When I was packing away those books from yesterday, I found this one, The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons From Extraordinary Lives, written by Katie Couric. I bought this one last summer, too, in Mackinaw City. I like how there are different sections, such as about happiness, hard work, mentors and commitment. This passage stuck out to me, and reminded me of my mentor, which I wrote about at the bottom of this post.
Open the Door and Let the Light In
By Billy Joel
I started taking piano lessons at the age of five, and I loved it. I loved music, singing, and playing the piano. In 1964, when I was fourteen, I joined a band. It was the same time the Beatles came out. I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show and had an epiphany: That's what I want to do.
The trouble was, I had no idea how to do it, or whether it was even possible.
The grew up in a blue-collar town called Hicksville, Long Island, which was basically a junction on the Long Island Rail Road line between the North Shore and the South Shore in Nassau County. It was close to Levittown, a big postwar housing development where all the GIs bought homes. They could put forty dollars down and buy a house.
People in my town didn't become movie stars or musicians. they went into the service, or they got jobs working in defense industries or whatever work they could find locally. I didn't know anyone who was in the entertainment industry. The other guys in my band had plans to go to college or work or into the service. Nobody had a plan to continue as a musician, so I had no one I could talk to, and I was a bit stymied.
My mother knew I loved music and she was very supportive of my efforts in the band, but she was concerned I wouldn't be able to make a living. Most parents would be. Being a musician is kind of like walking on a high wire without a safety net. If you fall, there's nowhere to land except the hard ground.
But my chorus teacher, Chuck Arnold, changed everything for me.
It was my sophomore year. I used to cut class to go to the auditorium and play the big grand piano they had on the stage. The auditorium was rarely used--just for assemblies and theatrical productions--so I pretty much had it to myself.
Little did I know that Mr. Arnold, teaching nearby, overheard me playing the piano.
Now, I was kind of faking the pieces I was playing. I took lessons from age five to about sixteen, but I didn't really know how to read music very well. I was playing by ear. I would fake Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Chopin on the piano for my own amusement.
It beat the crap out of going to class.
One day, Chuck Arnold opened the door and poked his head in when I was playing.
'You know, I'm supposed to report you for cutting class, but I gotta tell you, your piano playing is a sign of great talent,' he said.
He told me I wasn't really playing the pieces correctly, but he knew I was getting the essence of them just by ear. I guess there's a certain degree of difficulty in doing that.
At first, I thanked him for not reporting me. But then I told him I really wanted to be able to make a life in music, however, other than becoming a teacher, I didn't know how to do it.
He told me I should seriously consider becoming a professional musician.
This was a eureka moment because no adult had ever said anything like that to me. I had a great deal of respect for this teacher. He really knew his stuff. I took that advice to heart and made the decision right at that moment: 'That's what I'm going to do.'
Prior to that, I had only been given bad advice: 'Don't go there,' or 'You'll never make it. You'll get your head lopped off. You'll fail, and you'l fall.' There were thousands of naysayers, but that one piece of advice, that once adviser, opened the door and let the light in. It changed my life.
I dedicated my first album to Chuck Arnold.
He now lives in Colorado, but we had a reunion of sorts back in 1989. On my album Storm Front there's a song called 'Leningrad.' I needed a Russian chorus to sing a Russian melody, so I contacted Chuck Arnold and asked him if he would consider directing a choral piece with the high school chorus. He agreed to, and brought them to a recording studio in New York City. They are on the recording of 'Leningrad.'
I'm not sure if I ever told Chuck Arnold how important he was to me. I don't know that I ever put it in so many words. I might have said 'Thanks for the advice' back in the day, but I don't know if he really understands how much that advice meant to me.
Today, if a young person asked for my advice, I would say, 'Follow your dream.' It's really the advice Mr. Arnold gave to me. If you don't follow your passion, you're not living the life the way you should. As difficult and impossible the odds may seem, if you're not doing what you love, you're wasting your time.
I have a job that I love and really haven't worked a day in my life because of it. There's a great deal of effort that goes into it, of course. It's not easy.
But the love gets you through.
When I was in 8th grade, one of my favorite school years, I had this awesome writing teacher, Mrs. Geyso. She was bubbly and funny and just the right amount of hyper. She collected pens of all sorts. She was my favorite teacher, my mentor, and what Chuck Arnold was to Billy Joel, but of course, I didn't know it at the time.
Mrs. Geyso had us write a couple of pages in our journals each week. She would read them, or not, if you didn't want her to. I always had her read my entries.
The amount of pages we had to write wasn't much, maybe five or ten pages. But I always wrote more. I would write up to 20 pages or more each week! They would be pointless writings, of course. Nothing life-changing. They were silly. Just observations, dreams, and ideas. I never thought anything would come of it. I enjoyed writing, but I was only 14, I mean, like there was no way I was actually good at writing!
During one of the parent-teacher-student conferences during my 8th grade year, my parents and I sat down with all of my teachers in one of the empty classrooms. My science teacher, Mr. Gesteland, was there, and my reading teacher, Mrs. Henry, was there, along with others. They all went over how I was doing in each of their classes, and when it was Mrs. Geyso's turn, she presented my colorful journal and told my parents I had a talent for writing. I had a talent!
Her comment changed everything I thought about who I was and why I loved to write. My favorite teacher told me I had a talent?! Well that must be true, then! I looked up to Mrs. Geyso so much. She made writing seem so fun and easy. From then on, I kept a journal. I have dozens of journals sitting on the shelf at my parent's house getting dusty. I look back at them from time to time, and I always laugh at what my former self had to say about life back then.
My Chuck Arnold was Mrs. Geyso. I remember that conference almost a decade later and can still feel the empowerment and encouragement from my teachers and parents. I have her to thank for my passion for writing.