Behind the Couture 2.

In this series of posts I’m telling the story behind Hack the Piano and Piano Couture as a whole. How it came about. How it develops, runs and grows. In my mind and in the world.

It’s a behind-the-scenes.
It’s about ideas, failure, success, do’s and don’ts. It’s about the seemingly improbable path of a musician choosing an unconventional “business” way.
Above all, it’s a story. A true story.
It’s about me. And about my Couture.
I hope it inspires or entertains. Maybe we’re lucky and it’ll do both.
Last week I wrote the very first article in this series, in which I began telling about the backstory and the first few events that led up to some thorough decisions I made, changing my life completely from live musician to online entrepreneur. Missed it? Check it out here.
Let’s Continue… or actually, take a step back.

– A DIFFERENT EXPECTATION

My mother told me that as an infant I was quite the “singer.” My favorite shows were “Sesame Street” and “The Bluffers” particularly because I found they had such cool songs. After watching the shows themselves, I used to grab my bright-red “my first Sony” walkman and dance through the house blaring along to their tunes on cassette. My first musical endeavors: Driving my parents mad. Good start.

When I was about five years old my parents thought it was time for me to start learning an instrument. I got to choose and decided on piano. Obviously.

I clearly remember my mother taking me to the in-home teaching studio of my new piano teacher, a very kind and enthusiastic lady. Although I think she must have been somewhere in her late thirties, when entering her home for the first time, the scent in there immediately reminded me of an elderly home.
In that first lesson (damn was I nervous) she taught me about the names of the white keys and I got to play my very first tune. I don’t exactly remember what it was. Probably “Mary had a little lamb.” or something like that. My right hand playing “ma-ry-had-a … etc.” I was very uncomfortable. Afraid. Sad, even.

Not because the woman wasn’t nice to me. She was very nice. Not because I didn’t like music. I loved music. It was because something just wasn’t right. Something about the experience, whatever it was, wasn’t for me. Must have been the instrument itself. Piano. Not for me. So I quit.
Strike two in favor of good starts.

Years passed without me playing any music except for the occasional shower-singing session. Love those. 

Then came the year I turned 17 and -like any typical teenager- listening to music and following all the ins and outs around it had become a major hobby.

After failing two subjects in my 3rd year of high-school (Latin and Greek, subjects that aren’t exactly necessary and wouldn’t be included in the program of another high school nearby), I decided to switch schools. However saddening it seemed to me at the moment, leaving behind a -finally- trusted environment including my friends there, this turned out to be one of the -if not THE- best things that would ever happen to me.

At my new high school I quickly made lots of new friends that would become friends for life. The atmosphere was way more laid-back, friendly and basically my whole life quotient went through the roof; and not only because of the improvement of my social life.

Each March a yearly student event/festival called “80 DB” (referring to the volume of 80 decibels, which was extensively surpassed most of the time) was hosted. All students that could play an instrument or sing (which btw. I also like to call “playing an instrument” -the voice-) could enroll to either play a part in the circulating band, or sing the song they’d like to sing, accompanied by said band. Since I couldn’t do either -my last piano lesson had been forever ago and as mentioned, I never went to learn another instrument- I simply went to buy a ticket and join my newfound non-musical friends to attend the festival as spectators.

It was a strange but magical experience seeing some of my more musical friends playing their instrument or sing with an actual band performing on an actual stage. Songs that I loved (Ok, maybe not all of them.. but still!). They could play ‘em and shined from the podium like actual rock stars! Wow. Fascination mixed with a fair amount of jealously got the best of me, fueling a decision I made right then and there. This was something that I had to be able to do myself as well.

My parents still owned the upright that had led me into despair in my early time and day and I can clearly remember the moment, one, maybe two or three days after the “80 db” festival, looking at the thing and thinking “let’s just see how it sounds.” I couldn’t play anything anymore. Couldn’t remember a thing from my early lessons except where to find the ‘c.’ So I went online to see what I could find that could build upon that extensive knowledge and help me hack this beast.

Now this was back a few years already and the internet wasn’t like it is today. If you wanted to find something, first of all you’d have to be lucky enough it would actually be somewhere online. Also there was no Google like there is today, who you could just ask and they’d tell. No Youtube. No Facebook. Not even Twitter. Ha. Come to think of it, it was actually a whole different place out here. 

Unfortunately, I can’t remember which website, or websites I found that provided information that I found useful. Also can’t quite remember how I got to them. I suppose it were other search engines that have now been devoured by the Google monster that helped me.

What I do remember is my mind-set when searching. I had gotten intrigued by the way guitar players always seemed to be able to quickly pick up a whole bunch of songs, strumming what they called “chords” in different rhythms on their guitar while everybody joined in a sing along. While pianists always seemed to be finger wrestling with difficult classical pieces and even when playing popular tunes on “80 DB,” were looking at sheets struggling to regurgitate some decomposed form of the piece note by note, the guitarists were the cool guys that could always play the tunes you’d listen to on the radio.

I had one such friend that could flawlessly do this with almost every song you’d ask him. He told me about “just finding the right chords” -which was jibber jabber to me- but also how a ‘c’ could just as easily be played on a guitar as it could on a piano (he played a bit of piano too). That got me thinking: “when you can play a ‘c’ on both a guitar and a piano, then why not a C chord?”
My own experience with learning piano had taught me to use my right hand to play melodies, which was very frustrating to me since this wasn’t at all what I heard the pianos on my favorite records do. Also, I wanted to sing those melodies (like was done on the record!), and it just didn’t sound cool to both play and sing ’em all the time. So how about I steal this “guitarist’s trick” and try to play those CHORDS in stead of melodies? Could I..?

I continued my search online and read more and more about chords being built the way they are. Using a combination of intensely closely listening to records and trying to copy what I heard, trial and error and the info I found online, I taught myself the names of the notes, the intervals, the scales, chords, inversions and some 6 months of parent-maddening (yet again, they love me), four hour a day “piano study” sessions later, me and my best buddy at the time were singing our hearts out to our favorite Dutch band’s songs. Accompanied by me, on piano. I wan’t a virtuoso pianist by any stretch, but I had found my way to be a guitarist -albeit a very basic one- on piano. Success.

We were "officially" prepping for next years “80 DB.”

About Coen

Founder of Piano Couture and creator of the Hack the Piano method. Coen is a musician, reader, writer, web-designer, eater and traveler. Find him at CoenModder.com

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