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.Email this Post