Lessons in Music

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.

piano bag

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.


Upright dreams

When a problem seems unsolvable, common advice is to sleep on it. Rest, let your unconscious brain wrestle it a bit. Or rest, and take a break from thinking about it. If you don’t have a solution in the morning, at least you’ll have fresh energy.

I never doubt this advice because once, it worked for me in the most extraordinary way. Asleep, I learned a new way of walking.

I was young, maybe 6 or 7 (so only a half-decade of two-footed experience under my tiny belt), and I had an obstacle I just couldn’t overcome. It was a lane half a block away from our apartment, before the neighboring apartment on the corner where the road turned left. It sloped down, towards the street. And in the winter, all winter, without fail, it was a veritable slip ‘n slide.

Crossing this lane, I would slide down down down into the street, into the path of future cars careening around the corner. To the left was a fence, to the right was a road. There was no other way. To get anywhere, I needed to cross this icy slope.

Mostly I’d just fall down and crawl dejectedly to the other side. But falling was less scary than sliding into the street with my arms flailing like a confused bird, landing flat on my back, staring up at the snowflakes and hoping for no cars. So I started to fake-fall – forward, onto my knees – sparing myself the suspense, since I was going to end up on the ground anyway.

I seriously considered just going down on my hands and knees and crawling across, but I wasn’t 4 anymore. I had some dignity. I’d just fake-fall and roll until one day I figured it out.

I wasn’t a particularly clumsy child, or unfamiliar with ice. I’d skate on the river and on rinks, but that ice was level. This was an icy hill interrupting a prairie sidewalk. And I wasn’t wearing skates.

When I wasn’t facing the lane, it didn’t vex me. I wouldn’t even think about it when leaving the apartment, and then I’d look up over my scarf and remember that I couldn’t quite take walking for granted yet. Then I’d be past it and I’d forget, like the edge of the carpet that you trip over twenty times before bending down to smooth it out, promising yourself safe passage through the room.

One night, as I slept, I found myself dreaming about the lane. I was walking up to it, preparing to “fall”, and then I heard a voice from both inside and outside of my mind – Walk like there’s no ground under you.

I took one step onto the lane, but didn’t plant the foot. I pretended there wasn’t any ground under it. What there was instead of ground, I don’t know, but I put the other foot out and down onto what I believed to be nothing, and over again until I was across the lane. Upright. I felt so proud, and then I woke up.

I knew the difference between dreams and waking life, but I couldn’t imagine that my dream-skills wouldn’t transfer to real-life walking. That day, I approached the lane without fear, knowing I’d been practicing all night.

For the first time in my (waking) life, I walked like there was no ground under me, and I crossed the lane in a straight line, upright, like a true two-footed person. My dream came true, and has served me well to this day.

NaBloPoMo November 2014

All the pieces, all the time

Even when I can break projects down into manageable chunks, or work on them at a reasonable pace, I still have moments when I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at once. I wish for that elusive singular focus, to comes home every day to that one thing that drives me.

When I was a kid, there was a question that adults always loved to ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?

From 8-12, I might have said “Writer”, or “Baseball Player”. And then it turned into “Musician”, “Rock Star”, “Cook”, and I tried those things in real life and they were cool, but I didn’t have any grand imperative to keep going, to take them all the way. I didn’t envision a title, a career, a final place that I could set as a destination where I could stop and say “I’ve arrived”.

I had a friend who said she wanted to be a marine biologist. It confounded me. Where did she get that from? Is it because she liked dolphins, and that was a title for a person who did dolphin things? She held the same answer for years, and I wondered where her conviction came from, her aim so steady and true.

Running into another friend just after high school, I offered that same tired query, and he replied “Thoracic surgeon”. I nodded in slight confusion, then looked it up when I got home. I was perplexed. Not just surgeon – he had a specialty nailed down already. The specificity of it boggled my mind.

Perhaps I overestimated the commitment behind these pronouncements. Perhaps everyone else who had a clear answer on hand had just that – an answer on hand for that redundant question, knowing that answering properly is part of what’s expected of young folks. They should aspire to be something, or to want to be something, even if the adults know it’s impossible.

The adults will nod, like they’ve had some insight into young person’s brain, or at least have some reassurance that this one has a plan. They will be something. They’re not just going to keep dying their hair and playing in punk bands and fucking shit up, though that was legitimately my plan for a while. (I suppose I’ve just refined my aims slightly. Still dying the hair, still playing music loudly, still fucking shit up, but on more of a discursive level.)

I’d prefer to think that most people are also secretly confused and fumbling through this world while somehow presenting a tidy and polished exterior. I’d prefer that over a suspicion that’s been shadowing my whole life, that Other People have that thing called Knowing What To Do With Their Lives and I’m totally missing it.

So I line up my rainbow-fill array of interests like a package of pencil crayons in their pristine beginning-of-the-school-year completeness, and pack them into my backpack. This is the assemblage of things that are me, that are always with me, that are always overfull, zippers straining, scraps of paper and half-inked pens spilling out of the edges. How can I carry just one notebook, just one novel, just one magazine? I want it all, all the time.

Every night, I dump my backpack onto the couch and sift through all the stuff. I gaze longingly at a tiny minimalist purse hanging among a dozen tote bags, the elusive dream of paring down, of needing less, of carrying just one small piece at a time.

Who am I kidding. That’s never been my style.

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