Someone recently sent me a You Tube video of Elton John and Paul McCartney with about a thousand backup singers belting out the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Brought back lots of good memories of those decades where pop music included good diction and the performers wore clothing. Then I ran into a video of Ray Charles belting out “Georgia on my Mind,” and Billy Joel doing his “Piano Man,” and I wondered. . .I just wondered if their piano teachers had any idea of what would some day pop out of those tiny fingers. There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of Elvis Presley’s first piano teacher politely suggesting that he take up the guitar.
An unsung breed of hero, the piano teacher. If you’ve ever had a lesson then you’ll remember your piano teacher, perhaps with love or in some cases fear and dread. I’ve had both. Four different instructors had to suffer though the trial known as Kenny and each had his or her own methods of persuading me to stop fooling around and get serious. Of course I didn’t accomplish this with any of them, but I applaud them for trying to get me to pay attention and play the notes as written. My first piano teacher was Mr. Neil, the local band teacher. In those days the school’s music instructor became the de facto piano teacher whether he or she could play or not. If you’re a music major then you’re required to take a class in piano and that may have been your only acquaintance with the instrument. Mr. Neil was my toughest teacher and without doubt the most tyrannical. He’d stand behind me pounding out the rhythm on my shoulders and if that didn’t get to me then he’d bang a number two pencil on top of my head as I played. The piano had no protective eraser and my head had little protective hair. Burr haircuts were the bane of young pianists. Mr. Neil had been known to bring grown tuba players to tears with his screaming admonitions to keep in step and he once hurled his baton the full length of the Perry High School band room nearly impaling a drummer who wasn’t paying attention. Two things were guaranteed with Mr. Neil: 1) you’d become a better musician, and 2: you’d be scared to death every time he came near you. Outside of class he was the friendliest guy in the world so I assume that the problem was with us and not him.
My second teacher was Mr. Grove who was another nice guy but without the terror factor and I pretty much wasted every after school session with him. Then came Mrs. Brown whom I sure lined up forks up in her cutlery drawer and ironed her underwear. The lady was meticulous to the point of exasperation for this teenager who lived by the motto that, “Close is good enough.”
But the piano teacher who really saved my butt, musically speaking, is a guy who’s very much alive and living in Mt. Sterling. His name was and still is John Hogan. Mr. Hogan was a percussion major in college. Now, playing a drum is about as far distant from playing the piano as a music major could get, but he had to take a required piano course and like it or not, he became the piano teacher in residence although he knew little about the keyboard. John realized this and so he learned what’s called “chording.” This is a method whereby you learn how all music follows certain chord structures and once you learn those configurations you can fake your way through that most dreaded part of piano instruction, the left hand. In essence, your right hand plays what’s written on the page while your left hand develops a mind of it’s own, sees a pattern, and does what it darned well pleases. And because of all this, Mr. Hogan gave me the gift of a lifetime. . . he taught me how to chord. And once you learn to chord then playing by ear becomes a breeze and you can fake your way through life as a church organist, a camp pianist, a member of a sixties rock band, and the resident keyboard player on a riverboat. And you can do all this while fooling people into believing that you know what you’re doing.
Okay, at this point all the really great piano teachers in Jacksonville have just thrown up their hands in horror and I don’t blame them. Chording is cheating, but poor folks have poor ways and Mr. Hogan has allowed me to fake my way through concerts, recitals, weddings, funerals, installations of Methodist bishops, and a dozen or smoky barrooms.
I genuinely salute all those who labor in the fields of teaching young fingers to play. Billy Joel says that he got in trouble with his first piano teacher by improvising too much, but the piano allowed him to meet girls. Who knows how many families have been spawned by chording?
I doubt that I’m Hogan’s hero, but I’m sure he’s mine.