Once I decided to do it, I learned how to accompany myself on guitar pretty quickly, probably because I had been making music my entire life. I seemed to have taken in Paul’s style of playing more than I realized, though I was nowhere near his skill level. At first, I saw the guitar as a means to back up my voice and had no ambitions beyond that. I learned a few chords and did my best, but it never felt second nature to me the way singing is. I was constantly struggling between being impatient and not interested in putting a lot of time into learning to play well. I regret that now that so much time has gone by. I felt a little lost. I was starting a whole new life with both my relationship and my music.
I did a few solo shows and kept up with my writing. At one point, I bought the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and started keeping what she calls “morning pages.” It’s a process that involves writing three full pages first thing every morning with no editing or even re-reading them. It’s a way of jump starting your creativity, and it worked for me. Not long after that, I started writing more songs and soon decided that I no longer wanted to teach at The Free School but wanted to live my life as a musician, even if that meant also teaching music. I just wanted to be immersed in the thing I love the most, so I gave my notice. Friends asked me if I had a plan. I didn’t. I knew that if I trusted enough, the universe to provide the answer. Sure enough, a few weeks before my job was ending, I applied for a job teaching music at a preschool and got it. Then a few more music lessons came through and another preschool job. A variety of opportunities came my way once I was open to them. I transcribed music and transposed songs on a software program for a music publisher for about eight years, and in doing so learned to transcribe and print my own music as well.
It didn’t take long for me to start booking shows with Dick Kavanaugh. He and I played together every day anyway. We tried to think of a clever name for our first show and finally settled on Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh. We thought at first that it would be a temporary name, but everyone loved it and commented on it frequently. Telling everyone that we were romantic and musical partners who just happened to have the same name became part of our intro. It makes me laugh to think that there we were trying to be clever and didn’t see the obvious cleverness right in front of us. We played Irish and Old-Time tunes, traditional folk songs, some blues and more recent folk. But, once again, I had to fight for my own music. He thought it was too complex and thoughtful. He wanted things that were definitely in the folk tradition, and I was coming out of rock & roll. I didn’t give up, though. I insisted that I do some of my own songs whether he joined in or not, so he sometimes sat out part of a set.
Dick was an electrician who was great at his job but hated doing it. He was always angry on the job, usually taking it out on himself. After I made my big job change, he started looking at alternatives for himself and got a job delivering blood from Albany to Syracuse for the Red Cross. He worked evenings so, when Austin was with his dad, I often went along for the ride. One night, Dick brought along his mandolin, handed it to me and asked me to serenade him. I told him that I had never even held a mandolin and had no idea how to play it. He insisted that I was talented enough, with music in my blood, to figure it out. I tentatively tried guitar chords and realized that wasn’t working, so I played one string at a time finding a note that worked until I had a full chord. I just made it up as I went along. It was so much fun. Once I had three chords, I started playing songs. After that, I played the mandolin whenever I was a passenger and soon started writing tunes. Once again, I didn’t take it seriously enough to really learn the basics but just taught myself and stumbled along.
I have written many times before about how brutally shy I was. People who aren’t shy don’t really understand. The term “painfully shy” is not an exaggeration. I have experienced severe physical pain when having to confront someone, even in a friendly way. All of my music career, I had been a singer but never a front person. As long as I was singing, I was always fine. If I had to speak, it was a whole other story. I just couldn’t do it. I was even quite awkward at parties or other social events with people I didn’t yet know. Dick spent a lot of time trying to coach me. He even gave me scripts for what to say at a party to engage someone in conversation, but I always fell flat. Maybe it was because I tried too hard, or maybe something else, but it was discouraging and just made matters worse. I thought I was happy to sit in a corner and watch the world go by. I was definitely happy to let Dick do all of the talking during our shows and we had a lot of shows. We played everywhere, coffee houses and cafes, bars, small festivals, farmers markets, parties, galleries, churches, libraries, schools, you name it, we did it.
Then one night, Dick was introducing one of the songs and asked me a question. I was stunned. He wasn’t supposed to engage me. I was there to make music and nothing else. I started to sweat and shake. He just reached over and took my hand, gazing at me lovingly, and I answered him while looking at him instead of the audience. I don’t remember what else I said, but I’ve been told that I can be funny, and everyone laughed at what I said. I felt like a light suddenly turned on. Maybe I could decide to be engaging or even funny on purpose. It wasn’t easy, but I kept at it until it became part of the performance. Now, I was not just a singer and songwriter, I was becoming a performer. Dick taught me to include some of my stories in the shows. He taught me the importance of connecting with the audience personally by sharing my life but also by meeting them during the intermissions, thanking them for coming to the shows. Eventually, I was able to translate this to social situations, too. I was still shy but not terrified any more.
We had moved in together into a two-bedroom apartment in the Mansion neighborhood of Albany. It was just behind The Free School. Now, I was finally able to have my much-loved piano. This was the instrument I’d learned to play on. I have had a long and arduous history with this instrument. When I was nine-years old, I was offered music lessons in school. I chose violin. My parents got me the loan of a full-sized violin from a family friend. It was way too big for me, but I was determined to learn. I played “Hot Cross Buns” and “This Old Man” for weeks, squealing and squeaking my way through them, pleased that I could scratch out a tune. My teacher was encouraging, telling me that I was making good progress, but it drove my parents crazy. After a week, they banished me to the dirty, dingy basement/garage. My dad and brother constantly teased me until I finally quit my lessons, giving up violin completely.
One day, I overheard my mom and dad talking about a piano they’d been offered. It was free if they came and got it. I ran into the room, literally got down on my knees and begged them to take it. I wanted to learn to play an instrument. They kept reminding me that I had given up on the violin while I kept on crying and pleading with them. I wanted this more than anything. I finally agreed that I would not give it up and would practice every day for one hour. It is an upright grand piano built in 1888. It is a beautiful instrument that has a gorgeous tone and always stays in tune with itself. I have had many tuners and other musicians eager to buy it from me. With help from a few friends and a friend’s truck, my dad brought home what would soon become my best friend. I took lessons through high school and beyond, learning classical music and playing blues and modern music on my own. During high school, when I was relentlessly bullied, it was my salvation. I played for hours at a time, losing myself in another world and forgetting how horrible my life was turning out to be. When I moved out, it got stored in that dingy dirty basement without even a cover, but my family did move it from Connecticut to Upstate New York with them. When I moved to Albany, my mom told me that unless I took the piano, she was going to sell it. She was no longer willing to store it. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing this important piece of me, so I found a friend who wanted piano lessons for her children in exchange for housing my piano. Now it was time for me to take it back. She was sad to let it go.
I hired professional piano movers because I knew it would be tricky to get it inside our apartment. I watched how they managed it carefully, so that when it came time to move it again, I would know how to do it. And, thanks to many friends over the years, it has been moved without harm too many times to count. It was fascinating watching them tip it on the side with the keys going vertically instead of horizontal. They were able to round the sharp corners with ease. Now I was able to give piano lessons in my own home instead of traveling to other people’s homes. I also played classical music again and wrote songs on the piano. I still use keyboard as a tool for writing or learning difficult things but rarely play just for pleasure. Word of mouth took over, and soon I was giving more piano lessons than ever, and now I had added voice training, too. I signed up for a series of classes on being an artist educator, started creating programs for schools and libraries while continuing book to shows regionally for Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh. My new music career was well on its way.
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