We started with noisemakers, my brother and I. Spinning bells in rainbow colours and toy xylophone that made a joyous noise when held against the spinning bells. Use the mallets, mom would say. You’re going to chip it.
When I was 4, I got my first guitar. I suppose it was a parlour guitar, big enough to grow into, small enough to almost get my tiny body around it. It was cheap wood, but I’d pull a good 14 years out of it, until the body was held together with duct tape and the neck was warped.
And a few years later, I took piano lessons. A keyboard joined the fray at home, though I didn’t really practice much. I got the sheet music to “Imagine” by John Lennon for Christmas one year, a welcome departure from the unfamiliar lullabies I was learning from the piano teacher. I didn’t know these popular songs, the supposedly common songs from the piano books I tucked into my homemade tote bag. I knew the songs from my mom’s tattered folk song book, from the sections she liked, like Hard Times & Blues, and Mountain Songs.
There were some children’s songs mixed in, like “I Come and Stand”, a song about a child who died in Hiroshima, narrated by his ghost. We sang them together, songs about death and war and peace and aging and loneliness. We sang murder ballads, we sang the blues.
I took some voice lessons from the piano teacher too, but what she really wanted to teach me was the word of God. She sent me home with Bibles, including was a comic book version which I read, like any other book, cover to cover. It was a cool story, and good to know. The proselytizing crept up slowly, though, and began to take up more time in the lessons. I stopped going.
I jumped from the folk songs of the 60s to the rock n roll of the 90s, found a tab book for Hole and learned power chords. I got an electric guitar, and then a bass. My dad taught me how to use a distortion pedal. You can fuck up all you want and it’ll still sound awesome, he told me.
I never really played guitar out of the house, but I took my bass and joined a band, and another, and another. I took my dad’s advice about the distortion and extended it to my attitude: turn it up, and put on a good show. The lessons became more informal, more experiential. Advice in the van, before and after a show, in the bathroom over smokes.
I made the requisite noise at band practice, but at home I was silent. Hearing just my own parts with such precision, each solo sloppy bass note, felt clinical. It was too clean. I didn’t want to hear myself fucking up, I wanted to just throw my own little piece into a wall of sound.
I left a band, a band left me, I left a band, a band left me, I jumped around. Life got chaotic and I took a step back from bands, from shows, from playing with other people. I set up my instruments at home, in a little shrine of my own. I came home late at night and picked up my guitar. I’d learn a song and then work on it for hours until it was perfect. I’d rather sing and play than sleep, than eat, than work, than anything.
Those who knew me when I was always in bands would ask, are you playing with anyone right now?
No, I’d reply sheepishly.
There were times before this when I wasn’t in a band, and I felt like I didn’t exist. A part of me was missing without performing. I could barely go to a show without heartache, feeling trapped in the crowd. I want to be up there, I want to be on the stage was all I could see or think.
This time, though, it was harder to explain. I was playing so much more frequently, more passionately, more skillfully than every before. Just not in public or with other people. I felt like more of a musician than ever, but without that kind of public proof, that word – musician – seemed to land with a hollow thud. A short nod that whispered, yeah…right.
If you play at home with no one to hear it, are you still a musician?
Maybe if the short answer is yes, the long answer is yes and no and yes. There’s a part of this that can’t happen alone, and a part of this that can’t happen any other way but alone.
My homemade tote bag, the one with music-sheet printed all over it that used to carry my unfamiliar lullaby piano books and cartoon bibles, is just the right size for records. And tonight I filled it up and carried it over to a new kind of music lesson, a mini DJ school for lovers of vinyl who also did a basic digital DJing class over the last few years.
We talked shop, talked music, practiced beat matching. We listened carefully to each other’s selections, learning a bit about different tastes. We all heard combinations of music we would have never thought about on our own. We were challenged to use our brains, ears, and hands in a new way, to try making cool sounds in front of a friendly audience.
None of us have turntables or mixing boards at home, so at this point, practicing at all is out of the question. But in these few short sessions, we can share our skills and love of music, and that’s what musicians do.