For years, I’ve been telling people that I pretend to play piano. I would accompany myself in solo performances of my own songs and some covers, but beyond that, I was virtually useless as a pianist and I never wanted to fool anyone into thinking I was more than that. So I thought it best to do away with pretense and flat-out tell people that I only pretended to play.
But my recent work on the Torch This! project has got me re-evaluating that statement. I had been voice-coaching 13 of the savviest, sassiest women in the Detroit area to sing torch songs–a subtle sub-genre of American jazz standards, and because of personnel challenges, I’ve had to assume the mantle of accompanist for 6 of these singers in our March 4th show at Cliff Bells in Detroit. I was already supporting them with basic chords in our one-on-one sessions, so it wasn’t a tough transition to add a few fill-ins and flourishes, just enough to give these haunting and inspired songs a little flair to match the flapper-riffic sequins and feathers of Via Vintage that the girls were wearing.
But the project was about more than just a bunch of women playing dress-up on stage. Many of these women had limited experience as singers; a couple had never sung in front of an audience before. Some just liked to goof around on karaoke, but hid a long-slumbering yearning to actually be the kind of dominating soloist they’ve only dreamed to be.
In other words, they had their own pretenses to push off the cliff.
Toward the end of the rehearsal process, I discovered that not only was I helping these ladies develop as singers, but I was also developing myself as a pianist. As much as they had come out of their shells, I had to come out of mine. I had to stop saying I was a pretender; I had to take the word out of my mouth because I knew well enough that words were power, and the more I said I was a pretender, the more of a pretender I would surely be, and my playing would suffer for it. And beyond that, the whole project would suffer.
So I spent more time practicing at the piano than I ever would have tolerated as the grumpy 8-year-old student I used to be, and the singers I worked with just thanked me up and down for the support they were getting from me. At last it was for real. And when we got on stage, my nervousness was mitigated only by the fact that I had really good lighting while sitting at Cliff Bells’s gorgeous Steinway, and I was humbly facing away from the audience with a few ounces of beer in my system; so it was just me, the piano, and 6 of the most lovely singers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Not everything I played was impeccably perfect, but no one got lost, no singer lost her moxxy onstage, and I ended with a solid debut under my pink-sequined belt.
So, no more pretending for me. I gotta get on it, and live up to the words I put in my mouth, and keep training myself…heck, I should find a teacher soon. Because now it’s for real.