Michael, Plays

My wife would be the first to admit that my memory is terrible.
It’s even more amazing that I play music on a regular basis.
There are so many things to remember: rhythm, melody, chords, lyrics, string lines, harmony, synth patches, accents, note patterns and midi channels ad nauseum.
I was thinking about memory today and the most obvious that surfaced was that of my mother; my first music teacher, the one that taught me how to love the art deeply.
She knew a tiny bit of my biological lineage; a history where music played a vital role, so it only made sense that she should light a creative fire underneath me—little did she know how widespread that fire would rage.

I remember my sister and me taking piano lessons way back when from the same teacher. The big mistake the teacher made was in giving us the same exact lessons.
My sister could never do the things I could do with the piano.
She had a beautiful singing voice but the ebony and ivory just wasn’t her thing.
We were both working on the same piece called “Prayer”, a fairly simple and innocuous composition.
My sister would actually sit, read the music (Absurd; a travesty!) and play the piece as I stood outside the door “memorizing” the notes she played.
I was too lazy to be bothered with reading music.
Why read it, when I could just listen and go in and play it?

I was, in a sense, beating the system, and it made perfect sense to me.

I think I went for some time committing what I heard my sister playing to memory.
The jig was up when my mother came into the den one day, where I was supposedly “practicing”.
She sized me up, came over to the piano and gently placed her hand under my chin pushing it up so that all I could see was the music in front of me.

Wow, I thought, what the hell are all those little black things?

My mother said one word that put the fear of God into me.

She said, “Play.”


To this day, I swear she taught me, in her own special way, how to develop my ears, a talent (and gift) I still use today. My mother had inside information, I just know it.

As my wife will attest, it’s sometimes a curse as well.

High School choruses are almost unbearable to me.

I can hear one alto voice singing ¼ tone flat…or sharp. Truth.

Sounds fine to me, my wife says.

I just shake my head in agony.

Next Saturday will be one year since my mother died, the woman that originally taught me all about memory; the incongruity of it still intensely tender.
As it was with “Prayer”, the piece of music I “memorized” many years ago, so it is with the memory of my mother.
Her spirit is strong when I play all alone in the still of the night, a rare occurrence these days.

I can still hear her voice from so long ago as she whispers, “Play.”

The music comes from a distant and unknown place, like all music does.

And it’s a comfort to think that somewhere she still listens…



12 thoughts on “Ivory

  1. Its always amazed me just how easily we remember the complex music we do, yet have trouble remembering a simple shopping list. The brain is as much a piece of art as it is a machine….each and every one is different and the notes and paints are uniquely used.
    I hope the following week sees you smiling to yourself at random moments as you sit and remember your time with what sounds like an amazing woman…
    Cheers, Kelly

    Thanks, Kell.
    It was one year ago that the proverbial “shit” hit the fan.
    Mom nosedived.
    I am, however, choosing to dwell on the good.
    I may even play a song for her…



  2. I am always amazed by those with musical talent since I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Your mother taught you a valuable lesson.

    Maybe you need two buckets, Fuzz… 😉



  3. Mike, I always love to read your pieces about your mother. It makes me wish I’d known her – and yet by reading your vignettes I feel as if I did. Please do continue to celebrate her life and wisdom. I can see her now, as your eternal muse, perched on your shoulder whispering ‘write.’

    You understand me more than you know…
    Thanks for the comment, Annie.



  4. I’m tone-deaf but music is essential to me. People who make it are magicians. That’s that.

    This piece is a wonderful tribute to your mother, Michael. I like the idea that she’s part of your music–she’s always close to you that way.

    PS I just noticed your playlist. “Texas Flood” is one of my favorite SRV songs. Also–XTC–I can never get enough of them. Good music.

    SRV was gone too soon. He was brilliant.
    Not many people know of XTC.
    Yes, a great band.
    One of my favorite songs is “King for a day”. Good stuff.
    Thanks for reading, Deb.



  5. Great piece! Thank you for sharing it with us!

    I learned to play by ear in church. Someone would get up, begin to sing, and on the spot I would have to pick up the key and follow! Believe me, at first, sometimes the song was over and I still didn’t have the key!!!
    But the more I did it, the more the ear developed incredibly!
    I once met an incredible pianist who told me “how in the hell do you do that? I need the music in front of me in order to play!”
    I replied: “How the hell can you sight read every damm note!”
    I guess God gives each one of us different gifts……….
    I just wish I could sight read!

    Hey Dude-

    Same kind of thing for me when I play a wedding and someone wants to “sit in” with the band.
    I have been blown away by the occasional good singer but for the most part it’s the classic Victor Borge
    scenario of “follow me”…
    My daughters are still amazed when I sit down and pull a song out of thin air.
    Do they know how long it took me to be able to do that? 😉
    Thanks for reading, Eliud. Oh, and thanks for the gloves…



  6. I wish I had that ear. I could play the trombone effortlessly. Then there were guys in band that couldn’t play the simplest pieces. They tried and tried. I never practiced, but I was first chair. They hated me.


  7. It’s me again–just catching up on your articles. I’m not sure if you read my other comment yet, but my Dad had Alzheimer’s and he died suddenly on the fourth of July.

    My mother is physically very limited (COPD) and frail and when she broke her hip last August she and my Dad had to move to a Senior Citizen community. Their place had a grand piano in its parlor. My Dad who was in late mid-stage Alzheimer’s, also legally blind with Macular Degeneration, began to use his musical talents (yes, he kept them even though he could not read notes due to his blindness) to wow the little old ladies there. My brother wrote in his Christmas letter, “Dad has become somewhat of a rockstar at American House”. As every other part of Dad’s memory continued to fail him, his music somehow miraculously remained. He would travel down to that parlor and play the same 30 songs over and over. And his audience didn’t even realize he was repeating himself. In the short nine months he lived there, he truly made a difference in their lives, and through all his confusion and disorientation, he KNEW he was making a difference. He played Monday night, July 3rd after dinner, for the last time. And Tuesday morning, July 4, 2006 he joined the angels. God, I miss him. Laurie

    Aw, Laurie…
    I’m so sorry.
    I remember the last actual Christmas I had my mother over our house.
    I picked her up from the facility she was staying in and drove her to our house.
    There wasn’t much to talk about so I turned on the radio.
    She sang along to every Christmas song that came on the radio.
    I was stunned. I’ve since learned that Alzheimer’s doesn’t touch this part of the brain.
    It must have something to do with the complexity of the information.
    Anyway, thank you so much for the visit.



  8. I love the way you remember your mama so sweetly. Did you find that after she died, your memories of her returned to the ones of her healthier, happier days? It sounds like it. After my Dad died, as I was writing some things to say at his funeral I found that my memories were ALL of the happier, healthier kind–it was an unexpected miracle–and I choose to believe it was a gift God gave me–to put those memories in the forefront and to fade the more recent, sad ones into the background. Enjoy your time away from this, and good luck with all endeavors,but don’t stay away indefinitely. Promise.


    I promise. I will be back.
    I’ve sent you an email regarding your wonderful comments.
    I thank you.



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