I remember playing weddings when I was quite young – actually, I had lots of opportunities to play the piano publicly when I was at quite a tender age. At various times the church we attended lacked accomplished pianists; early on I was playing for “junior church”, and was often tapped to play for a worship service or other function. By my junior high years I was playing for the church musical presentations on various holidays, feet barely reaching the pedals.
I distinctly remember playing for our cantata one year, and somewhere in the middle of the cantata, I turned two pages instead of one without realizing what I had done for a couple seconds. The choir director stopped directing, turned to me, and calmly said “back a page.” It wasn’t a traumatic experience – not sure why! I probably didn’t care what anybody else thought, for whatever reason, and our director was pretty mellow about everything.
In the early 90′s, I was playing piano at a Sunday evening church service ( I was the only accompanist), with our friend Rob Hannus directing. I played most songs by ear unless it happened to be something I wasn’t familiar with, or if there was a band and I had to follow the arrangement exactly. This particular evening, we were singing something that was less familiar – perhaps a contemporary hymn. At any rate, I played a short introduction, and we began singing. As we were mid-way through the song, I realized I had put the song in a key what was too high to be singable, except for those with glorious soprano voices and Pavarotti. The music died quite suddenly and unceremoniously, Rob laughed at me (or with me), and we tried it again in a much lower key. Rob had his moments too – I remember once or twice he capoed his guitar in the wrong position, leading to what we commonly call a train wreck.
I can’t tell you how many times through the years I’ve been playing for some function – and many times it has been a wedding, which tends to be a bit more of a pressure situation than playing in church – and playing by ear, I forget how the next line goes until the absolute last second, my heart beating wildly as I….wait for it! It’s actually amazing how often that has happened, and I don’t honestly recall ever not remembering the next chord at the last second, which I find intriguing. Perhaps the adrenal gland and the memory part of your brain are connected. Alternately, I may have selectively blocked out all the crash and burn scenarios. Now that I think about it, it has occurred often when I’m singing a solo and accompanying myself on the piano; my usual m.o. if I didn’t know a song was to write out the lyrics, listen through the song and write the chords above the lyrics, then listen to the song a few more times until I felt pretty comfortable with it. Problem is, when you’re under pressure, any chinks in the armor are easily exploited, and a section of a song that’s a little more difficult to remember turns into a growling nemesis.
(It might be worth noting that as I have ‘matured’, I take less and less chances, preferring to have the music in front of me, even if I’m not actually playing the piano part from the music.)
There are of course many instances where I’ve been playing with a band and mess something up, but usually, as long as the band plays on, it’s much less of an ordeal. And especially so if you glance at your nearest band-mate with a look that says “How could you play something so utterly wrong?”
Most of us could share similar stories about people we know or have heard perform – a wedding singer, a wedding accompanist, or someone else – that has had a horrible and memorable experience. But I don’t want to go there – when it’s me and my self-deprecation, it’s kind of fun, but when it’s somebody else (other than a good friend who can handle it) it might not be so enjoyable, especially if they might read this and suspect, or worse know, that they were the one whose public humiliation has been chronicled and available for others to read about or remember.
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