When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I had travelled with my dad from our home in Albion, Michigan to Lansing for a large area-wide church gathering of men. That evening, in one of our meetings, the accompaniment was played by a young man about the same age as me. He played Onward, Christian Soldiers, one of the more difficult hymns in the hymnal to play. At that time, I had been taking piano lessons for nearly a decade, but I wasn’t great shakes. I hated practicing. When this young man (whose name I have long since forgotten) sat down at the piano to play, I was blown away. He played flawlessly, which impressed me. More importantly, though, he played with an energy and vigor I just wasn’t used to seeing in church. Mormons are quite the musical bunch, but the regular church services are not regularly known for their rousing anthems. (You may have heard the term “Mormon Mumble” to describe the usual liturgical music, for instance.)
Those 4 verses of Onward, Christian Soldiers changed my life that night. I was inspired. From that moment on, I began to realize how powerful the emotion of music could be. Up to that point, and through my training, the focus was so heavily on technicality and precision. Emotion and feeling simply weren’t part of the equation. But hearing that young man pound the piano so heartily, and in such an enthusiastic fashion, made me want to play like that. That night, I went home and almost immediately started practicing. I wasn’t practicing my Hanon exercises or my Bach inventions like I should have been. I didn’t care about the harmonic minor scales that I should have. No, I was throwing myself into music where I could play the emotion.
It would be about another year and half before I would stop taking piano lessons altogether. My ancient piano teacher, Mrs. Reed, (seriously, she was in her 90s when I quit taking, and she continued teaching for many more years after I quit) couldn’t understand my passion for music other than proper classical music. About that same time, I discovered musical theater (Les Miserables was my first introduction) and I fell in love. At last, I found a way to combine musical skill with emotion in a way that I had never been able to do with Bach or even Chopin. I still played the piano, but it was mostly to accompany myself so I could sing.
Well, it’s been nearly 20 years since that night in the LDS church building in Lansing. A lot in my life has changed. I got a degree in musical theater, and spent several years working and teaching non-stop…the measure of success for an actor in almost any sense of the word. I quit the performing arts, went back to school, got an MBA, sat myself behind the desk of a technology company, gained 40 pounds (down to 35!), and entered a world where emotion wasn’t just restrained, it was actually frowned upon. And certain changes in my life kept me from having to use musical theater as my sole "safe" means of expressing my emotions.
Even though I made all of those changes to my life, the fact of the matter is that an emotional connection to music is still woven deeply into my soul. Every now and again, when I’m feeling emotions so intense that I can’t seem to cope with them, I will hop in the car, put my phone on shuffle, and just drive around for an hour, crying, laughing, and screaming at the top of my lungs, all through the lyrics of beautifully crafted songs. People with far more talent in songwriting than I could ever possess have managed to catalog the entire range of human emotions in chords and lyrics so perfect that, no matter what, I can always find the perfect song to serve as, if you’ll pardon the gross analogy, an emotional enema.
One of my favorite theater composers is a man by the name of Jason Robert Brown. In the pantheon of great songwriters, he’s one of the best. No late-night drive/beltfest would be complete without at least a few JRB songs. I was fortunate enough to get see him in concert here in Seattle several months ago. Much like watching that young man pounding out Onward, Christian Solders on a Kawai upright 20 years ago, watching JRB pound the piano and sing his own songs in that little theater in downtown Seattle was a life-changing experience. At the time I told my companion for the evening, “If I could ever write a song that was 1/4 as good as anything he has written, I’d consider it a major success.”
Well, a couple of weeks ago, JRB, who is active on Twitter and has a blog, announced a Karaoke contest. He recently released a collection of albums which are simply him the piano accompaniment for a selection of his song, intended to be used by singers. His music is known as being quite difficult to play, and as I can attest from seeing him play in person, there’s not another person alive who can play his songs the way he does. For the “karaoke” content, he’s asked for singers to record themselves singing along to one of these accompaniment tracks and submit them to Soundcloud for judging. He’ll judge the tracks, and the winners will be invited to sing with him at a concert in NY, LA, London, or the singer’s hometown (Assuming, of course, that JRB would be doing a concert in that singer’s hometown.)
Getting a chance to sing with JRB would be a dream come true for me, so I decided I’d enter. I don’t hold out a lot of hope that I will win…I’m too out of practice since leaving my life on stage. More than anything else, it was just such a cathartic experience to stand in a little booth in front of a microphone and perform a song again like I used to. Especially when it’s such a great song. And even with so little chance of actually winning, it’s an honor to know that someone whose work I admire so much will actually listen to me sing his song. It’s not perfect, but I hope that when he does listen to it, he can her in my voice the passion and emotion that I hold for this kind of music. For a while, I felt just like I did as a 14-year-old boy, listening to a talented piano player doing his thing in a church in Lansing, Michigan. Working on this brought it all home to me again.
So, below is my entry into the JRB Karaoke content, If I Didn’t Believe In You from the musical The Last 5 Years.