Billy Wilder: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”
Why is it that some of the things we enjoy the most are the things that we simply can’t do. Take me, for instance. I love music, I honestly do. I listen to it constantly. I workout to music, travel to music, and have spent many a happy moment letting the mysterious notes that I’ll never fully comprehend transport me to a place I would not otherwise be able to visit. To me, Pandora may have been the most beneficial development the Internet has produced, that’s how much I welcome the availability of music. But try to create it in any way, shape or form? You can forget about that. This is when the word “music” suddenly becomes “magic,” because that is what it would take for me to be able to string three notes together in any type of order remotely resembling a melody. No, my sole job, when it comes to music, will always be to listen to it and get out of the way of the people who can actually produce it. Would that it could be otherwise.
Like all youngsters growing up in the 50’s, I had ample exposure to music during my formative years. In elementary school during the week, and church on Sundays, I was constantly encouraged to sing like a lark. Instead, I sang with a clang. Even before I got to that point of life where one’s voice is supposed to change, mine would do so every time I tried to sing. Never sure of whether I was a soprano or a bass, my voice would bounce like a pinball from one to the other and all points in between. Consequently, the scale would come out something like do, re, mi, FA, SOL, LA, ti, DO. Even Julie Andrews would have been aggravated enough to run, screaming, off that mountain. By the time I reached the sixth grade, my role in the chorus was limited to humming, and please, please, do it quietly. It’s no wonder that there are only two places where I think I sound pretty good while singing: in the shower and in-ebriated.
Of course, music may be produced by other means than just the voice. There are a multitude of implements known as “musical instruments” that are specifically designed to frustrate those of us with tin ears and stiff fingers. If my experience is telling, there can be no doubt that they are descendants of medieval torture devices. It is somewhat sad for me to report that, as a young boy, I was tormented by two such tools of the tune trade. For whatever reason (I’m guessing it was to get me out of the house), my mother thought that it was a good idea to sign me up for piano lessons when I was about 7 or 8. Even if you overlook the fact that me and the production of music are like oil and water, this scheme was doomed to failure for one glaring reason. The lessons were scheduled for Saturday morning … on a Saturday … in the morning!
Though shoving a kid out the door on a Saturday morning might seem like the continuation of a worthwhile daily trend to a parent, those of us with ages in the single digits didn’t see it that way. Every kid worthy of a magic decoder ring knew that Saturday mornings were the next thing to national kid-holidays! That’s when we got to watch “The Buster Brown Show” and cartoons. And just for the benefit of anyone under 40 reading this, the VCR, DVR, Netflix, and any other device designed to let you watch a show whenever you want to, hadn’t been invented yet. Heck, we didn’t even have repeats! Back in those days, if you missed your television show, you missed it! And no kid wanted to miss “The Buster Brown Show!”
Hard to believe as it may be, given my discipline in the exercise arena, my tenure as the piano boy did not last very long. Looking back, I might have to concede that there was an element of sabotage involved. All that practicing I promised the blue haired piano teacher that I would do didn’t get done, and my mother was wise enough to realize that she was throwing good money after bad. So, while my sister continued to trudge up the street for her lessons, I stayed home and watched Froggy the Gremlin plunk his magic twanger. At the time, that seemed like a fair exchange to me.
I made one last attempt at gaining entry into the mystical kingdom of music, and that was when I was about 10. It was then that I got to participate in “Instrumental Music” in school. It might as well have been called “Incremental Music” for all the progress I made. Still, this was one of those maturity milestones we all looked forward to when growing up because now we would be entrusted to bring musical instruments home with us so that we could (HA, HA) practice. Of course, bringing them home also meant that we had to bring them back to school for individual and group sessions, and as I was a “walker,” I took one look at the trumpets and trombones (’50’s boys didn’t do flutes!) and thought, “no way!” So I volunteered to be a drummer, and all I had to lug home was a set of drumsticks.
I can’t say that everyone in my family was thrilled at my choice, but I know of one person who was, my great-grandmother. Her husband had been a drummer, and she proudly passed on to me his personal pair of drumsticks. I never met my great-grandfather, but I’m guessing that he was a giant that beat on a drum the size of Rhode Island while inspiring Teddy Roosevelt to charge up San Juan Hill. In my tiny little hands, those drumsticks looked like telephone poles, but I happily accepted the gift and told my great-grandmother that I would cherish the sticks forever. Then I lost them, a fact that still occasionally wakes me up in the middle of the night with a shiver.
I lasted with the drums until the end of my eighth grade year, when my drumming came to a spectacular (by my reckoning) conclusion. The occasion was the very first graduation ceremony at our brand new high school, a highlight of which would be the high school band playing the proverbial processional, “Pomp and Circumstance.” Unfortunately, the band director found himself short of a drummer to play the tympani. Guess who was asked to bang the drum slowly … that’s right … thirteen year old me. I may not ever have been a musical talent, but I’ve always been a ham, and giving me two kettledrums in a packed auditorium with fantastic acoustics could only produce one conclusion: what a mistake!
Though I was instructed to pound ponderously so as to assist the graduates with their slow pacing of the traditional step-stop-step march down the aisle, my enthusiasm got the better of me. Ignoring quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes as just so many squashed bugs on the papers perched on the music stand, I raised my arms on high and thrashed the life out of those poor, defenseless
kettlebells kettledrums. With the diligent students at the head of the line trying to keep to their assigned pace, and the less enthusiastic scholars in the rear trying to get their butts up on stage as fast as they could before some administrator questioned whether they should, in fact, be graduating, my contributions to this academic anarchy were not insignificant. Let’s just say that the beat went on … and on … and on.
Judging from the withering looks I received from the conductor, only I was thrilled by the depth and breadth of my passionate, pomp pummeling performance. Once all of the somewhat disheveled and slightly battered graduates had finally made their way to the stage, I placed my drumsticks on the bruised skins of the tympani, strolled up the aisle and out the door, and hummed “Pomp and Circumstance” during my solitary walk home. I had finally got the beat just right and it sounded good to me, despite the fact that I knew that my music career was now over.
At this time in my life, my musical options, beyond listening, are limited. I can hum, attempt a tune on a kazoo, or whistle three different notes, though problems arise when I try to string them together. I have to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t given up music at such a young age. What musical talents might I still have that remain deeply buried beneath the surface? Probably none, but who can say for sure? My younger son taught himself to play the guitar was he was sixteen, and he is still going strong, jamming with other ex-pats in London. He must have got his musical aptitude from someone … my guess is that he got it from my great-grandfather. Maybe my son’s continued pursuit of music makes up for my loss of the family drumsticks. I have to hope so. Now if only there was another way that I could atone for my atonal tromping on those poor, unsuspecting tympani drums.
[Video Note: Though I can neither sing nor drum nor play the piano, these two guys can do all three … simultaneously! That just doesn’t seem fair, does it?]