A Piano Ponder

I’ve always been drawn to the sound of a piano. That’s not to say that I can play the piano, however. After watching my siblings both gnash their teeth, throw themselves from the piano bench, and burst into tears countless times, I decided piano lessons weren’t for me. Instead, years later, I’d sit at my father’s piano and study my siblings’ instructions books, essentially self-teaching. When I’d encounter a note or symbol I couldn’t decipher, I’d call over my father, an accomplished pianist from childhood, to clarify. And so, I learned some basic piano, though I never really mastered the building blocks, the scales and keys.

I eventually took on drums, which I still play to this day. I never was nor currently am a very skilled drummer. I’m too formulaic, methodical as a person to loosen up to be a truly great drummer. I tell people that I’m like Ringo; I just keep the rhythm and avoid doing anything too fancy. So long as I’m enjoying myself playing, I’m content with being pretty mediocre.

Unlike sports, music is something I enjoy witnessing more than I do participating in. In fact, I basically live my life from one concert experience to the next. Concerts make me feel alive. Any time spent outside of a concert is still living, sure, but it’s not living living. 

On a day-to-day basis, I’m far too concerned with noise. There’s the unimportant noise, like taking out the trash and making a grocery list, and there’s the important noise, like checking in on my friends and family and maintaining my physical, emotional, and mental health. The noise builds to a crescendo as I add tasks to my list and grow unnecessary anxiety about things I can’t control.

But at a concert, all that day-to-day noise is muted. I can actually feel like myself and be present and take in what’s right in front of me. It’s a relief, an escape, and just fun. (Sometimes, I think that being an adult is no fun because we all decided it had to be that way. But it just isn’t so.)

I’ve become a concert junkie, chasing this need to feel alive and happy and whole beyond the norm. In doing so, I’ve become rather obsessed with learning about bands and artists – how they think, where they came from, their road to making music a career.

It’s part of this interest that ultimately led to me learning those keys and scales on the piano, when I became a music minor in college. I finally got the music theory (er, pre-music theory) knowledge to know how to successfully, or perhaps more intentionally, play. I got to learn about music I rarely engaged with, from the classical music of Bach to Javanese gamelan ageng of Indonesia.

But I’m still far from an expert on music. So, so far. I’ve learned some things. I’m maybe marginally better at the drums and piano than I once was. I just have more of an appreciation for the process that true musicians go through to create and I’m always hungry to learn more.

Naturally, I was delighted to receive a book from my brother in the mail a couple weeks ago, entitled A Dream About Lightning Bugs, by Ben Folds. I remember my dad introducing me and my brother to Ben Folds maybe 6 or 7 years ago, and just falling in love with his irreverence, his snarky, sarcastic lyrics, his willingness to drop an improbable swear word at any given moment. He rocked, but also his melodies were highly intricate, his songs incredibly dynamic. And he sang about real life in a real voice, talked of characters you believed really existed. 

My entire family jumped on board the Ben Folds train. To this day, we still reference various lyrics from his 2001 album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. For instance, when you’re stuck working on a group project, why wouldn’t you sing, 

You see, 

This is why I’d rather be 


from “Annie Waits”? 

Or after a particularly emotionally-taxing experience (a rollercoaster, a horror film, a visit to your in-laws), why wouldn’t you sing, 

You were not the same after that 

from the chorus of “Not the Same”? 

Maybe we’re just weird. 

Anyway, though I’m sorry to say I don’t know all of Ben Folds’ work beyond a couple of albums and various singles–it’s extensive–I have such a deep love and respect for what he does. I got slightly choked up as I read my brother’s note accompanying the book; he was congratulating me on my new job, explaining how he bought the book for me and my dad “just because,” hoping we could read the book simultaneously and enjoy it together. I sped through my current book so I could put full attention on this one. 

Folds writes this memoir just the way he writes music: in a poetic, yet comedic way. He’s relatable and honest. And he’s brilliant. Amid the hilarious stories of his unsavory classmates in middle school, his shitty high school jobs, his accumulation of musical knowledge, and the trials and tribulations of his relationships, he reveals a lot of great truths. Beyond the general wisdom he provides, though, he wrote some statements that resonated quite personally. 

I’d always like to think that I’d be great friends with musicians I listen to. I especially think that I’d be friends with Ben Folds, Andrew McMahon, and Billy Joel–all piano players with a degree of sarcasm and sass and realness that I admire and try (probably unsuccessfully) to emulate. And so I was hopeful that Ben Folds would “speak to me,” in a way. I wasn’t disappointed. 

He writes, “I was a kid who couldn’t bear standing still, silence, being alone, and, most of all, uncertainty.” Like, damn. Not only can I not bear any of those things, I still effectively feel like a kid, and I grapple with ambiguity on practically an hourly basis. 

Or how about, “Cultivating my vulnerability, nerdiness, and weakness, all in the key of awkward, is what eventually felt right for me”? Yep, college in a nutshell. 

But what really got me: “The twenties, for anyone with the luxury of time to brood, can be laced with a constant low-grade sadness, always humming beneath it all. Biological clocks, coming of age, wondering, Is this it? Have I missed my calling? Why are the hangovers worse? Have I passed the love of my life in a crowd somewhere on lunch break—like two ships in the day?”

Growing up, no one mentions how hard the twenties can be. Everyone talks about how fun college is, how you can be anything, do anything, after you graduate. The world is your oyster, whatever the hell that means. No one references that humming, low-grade sadness, that so precisely captures what it really is. Folds in a mere paragraph managed to express the exact sentiment I’ve been feeling. I’m nearly 23, with the luxury of time to brood — to an overwhelming degree — which leaves me asking countless unanswerable questions, growing those useless anxieties that constantly bubble up. Those anxieties I try so hard to dispel because there’s nothing I can do about them

Folds’ words are vindicating, but they leave me wondering what — if anything — I should do about the humming. I suppose he, like most people, is living evidence that the humming is survivable, even if the questions are left unanswered. 

At the very least, I can take solace in the fact that 30 years ago, Ben Folds felt just the same as I do now. I somewhat relish that I actually relate to the thoughts and sentiments of a fellow — though older and infinitely more skilled — pianist and drummer. I also marvel at how it all came to be this way. 

I love the sound of a piano. This stems from my dad playing piano in the house my entire life, starting with the Teletubbies theme song when I was a toddler. I became interested in learning to play piano myself. I began to enjoy and listen to pianists like Billy Joel, Ben Folds, and Andrew McMahon through high school and college. I started attending concerts for these and similar artists. I became simultaneously obsessed with learning more about the piano and music itself, as well as learning about the background behind these bands and artists I was seeing and listening to. And so, receiving a memoir by a musician who my dad loves, who also plays piano, who knows a great deal about music and composition — I think it was inevitable that Ben Folds would “speak to me,” in a cosmic sort of way. 

“Surrounding myself with people I find interesting, and who share the same interests, keeps my inner robot at bay.” I would go beyond keeping the inner robot at bay, as Folds explains; surrounding myself with these people — or at times, reading the memoirs of these people — also keeps the humming at bay. 

I’ve been stewing over this book for days, trying to articulate exactly why it means so much to me. Maybe I’ve done a poor job, but this is where I’m leaving it. “So there.” 

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Maybe - half•alive

October 28, 2019