The piano was one of my first loves. When I was three, I wrote my first song on it: “All My Bombs.” I grew up in the Cold War-era, Russia still an existential threat. But in those keys of the old player piano, there was magic. I loved to slide open the horizontal drawers and watch the hammers hit the strings as I plunked notes.
On Thursday night, I finished the first draft of a short story, and just as 20 years ago when I started writing fiction, I feel a thrill. I printed out a copy, wrote the date on it, and slipped it in my “Short Fiction” file folder that is 3-inches thick with drafts and revisions, pieces in varied stages of development.
I tell my creative writing students that the writing life is as much about “trade-offs” as it is about anything else. You have to give up other pursuits to write seriously. You will have to sacrifice other interests. I suspect that this message is offensive and too radical, even to my students who dream of writing “full time.”
When I was younger, I could pursue all of my interests, or so it seemed. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that some tough choices are necessary. I can’t pursue everything I’m interested in. For one, I have a full-time job, I have a wife, I have two elementary-aged kids. Add in a number of other roles I play.
As a part of the 30-day phone detoxing that I underwent last month, I typed a list of activities I enjoyed, a list to aid me as I gained more time as a result of using my phone less. What things might I do with that extra time? One of the first things I listed was play piano.
I’ve written a few times here about music, seeing as it is a major (pun intended) part of my life. In the last three weeks since my spring semester has finished, I’ve been writing a lot, and when I write prose (not poetry—there’s a post for some future time) I often listen to music. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been listening to in my earbuds, through my Bluetooth speaker, my living room stereo, the car stereo.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers—Moanin’
My favorite cut on this album is the title track. I can’t listen to this track without snapping my fingers, tapping my toes, or moving in my chair. The solos are extensive (as I prefer), and the piano solo is my favorite. It’s a song my daughter (age three) and I like to dance to. I definitely plan to delve more into Blakey’s catalog.
Coldplay—A Head Full of Dreams
This is one of the few musical artists (including Hammock) that the entire family agrees on, and with Ghost Stories not impressing me much, I was apprehensive about this album’s quality. But the family and I agree that this is a great album. My favorite tracks are “Everglow” and “Up & Up.” Lots of good piano on the album, which makes me happy.
Hammock—Everything and Nothing
While there’s rarely a day when I don’t listen to this wonderful duo, I have been listening to this newest album a lot. It’s equal to Departure Songs, my favorite album. There are more vocals, more guitars, more drums. It’s just beautiful. When I run outside in the early mornings (instead of at the gym), I let the beauty of this album play softly from my iPhone speakers.
Antonio Carlos Jobim—Wave
Perhaps the month of May, coming as it does after the end of the academic year, puts me in the mood for some laid-back music. (I’ve been a Jobim fan since high school when I discovered him via Stan Getz.) Wave has been in constant rotation. I put on the album for my six-year-old son the other day while we were playing a board game, and he couldn’t sit still—he liked the rhythms and instrumentation. Jobim’s music has a seemingly simple surface, but the jazz fan in me loves all the chord progressions and movement.
Mastodon—Once More ’Round the Sun
When I’m on the treadmill or lifting weights at the gym, this is some of my go-to music to energize myself. “Tread Lightly” and “High Road” are my two favorite tracks, with the catchy rhythms and awesome guitar work. That said, it’s still a great album from start to finish—it’s my pick from their catalog in which I enjoy every song on the album.
“Morning Classics” on South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Even though I haven’t lived in South Dakota for six years, I’m still a fan of this weekday classic program that runs from nine to noon. I listen to it whenever I can because it’s great background music to accompany whatever I’m working on. It’s especially fun to hear the weather reports in the winter, and I forget that I’m in Texas, not in the Badlands state.
Opeth—Watershed & Pale Communion
Besides Mastodon, Opeth has been another band in heavy rotation during my workouts. My affection for this group dates way back to my marathon training runs (before kids, before full-time jobs). The often-lengthy songs are perfect, and their complexity and nuance reward multiple listens. Although their catalog is extensive, these two albums are what I’ve been listening to the most, and they’re probably my favorites. Their songwriting, their vocal work (more harmonies, more selective “growls”), their inclusion of more keyboards all contribute to my appreciation.
This solo piano album ushers me into the right state of mind to draft, revise, or edit. I find it relaxing, yet motivating. Winston has a knack for crafting memorable melodies, and even after I’m done listening to the album, I find the notes running through my brain. I’m also a big fan of his albums Winter Into Spring and Autumn, which I tend to listen to during their respective seasons.