I’ve always liked the idea of playing the piano, but I’ve never been much for working at it. Recognizing that I lacked both passion and talent, at some point my teacher gave up his quest to instill classical music theory and began teaching me how to fake it instead (much to the relief of real pianists everywhere). But, hey: 40-ish years later, if you give me just the chord symbols and the melody line, thanks to Mr. Swank I can still bluff my way through just about any piece of popular music. Sort of.
The problem is that when my five years of formal piano instruction ended in junior high school, I had learned mostly just the foundational chords, many of which I have subsequently forgotten. Which means that today, when I sit down to play and encounter a chord I do not know, I usually just substitute one that I do and it’s, you know, fine. Good enough for my purposes anyway.
Except for when it isn’t. Recently a vaguely familiar American standard slipped into my Spotify feed—a lovely jazz version of “These Foolish Things” that parked itself in the back of my consciousness. Then a couple of days later, a different playlist offered up this version by Nat King Cole, and—come on—when that voice sings you pretty much have to stop with the PowerPoint and really listen. It. Was. So. Nice.
So of course I had to take a swing at “These Foolish Things” myself. I mooched an arrangement out of one of Bryn’s songbooks and immediately sat down to butcher it beyond recognition. (It’s my signature style.) It was slow going, as usual, and of course I had to fudge my way past several chords I don’t know (D7-9 anyone?). But then I hit the bridge, which included a string of mystery chords for which no combination of junior-high workarounds could possibly work. So I had no choice but to stop and try to read the actual notes. Like a legitimate piano player.
As if. After all these years, my ability to read actual music notation is pretty elementary—there are just too many big words for me to get through the paragraph, if you know what I mean. But I did work it out, and when I worked it out, the bridge went from, you know, fine, to soooo fine. Both lyrically and melodically, those measures are perhaps the least interesting in the song. But when you actually play the notes as written something transformative happens. You know how at the beach a wave can sometimes pick you up and hurl you? Well, when you play C11 – Cdim – C11 – C9, it’s kind of like that. It’s a sequence that lifts and spills you into the final refrain. So much better.
As I sat there, playing and replaying that marvelous progression, I kept thinking: Why did I wait 40 years to figure out how to play an eleventh chord? It took me, what—ten minutes to work it out? For years I have forgone beauty and nuance just because I couldn’t be bothered to put in a little extra effort? And now I can’t stop thinking about the C11. Anytime I’m tempted to do the same old thing because it’s easy, or when I follow familiar, habit-bound patterns without pausing to think, once again I’m playing “These Foolish Things.” (I’ll pause here to allow the irony of that to sink in.) That mysterious, magical bridge has become a dare to stop and think and take notice, to willfully deviate from the long-established, effortless course, to allow myself to wander down unfamiliar paths and see what might be waiting around the bend.
It seems like someone somewhere said something like: “Nothing really great ever happened inside your comfort zone.” But I couldn’t tell you who. What I can tell you is that if someone had framed this image and left it on my piano about, oh, 30 years ago or so, I might not be writing this letter to you in 2021.
More likely I would be sitting at the piano, marveling at the magic of a D7-9. Whatever that is.