The Hapless Musician

Tonight, I am in a band. I am only a guest musician. But the guys on stage are my friends.

It’s a great night. Bright lights are shining in my face. There are happy people in the audience. And I can’t think of many things I love more than playing music with my friends.

Bruce is on the harmonica. George is on the lap steel. Jack is on bass. Steven is on the drums. Another Stephen is on Hammond. Jerry is tearing the keys off his saxophone. Mike is playing congas. And I am playing piano.

There’s an old saying about bands. The quickest way to get the band to sound good is to shoot the piano player.

Old joke. One I’ve heard many times. But then, I’ve heard them all throughout the years.

Q: What do you call a piano player without a girlfriend?

A: Homeless.

Q: What do you throw a drowning keyboard player?

A: His amplifier.

I’ve been playing piano since age 9. The way I started playing piano was, my father bought an old spinet from the classified section.

One December afternoon, Daddy and three of his fellow ironworkers hauled the piano into our home and put the instrument into our dank basement, just beside the water heater, beneath the framed embroidery which read:

“Watch ye therefore: ye know not when the master of the house cometh.”

My father bribed his friends to help him move this piano by paying them with beer. His friends were feeling no pain. As a result, by the time the piano got to the basement, the thing looked as though it had fallen down three flights of stairs. Because, of course, it had.

But it sounded great. I was over the moon to have MY VERY OWN PIANO.

Mama asked Daddy whether he was going to buy me piano lessons. He replied, “If the boy wants to play bad enough, he’ll play.”

Because that was the old-school way. It was an “if you build it they will come” sort of mentality. Daddy supplied the piano, it was up to me to do the rest.

So I started practicing a lot. I read books from the library about how to make chords. I listened to a lot of records and tried to copy what I was hearing.

I became an ear player. At least that’s what the old timers in our church called it. This meant that I used my ears instead of written notes.

Soon, I was playing for church services each Sunday. I used no printed music. All I needed to know was which key the song was in. Then, using the miraculous power of my fine-tuned ears, I proceeded to ruin the entire church service.

Because, of course, I was a 9-year-old, and all I knew how to play was “Chopsticks,” and a dirty song my uncle taught me about the farmer’s daughter.

Often, in the middle of church service, veterinary clinic employees would make emergency calls to our church because they’d heard there was a dying cat on the premises.

But members within that little church suffered along with me until I eventually sucked less. You could say they truly believed in me. And that’s not nothing.

After my father died, I kept playing in church. But I branched out and started playing in country-western bands for cash.

Our bands played in joints with neon signs in the windows. I played in rooms so laden with smoke, all you had to do was breathe and you inhaled four packs of cigarettes.

But I loved playing music with my friends. I loved playing Hank Senior, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Merle Haggard in places so foggy you couldn’t even see your bandmates.

I loved learning the melodies of Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and of course, Ray Charles, who is the fourth figure of the R&B Trinity.

Music got me through some very hard times in my life. Music is what distracted a grieving boy whose father had passed. Music was the diversion that helped this child find joy in a sad universe.

Music has at times been my only connection to the outside world. Music has been a connection with other human beings. Music is what has linked me to beer drinkers, cigarette smokers, and hymn singers alike.

Music is what made me cry when I needed a good cry. Music is what pricked my soul, when nothing else could.

But above all, music was the last gift John Dietrich gave me before leaving this world.


  1. David in California - March 19, 2023 2:25 pm

    Music truly is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity.

    This column resonates with me (a non-musician who just loves music and who marvels at those who can play and is jealous of their ability to CREATE music). I also identify with the comfort and community aspects of music you experienced/experience. Well done!

  2. Carol Petru - March 19, 2023 9:47 pm

    Good afternoon, Sean. I’m going to call you Sean even though we’ve not been properly introduced, because I’m a grown up and I can do what I want.
    My father used to play by ear. I say “used to” because he passed away in September. He loved to play the piano. He taught himself how to play the harmonica and his sister’s accordion too. He would come home from his day job as a fighter pilot for the Missouri Air National Guard and sit down at the piano and work out all the tension of the day. He would pound out “The Green, Green Grass of Home” almost every night after his brother committed suicide. Some nights he would skip the piano and sit out on the back porch and play the accordion for the neighborhood until dark. He had music books, but rarely used them, preferring to get the key and then just taking it from there. It was said that if there was a piano in the room, he had to sit down, even if it was just for a minute, and plink out a few notes on it.
    One of the first signs we knew he was declining was when he lost interest in playing. And one of the greatest joys for my mom was when he sat down at the piano in the nursing home and played, all on his own, no prompting from anyone…. one day he just got his walker and wandered down to the dining room and got acquainted with the piano there.
    I miss him. But your story brought him back, at least for a few beats.
    God bless,
    Carol Petru
    Victoria Texas

  3. donnaworkman - April 7, 2023 12:54 pm

    And what a gift he gave you, Sean! Your gift of talent, one that you have worked hard to develop and share with the world is an inspiration to so many. Thank you for sharing.


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