My earliest memories of music involve the living room of our house in the Oakland hills. As a very young child, going down the few steps into the room, I could go left to the “Hi-Fi,” the state-of-the-art stereo system, or to the right, toward the upright piano my mother played.
I remember the smell of the stereo. It likely had a tube amp, and the cabinet wood was well polished. I remember a warm, buttery, electric smell, and I remember standing with my palms on the material covering the speakers. It was a coarse, bumpy material, brown and black and threaded with gold. I remember sounds washing past my hands, over me, through me. I wondered why I could not see such an amazing thing. I tried: staring hard, looking all around, glancing sideways, even looking away to glance back quickly—but I could not see any trace.
I was thrilled by the sounds. I felt transported somewhere else although I knew I was still in the living room. My parents probably fed me mostly classical music when I was very young, although between them there as a range of tastes including jazz, blues, hillbilly, folk, early rock’n’roll and the current commercial pop music. I heard all of it.
I watched my mother play the piano. She also sang in a pretty soprano. It overwhelmed me that she could just sit down and figure out a song from the radio. This was god-like to me. My father was not musical, but he was a great appreciator and loved giving new music a listen. My parents were not happily married; my mother suffered from bouts of depression but music was therapeutic for her. I watched her play and sing; occasionally she would play and cry. Sometimes she got stuck on a song, I remember her playing and singing “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks endlessly. Usually she seemed happier when she finished playing, but once in a while she would stop in tears, slam down the lid, and walk away.
Sometimes I climbed onto the piano bench and played with the keys. I would touch one note and listen to it die away into silence or mash away on as many keys as possible making a hideous racket. I’ll give my mother credit that she rarely yelled at me to stop. She was adamant that I be allowed to express my creativity. Indeed, I had art camps and outposts of mess all over the house and outside.
At 4 I began taking ballet. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of dancing around the house and outside in various costumes. I preferred capes to tutus, especially a Batman cape that I wore to shreds. A little later, around the age of 5, I was given a record player. I wanted to play music and the stereo was off limits. Now I could explore all my parents’ records on my own, sitting, listening, poring over album covers and sleeves in my main art camp in the living room by a window across from the piano. When I danced I embodied the emotions I heard in the music, and if there were lyrics I acted out the stories. Since I had no brothers and sisters, I was on my own. I had some great children’s albums—including Peter and The Wolf, which I adored.
I was fond of dancing to Tchaikovsky and Trini Lopez. I struggled with Stravinsky. Had it not been for the beautiful album cover art I would’ve given up on The Firebird Suite. But I loved gazing at the album as the music played. I would imagine the Firebird coming to play with me, and showing me how to dance to this music.
By the mid 1960’s some very interesting looking LP’s and 45’s—The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys—were appearing in the household record collection. I took them over to my record player and listened to them all. I was listening to KFRC, the local San Francisco music station, and watching Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand. The Sixties music tsunami was underway!