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 second article in this series, in which I decided to take a step back and began telling about my own experience with learning piano. Missed it? Check it out here.
– MUSICAL TASTINGS AND MY FIRST FAIL
My first experience with playing for a live audience wasn’t at the “80DB” festival at my high school. In fact, I wasn’t even playing piano.
Although I’d found how to play a few chords and had really started my journey to understanding how this whole musical language works, at the time the “unplugged” version of the “80DB” festival was held a few months before the real deal, insecurity got the best of me and I decided I wasn’t yet ready to go on stage with my limited piano-skills. However, I’d found a song that had stolen my heart, which I was determined to perform. I just had to take that first step towards playing live, but felt that singing and playing at the same time was just a bridge too far still.
So I decided to ask my good friend Fridolijn, who -apart from having piano skills- was and is a stunning singer (who has just released her very first, highly acclaimed solo-album check it out here) if she might be willing to play the then out-of-my-skill-range piano-part to “Lopen tot de zon komt” (walk until the sun comes), so I could focus solely on singing the song.
This turned out to be a very good move, since the rehearsals didn’t just improve our performance as a duo, but also taught me more about how to play the piano part of the song that I’d had only managed to figure out the basic structure of.
Fridolijn showed me some extra moves, perfectly continuing along the lines of the basic triads that I’d taught myself how to play, which raised my level of understanding piano and music enough to enable me to play AND sing the actual song only a few months later.
However, that was too late for me to perform the song completely solo at the “80DB unplugged”, where I clearly remember standing backstage, hearing the final song before ours getting to its last few measures while trying hard not to shit my pants.
I shivered when the announcer called out for an applause to welcome Fridolijn and Coen to the stage. Right before I fainted Fridolijn told me “You can do it! Let’s just have fun!”, keeping me awake and so we walked on stage. She to the grand piano, me to the mic at the front.
After about three and a half minutes of blur, of which I can only remember trying to follow up on some advice regarding where to look during the performance that someone had given me, I woke up in a wave of applause. I was hooked.
Getting compliments, as I’m sure you all know, is a nice thing. I found it to be so nice even, that now that I’d received some “proof” that I was onto something with this whole performing music thing, I let them fuel my drive to crack the language and become fluent even more than before.
My next performance would be at the same “80DB unplugged” the year after, where after auditioning I was picked to be the closing act to sing -while accompanying myself at the piano! – the sort-of “follow-up song” to “Lopen tot de zon komt” that I’d practiced to perfection for an uncountable amount of hours named “Ergens zingt een zanger” (Somewhere, a singer is singing).
The astonishing compliments and feedback I got after that performance led me to make a decision that would determine the further course of my life. I wanted to be a musician.
As I spent my days listening to music and trying to imitate as much as I could on the keys, my ears got steadily better and I started to recognize more and more from the hazy cloud that music was to me before I’d started to take it apart. As my playing skills (still far from mind-numbing) also grew, I became able to imitate the parts of my musical heroes better and faster and found myself sort of “growing out” of the music I used to listen to.
It’s a funny thing that as you start to understand and speak the musical language gradually better, somehow not only do you begin to crave to speak more challenging sentences than just “My name is Coen. I live in Amsterdam. I like to play the piano. etc” but also to listen to more intriguing stories than “Hola! ¿Como estas?”
The charts -apart from a few exceptions in there obviously- with their basic four-chord looping “conversations” just didn’t quite hit the spot for me anymore, as did my musical idols that were inspiring me at the start of my journey.
And so I found myself listening to increasingly more different styles, older and more “challenging” music. Apart from loving a wide spectrum of singer-songwriters, I started listening to Motown, Soul, Rock, Blues and even some Jazz.
Where I started out and was (still am?) primarily a singer-songwriter, preferably singing while accompanying myself on the piano, listening to these new styles of music also got me wanting to play them. Starting out in my very first cover band, I found that playing a different style (not just referring to the genre of music -mainly (pop)rock back then-, but also “in a band” vs “solo”) was quite a bit more of a challenge than I’d expected it to be.
The interaction, listening and feeling each others interpretation of the music and correctly mixing it with your own playing to form the complete song was something out-of-this-world to me. Challenging, but a whole new super-cool level of playing music. Synergy is what makes a band strong. It’s also what most bands lack.
This was when I first learned about the massive importance of timing, attitude, conception etc. of all which the possible lack in other members of the band as well as the inconsistency in your own playing can cause a massive lack of the before mentioned band-synergy.
When after one of our shows at some bar, a spectator came up to me saying that he liked our show, yet wasn’t too impressed with my performance on the keys, it offended me. I remember him saying something like that he found that I “played too much and too ‘flat’ -alluding to me using the same conception, or style for every song-”
Up to that point, I hadn’t really received any negative comments or feedback (largely out of generosity, not wanting to be to harsh etc, but probably also since I’d always played a style that was truly was my own. That I owned.) Honestly, it hurt me and in stead of taking his feedback the right way and maybe learn something from it, it caused a defiant inner reaction: "Bull Shit."
With hindsight, this guy pointed something out to me of which my neglecting to face the fact that he was right, would soon bite me in the ass, when after high-school I auditioned for the Conservatory of Amsterdam and got rejected.
I wasn’t as good as I thought, there was in fact still more to learn and what I could do didn’t exactly cover the entire spectrum of styles.
In the search for difficulty I had lost my focus and in stead of performing and auditioning with what I owned, I was trying to use and play stuff I wasn’t yet on top of. I'd lost my authenticity.
I only realized what was pointed out to me back then, quite a few years later, when I finally learned a wise lesson out of this earlier wise-assery:
Play what you own: below your max effort level and what comes from the heart.