Confessions Of A Sheet Music Salesman

Readers may be surprised to learn this, but searching for YouTube videos to mock and talking about Goth bands does not exactly pay for the finer things in life. So six days a week, Rocks Off - or at least the Rocks Off writer with only one "f" in his name - sells sheet music to the next generation of virtuosi at RBC Sheet Music on Blalock Rd. It's a great gig that has kindly overlooked the fact that we know nothing about music, just as the Houston Press has.

This Christmas will mark ten years with the company, and in that time we have learned a few things that may surprise you.


When you think about people who sell a lot of records, the names Gaga, Rihanna, Kesha and the like probably come to mind. The fact is though, that just because songs are on the radio doesn't mean people are racing out to buy the sheet music. It's true that if a Top 10 hit is a pretty piano piece in addition to mainstream pop smash that folks will drop $3.99 on a song.

Certainly Five for Fighting's "100 Years" and Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" sold very well. But the No. 1-selling single song in the store is still Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up," and has been since its release in 2003. Before that it had been "My Heart Will Go On" since we were hired.


We can't speak for America at larger, but we can tell you that if a song is featured on American Idol, America's Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars, or the fictional equivalent of all these shows, Glee, then someone is going to come in and ask for it.

When Hannibal Means raped the Leonard Cohen classic "Hallelujah," people flocked to the store for a chance to sing and play it correctly. As for Glee, it's caused enthusiasm not among singers, but school bands. The marching-band tune that we could not keep on the shelf this year was an arrangement of "Don't Stop Believin'." As a side note, Journey T-shirts are definitely on the rise among high-school students, which is kind of like getting an STD, but a lot less fun.


Rocks Off was thrilled to get to attend the "Distant Worlds: Music of Final Fantasy" concert at Jones Hall. Music in video games has become one of the No. 1 subjects of YouTube performers, and has consistently gained in respectability in classical circles over the last decade.

Despite that, Rocks Off has not seen a single sheet of music for any video-game theme. Not Super Mario Bros., not The Legend of Zelda, not Castlevania, nothing. The closest was several concert-band arrangements that capitalized on the "Video Games Live" symphonic shows. We've asked the two main publishers of pop music in America, and received no answer.


One of the most consistent requests we get is for music for young amateur musicians to play together in their church. Somehow, Rocks Off has a hard time believing that the creator of all existence wants to hear "Amazing Grace" played on a tuba, an oboe and violin. Still, we don't get up on Sunday, so maybe that's exactly what God wants to hear.


We know that's a little ungrateful since fully half of the stories we write each week come directly from YouTube's loving URL, but it does bring the sheet-music salesman side of our existence a big headache. See, people seem to believe that just because someone on YouTube is playing something, say The Legend of Zelda main theme on violin or maybe a '20s ragtime version of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," sheet music for it must exist.

The fact is, the people who record those videos have figured out how to play that themselves. They sat down and figured it out by ear without any kind of official guide whatsoever. Sheet music is a business, and unless there is a significant market for something, it's just not worth printing.

That's not always true. For instance, we stock a heavy-metal ukulele book simply for the sheer fun of it, but in general the rule is pretty solid. There's no harm in asking, of course, but don't be offended if there's no ocarina version of the Star Wars theme available for you to emulate that guy you saw on the Internet.


For this bit, we'll quote an encounter verbatim.

"Hi. Can I help you find something?"

"Yes. I need Level 3 piano music."

"Level 3?"


"I'm not following you."

"I need something that's not too hard."

"OK. Here's the deal. America doesn't have a universal difficulty rating like Britain does. Here, it's all relative. You'll just have to look through stuff to see if you can play it."

"Well, where's the Level 3 section."

"There isn't one, because Level 3 does not exist. It's an arbitrary term with no exclusive value whatsoever. It's like asking if beating the last level of the original Ninja Gaiden is harder than, say, watching three episodes of the fifth season of Night Court back to back to back. Let's start over. What kind of music are looking for.


"Alright, here's old Ludwig Van. Biggest section we have. Just look through and see if there's anything that looks like you can play it."

"Well, this."

"'Fur Elise.' They've trained monkeys to play it, so it's probably a safe bet."

"It says Level 4 on it."


"So I need Level 3"

Sighs. Takes music. Goes to counter for a Sharpie. Scratches out "4", and writes in "3". Hands it back.

"Now it's a Level 3. That'll be $4.52."


The number of introduction-level instrumental method books we sell as opposed to more intermediate to advanced method books is easily 20 to 1. Let us impart the only thing you need to know to play an instrument: Practice. Just do a little bit every day.

You can fake talent, but with practice, anyone can play an instrument. And if you decide to give it a shot, you know where to find us.

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