Music = Screwdriver

Although this is a music-related post, there is a broader point of application or at least reflection… Feel free to skip to the end, or strap on your waders and dive in. Your choice.

Dedicated to my musical friends from college and at First Cov, with whom I make sweet music indeed, and to Amelia, Tina, and Suzie – friends who know the joy of jamming on the keyboard that uses letters instead of notes.


A while back, a friend asked me to come over, hang out, and jam. No, I’m not talking about a session of laying down fruit preserves, but rather laying down some tuneage just for the sheer joy of playing music.

One of my favorite e-card pictures from Facebook has a surgeon writing a note, and it says:

“Cause of death – laid down the boogie and played that funky music ’till he died.”

Hee hee hah hah ho ho hee haw *snort* woo…

Anyhoot, a jam session was in the offing. And although other factors meant I couldn’t go, I realized something when thinking about going…

I have no idea what to do at a jam session.

Ok – I know “what” to do. I do have some fleeting proficiency at a couple of tooters and twangers, and could add some various and sundry sounds to the festivities.

Perhaps it’s closer to say I don’t know “why.” Why jam, why just hang out and play?

“Huh?,” I hear the assembled masses cry… “Have you slipped a gear or 20? Why make music, you ask? Why just play for fun, Cal ponders? Why not enjoy something that many folks would love to be able to do – just sit and noodle around with a musical instrument, oh fount of ponderings? Why ask why??”

‘lemmie ‘splain.

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember – it’s one of those things that comes so naturally to me that it’s like breathing. Which is a good thing, really, since I lack the discipline to actually work at it and improve my craft – the Lord knew that when He installed such a huge natural gift that I can slide by and be adequate in many settings.

But like so many things that come easily to us, we sometimes make a disconnect. What should be a wonderful, enriching, passionate pursuit instead becomes a tool – one of those basic, routine, everyday things that we can take for granted.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, by the way – not at all.

For me, what gets lost along the way is a love of playing, just for the sake of making music. Instead, I tend to look at the purpose – am I ‘shedding for a gig? Am I working up some new songs to add to my setlist? Is this a potential addition to a CD or a single?

Music is a tool, and the only time I really reach for it is when there’s something to be hammered, wrenched, chiseled, or otherwise wrangled. I practice for a purpose, not to enjoy the process or even see how it develops me as a musician.

I can’t blame the psych meds, either –  I’ve had this disconnect for some time now. But now in my bipolar world, I need to take a look at it. Extremes are a no-no, and things need to be re-defined – how do they fit into the “new normal.”

The heights and depths that the creative process contains can be dangerous ground for me, and I’m exploring how those can be accommodated without losing myself in the extremes – so that I don’t get so excited about something I’ve created that I get overwhelmed with mania, obliterating reality and being consumed with it; or having a session where nothing is coming out nearly as good as I hear it in my head, so I throw everything under the bus, convinced that it’s all crap and I’m never going to go near music again – sunk in a black well of depression.

And yes peeps, these extremes are very real for me, they’re waiting around most every corner if I’m not careful, and they can rule my life if I’m not mindful and aware.

Somewhere along the way, music lost its role as art, as joy, as something to be played with and experienced, and became something I wield. I use it to help, to serve, to fill in a gap, or even as a source of income.

Now, in the moment of performance, there’s a connection. I am present, listening, responding, and enjoying those joyful collisions (“happy accidents”) that are a part of making music. I think I can say, with abundant modesty intended, that my playing is expressive and comes from my heart. I don’t think that you’d listen and be thinking, “Dang – it just lies there. There’s no passion, no emotion. Just a bunch of notes with no feeling.”

On more than one occasion, I’ve been accused of blasting the cobwebs out of the organ pipes, not just for the sake of seeing how much volume I can get the thing to put out, but because whatever song I’m playing demanded a massive response – the sheer weight of the words drew it out of me.

Frankly, sometimes it’d be nice to be able to just lay back and not put everything I have into the music – I’d be able to just float along and not hang myself out on a limb, because my ear and my passion drove me someplace that my abilities and technique couldn’t quite pull off.

I musically paint myself into a corner. A lot.

(Especially with a certain couple of hymns that are my archnemesisessusses – ones that I simply have a mental block about and that always give me fits when I try to play ’em. My dear friend Betty knows which ones they are, and always kicks in a few extra horses on the piano to help carry me through them. I love her.)

But as much as I might think about just playing it safe, doing the basics, and thus covering my utter lack of chops (or my previously-huge-but-now-deflated hiney), my heart takes over and kitty climbs the giant redwood once again.


So when I play in public (I hate using the word “perform,” since usually I’m not trying to show off, but lend my music to whatever event I’m at, especially when offering my gifts to the Lord in worship services…), I’m there. I’m putting it all out.

