Archive for April, 2010

The Making of a Musician

Thursday, April 15th, 2010
By Sam Glaser
April 2010

I still wonder if I deserve to be called a musician.  Call it the imposter complex or fear of success.  Isamclaspedhands find that chatty inner voice stating that if I could only do _________ (insert musical goal) or as soon as I make such and such a salary, then I’d really be a musician.  The fact is that I am a musician.  It makes me smile just typing that.

Being a musician is like running a marathon.  Every mile your body tells you to stop.  Quitting is the reasonable thing to do.  Every month that we struggle to make ends meet is a month that I ask, “What am I thinking trying to do this for a living?”  Every conversation with a relative yields, “but Sammy, how long can you do this?”  Every amazing local jazz band I see starts the mental recording, “And you call yourself a musician?”  For 47 years I have been fighting that internal and external dialog and somehow, miraculously, I can still say that I am a bonafide full-time, happy working musician.

I want to dedicate this month’s article to my parents for creating a space where I could pursue my dreams. Perhaps the most important rule we had in our household growing up was that Sam could sing.  I sang all the time.  Still do.  It drove my brothers crazy.  I put myself to sleep every night bouncing my head on my pillow and gnashing my teeth to the groove in my head.  It freaked my parents out and they sought medical help.  I sang through meal times, on car rides, in the bathtub.  I sang along with my classical pieces that I played on the piano.  My folks defended my musical quirk and would not allow anyone to silence it.

By age seven I was writing songs.  My third grade teacher assigned a poetry assignment where we had to scribe an ode to a color. My poems always had music attached to them.  I thought that was normal.  I started with Black, moved onto Yellow and then wrote a song about how disappointed I was each time I saw pollution.  Then came other themes: loneliness, the love of the ocean and a song about the joyful chaos of living with three little brothers.  My mom, a talented singer and pianist, marveled at my first poem Black and must have intuited its lyrical rhythm.  As she sat at the piano attempting to put it to music I scampered up next to her exclaiming “Mom, that’s not how it goes!”

My dad plays the trumpet.  He comes from a musical family where everyone played something and was expected to excel. His father didn’t like his choice of instrument and my father was forced to practice in the closet.  All that pent up passion for that brassy sound still explodes anytime we have a family occasion.  My dad, even though his lip isn’t quite what it was, sends everyone in the room ducking for cover as he plays My Yiddeshe Mama or a Louis Armstrong favorite.  It’s thanks to my dad that I have this unyielding tenacity to reach for the stars and the ability to sell ice to Eskimos.

Friday Night in my household meant Shabbat.  Even though we rarely went to the synagogue and samndadkiddushdidn’t keep kosher, Shabbat dinner was non-negotiable.  It consisted of candlelighting, “ayshet chayil” translated into English and Kiddush.  My dad would give us a blessing, the same words that I say to my children and hope that they will say to their children.  My mom, an incredible cook, would break out amazing, predictable food for her family and the myriad guests that we almost always invited.  Then, like clockwork, we’d move en masse to the Steinway grand in the music room and sing every song in the book.

The song books were, of course, what became the influences that still resonate in every note I compose.  Great Songs of the 60’s by Milt Okun.  Everything from Rogers and Hammerstein and Rogers and Hart.  Fiddler, Hair, The Me Nobody Knows, A Chorus Line.  Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel.  The Fireside Book of Folk Songs.  My new Songs We Sing CD got its title from the classic Jewish songbook of the same name.  Back then I didn’t even realize that I was harmonizing.  I hadn’t heard of counterpoint or dynamics. I just did it, and I simply hadto master the piano and sight reading so that I could keep up with my mom.

The summer after third grade we moved to Brentwood.  For my dad it was a big statement to move to a big house in a fancy neighborhood.  For my mom it meant more space to keep clean.  For me it meant my own room and interesting new neighbors.  Just across the backyard fence lived John Densmore, drummer for the Doors.  I can’t describe the feeling I had when I first heard Stevie Wonder’s Superstition coming through the bushes, loud.  My knees went weak.  That groove, that horn section!  How did he get the piano to do that? I ran inside and filled the Steinway with paper and paper clips to simulate a Clavinet.  Can you imagine my mom’s shock when she next sat down to play?

When I was ten years old, after a month Camp Ramah my dad sent me to Tony Trabert’s Tennis Camp. Dad’s ultimate goal was to make tennis players out of his four boys.  Any self-respecting Jewish boy had to know how to handle a racquet and as an A-rated player dad wanted us to give him a good game.  I was placed in the lame group and only once did Tony stoop to teach us personally.  But a few nights each week we had disco night.  Wow.  That was cool.  That was the summer of Crocodile Rock, The Doobies “Listen to the Music” and “Take it Easy” by the Eagles. The white music was cool but I was totally destroyed by Tower of Power’s “You Got to Funkifize.”  I think it’s because of my dad’s decision to make a tennis player out of me that I discovered funk.  Our experience with slavery gives Jews a natural kinship with our African-American brothers.  I feel it in my jeans (genes.)

