When I was eight years old, George Shearing and his trio played on the Community Concert Series in Havre, Montana. Friends of my parents, Verlyn and Jackie Stahlecker, took me to the concert. This event was my very first concert experience and from that moment on, I wanted to be on stage.
The fact that Shearing was blind and could play the piano did not make a big impression on me; his playing, however, did.
After the first piece, I was transfixed; I wanted more than anything to be in a jazz trio. I found the music the trio played thrilling, and their improvising on the melodies - fascinating. I thought the string bass was so cool and loved the bass solo moments with the hushed piano chords -- and, of course, being out at night without my parents...Intoxicating!
My favorite piece from that concert was "Lullaby of Birdland", which happens to be Shearing's most famous composition. I learned to play the piece in high school, and even today I can still play and improvise over the chords in spite of my faulty memory.
Once under Shearing influence, I began to improvise on my "classical" tunes. I became very proficient at improvising in various classical styles, so much so that my Mother could not tell if I was playing what was in a score or improvising on it. She called my ramblings "Melissa-isms" and would yell up from the basement at me as I practiced: "Now, is that Mozart or a Melissa-ism?"
I would never tell.
I had a good ear, but the teaching methods of my day considered the ability to read music so critical that no one was ever allowed to play a melody for me, for fear of my not learning to read. This was quite traumatic for me, and almost ended my music career before it began.
But I did learn to read music, and then rarely played by ear. Later, sightreading became very important for me, as my first music job (at age 10) was to play for the children's choir at church. Choir pianists are forever sightreading, so I was forced to focus on that, while my ear training suffered. I think as a consequence, my ability to memorize music was compromised. Of course, playing by ear has been pretty much out of the question.
Luckily, though, all of that "improvising" in the style of various composers helped me whenever I would have a memory slip (and I always did, and still do slip whenever playing from memory). I've gotten myself out of many a trouble spot my improvising a measure or two until I could find my way back into the score. At first this impressed my teachers, but later they would be very angry with me when I would "get away with improvising" through memory slips.
Nowadays, I always play with music -- even when I have a piece memorized. I no longer want to improvise my way through memory slips, and the presence of a score calms my nerves so I can play with greater musicality and accuracy.
Regardless, thank you, George Shearing - sensational piano icon - for making a lasting impression on me and for being such a great artist. I'll never forget you.
Here's a link to a wonderful interview with Shearing. Also a link to the NPR tribute and Terry Gross' Fresh Air remembrance.
Go to Dailymotion.com for a great video of Shearing playing "Lullaby of Birdland". There will be a few short advertisements, but persevere. Other Shearing videos are on this site as well.