Can You Play It Backwards?

Funny little anecdote about Zappa’s typical way of dealing with musicians. Act one goes like this:

Just to be sure that Mr. Piano had a fair chance at the reading part of the audition, Frank gave him 2 pieces of music to work on a week before the audition was to take place. One of these pieces is called “The Black Page” which was pretty dense with notes and a real challenge to play. Challenge enough that Mr. Piano kind of gave up learning it as precisely as needed and decided he was good enough to wing it during the audition instead.

Fatal mistake #1! Keep reading for a nice twist at the end.

(Via Paul Carr)

16 Responses to “Can You Play It Backwards?”

  1. Hugh says:

    Now we know why Ike prefers overalls.
    I love the audition stories. Keep them coming.

  2. Matt says:

    He’s got some details way wrong on the Ike story:

    http://www.alternatemusicpress.com/features/ike_willis.html

  3. Kevin Hoover says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but what’s the point of tormenting this guy with useless acrobatics? Is this an audition or some kind of ego showdown/humiliation exercise.

    Since the guy got Ike’s story so wrong (maybe mixed him up with someone else?) I kind of doubt the rest of it as well.

  4. Thinman says:

    [quote comment=”8571″]Maybe I’m missing something, but what’s the point of tormenting this guy with useless acrobatics? Is this an audition or some kind of ego showdown/humiliation exercise.

    Since the guy got Ike’s story so wrong (maybe mixed him up with someone else?) I kind of doubt the rest of it as well.[/quote]

    That is exactly what I was thinking.

    Th.

  5. Thinman says:

    … and if this story is true (and other audition stories): there is no need to glorify all of Frank’s methods.

    Th.

  6. Jamez says:

    [quote comment=”8563″]He’s got some details way wrong on the Ike story:

    http://www.alternatemusicpress.com/features/ike_willis.html%5B/quote%5D

    I thought so, I never thought Ike was a janitor – he was at college!

  7. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    What matters in this anecdote is not the Ike Willis audition (kind of badly researched indeed, though it does capture the essence), as much as the “Mr Piano Guy” story which is a first hand account — Mr Piano Guy was/is a friend of the author.

    Also (thinman): who’s glorifying FZ’s audition methods? We’re merely presenting them “as is”…

  8. Thinman says:

    @Barry’s Imaginary Publisher: not we or you but somebody sometimes ;-).

    What I appreciate the most about this site is that a more critical discussion about all things Zappa is possible here. Despite – or because of – the fact that I am nevertheless a hardcore FZ-fanatic.

    Th.

  9. urbangraffito says:

    This isn’t the first time that I’ve come across second or third parties attempting to tell a Zappa tale which makes FZ out to be a rabid maniacal egomaniac, and discredit members of FZ’s band. I recall some time ago a poster attempting to sling mud at Ike Willis’ personal life by suggesting his chronic use of crack cocaine. I’m of the interpretation that as long as a comment has some education value, it belongs here at KUR, but sheer misinformation or downright gossip does not.

    What does the Webmaster say, sir Barry?

  10. Bálint says:

    It might be a story that is close to reality, but (maybe) told several times, and thus altered a “bit”.
    Steve Vai tells his audition story, and he also mentions things that are a bit similar:

    “He was really grilling me: he picked up his guitar and played something and asked me to mimic it at a specific tempo. Then he asked me to play it in 7/8, which I did. Then he said, “Now play it in 7/8, reggae style”, and I did it. And he said, “Now add this,” and I looked at him and said, “I can’t—that’s impossible.” Because it was! And he said, “Well, I hear Linda Ronstadt is looking for a guitar player!” [laughs]
    Mike Keneally: You were just a prop for Frank’s stand-up comedy act!
    Steve Vai Yeah! But it was just part of the test. “

    But: these “test” were mostly musical, and not stupid things like “without the thumbs” or something that is TOTALLY against the person. So I tend to think that the main story is true, but the details migh have changed.
    (It’s also interesting to read Napoleon’s or Adrian Belew’s sstory – there we see a REALLY kind FZ, a friend.)

  11. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    [quote comment=”8591″]I’m of the interpretation that as long as a comment has some education value, it belongs here at KUR, but sheer misinformation or downright gossip does not.

    What does the Webmaster say, sir Barry?[/quote]
    Well the webmaster’s out to lunch, but I’ll throw in my two cents. Sheer misinformation (in comments) can be funny at times, given the fact that the clever people who read this site will point out the errata almost instantly — a harmless phenomenon. Downright gossip: depends what type of “gossip” we’re talking about. If we’re talking about a possible new release or some such: let the rumours roll! If a comment picks into a person’s personal life: not so good. Even then, I trust KUR’s readership to chime the bells of decency instantly. Because you people are cool like that. 🙂

  12. Birdman! says:

    Asking a keyboardist to play something without thumbs is a legit test of dexterity. Here’s an excerpt from program notes for Debussy’s Twelve Etudes:
    No. 6, Pour les huit doigts. The pianist is directed to perform this eight-finger exercise without using the thumbs—but we are reminded that Debussy specifically eschewed the idea of providing fingerings, and how this freedom may or may not affect the no-thumbs directive is left entirely to the discretion of the individual performer

    Also, seeing where a person fails when given an impossible task and there attitude about being asked to do something impossible is exactly the kind of information you want to get owhen auditioning someone, especially if you’re hiring them to play difficult music.

  13. Harmonika Savingsbonds says:

    Oh, Frank.

    I was listening to Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention while all my peers were fascinated with something called the Beatles, whoever they were.

    I miss Frank more than I could ever imagine.

  14. urbangraffito says:

    I think it’s easy for people to forget that Zappa was a self taught composer and musician (particularly in world of Music Schools such as Berkelee, for instance). I think he enjoyed revealing where other’s education came up short, and how the same music school curriculum feeds arrogance and not creativity.

  15. jonnybutter says:

    [quote post=”2886″]Asking a keyboardist to play something without thumbs is a legit test of dexterity. Here’s an excerpt from program notes for Debussy’s Twelve Etudes:[/quote]

    I don’t agree that it’s a particularly good test of dexterity (I’m a pianist/teacher). Debussy’s instructions on that piece doesn’t really prove anything. And further more, Debussy was famous for being a pretty bad pianist. There is even a recording of him butchering one of his own pieces. That’s not at all a reflection on his ability as a composer.

    Claude was being feline, and Frank was putting someone who had ‘been to the Berkeley School’ in his place.

    Interestingly, before Bach’s time, keyboardists mostly didn’t use the thumbs. Obviously Bach (among others) thought that was stupid, because…well, try playing a Bach fugue without thumbs!

  16. Sterbus says:

    “Let me see your thumb”, as we’re about to listen again this christmas (this comment wins the best KUR Conceptual Continuity Prize for 2009)

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