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.


Hermit Girl Leaves the House

Is it the sudden darkness of an 7 pm that feels like the dead of night, or the weather, or the never-ending list of tasks, or a sudden turn towards introspection that inspired this longer-than-expected run of hermit-dom?

All of the above, maybe. But today, hermit girl has left the house, and not just in the daytime. Daytime and nighttime. She’s going to see a show, missing her brother who was going to be here with her, but is somewhere awesome instead. Off traveling and adventuring. So instead of brother, hermit girl is sitting next to her friendly backpack, early because the bus said so, waiting for the first band.

She’s wondering, as she’s heard many friends wonder for years, when she got so old and everybody else got so young. She thought they were joking, the friends. They didn’t seem that old, and everyone else (which, at that time, probably included her) didn’t seem so young. She hopes that if she said this out loud, someone would laugh at her like she laughed at her older friends when she was so young. She looks up and around, there are no faces she knows who would laugh.

Not yet, at least. Maybe they will show up.

Hermit girl looks around and tries not to judge. It’s a defensive reflex, a conditioned social reaction to the awkwardness of being alone, this sniping at others. It’s not really all that fun, but there ARE so many beards, does every guy wear a beard these days? Whatever. Live and let live. Ignore the beards, hermit girl. Alone is not so bad.

She turns back to her phone, pulls her jacket in from the aisle a bit, takes a deep breath, looks around. That girl over there is yawning, at least it’s not unusual to be tired this early.

It’s almost time for the first band. Maybe it’s time for a soda. Or maybe it’s time to find a new place to hermit down for the night, a little nook among the crush of bodies where somehow, in the midst of all these people, she can be comfortably alone.

The first man I met who called himself a feminist

The first man I met who called himself a feminist didn’t know what it meant. Or perhaps his definition was slightly at odds with mine. My definition, at 17, meant that I got to do whatever the fuck I wanted regardless of the opinions of men and his definition, well, I’m not entirely sure.

His definition was kind of like the cut-out pictures of Ani DiFranco on his bedroom wall. They fit with the scene, but were somewhat static, lacking movement, lacking action.

Action is what he believed in, and he wore it in patches, proudly displaying his politics on tattered shorts and flight jackets. Vegan. Anti-racist. Anarchist. Feminist. It was all so perfectly late 90s political punk. It was exciting. I wanted to believe in this too.

But I soon found holes in his ideology that grew too big for screen-printed patches and statements of solidarity. I sang along with the whoa-oh-ohs and picked at all the down-strokes on my cheap Vantage bass while he screamed out slogans and choruses to the crowds of kids in community centres. He was my boyfriend and my band mate, and that dynamic suited me fine onstage. Except for the dress code.

Every scene has their own subtle dress code and snipey style detectives watching out for infractions (“why are you wearing a white belt? You’re not even emo” was a favourite of mine). But this wasn’t subtle, this was overt. This was the no-skirts-on-stage rule and it was implemented for me, and me alone, because I was female and because I was a girlfriend.

The logic was, according to the man who called himself a feminist and who was my boyfriend and band mate, that people would assume that I was only in the band because I was his girlfriend, not because I could play or was a musician. That was a fair enough interpretation of our world. Even at 17 I knew enough about music to know I be discounted due to my gender at every turn and would need to prove myself by being harder and faster and stronger and better than the boys.

But the next level of this logic was that if I chose to wore a skirt onstage, I would be even less than a girlfriend – I would be a prop, being used by him for sex appeal. And that would hurt the political image of the band and reflect badly on him.

Now, this was back in the time when irony was still somewhat cool, yet even he didn’t fully grasp the irony of the situation. He had to control what I wore onstage so it wouldn’t look like he was controlling what I wore onstage. I had to be pop-punk appealing so it wouldn’t look like I was only there for sex appeal. It was bizarre PR, even for a punk.

I tried to reason with him.

What if, I suggested, I show up in whatever I want as my own badass self and just kick so much ass that it would be super clear that no one is telling me what to do? What if I just play the pop punk as my own person?

Nope, that didn’t fly. It would look bad on him. No matter what I did, it wasn’t about me. Or the band. The members were interchangeable. My decisions reflected on him, and his political reputation.

His argument was that he didn’t want it to look like I was a pawn. But I was a pawn, dressed in baggy army pants in order to conceal my pawn-ness.

Perhaps the feminism he believed in was one that said that women shouldn’t have to look a certain way in order to please men. And what he took from that was that looking a certain way was wrong. It was the old “femininity is complicity in patriarchy” ruse. And yet the alternative was just as much of a cage, though it was decorated with flour-paste posters and slogans about freedom, about The Man.

As much as he made a show of counter-culture, he was just as much The Man as the men he was railing against.

To me, the point of feminism is to disrupt patriarchy on multiple levels, in multiple ways. But it always starts with the personal, and with personal dynamics. In many of our political movements, feminism has been put aside, or the failings of individual men to respect their female and non-binary peers have been brushed over for the sake of a greater cause. It’s not the fight for right now.

Or no one sees the fight, the struggle for power and autonomy that’s happening right in front of their eyes, on the stage, between a veteran of the political pop-punk scene and a young teenage punk who likes to be pretty and sexy and loud at the same time, but can only be one at once, for you, so it looks right.

When I left the first man I met who called himself a feminist, the one who did his best to control my appearance and behaviour on and off-stage, he was a pillar of the scene. He was a friend to many good people who are still friends to me now, and a lot who are still friends to him.

He kicked me out of the band, and I showed up for the final gig in the shortest skirt I could find. I don’t remember anyone commenting about how I was being played for wearing it that night. And for the first time, I felt at home onstage. I felt like myself.

But I lost the band, the scene, my friends, music. That part of my life went dormant for a while. I found my own politics and jettisoned his. And since then, I’ve met many other men who call themselves feminists.

Many of the men who were around then called themselves feminists. And many of the men who call themselves feminists are also around men like this one, they’re around men whose actual behaviour is antithetical to feminism. Sometimes they speak out against the other men who call themselves feminist but are actually just hypocrites or harassers or abusive. Oftentimes they don’t.

Nowadays, when I meet a man who calls himself a feminist, I nod. And I wait, alternately hopeful and resigned to a repetitive disappointment. I wonder, “this one, will he act?”