Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.
Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?”
So there I was, eating dinner one night with my long time piano teacher who I had not seen for few years. Of course being very familiar with my ability and the pace at which I learn, he was amused to see me perform above what he had expected from me, even after the years of not seeing me. Extrapolating for the years we hadn’t been in contact, for once I had come out ahead.
With a mouth half full of salmon, he managed to say, “Hey, you were burning tonight.” I was slightly taken aback by his genuine compliment. Or maybe it was just receiving a compliment from a teacher who, during our many years of lessons was not in the manner of giving out compliments freely to me, especially when I would spend a good portion of the lesson trying to come up with a great excuse why, after three weeks, I would still be struggling with the same diminished scale.
Caught slightly off guard, I responded “You really think so?” “Of course” he said, without missing a beat. “You’ve really excelled since I last saw you. What’s your secret?” I asked him, “You want the truth?” and without giving him time to answer stated, “I just stopped giving a damn.”
He sat back in his chair with that smile of pride a teacher always has when a student finally gets it, even if it took that student 13 years. “It’s a beautiful thing, ain’t it?” he rhetorically asked. “It definitely is.” I agreed, finally feeling like someone who was allowed to be part of the club. He finally offered, “You know what? You should write a book and call it that.” So here I am. Not quite a book, but one does have to start somewhere.
I distinctly remember when it happened. I assume it can happen at any time for each person, but for me it was my 35th birthday. I don’t even know how it happened. I went to bed at the age of 34, my mind laden with the common burdens and worries of any person who has chosen the path of a career in the arts or music and I woke up at the age of 35 and realized I could care less about what I was worrying about. All the fears that had gripped me for years were suddenly gone. The uncertainties that had plagued me for many sleepless nights were now no more than interesting landmarks, similar to a strange pile of rocks curiously arranged on the side of the road. I just came to the realization that what I had to offer was what I had to offer; no more, no less. Either you liked it or you didn’t, but there wasn’t much I could do about it past that. Of course I could still bend, but in the past I’d bend until I would break. Now I felt like I’d bend until I couldn’t anymore and then tell you to try someone else. This was huge! This was amazing! It really couldn’t be this simple, could it?
It was a paradigm shift for me, as big as the one Copernicus introduced to the world when he deftly checked and most certainly mated Ptolemy in one fell swoop with his book, “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”, or for those of us rusty on our Latin, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” in which he dictated that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, which was most certainly heady stuff in a time when some people were still coming to grips with the Earth being round. For me, it was similar in that I had realized that everything didn’t revolve around me, but rather we all revolved around, um, something, and that was just the way it was and I couldn’t change it.
But a funny thing happened. I was all set with my newly found power, ready to tell people, “Sorry. Can’t do that.” when asked to do impossible tasks. I was excited to display my newly drawn lines in the sand. Strangely no one was pushing me to that point anymore. My new ability to not care gave me a certain confidence that caused people to stop questioning what I was doing and asking for more. I started to present things with the attitude of, “This is what it is, and it’s the best you’re getting from me.” And people were fine with it. Surely this was a cruel joke! People pushing and asking for more and more is what caused me to develop this ability and now that I had, no one pushed or asked anymore. Outsmarted again by the human psyche! Or was there more to it? Let me first say that not giving a damn is not the same as not giving a damn. Tricky I know, but let me explain. When I say that I stopped giving a damn, this wasn’t to imply any sort of intended incompetence. It wasn’t meant that I would walk, completely unrehearsed and unpracticed, onto a stage for a classical recital and mindlessly pound on the piano keys with my closed fists and while people booed and threw tomatoes I would scream, “I don’t give a damn! This is me and this is what you get!” What I mean, is at some point, as a professional we have to be confident enough in our abilities to know when something is wrong because we fell short and when something is wrong because the customer’s taste is just different. Not an easy thing, by any stretch and in fact a version of the Serenity prayer, re-written for the arts would be most welcome and appropriate here.
For those of us in the arts, we are expected to take a huge amount of intangibles and make them tangible. It’s a huge undertaking whose difficulty is little understood by those outside of what we do. What’s a good guitar sound? What’s a tasty riff? What’s a creative dance step? What is interesting prose? What is a thought provoking painting? All of these are highly subjective, yet as professionals in any of these fields we are expected to know these answers and provide them consistently on a daily basis without hesitation. A massive undertaking in and of itself no doubt but now consider the recording engineer trying to understand the vision of an album by a band that most likely can’t consistently agree on a collective vision between themselves. Or the choreographer trying to understand what a certain song is trying to convey so they can choreograph a relevant dance number for 20 dancers with that song. We would be crushed under the weight of our own insecurities in such situations without faith in our basic abilities. And that is what I mean by not giving a damn.
There are those of us hitting our heads on ceilings for a long time. We are trying to get to the floor above us but we can’t find a way. I don’t want to say we hit a plateau because for us in the arts, we never plateau. We hit ceilings because we’re always trying to reach the next step up in our development; our evolution. For me, deciding to not give a damn was more than bursting through a ceiling up to the next floor; it was blasting out of this building I had been in for so long and finally entering a brand new building.
For me, learning to not give a damn meant that finally I can stop second guessing myself when I solo. It’s not about thinking about chords or what’s correct. It’s not about trying to guess which scales fit. It was about just playing and trusting that what would follow would be good. My fingers knew the patterns because I practiced the scales incessantly. My ears knew the notes because they were coming from my mind’s ear and all I had to do was listen and let it happen. It’s about not thinking and just being. It’s not about A/B’ing countless microphone positions but rather just moving the mic for a few seconds in front of a guitar amp and stopping the second it sounds good. If you trust your ability and you trust yourself, the second it sounds good you know it is good. There’s no reason to A/B or compare. It’s not about practicing brush strokes or blending techniques or stressing over which shade of blue matches the sky you’re looking at. It’s about moving beyond that, and just painting. If you trust yourself, you will just grab blue — any shade of blue — and make it work. When we’re learning we’re taught to study and to practice over and over again until it becomes second nature. What we’re not taught is how to know when it’s time to move past that and start doing because that’s where the real learning begins. Many people view having a black belt in the martial arts as meaning you’re a master while in actuality achieving a black belt simply means you’ve finished mastering the basic techniques that make up the martial art. When you are awarded your black belt, you’re being told that now is the time to start learning. If only there was such a thing for us in the arts and music.
One time when I was young and studying with my aforementioned teacher, I came into a lesson asking, “What scale do I use to solo over this chord?” He responded, “You’ll study all the scales and one day you’re going to wake up and realize there is no scale; you’ll just be able to make it work.” Not satisfied with his apocryphal answer, I continued to pester him about the chord. With an exasperated sigh he said, “G mixolydian”, while I smiled happily at my new found knowledge not realizing at the time that the real knowledge was to come. It took 13 years for it to finally arrive.
I suspect some of us figure this out much earlier. Some of us arrive at it later, like I did. And some are yet to stumble onto it. If you haven’t yet, you’ll know when you do because it’s more than a light bulb going off; it’s a sun exploding.
Now if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me while you take a moment to figure out if you still give a damn. I need to grab some blue — any blue — and just make it work.
-Frank Perri, May 2012.