By Ear I Hear:
How I Developed My Style of Playing
People always ask me where I studied piano. I started picking out tunes on a small, portable organ given to me at age three or four. I used to sit on the front porch playing, and all the neighborhood kids would come and listen. My mom said I was two-and-a-half when, out of the blue, I repeated—in tune—Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” She was astounded!
I began piano and ballet lessons at age eight. My piano teacher, Laura T. Scott, gave my sister and me the same piece to play. I would listen to my sister play and would copy it without reading the music. I totally don’t know how I got away with it! I thought it was all a waste of time because I wanted to play my own stuff instead. So I struggled for a while, and then the lessons stopped.
As a young girl I totally fell in love with the late great pianist Liberace. I would sit in front of the TV mesmerized by his virtuosity, his ability to play in many genres and his amazing showmanship. I really wanted to play just like him.
I played violin at Washington Elementary School in the fifth and sixth grades. I didn’t study privately, so I would copy the kids that did, imitating their changing hand position, vibrato, etc. But I discontinued playing violin when I entered middle school.
When I had a chance, I would listen to the latest songs on the radio. We also had an old Victrola, and I played the old 33 1/3 rpm records my parents had. I remember playing “Jeeps Blues” and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Swan Lake over and over again. I would then go to the piano and pick out what I heard.
Then one day, my mom brought home Erroll Garner’s album “Concert By The Sea.” Once I listened to that, I was totally hooked on jazz piano. I stayed on the piano so long that my parents had to ask me to stop. It was my everything. I loved taking any melody and jazzing it up. I remember playing the theme from “77 Sunset Strip” at summer camp. Everyone loved it.
In high school, all the singers wanted me to accompany them for talent shows. I knew all the latest songs no one else knew. It was so much fun!
When I began college, I really became obsessed with music, particularly jazz. When Ramsey Lewis’s “The In Crowd” and “Wade In The Water” were released, I immediately memorized them note for note. I played them in the choir room and everyone would clap the rhythm while I played.
I didn’t major in music because my reading was so far behind those who had been studying formally for years. So I opted for art instead, which was easy for me and I loved it. But my love for music was so great that I gravitated toward the practice rooms every chance I got. I made friends with some students who were into jazz, and we would listen to each other and talk about all aspects of music. We stayed current with the latest and most popular jazz charts and tried to copy them.
I picked up jazz chords by listening and copying—no formal theory. Some students would talk about theory, but it went in one ear and out the other. I just wanted to play! I would sit next to very experienced pianists and watch how they voiced the chords. I would then run to my own practice room and develop my own interpretations using what I heard. I copied the classical students’ arpeggios, scales, etc., without reading a note. I had to force myself to stop in order to study my other subjects.
At California State University at Hayward, I befriended the great jazz pianist Ed Kelly. He used to let me sit in and listen to him play when I could. Bassists Harley White, James Leary and other musicians let me play with them, and I learned a lot of jazz standards that way.
During that time, I began to get interested in movie soundtracks and classical music. I would go to Tower Records (my second home) and purchase the film music of Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, and Victor Young, among many others. These composers wrote some very beautiful and dramatic music that totally drew me in. I was also drawn to Mozart, Bach, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, etc. I couldn’t get enough!
And then came the Broadway musicals. Rogers and Hammerstein were my favorites. And Afro-Latin. I would go down Telegraph Avenue to U.C. Berkeley, where there was a large group of Afro-Latin conga drummers who would just blow everyone away with their complex and dynamic rhythms. I would sit and listen for hours, but I couldn’t keep still. The rhythms went all through my body and totally put me on another plane.
At home, my mom kept the radio on. She loved to listen to KABL, which programmed “easy listening” music like Montavani, Frank Sinatra, the Boston Pops, Roger Williams, Ferrante and Teicher, Peter Nero, etc. All those beautiful melodies stuck in my brain, even though at that time I thought it was corny.
All these styles influenced the way I play. I still have to pull myself away from the piano. It is part of me and I am part of it. It makes me come alive!
A very special thanks to my late parents Woody and Mildred Faddis for providing me with a piano and putting up with all my noise.