I want to talk about Lady Gaga. I also want to talk about my first piano teacher. And I want to talk about how those two seemingly disparate personalities are connected.
First off, I love Lady Gaga. If the truth be told, I don’t even know much of her music. But I love her unapologetic, live-out-loud (I mean, ridiculously out-loud) personality and I love her honesty and her sense of humor. I love the way she sparkles when she talks and I love how she is not afraid to say what she thinks. Plus, she just seems really sweet.
And I loved my piano teacher (I’ll just call her Miss F.C., so as to not sully her reputation). She did not live life unapologetically out loud and, according to my mother, she was a pathological liar. Miss F.C. never married and lived her entire life with her twin sister and fellow pianist/organist/teacher, Miss E.C. (A quick internet search tells me they died a year apart, well into their 80s.) I studied with her from the time I was a wide-eyed four year old until my parents moved us to another state 8 or 9 years later. In my memory, she was ancient — an old spinster, prim and proper, a little stern. (In fact, at the time I studied with her, she was younger than I am now. But I digress.)
So what could Lady Gaga and Miss F.C. possibly have in common, other than their chosen instrument? The Myth. They have The Myth in common.
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I have always been unafraid to ask questions when I don’t understand something. And at four years old, I didn’t understand how to connect the black dots and lines and symbols on the page of my piano book to the songs Miss F.C., sitting on the bench beside me, pulled out with her fingers and the black and white keys.
So I asked her. “How do you know how it goes?” She said, “I just do.”
When you are four and your teacher is an old, old lady who knows how to play this massive and magical thing better than you, well, you take her word for it. And I did. I embedded that “fact” into my subconscious mind and how it translated was this: you just “know” how to play, you don’t have to figure things out, you don’t have to work at it, you don’t have to struggle or toil, in fact, if you are any good at all, you just do a few warm-up stretches, play — and everything is wonderful.
Me at the organ, trying to make sense of the dots and the symbols and the lines on the page.
Fast forward a half century later, and I am sitting in an actual movie theater with Dennis (a rare treat) and we are watching the latest remake of A Star is Born. (Full disclosure: I loved that movie. I cried so hard at the end, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the theater with any semblance of dignity. I also recognize it is rife with stereotypes, full of consent issues, and reinforces the fucked-up cultural dynamics between men and women. I still loved it.)
Anyway, I’m going to reveal a little of the story line; don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler of the plot if you’ve not seen the movie — but it is a spoiler for everyone who wants to believe the myth of what it takes to write, arrange, and perform a song.
When Ally (Lady Gaga) first meets Jackson (Bradley Cooper), he has been drinking all night and he is hammered. They find themselves sitting on the pavement in a parking lot and she sings a few lines of a song she has written on the spot, of which he heartily approves. (Remember, he is hammered.) A few scenes later, when she is his backstage guest at a concert, he coerces her (remember that consent thing?) to come out on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans to sing a duet of the parking lot song he has taken it upon himself to finish and arrange — the song he heard once. When he was hammered.
And so there they are, singing a flawlessly arranged duet. The crowd goes insanely wild when they harmonize perfectly — and in that moment, a star is born.
I’m sitting there in the theater and I am drawn in like everyone else (I told you I loved the movie in spite of everything). But I also shrink in my seat just a little bit, feel an unnamed, hot shame filling up my chest that I am only later able to identify. It’s the same shame I felt growing up when I struggled with a particularly difficult passage on the violin. And it’s the shame I feel now from the knowledge of how much it takes for me to get the words to a new song just right. And how much work it takes for Dennis and me to work up a song, to sync up our vocals just right — the harmony, the phrasing, the lyrics — to decide on the instrumentation and the arrangement and then to remember our instrumental parts while we sing it. I know just how much work it takes for us, and in the end, we still don’t sound anything like that scene in the movie.
How did they know how to perform it like that? How did they know how the song goes? If we believe the movie, like Miss FC, they just did. The myth lives on.
Here’s the thing, too. Lady Gaga knows it’s a myth because after their performance of "Shallow" at the Oscars, she talked about how hard she and Bradley worked and rehearsed for that Oscar moment, how he directed that performance and they rehearsed all week — just to be ready for that one shining moment.
When Sara Bareilles (my new obsession) signed her first record contract with Epic Records, she spent over a year working with the producer writing the songs and fine-tuning the arrangements — and nearly half of the songs on the album had been previously recorded.
So, yeah, it’s a myth. When I talked to a friend about it, she said “it’s a movie, it’s a fantasy.” Meaning it was okay? I get why people want to hold onto the myth. We love heroes and we love heroines and we love to believe that music just pours out of certain special people and they have something magic that the rest of us don’t have. We want so badly for people to be exceptional that we forget (or deliberately dismiss) how much work it takes to BE exceptional.
I want young musicians seeing movies that glorify and magnify the myth to know it’s a myth. I want would-be songwriters to stick with it, to not get shut down because they buy into that myth and believe they just don’t have it. I want to go back and tell four year old Lauryn that no, you don’t “just know” how the songs go. Someone teaches you how to figure it out. And then you go to work. And you return to that work again and again and again, because it is work you love and because it’s what makes the music good.
Like Kahlil Gibran says, "love is work made visible." Magical, musical moments. They are exactly that — work, made lovely and visible.
May 8, 2019