I often think about how I got to where I am. Not really physically, but all encompassing - as in, one thing leads to another and another and another. If one traces back the steps in life - even the bad steps - and assuming we are sitting in a place where we have at least one thing we are proud or excited about - don't we really have to be thankful for every experience and person, who by at the very least, "social physics" propelled us into the direction that put us exactly where we are right now? More later on the less fortunate experiences that got me to this moment ...for today, I'll be writing about all good things and for good reason.
I've started this blog entry at least 4 times and scrapped the others, but dammit I'm going to finish this one. I'll do my best to keep it an easy read...haven't written much lately so I can't promise much in the way of organization and grammar. Maybe it's because it's coming up on the anniversary of his passing or maybe I just need to share this in hopes it inspires others to spread some good vibes around to those who are still with them...maybe both...either way, thanks for reading.
On January 9th, 2012 - my grandfather passed on after spending a wonderful evening surrounded by family. The guy survived a multitude of heart attacks, the first I can remember was when I was about 12 years old - he was at my baseball game...survived that one and had a couple more after that - then went through open heart surgery a few years later and chose to fight through all of that to live happily through 67 years of marriage to an old age until his organs decided they'd just had enough - he was 87 years old. That sounds a bit like a sad story as I read it back to myself...and I miss the guy like crazy, but I owe him...a lot.
When I was about 6 years old - I played for my Uncle's wedding...it was my first gig! Guess who was there to help turn pages...yep - good ol Grandpa. Super encouraging, tender hearted and even tempered...everyone I met liked the guy...never met a stranger. Here is probably my favorite photo of him...where it all started really....super pivotal time for me.
I mentioned that baseball game...my brother and I did play some sports when we were younger...baseball, basketball etc (I was pretty terrible, but I did it anyway)...not only did Grandpa toss the ball and shoot hoops at home with us, but he was at every game, every weekend. When I retired from sports to do music (around 11 yrs old) he still came to every concert when he was in town and was one of the most supportive people and best examples of a grandparent I'll likely ever know. He was that way with all of our cousins too. Aside from my parents, was probably the single most influential and "pivotal" individuals I knew in my early childhood that nurtured and supported my interest in music and me as an individual.
Grandpa was a self taught player of the organ. He had a Thomas "Lawrence Welk" solid state organ. Man - that thing had a ton of bells and whistles! Drum machine, two manuals, pedals, and it would scream when you hit the gas pedal. Grandpa sang beautifully also....even sang on the radio back in the day. His brother was a member of a nationally touring vocal quartet called "The Hearlders" and would sing with them on occasion. He was a WWII veteran and lived through an era that I would describe as historically significant in terms of music. Main reason I'm fond of that musical era - you guessed it - because of him. Before I was 10 years old he turned me on to Sinatra, Crosby, Ella - war time songs like "I'll Be Seeing You", "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and all that big band and swing music from that time - which eventually led me to jazz music, which led me to playing all the other "popular" stuff of my generation..that wasn't quite as cool, but I later found out I could get paid to play...that's another blog entry.
I was lucky enough to live next door to my grandparents - they were what we Floridians called "snow-birds". They'd be around 6 months of the year and when they were, I'd be over at their house (we had an old Thomas organ at our house too, but growing up my parents worked a lot so I had a built in audience to play for next door) - the grandparents place was always available and I'd go over to play music, though it wasn't anything formal...they'd be listening from other parts of the house...every now and then I'd get a request. Playing was always fun. "Five-Foot-Two", "Kansas City", "Try a Little Tenderness" were some of the repeat requests. I learned most of my chords from Grandpa's chord chart...which I still have.
My other favorite thing to do was to sift through Grandpa's sheet music cabinet and pull out whatever I could find...he had a TON of great music in that thing. When I was young it seemed endless...I'd discover a new tune every time I went over there. I'd sight-read through it (often poorly at first) but he'd hear it and I could hear him humming or singing a line or two from the other room as I played - I knew I was close - so I played it a few more times till I got it right and then I'd move on to another tune. It was the perfect practicing atmosphere...fun and no pressure!
I've had a few really great music teachers as well, which I'll address in another entry one day. I teach around a half dozen students a week these days - not much time as I am fortunate enough to keep a significant touring schedule.
So my point in all of this is I learned much about encouragement from Grandpa and just simply ways to approach learning - the reality is sometimes it has less to do with what you're learning and more to do with how it's all delivered. I've always tried to keep that in the back of my mind as a music educator...and really - as just a decent human. It's all about delivery.
Tom Conrad "Grandpa" was a super pivotal person for me. As an educator I often hear the phrase, "well maybe he or she will stick with it" when talking about music lessons or playing an instrument... - I was lucky enough to have Grandpa to shape and nurture my love and appreciation for music and IT - is what stuck with me. In my opinion, much of that had to do with him and how that encouragement was given - of course the music was fun too...regardless, I'll be forever grateful he was around to share all of that with me.
For the handful of people who will ever read this, I hope you'll make a point to go out and thank a pivotal person in your life soon...even if they aren't still with you..it may bring some peace into the world around you even if in a small way.
Dave LaGrande is a professional musician and composer based in Nashville, TN.