I started learning to play keyboards, by ear, when I was about 16 years old, back in ’65. The Beatles and the British “invasion” had broken like a tsunami over our culture, and the world – especially the world of youth – had gone mad for music. Well… actually, it had gone mad for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And being 16, so had I.

I’d started out playing guitar with a group of friends in their garage. Yes… a true “garage” band. But the guitar my Dad had gotten me was such a hideous thing, impossible for anyone to play, that I decided to switch to keyboards.  I had never taken lessons, and after Mom and Dad divorced, we had no money for them. So after Mom was kind enough to buy me a cheap organ, I just sat down and began to listen to my favorite songs, figuring out notes and chord structures on my own. From the get-go, I learned to play “by ear”.

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Somebody somewhere said something like, “The wisdom of the self taught is heavy and ponderous.” There may be something to that. In any case, if one does not learn to play properly – using the right fingering techniques, and learning music theory – one will in fact be limited, more or less, in various ways. Just as with typing, if you don’t learn five-finger typing on each hand, and the “correct” way to place and move your fingers, you’ll be hobbled, later on, in the speed of your typing. Yes, there are self-taught typists who are awfully fast. But I’ll bet you $5 they’d be faster, still, if they’d learned to type properly. But for good or ill, out of necessity, I learned to play by ear.

Playing by ear, you learn to feel, as much as think. I learned the unique “feeling” of the various chords, and the three different ways that a single chord could be played, each one producing a different tonal, energetic, and “emotional” emphasis. And from the beginning, I became enamored with the chordal backgrounds upon which melodies played. Naturally, years later, when I first heard the droning background of Indian ragas, I was simply enraptured.

Within just a year or so, I was playing with a band three nights a week at a “teen” night club. They had teen clubs, back in those days. With the world gone mad for music, some businessman got the bright idea of creating a teen nightclub that served only softdrinks, but was otherwise every bit the nightclub. That first club was an amazing place; a full-blown replica of a dazzling Roaring 20’s speakeasy, that had formerly been an adult club. This was my good fortune, and my introduction, perhaps misleading, into my musical career; a career which naturally sometimes included venues of a “less dazzling” nature.

As fate would have it, I would go on to play professionally for 15 years. The wave just carried me, right up to the shores of 1980. And in that whole time, I never learned to read music, to play properly, or the science of music theory. But over the years, as I progressed from thinking about what I was playing to simply playing, and then on to spontaneous improvisation, I moved from playing by ear, to playing by Heart.

Throughout my career, I saw every manner of musician. There were dazzling technicians who lacked Heart. There were a very few dazzling technicians who had Heart, as well. And there were Heart-filled players who were unschooled and were, in varying degrees, limited in their technical skills. Every band I was in, was a mix of these types. And each member was appreciated for the unique gift they brought. But I must say, the “highest” moments in my musical life occurred with players who had more Heart than skill.

And the highest moment of my musical life – a moment that to this day, I don’t understand – came near the end of my musical career, in 1979. I was in the finest band of my career, playing in the finest club I’d every played, to audiences that often peaked over 300, even on weeknights.

One of the guitarists in that band, Richie, was a fine technician, and a man of Heart, as well. We had played together in several bands, and got on very well. But for reasons I never understood, out of nowhere, it seemed, Richie suddenly became upset with me because of my lack of schooling. There were other players in the band who lacked schooling, and he wasn’t upset with them. But for some reason, I became a great frustration for him.

He wasn’t critical of my playing, at all. I’d become quite accomplished. And it wasn’t my ability to learn songs – I could play any song, just by hearing it. Finally, in a strained discussion one day, with Richie on the brink of actual anger, he said it was because of how good I had become, just playing by Heart, that he was so frustrated by my not fulfilling my potential. I could be so much better a player if I only studied. As it turns out, it was all because he cared.

The situation became so tense that he actually quit talking to me, and avoided me during practices. I’m sure everyone felt this to be a bit odd. After all, as I said, there were other players in the band who weren’t schooled. What was up between Richie and Chuck?

In all those many years, there had been highs and lows in the quality of my playing, and in my experience and enjoyment of playing. Just like spiritual seekers, every musician I knew lived for the high moments, when all factors of the experience of playing came together in rare harmony: the best aspects of our own playing, the right environment, the quality of the other players, the audience, and of course… the song.

It happened one day at practice, in an empty club, with just the band present, on a sweltering Tucson afternoon, with Richie still angry with me, not speaking to me, and the tension palpable.

My favorite song at that time was an original, written by one of the band members who, like me, had more Heart than knowledge. As we played Billy’s song… I can’t express what happened. My Heart and Mind, my Whole Being vanished into the musical expression of Longing. As I played, I found myself in tears, my whole being crying. And when it came time for my solo, which I always improvised in the moment… the distilled essence of the Heart’s Longing poured forth in every note.

In the silence at the end of the song, I simply sat there, embarrassed to turn around, for fear my friends would see my tears. My Heart was Radiant with the afterglow of that Pure Expression.

Sitting there… I felt something touch my arm, lightly. I turned slightly… and it was Richie standing there, so close behind me… crying. He had been there the whole time, watching, having walked over during the outpouring. His mind may have been watching my fingers… but his Heart had broken in that rare expression of Longing.

I confess, my spiritual life has been like my musical life. For I did not spend the duration with any single tradition, but followed my Heart where it led me. I’m sure that  there are friends who feel – just as Richie felt about music – that if I had submitted myself to formal spiritual training under a guru from an ancient lineage, I would have had a better understanding of all that unfolded along the way, been less confused and troubled by it all, be better able to understand and express my current Experience of Being, and most importantly, be better able to help others.

But I really don’t think so. For I consider the lack of understanding along the way, the confusions, and the difficulty expressing what cannot be expressed, all to be have been Great Teachings, and Great Blessings. To change Ramakrishna’s phrase only slightly, “So many natures, so many paths to God.”

Alas, for good or ill, I learned to live by Heart, to the detriment, perhaps, of intellectual understanding. Although – and I don’t say this as an excuse, or qualification – there is a certain Wisdom, a certain Knowledge, an “Understanding” that has nothing to do with comprehending it all, with knowing what is what and how it all relates, with where you are now, and how far you have to go, and what you need to do, and what you need to stop doing, and who you should learn it from.

In any case, things are as they are, and I have immeasurable gratitude for being exactly as I am; simple minded, unschooled, and Living by Heart. And I have no concerns about being able to “communicate” this Heart, for still… friends come to tears, as do I. Through whatever unique and circuitous path it came about…

The Ancient Pain, the Great Suffering, “Chuck” is gone.
And with him vanished all grasping after,
All movement to and from
In the Heart of Being.
Stillness Only.


Forgive me, my schooled friends,
I make no excuses, and offer no apologies.
I’m too drunk, lazy, and stupid to study,
And can’t lift myself up.
In the arms of Bliss.

Chuck Surface

Please be sure to visitVisit Chuck’s website.

Chuck Surface remembers the path from playing by ear, to Playing by Heart.     “Forgive me, my schooled friends.    I make no excuses, and offer no apologies.   I’m too drunk, lazy, and stupid,   And can’t lift myself up and study.   Here… in the arms of Bliss.”     Click here to join Chuck in words written from the Heart.

Post and Featured Image Credit: (edited), Fractal Heart, by geralt, Public Domain



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