I also realize it depends on what role I’m filling – if I’m doing solo stuff, then it’s on. Everything I’ve got, in the moment. (And kitty climbs the tree… again and again and again…) If I’m playing keys or organ for worship, I’m all there but it’s a different type of putting everything in – it’s all about serving the congregation, being a part of worship, leading where necessary, backing off when needed.

Kitty doesn’t climb as many trees. Unless I get really excited, that is. Then it’s every cat for himself. Meoooooouch.

If I’m rockin’ the bass, I step even further back. I really think the best bass players have enormous servant’s hearts – they have to. My job is to create, maintain, and ensure the foundation. I set aside flashy licks (unless that’s the exact right thing for that exact right moment, then BRING IT!), I back out of the spotlight, and surrender my individuality to become a part of the structure – the rhythm section.

Can you tell I love to play? Yeah, I thought so.

So why do I draw a blank if I contemplate just sitting down at the keyboard and noodling around? Why do I see just making music for fun as pointless?

Hanging out at a jam session? Why?

I’m honestly asking these questions, by the way. I’m not snarking about it or trying to drag you along as I ramble – I truly don’t understand why I don’t connect with making music for the sheer joy of it. And if I’m going to have any chance of puzzling through it, this here journal is where that happens.

Aren’t you glad?

So here’s one thought that I’ll kick around my noodle for a bit and see if it bounces…

I love to play, not for music’s sake, but for a purpose. And I don’t love to make music alone – I prefer the company of others. Whether they are playing along, listening, or we’re joining together in worship, I prefer company. Otherwise, I see the whole thing as a little pointless. I’m not sure where along the way I lost the wonder of creating music just for the joy of creating music, but there it is.

It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that it was very difficult for me to sit through a service where I wasn’t participating musically. I was antsy, I was fidgety, I was unsure of what to do, or what NOT to do. I didn’t know how to just dive in and BE.

So, again, there’s the disconnect. I was fine and dandy during the message, at least as fine as someone with ADD tendencies but not enough to really go the distance and turn pro with it can be. Sometime, we can talk about focus tools and how I use crochet to keep my head in one place.

“But it is not this day!”

(Yup – that’s a movie quote. From the third of the three. That’s all the help ya get – but most of my friends already knew where it was from as soon as they read it.)

And, being the wise and wonderful guy he is, Jeremy (our worship leader and master of the subtle art of teaching old dogs like me new tricks…) encouraged me to take a Sunday off once in a while – not to sleep in, but to just BE instead of DOING. And slowly, I’m learning that habit.

With lots of crochet.

(“But it is NOT this day!”)

So, even though I need and enjoy those times of just being present in worship, instead of doing, the disconnect remains – why do I feel no compulsion or desire to just make music for music’s sake?

As I mentioned, I think one factor is that I prefer making music for a purpose, with an objective in mind or an audience to serve. But as all who play know, that’s only a part of the wonder that is music…

Perhaps another factor is my instrument of choice for noodling around – keyboard.

I don’t play guitar, unlike my friend at Biggby Coffee who often works with a guitar strapped on his back so that when there’s an idle moment, he can spin it around, and noodle around to the delight of his loyal customers. Or innocent bystanders. Or complete strangers. Whomever.

I play whistles and such, which are fairly portable, but for some reason I don’t find it compelling to aimlessly play around with a lonely melody – seems like pointless wandering to me. I tend to think in harmony – I like interesting chord combinations and the places they go, and the melody usually finds its place as the chord structure weaves its way along whatever path I find.

So one note at a time? Not so much. Same with bass – I love the role the bass plays in the foundation of music, but that always comes later, not at the beginning of a song or arrangement.

So, it’s keyboard. That’s my axe of choice for noodling. Ever try to carry a piano or organ to a jam session? Not exactly spontaneous-making.

Did I ever tell you about breaking a Honda station wagon by carrying a Fender Rhodes piano and its two companion speakers to gigs? Not to mention the lifelong spinal turmoil from such a pursuit?

Oi to the Vey.

So, maybe I’ve wound my way to the center of this maze…

I look to the piano or keyboard when I think of just messing around with music. My keyboard is lodged in my studio at home, surrounded by computer, technology, and chaos. Not an ideal setting to just sit down, fool around, and make music for music’s sake.

One more log to throw on the pile…

I was thinking about when I WOULD just create, when I would just play for no other purpose than to see where the path would lead – because there was indeed a time like that, and not just in my younger days, when it was all new and fresh. A few years before my first CD came into being, and before the layoff that claimed my sanity for a few months, I would just play and see what happened. And I actually wrote some original songs in that time – ok, as original as I ever get.

