Songs in My Head

old-radioAlthough I’ve never been to L.A. International Airport, I know that it is “where the big jet engines roar.” I didn’t know I knew this until I experienced a road trip revelation. When I heard that classic country song on the radio, to my surprise I started singing along. I didn’t recall being much of a Susan Raye fan, good 1970s singer that she was, but I knew the words to her airport lamentation. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

As I sang along with Susan, no longer was I in the car, tooling down a Midwestern highway with my husband. Instead I was transported via audio back to the dairy barn of my youth. Evidently L.A. International Airport imprinted on my brain back when I used to milk cows, feed silage, and carry out other farm chores with my father and my family, all while listening to the barn radio. Whenever my dad was in the vicinity, that radio was tuned to the country music station.

Classic country music accounts for many of the songs in my head — and by classic country I mean mainly 1960s and ’70s country. It’s cow-milking music, the music of my farm-kid youth. It rattles around in my head along with ’70s rock (from when Dad wasn’t in the barn) and ’80s pop from my college years, as well as hymns and gospel music — from church and my parents’ record collection.

But most often it’s that old country music that I’ll find myself singing along to, whether I hear a song on the radio or in a random YouTube video. Sometimes a song starts playing in my mind for no reason I can discern. Then come the memories — of home and farm and family.

Once in a while, a song will trigger a memory strong enough to make me cry, as was the case with L.A. International Airport. I don’t know why that particular song affected me so. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard it in decades. Maybe when I was a kid I had liked the song more than I realized. Or possibly the repetition of the last line of the chorus — “I won’t see him anymore” — was enough to spark my tears. (My dad died 12 years ago.)

Although L.A. International Airport and the other songs in my head occasionally give rise to tears, they do not lead to sadness. Instead the songs in my head transcend space and time and reconnect me to days gone by.

Laura Sternweis


Music Lessons

studio-fenceAll that remains of my music studio is a fenced-in lot between two taverns. I’m not sure how long it’s been gone from my old hometown; I’m guessing several years at least. The location surprises me now. Back when I was 8 years old, I never noticed the drinking establishments serving as beer-sign laden bookends for what had been an unassuming brick store front. As I approached the studio each week for my piano lesson, I was focused on getting to the keyboards inside.

The front room was the show room, with an assortment of pianos and electric organs on display. If I arrived early for my piano lesson, I was allowed to plug a pair of headphones into one of the organs and play until it was time for my lesson. Then I’d head to the lesson room just beyond the show room, to show Mr. Piano Teacher how well I had learned whatever songs I’d been assigned.

I played from Robert Pace “Music for Piano” and “Skills and Drills,” as well as from “easy” piano books featuring 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s pop tunes. Mr. Piano Teacher had taught me to read music and I diligently practiced the songs as written in the books. But I preferred to play the music I heard on the radio, in church, or from my parents’ record collection. I discovered early on that I could listen to a song and then play a reasonable facsimile of it on the piano. These were the songs I learned not by notes on paper, but by ear and, as I prefer to say, by heart. And lucky for me, Mr. Piano Teacher encouraged me to build this skill.

I took lessons from him for about a year and a half. Then he moved his studio to another town. I continued my musical education with other teachers for two more years, but it wasn’t the same. The other teachers preferred their students to learn piano by book rather than by heart. By that time I knew I wasn’t that kind of student. I’d had enough of uninspiring teachers and boring drills. I still wanted to play piano, but I wanted to do it my way.

So I did then, and I still do. Besides those old pop tunes, I play classic country, gospel, 1970s Catholic folk Mass songs, polkas, and waltzes. I collect and play old sheet music, garnered on the cheap from my public library’s used book sales. And I still play the songs that I know in my heart — from the radio and church and old records.

I am not an accomplished pianist. But I’m an OK piano player. I lean more to easy Cs and Gs than multiple sharps and flats, and my song choices are decidedly low brow. Now that I think about it, the location of my music studio is not so much a surprise as it is a revelation. I consider myself lucky to have learned my music lessons between two taverns, because now I have a story to tell.

Laura Sternweis