February 18, 2008

Sketch in E Flat

I took piano lessons for nearly 10 years using the Suzuki method thanks to my Mom's "encouragement." Though I joke about it now, I did not joke about it then. I hated lessons. In fact, the main highlight for me was the trip to Dairy Queen for fries before the lesson and the trip to the drug store to look at comic books after. My mom, trying to be encouraging, even got me a piano book titled "I Want to Quit Piano but My Parents Won't Let Me," full of songs about quitting piano. That's some pretty creative reverse psychology if you ask me! My mom finally conceded and allowed me to stop taking lessons when I started high school.

Busy with sports and other high-school activities, I didn't spend much time playing the piano again until I started college. It was around that time that I was introduced to George Winston's "December." I had been so used to the classics; I had never heard the piano played like that before and, no pun intended, it struck a chord with me. I soon found others - David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani and Wayne Gratz to name a few. During all of this I became very grateful for my earlier lessons, for two main reasons. First, I had learned to hear songs and pick them out on the piano, which came in handy as George Winston's sheet music was only available in Japan! Second, I had learned to memorize songs versus only being able to play with music in front of me. I say all of this to set the stage for a great story, 15 years in the making.

While serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Virginia in 1993, I found in an apartment desk a cassette tape that had no title. On that tape I found about 15 or so songs seemingly pieced together from other tapes like we used to do when we made "Best of ..." tapes back in the days before CD's. All of the songs except one were instrumentals of one kind or another, and one of these was a piano solo that immediately made a deep impression on me. Its hard to describe the emotion when you hear that "perfect" song. Its like time stands still and you feel connected in some way with something higher than yourself. As the tape had no name, I had no idea who it was by and nobody seemed to know who it belonged to. I listened to the tape regularly for the remainder of my mission and vowed that when I returned home I would figure out the composer and get the sheet music so that I could play it for myself.

Well, finding the name and composer of a song without words from a tape that had no writing on it proved to be next to impossible! I was at a complete loss for what to do. Every time I went to a music store, I browsed through the New Age section but since I didn't know what I was looking for it was very hard and very frustrating. And to further complicate matters, during one of our moves, I lost the tape and with it any hope I had to one day be able to play the song. I was left in that situation for the good part of 5 years and then as we were unpacking, having just moved to Houston, the tape resurfaced. Hearing the song again (even though the sound was starting to fail on the old tape) reignited my desire to find out the composer once and for all. This was about 2 years ago.

I don't remember exactly when or where it happened, but one day inspiration struck. I mentioned earlier that there was one song on the tape that did have words. Why it had never crossed my mind before I don't know, but the thought came that whoever wrote that song may have also written my mystery song. I scoured the internet looking for the words to that song and found several versions, the most popular sung by John Denver called "The Flower that Shattered the Stone." Not knowing Mr. Denver to be a piano soloist I kept looking and stumbled onto a CD entitled "Whatever Works" by a John Barlow Jarvis. Unfortunately, it was an older CD and no previews were available of any of the tracks so I couldn't tell if it had the song on there. Not knowing what else to do, I found John's website and sent him an e-mail, briefly summarizing my struggle. He was very kind and we traded a few e-mails back and forth but I still wasn't able to describe the song well enough to him to have him tell me for sure if it was the right one. So, I found a copy of his CD on E-bay, made the purchase and crossed my fingers.

As soon as the CD arrived, I couldn't wait to open it. I raced through the tracks, and then suddenly there it was. The name of the song that had eluded me all these years was "Sketch in E Flat." I e-mailed John back, thanked him for his help, and asked if he would be kind enough to lead me now to the sheet music as I was now even more excited to play the song myself! When he replied that no such sheet music existed nor were there plans to create it, I was disappointed but realized that the only thing left to do was to write the sheet music myself.

I mentioned earlier that I had learned how to pick out notes so I purchased the computer program "Finale," synched up my keyboard and went to work. It took just over a year to get it all down in the computer and several more months to then learn and memorize it. Despite my best efforts, I knew it wasn't perfect and that it was missing some of the depth from the original. Since John had been so kind before, I hoped he might be willing to review my work and make the needed corrections. So, not wanting to irritate him any more than I was sure I already had, I e-mailed John to let him know that I had arranged the song and asked if he would be willing to take a quick look at it for me and fill in the gaps. Thankfully, he said he would be happy to and lo and behold, just this week he sent me my arrangement back, revised and enhanced and perfect!

Now keep in mind that Mr. Jarvis is not just your average musician. He is a two-time Grammy winning songwriter, both for song of the year, wrote the song for the closing of the 1996 Olympic Games, has played with Ringo Starr, Diana Ross, John Mellencamp, Art Garfunkel and Rod Stewart, and has written songs recorded by John Denver, Stevie Nicks, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant, Alabama, and the list goes on. His website will give you much more information about his accomplishments than this short blog can do justice.

That John would be so kind over the last few years to correspond with me regularly and to help fulfill this dream of mine is nothing short of amazing. Its evidence to me that there are still some really good people in the world that enjoy helping others without any regard of what's in it for them. Not once did he ever ask for compensation for his time (though I offered) and he was always kind and always encouraging.

With John's permission, I'm attaching his original recording of "Sketch in E Flat" from his CD "Whatever Works" to this post. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have over this 15 year journey!