(One of my friends teasingly called me “Predictable Cal” in college since, when jamming on keyboard, I’d tend to go with the safe and predictable chords and harmonies. I’d like to think I’ve moved a little beyond predictable, but one never knows. Being stuck in a rut means never having to say “Where the heck am I?”)

Out of that time came the song I’m most proud of (in all humility, I hope), my one-hit-wonder, never to be matched or exceeded – Angelica’s Waltz.

It’s arguably the best song on my CD of the same name, and the only one that gets played regularly by someone other than myself at gigs, thanks to Musician Maximus Roger MacNaughton. (As for how many people play it off the CD regularly, I have no idea.)

In fact, if I was wise, I’d probably do a Mike Oldfield and release “Angelica II” – basic format, same order of tunes, some new material since your record company owns the rights to the original and you can’t duplicate it; then Angelica III, wherein you get the rights back and reproduce the original with fresh new sounds; then The Orchestral Angelica, where all of it is done with an orchestra complete with horribly out of tune tympani, and The Millennium Angelica, some new, some old, and some weird.

(Refer to Tubular Bells, Tubular Bells II, Tubular Bells III, Tubular Bells 2003, The Orchestral Tubular Bells, and The Millennium Bell to see what I’m talking about… it’s all the same album for the most part, slightly different in each incarnation.)

Anyway, there was a time, not so long ago in my adult life (or as close to “adult” as I ever get) where I did create music just for the joy of creating music.  But the 2 CDs tanked, my world collapsed, and I guess a lot of creativity got killed. I imagine that I’ve tried to awaken it, but so far it’s conspicuous in its absence.

Can it be recaptured? Not sure. But at least I’m aware of the void left behind…


Now, would you mind if I spin this a different direction that occurred to me a day or two ago as I pondered these things?

Too bad. My blog, my rules. (He said with all lovingkindness to all personkind…)

And just as with all the above ponderings, I’m asking these questions of myself. You’re welcome to climb in the coaster with me as we drop down the steep hill…

How’s your walk with Christ?

Is it something that you find pleasure in? Just hanging out with Him for the sheer joy of His company? Do you noodle around with the harmony and melody of a life of faith just because it’s wonderful to think about?

Does spending time with the Lover of your soul bring a satisfaction, an interlude of perfect beauty to your spirit? Something that happens in the moment, spontaneous, never to be re-created just that way again?

(Yes, there will be other beautiful moments, but they’ll all be different – wonderful, but not identical to this moment, this time, this place right here and right now. This is a time that will never have an identical twin.)

Do you have a Jam with Jesus session, not for a purpose, not because church is coming up on Sunday and you have to make sure your chops are ready for the gig, not because your friend is hurting and you have to bring a well-polished and poignant song of faith-as-life to reach their troubled spirit, or because the folks in your small group / Bible study / gang-around-the-water-cooler-who-know-you’re-a-Jesus-follower-and-expect-better-of-you are going to be watching, so you’d better bring your A game?

(I apologize for using the phrase “Jam with Jesus.” Sounds like something out of The Big Book Of Pithy Phrases For Your Church’s Changeable Letter Sign Or High-Tech Display Sign. *shudder*)

(And if a big ol’ sign is how your church rolls, I again apologize. Really.)

(Don’t bother looking on Amazon – The Big Book Of Pithy Phrases For Your Church’s Changeable Letter Sign Or High-Tech Display Sign doesn’t exist, as far as I know.)

(If such a book does exist, please let me know in the comments – I’m SO getting it for my Church secretary Mother-In-Law for Christmas…)

Do you dive into your walk with Christ, not for some purpose or goal, but to just spend time and see what happens? To see your life in Him as an opportunity to create beauty, or to acknowledge the beauty He creates in you?

(At some level, I think that’s one of the things that draws me to this little table at Biggby… not just to do the work that brings clarity and resolution to my mental state, but to jam, to improvise, to see what happens and where I meet Him along the path. Maybe my Jam with Jesus sessions happen right here, at a keyboard with letters instead of notes.)

(Oops – there it is again. Sorry. Refer to the section above for the expanded version of that apology.)

(I almost wrote “Oops, I did it again.” I’ve never quoted Britney Spears in this blog, and with the Father’s kindness, I never shall.)

(Oops – I almost did it… again.)

So, with whatever the Father has placed in your hands, maybe it’s time to go noodle around, play for joy, and indulge in time spent with Him.

As for me, I’ll set this keyboard aside for today. But I’ll be back tomorrow, to see what happens next. In the meantime, my head and heart and imagination will continue to play in the background, thinking of new adventures and conversation.

Hmmm… perhaps it’s time to go to my studio, take the dust cover off the keyboard that uses notes instead of letters, and play…

Just to see what happens.

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