Discovering Our Hidden Musical Potential

Isn’t it magical when we see someone go way beyond their usual, everyday ability? We’ve all seen instances of this, such as a quarterback who throws the football farther than ever before to win the big game. Or a speaker who steps in at the last minute and ends up giving the most exciting presentation of her life.

The common thread between these moments is that they usually occur in public, and when the “pressure” is on. In other words, they happen in those very situations we try to avoid at all costs! But when we need to, we sometimes “rise to the occasion” by performing way above our usual level. We’ve had the capacity all along, but it sometimes takes extraordinary circumstances to tap into our hidden potential.

For myself, I remember one of these times very well. One day in the late 1990s, I was asked to play piano at a dance rehearsal in downtown New York City. No other details were given. Just show up Monday morning at 10:00am at a certain rehearsal studio and play piano for the dancers. The gig would last for two weeks.

So on Monday morning I arrive at the studio to find the legendary dancer Gwen Verdon, then in her 70’s, directing eighteen of NYC’s finest dancers in a rehearsal for the Broadway show Fosse. (I found out the show’s name later, during lunch.) I had met Ms. Verdon once before, at a party, and for some reason she liked me. I’m not sure why she instantly liked me so much, but it turned out to be a good thing for me that day!

So I go to the piano and sit down (remember, I’m not a Fosse expert and hadn’t been told the name of the show). Gwen turns to me, in front of everyone, and asks if I know the song Magic To Do, from Pippen. It’s not a song I play every day and while I could remember it well enough to get through it, she clearly had a specific arrangement in mind from the show, and they didn’t have any sheet music. I shook my head “no” and she said “no problem,” and disappeared out the door. She returned a moment later with another pianist who had been down the hall playing auditions for Ragtime, which was about to open on Broadway for the first time. He played Magic To Do for me once, in front of everybody, and to my astonishment, it felt like every note he played was firmly imprinted on my brain. I generally pick things up pretty easily, but this was something altogether different. It was as if every note was in vivid color which I could recall at will, down to the smallest detail.

Gwen looked at me and asked, “got it?” I nodded, the pianist scurried back to his rehearsal, and Verdon started choreographing, showing each dancer precisely where to step. This continued for about an hour, and I started writing down the musical arrangement, which was growing more complicated by the minute. Before she finished with Magic To Do, Ms. Verdon abruptly turned to me and asked, “Do you know Big Noise From Winetka?” I now know that this was a big hit during the big band era, but at that time I hadn’t the faintest clue what she was talking about. And again, no sheet music. But one of the dancers came to the rescue and played the jazzy instrumental on a cassette tape, once again in front of everyone. I don’t know what latent faculties kicked in, but I instantly knew every single note and rhythm on that recording and could play it flawlessly, in the correct key, the first time.

So she starts teaching the dance steps for Big Noise. I start writing the music down while Verdon decides to alternate between the 2 songs. Somehow I manage to not get too confused by all this and I write out charts for both songs until, 3 hours later, Gwen decides we’ve had enough and leaves for a lunch appointment.

I have no idea how that happened! Yes, I was under pressure to get things right quickly, and I was able to remain calm, relaxed and focused. Perhaps this is the magic formula for this to happen, the same as it occurs in sports. You can’t plan these things, and you certainly can’t predict when they will happen. But what we can do is to work hard all the time, develop our skills the best we can, and enjoy the fruits of our labors, whenever and wherever they occur.

Thank you, Gwen Verdon, for bringing out the very best in me!

Here are a few easy video lessons to get you started improvising: Free Beginning Piano Improv Lessons

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