If you have a passion that gives you pleasure, stick at it, writes Tainui Stephens. Even if you don’t become a world famous pianist or a champion athlete, it will become an expression of who you are.
I first took music seriously when I was nine. My school offered us a chance to learn a musical instrument and I chose the piano. Around the same time, I discovered the family radiogram, a piece of furniture that was both a radio and a record player. I’d curl up beside it and fall asleep listening to classical music on 3YC. I would also thrash my mother’s 45’s of ancient hits.
I loved that old La Gloria radiogram well into my teenage years. By then I’d discovered that the language of the piano enabled me to understand the languages of a wide world of music. I loved the glories of classical, jazz, prog rock, and heavy metal.
I started buying my own records, but I could never play them as loud as I wanted. As soon as the old lady heard anything louder than a sparrow’s fart, she’d shout out: “Turn that dreadful rubbish down!” I ripped out the wires from the speakers and connected them to a really long headphone extension cord that went out the lounge, into the roof, and popped out of the wall by my pillow. It was bliss.
One thing I learned from my obsession with music was that it requires an unbelievable amount of practice to get good at it. I knew I couldn’t be a top pianist because I hated scales. I jumped straight to the music, so my technical growth was slow.
And then my hormones got in the way. Colour TV was new and the sight of Agnetha and Anni-Frid of ABBA singing “Waterloo” perked my interest. It was my first taste of what I figured “hot” meant. The mega male and female rock artists of the era oozed sex appeal. In my teen need for acceptance, I turned to long hair, tie-dyed silk shirts and outrageous flares. I hung out at alternative record stores and coffee shops. On one memorable night, I met both Buddha and Led Zeppelin.
My fairly vanilla introduction to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll made me see the music I played on the piano in a different light. There was nothing cool about my small classical repertoire. Beauty, yes. But a good time? No. I stopped my piano lessons. While I was tuned into the world’s greatest recording artists, any music I played myself hurt my ears.
The era of LP records gave way to FM radio and the Sony Walkman. Portable personal sounds became a thing. I was plugged in all the way. Despite my own musical limitations, I was a sophisticated listener.
My love for music was useful in my TV and film career. I had a chance to work alongside musicians of my own choice. The first band I worked with was Herbs. They were my neighbours in Kingsland and it didn’t take long to hook up with Dilworth Karaka, Charlie Tumahai and the lads. We travelled to Ruatōria in 1987 to film the release of their stunning album Sensitive to a Smile. It was a thrill to record musicians and songwriters of such calibre.
At the same time, I met the producer of that record, Billy Kristian of Ngāi Tahu. He’s a master bass player who used to play with the Invaders and the Meteors back in the ‘60s. After 20 years gigging around the world, Billy had returned home. He also lived in Kingsland and we became good friends. We’d lurk in his home studio for hours soaking up the sounds that we needed to hear. We decided to work together.
One early project was a history of Māori in showbusiness called When the Haka Became Boogie. Billy’s own musical career started as a child playing ukulele for his parents’ dance band in Christchurch in the 1950s. That generation of Māori musicians led directly to the glorious Māori showband era. Groups like the Hi Fives, the Quintikis, and the Māori Volcanics became world famous for their effortless musicality and cheeky entertainment.
I could see that Billy’s musicianship came from a different place from mine. He had near perfect pitch and had learned to play by ear. My music came off the page. It was great to be able to read music, but Billy couldn’t do that. This was common to most of the great Māori musos I got to know. I envied their natural musicality.
Our first live music project was a short series called Why Stay Home Friday Nite? It featured the popular Rotorua band Cairo. The band members — Richard Anaru, Rob Patterson, Ernie Semu and Micky Ututaonga — were superb musicians.
As I watched them in rehearsal and then filmed them in performance, their incredible musical chops turned me into a jealous man. After that, we shot the soul-jazz band 358’s at Ponsonby’s Gluepot Hotel. Again, the musical skill and sheer taste of Denys Mason, Lance Su’a, Darren Ormsby and Paul Ewing had me floating on clouds of joy. We filmed many great gigs at the Gluepot with the very best of Māori artists from the Quintiki’s to Moana and the Moahunters.
Through all these years, I stayed away from my piano — until we filmed the band Southside of Bombay in concert. These awesome Wellington musicians were led by Kevin Hodges and fronted by Hareruia Aperahama.
One of their epic songs riffed on the lyric “living in your own buzz”, and it stuck in my mind in a musical way. I realised that I could never be a musician like these men and women who had the skills and experiences that I didn’t. I’d also been with enough musicians to know that they’re not superhumans. They’re ordinary and extraordinary human beings in their own way, like each of us.
I accepted that my own buzz was classical music. I shouldn’t be embarrassed by it, but rather embrace and explore it. So, I did. I bought a small upright piano and started playing once again. Because I’d always been a good listener of music, I could hear myself properly, and knew to correct myself. And because I now had many more life experiences under my belt, I understood the sounds of emotion.
I then reached out to New Zealand’s great classical pianist Michael Houstoun. In the ‘70s, I’d seen him perform the Chopin preludes in the brand-new Christchurch Town Hall. He’d worn long hair and flares too. And my God he could play! Over the years, I’d followed his stellar career and, in 1994, he agreed to work with me. We became close. We share and adore the same western musical whakapapa. Michael teaches me to understand the notes on the page with discipline, honesty, and love.
Our documentary Icon in B Minor was my ultimate fantasy as a filmmaker and wannabe keyboard artist. We travelled to Germany to explore the story of Franz Liszt, arguably the greatest pianist in history.
We filmed Michael at Liszt’s home in Weimar, the Hofgärtnerei. From 1869 to 1886, the ageing Liszt had trained generations of virtuoso musicians there. The maestro’s study was in its original state and his Bechstein grand piano was surrounded by a thin rope to keep out nosy tourists and their grubby mitts.
At one point, our assigned security man went for a break, so I jumped the rope and sat at the master’s piano. I had no idea what to play. I dared not offend the ghosts of Franz Liszt and a select handful of his best students who shimmered and sat in comfy seats awaiting the dubious fruits of my gall. I decided to play just one note: the final note of Liszt’s B minor sonata. It’s the conclusion to the masterpiece that Michael would soon perform for our cameras back in New Zealand.
The note is the lowest B.
I sat and breathed in every fragrance of that room and moment. My eyes devoured every detail of this wondrous tūpuna instrument. I was on my own. The crew had gone for a break. Perfect. I didn’t want to touch the piano in any other way. The only satisfaction I needed was to press a single key, very quietly. I raised my left arm, lowered it, and played that B.
Aargh! Wrong B! I hit the wrong bloody B. I couldn’t believe it. All I had to do in this chance of a lifetime was to play one note, and I stuffed it up. I felt so unworthy in the spooky presence of the master, so I slunk outside to have a smoke. The ghosts had the courtesy to turn the other way as if I was a wisp of nothing.
In his book The Twilight of the Idols, philosopher Friedrich Nietsche wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” We Māori also know that a musical life is no mistake, because as some of Billy’s Ngāi Tahu tūpuna once said: Nā te pō, ko te ao, ko te waiatatia o te Atua. In the beginning, God sang the world into existence.
It’s nearly 30 years since I hit that wrong note. I’m still hitting plenty of wrong notes, but now I get a lot of them right. And when there is beauty, I feel it to be an expression of my reo, my voice. I’m bringing my own little world into existence.
I will never stride the stage as my maestro mates Billy and Michael do. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate my own touch of the piano keys. I learn and I play every day. I’m my only audience, and that’s a big enough crowd for me.
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