes that earned two in-person(at the groups’ expense) try-outs. Both groups could not have treated me better or been nicer as they told me, “they were going in another direction.” All these years later I’ll never have the regrets of not giving it my best. Had it not been for the instruction of those tapes and words of encouragment from Roger and others I would have never tried out and always left to wonder what if…

    On a side note, I think I remember Scott (who appears headless in the video) telling me when he was asked to try out for The Cats he was told they wanted someone who could play bass. He assured them that was no problem and then went about madly learning how to play the bass before his tryout. I think it goes to your point, some people just have it, the rest of us, during the best of times, are like wide-eyed children cheering them on to captivate us one more time.

  3. quartet-man wrote:

    As I posted at MusicScribe, the video is from the same producers as the Raintree Course (Larry Polston) but is the video called Sharing Notes:


  4. j wrote:

    Dang I miss Roger’s ole hide.

  5. Scott Holmann wrote:

    Doug, man !!! This is the most comprehensive articulation of the fact that you get “it” that I’ve ever seen. So many in their observation of the music world can’t even understand or comprehend the misty veil which is between their own abilities and a Gordon Mote. You nailed it straight to the wall, dude !

    You either got it or you don’t. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. With players today like Gordon Mote, Kim Collingsworth, Jason Webb, Stan Whitmire, Roger Talley, Jeff Stice, and Tim Parton ……. you have a ready look and display of those who have “it”. These are the real artists among us.

  6. Extra Ink wrote:

    Jason Webb is the best piano player nobody has heard of….that is, unless you are an artist and have recorded a gospel project in Nashville…he has probably played on it. He is THE best. Very inventive, and a nice guy as well.

  7. jake wrote:


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