Speaking of tennis, my dad was enamored of all things sports.  He worked hard, came home late and took long trips. I was often frustrated when he couldn’t concentrate on our conversations due tosamtenyrsold the incessant “big game” on TV.  Two of my brothers were into watching sports whereas Johnny (Yom Tov) and I preferred to be outdoors hiking and biking and making music.  I did however find a meeting place with my pop.  That was at Laker, Dodger, Rams and later Raider games.  He had season tickets to everything. There we could shmooze in between plays and he was happy to be spoiling us.  My mom, on the other hand, retaliated by purchasing tickets to every symphonic, chamber music and opera event available.  This was a veritable gold mine for me since my brothers had very little interest in such culture.  My appearances with the LA Jewish Symphony have been a fulfillment of the dream of that little kid in the suit sitting in row E holding his mom’s hand while sucking in every note of the LA Philharmonic.

Any tribute to my parents would be incomplete without mention of my Auntie Lynnie.  Lynn Berman, now Bar-lev, never had kids of her own.  She’s my mom’s cousin but she’s still an aunt, if you know what I mean.  Lynnie turned me on to the world of art.  She worked with some of the most brilliant artists and graphic designers on the planet and they became my buddies. Lynn gave me my first taste of being published; she took one of my early songs called This World and turned it into a holiday card for her design firm.  The silver gloss panel featured the lyrics in my own hand and said at the bottom: “Sammy Glaser, age 7.  May this child’s dreams be realized by all mankind.”  When I was eleven she took me into a recording studio, hired a professional guitarist and helped me record my first fourteen-song album. I can still see the walls of that studio in my mind…I had found nirvana. Then for my Bar Mitzvah she had all of those songs beautifully transcribed and bound in a book.  Take note:  the best gifts are thought out, unique and clarify that you really know the recipient.

I could go on and on raving about the support and love my parents have showered on me.  I’ll finish up for now at my Bar Mitzvah year. My mom pushed me hard.  She took me to lessons in Torah trope with the Sinai Temple organist, Aryell Cohen and made me practice daily.  My dad used his garment industry cache to arrange for the printing of my “Wilderness” song on all the tablecloths for the party.  Cantor Joseph Gole soon took interest in my budding ability to interpret liturgy and invited me into his Shachrit Choir every Saturday morning.  Aryell suggested a more aggressive tack with my progress on the piano and my mom shlepped me to lessons with his strict German teacher all the way in the Hollywood Hills.  I learned to chant the entire Shabbat service and had to master two Torah portions…one for LA and one for Israel where I had a second celebration a few weeks later. I remember my mom saying, “Sam, if you work this hard at everything in your life, there is NOTHING you can’t do.”

That year, the concert choir at Paul Revere Jr. High held auditions to find the best male and female delegate to a citywide vocal competition.  My folks nudged me to go for it and exalted when I was chosen to represent the school.  My mom helped me go through my repertoire for the finals and we opted for Every Valley Shall Be Exalted from Handel’s Messiah.  I had no problem with the range or long runs: I was still a boy soprano and had great breath control thanks to my love of surfing and bodyboarding.  My mom rehearsed with me, shlepped me to practice with my piano teacher and then the final voice juries.  I won the first prize male vocalist in the LA City Schools and had my award presented by Zubin Mehta at the LA Music Center.  Best $100 of my life.

So I’m a musician. I think, eat and breathe music. I produce albums for wonderful clients that become a part of my family.  I get to see the world performing in over fifty cities a year. What a gift.  Best of all, those new songs that still haunt me almost nightly get to find an audience with you, my friends and fans and readers of this monthly diatribe.  It’s thanks to you that I keep the balls in the air, keep my kids in Jewish day school and release an annual CD.  I have a new one that will be mastered next week.  Wow…this is hard work!  Hundreds of studio hours later and I’m so excited to say that it’s almost shrink-wrapped and available, 28 of the greatest hits of the Jewish People, fully arranged with my ten-piece band and squeezed onto one CD.

You don’t have to buy my new CD. I made it for my friends, family, peers and for the entire Jewish people.  But most importantly, I made it for me.  Just like the twenty CDs that I recorded before it. Thank God each of my albums is “in the black.”  That said, if they didn’t make a dime it would be OK.  I still would have the satisfaction of knowing that I made the very best art I was capable of at that time in history and that I had yet another opportunity to give my parents nachas.

I’d like to conclude this essay with a challenge.  What can you do to spur creativity in your own household?  What are those things that you love to do that you never have time for?  Wish you took piano lessons?  Sang in a choir?  Knew how to paint?  Well, start today.  Join a choir, find a teacher, take an art class!  These days the arts aren’t as supported in schools as they used to be.  What can you do to make a difference?  Are your kids going straight for the TV or Facebook when they come home? Require a two hour homework/creative session minimum before the screen goes on.  Was there a time in your life you were told that your creation was lame or stupid or worthless?  And you never tried again?  Well, get over it. As Warren Miller says, “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do.” Create something today!  You too can make a musician.