I Can’t Stop My Leg

The other day my wandering mind took me back to a comedian named Robert Klein.  I stumbled upon Klein in one of those early days of cable and HBO in about 1980.  I’d never heard of him and when I heard his stand-up act he had me from his first song.  For those of you who don’t know Robert Klein, or have forgotten him, his most famous monologue is a song called I Can’t Stop My Leg.  {click the link to hear the song} The thing that struck me was that Robert Klein had MY LEG.

I have always had trouble with my left leg, for some reason.  Early in my piano studies I discovered the soft pedal.  I used it obsessively, and it became an addiction.  I had no idea why, but as soon as my fingers touched the keys my left foot stomped down on the soft pedal.  It seemed to comfort me in some manner, but it disturbed my teacher more than it comforted me.  She was in a rare assertive mood when she told me (jokingly, I think) to tie that leg behind the piano bench.  Be an obedient, Lutheran boy, I did just that.  I think it helped.

Not long after that a dear man, the father of a new friend, introduced me to traditional Dixieland jazz.  He had been stationed in New Orleans during his tour in the U.S. Navy.  He got his jazz chops there in the womb of all jazz, and he somehow taught me what I needed to know.  I remember listening to hours of old, scratchy LP’s of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven bands.  Louis’ wife, Lillian, played piano with the band for some years.

dixie-bandI played Dixieland jazz in a couple of different bands in my life.  Almost as soon as the first gig my strange left leg found new purpose; it bounced rhythmically, but uncontrollably, when I played jazz.  The leg understood the music, and it danced.  It danced so much that people began to comment on it.  This was almost like a prayer answer for my left leg’s rehab from the soft pedal chastity belt that I had imposed.  My leg now had an addictive, but non-threatening habit to replace the bad habit.  So, although Robert Klein wrote the song, I Can’t Stop My Leg, I think I have a few years’ claim on the invention, thereof!

For those of you who have read some of the other posts in my blog you know of my early struggles with piano performance in college.  My sophomore year was a virtual seething pit of incompetence and failure.  Most smart young men would have moved on to a law degree or some such.  For some reason I knew in my heart that I wanted to perform and I knew equally well that I could.  After some soul searching and rearranging my outlook, my Junior and Senior years were triumphs.  I can still remember the first time my left leg came to life during a real, classical performance.  I had been assigned the Third Piano Sonata by Norman Dello Joio, an American composer.  I loved it, and it loved me.  It had an intriguing; mystical sound and embedded in every page was the primal rhythms that woke up my “jazz leg.”  I was invited to perform Dello Joio’s Sonata on an important program of American music, and I eagerly accepted.  I was vaguely aware of “the leg” doing its magical dance, and afterward I remember the now-familiar comments about that incorrigible appendage.  Evidentially, it went crazy in some of the more rhythmically demanding sections.

This event was the largest audience that I had ever performed in front of; the 300-seat hall was full, and there were people standing in the back.  I remember peeking out at the audience before I went onstage, and instead of scaring me, I couldn’t wait to get out there.  But the most significant thing that I took away was that my leg could love classical music, as well as traditional Dixieland jazz.

Even in graduate school my mentor was a little offended by my Dixieland band.  Somehow, for him, my efforts on behalf of jazz were, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, a betrayal of concert hall music.  We simply agreed to disagree on that point. I have since learned that good music is good music, no matter the style.  Classical music was born of folk music:  Haydn’s Symphonies are rife with peasant dance themes and rhythms; Brahms and Liszt would have lacked for ideas without the music of gypsies and Hungarian peasants; and Chopin constantly went back to his Polish roots for ideas.  In the 20th Century Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein wrote concert music, ballets oratorios and operettas using blues and jazz themes and rhythms.

Music is not sterile and no music deserves to be deified and placed into a museum.  In my twenty years as a college professor and piano recitalist I took the message of my leg to the concert platform with me.  If my leg was engaged in the dance, I could be sure that the story I was telling my audience was bona fide.

