Ah the famous bathtub scene, taken in my hometown, Washington D.C. In this city of historic monuments and grand museums, what I remember most are the “lightning bugs” and my great Aunt Helen who was my first piano teacher. A no-nonsense lady, she insisted I wash my little hands before touching her beloved Steinway Baby Grand. She was the classical music prodigy in the family and anything that smelled like “popular music” was strictly forbidden. This did not make me happy. But I also learned that I could hum a song and plunk it out on the white keys. I never dreamed that someday I would get paid for making music. For playing by ear.
My father had the itch to move to California and get as far away from the in-laws as possible without actually leaving the continental US and that’s how our eccentric nuclear family landed in Los Angeles. In those days aerospace was hot and my father had worked for NASA during the Sputnik and Mercury Capsule days. His claim to fame was that he named the first two monkeys that went into space. And came back. That would be Able and Baker. My mother eventually went to school and became an RN and I tried to adjust to big crazy Los Angeles by hiding out in the den and playing the piano.
Our Baldwin Acrosonic piano, which made the move with us across the country, became my best friend, along with the new $19.95 Silvertone guitar my parents bought at Sears. I had big dreams: I wanted to be a star but would be thrilled playing music in a bar, by golly. “Not something ‘good girls’ aspire to,” remarked the disenfranchised relatives back east.
I needed to keep peace in my very academic family so I went off to college, behind the “Redwood Curtain” at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. I learned how to make sand candles, crab shell wind chimes and to nail “A’s” in my classes. I fell in love, fell out of love, gained thirty pounds, lost thirty pounds and snagged a B.A. in psychology. While my friends went on to get bigger and better degrees, I came back to Los Angeles and worked in a local hospital emergency room probably to “find myself” or something like that. And I did. On the graveyard shift. I think I learned more about psychology (mine and theirs) in my first week there than I did in four years of school. In fact it was perfect preparation for my future work — singing in piano bars. After three years of high drama in the E.R. very little shocks me. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
While I pulled those emergency room graveyard shifts on the weekend, I went to nursing school during the day because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually, it took me a whole semester to realize that I enjoyed playing the guitar and singing for the old guys at the V.A. Hospital during our clinical rotations more than anything else. Yes I had reached the proverbial fork in the road.
Either I listen to my own heart or I do what other people think I should do. That simple. And once I really listened, the choice was easy. I dropped out of nursing school immediately (and especially before I inflicted permanent damage on anyone). I left my job in the E.R. too. My parents freaked out. My friends freaked out. I got my first gig in the red light district of Los Angeles singing “Kumbaya” to drunks and drug addicts. The prostitutes loved it. My first night on the job I made $27.50 and never looked back.
That was many years ago. I have been happily playing and singing ever since in all sorts of places and for all kinds of people. I get paid to do something I absolutely love to do. That makes me feel very lucky…and grateful. Great teachers and mentors have turned me into a real professional–one who honors the craft of songwriter and performing. I’ve made four albums of my own songs and some of them are actually played on radio, regular and internet. I even got a couple royalty checks from BMI. Now that’s exciting!
I met my husband Craig at one of my piano bar gigs. He’d hang out in his Navy uniform. You have to know that I have a thing for men in uniforms so I noticed him right away. One evening he brought his guitar along and I asked him to “sit in.” We played the song “Kansas City” and it was quite nice, as in ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. Something clicked, one thing led to another and now we’re regular married folk!
Craig loved his job. Retired now, he taught 10th grade world history. But his true passion was the ukulele. He began playing with earnest a few years ago and it rubbed off on me. I decided to learn a few chords. Whoo Hoo! That was fun so I learned a few more. That’s when I fell in love. Head over heels in love with the ukulele. It helps that I am a fingerpicker from way back and a lot of my guitar (and piano) technique comes in handy. But the ukulele is different and full of surprises. It comes gift-wrapped with a big bow. Each new chord or lick or strum I learn can open a door to a whole new world of sound and texture and rhythm. What a joy!
But “life happens.” Craig crushed his right wrist, tripping on an uneven sidewalk in front of our local post office. You better believe that we watch where we walk NOW! Playing the ukulele is very difficult for him. But another door opened and he has found a new passion. Photography. And his pictures are pretty fantastic.
So here I am today. All my life experiences have brought me to this moment…and this moment…and this moment. Besides working as a performing musician, I’ve added “teacher” to the menu. I kind of fell into this new endeavor by accident. A two-month Ukulele For Beginners Class I taught at my local senior center turned into The CC Strummers, turned into ukulele workshops and classes and festivals and private students. Turned into something wonderful.
Like everyone else, I’ve had dark times a-plenty. Major illness plagued me most of my adolescence. The tragedy of family estrangement and losing loved ones are part of my story. This precious life is a mixed bag, for sure. But being an entertainer, musician, teacher, writer, I get to lather my feelings into a song or story and lighten the load with a little humor. I’m grateful for each word I sing and every note I play and for all of you who share your time, your stories and your applause with me.
Clipart images used by license from clipart.com