After having spent twenty years as a college teacher playing two or three classical programs every year, it is interesting that today the people that I see regularly only know me to play jazz.  My students’ parents know, at least on some level, that I play and teach classical music, but they sometimes seem surprised or amused to find that my musical tastes run the gamut from blues & bluegrass to traditional jazz and Celtic music.

This should not be a surprise.  Those forms of music are attractive to my leg!  They have the rhythm of the heart and soul.  Classical pianists should marvel at the technical prowess of a bluegrass banjo player.  Around the year 1946, when Earl Scruggs was first recorded, people heard a vastly strange, new and exciting sound coming from a banjo.  It became known as “three-finger style,” and was based on a roll pattern of three fingers with banjo picks, playing a broken chord.

For me, the most amazing thing about three-finger banjo technique is the elaborate patterns and sounds that arise out of minimal movement.  Watch a banjo player with his calm, almost bored demeanor, and then look at the mandolin player, flailing… almost seeming to play with his whole body.  Good piano technique is efficient, uses a rotation of the forearm to bring the fingers into contact with the keys, and should be calm.  Flailing fingers are not good piano technique.  Good music is good music, and good technique is good technique.  Style does not enter into the equation.  I work hard to help my piano students develop their techniques, and watching and hearing a good banjo players keeps me focused on basics.

Have you even hear the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong?  Most that have can identify the sounds of Satchmo’s playing.  He had an almost unique phrasing, and gave an articulation to his melodies that would make Chopin stand up and notice.  It is doubtful that Louis spent much time in a conservatory practice room, or under the tutelage of a master teacher.  He invented his sound, born out of the folk music around him.  His “jazz leg” was his lips and that satchel mouth.  Listening to ancient records of his bands gave me my most basic instruction in traditional jazz.  But good phrasing is good phrasing.  Phrases have shape, and inflection.  Phrases are goal oriented.  Phrases combine in ways that create, and relieve tension.  Louis Armstrong knew this intuitively.  Conservatory pianists would do well to let their ears dance a little, and understand that melodies are not collections of notes to acquire, but living breaths of air and melodies that soar on the wind.

Musical ensembles of all sizes, from duo sonatas to full symphonies, work to blend their sounds.  Decisions have to be made about which instruments, at any given moment, are the most important.  Ensembles with and without conductors work to make sure that they are rhythmically “tight” and the world famous ensembles are just that.  Many other fall short.

But have you ever listened to a New Orleans-style jazz band?  With no music stand or sheet music, they take turns with solos, and then for the last couple of choruses, they blend into the most amazing crazy-quilt of sound.  Giuseppe Verdi worked hard to write ensembles that blended three or four characters, singing their own individual stories, together into show-stoppers.  They are amazing, but no more so that the instant creations of a jazz band.

Have you ever seen a bluegrass band?  The choreography alone is worth any price you might pay.  Traditional bluegrass bands use one singel microphone.  As the various instrumental soloists come to the mic, the other musicians move out of the way in an elegant pattern.  They accomplish something that the directors of plays do with hours of rehearsal; they call it blocking.  Bluegrass bands just call it a night’s work.  And then, the singers come together in harmony, three or four singers on the one microphone.  They accomplish, in real-time, what a sound engineer takes hours to do… create the proper balance of sound between solo and accompaniment.

highland-pipesAnd Irish Music!  What can I say?  I think this style is buried in my genes.  Bluegrass music has its roots in Celtic music, and they are similar in many ways, yet distinct.  My wife and I traveled this summer to several music festivals… all non-classical music.  We heard bands from Ireland that maintain the traditions of Irish and Scottish music.  We heard uilleann pipes, great highland pipes, pennywhistles, bodhrans and spoons.

We heard the Del McCoury bluegrass band; they maintain the purest traditions of bluegrass (McCoury worked with Bill Monroe before he died.)  And we heard traditional dixieland bands from all over the country.  These, my friends, are not the fat, old men in pinstripe vests of yesterday.  These are bands headed by virtual musicologists that have gone back to listen to, and analyze the style of some of the best Dixieland bands in history.  They were authentic and true to the sounds of the greats.  And they made my leg go crazy!

I only hope that whatever music I endeavor, be it classical or not, and that whatever music I teach, makes legs dance, and hearts sing.

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