Strolling around the woods, contemplating my life as older people are inclined to do, hoping not to get lost in my own backyard, I asked myself, “Self, what talent would you have liked to have had which you are lacking?” It soon began to grow dark as the list grew longer and longer. I made my way home before Kim called the police but, you know something, I believe that the talent I lack most in my make-up is the ability to competently play a musical instrument. I’d also like to be much better at math, but music intrigues me more because I still naively think I have a chance at it: like golf.
Trust me, I’ve tried playing different instruments. For instance, when we were children, my parents had a baby-grand piano in their living room. I’m not sure why, since neither one of them played anything. Perhaps the piano was a symbol of hope, or maybe wealth. I hope that the four children might grow up with a sense of class, or an illusion that we were affluent and were modestly hiding the fact.
Anyway, we were given lessons by an old lady in an even older house in Ambler, PA. I remember that both the woman and the house smelled like camphor, as though moth balls had been stored inside of the piano or in her pockets. Although she tried her best, I could not be coerced into playing a single song or remembering a note. For me, it was all rote memory as I tried to do the notes in the correct sequence. I felt nothing.
That was how my mind worked and that is not music at all. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute,” I would say after almost immediately messing up a simple piano piece. She would get angry and say that she was “tired of waiting a minute. Go home and practice.”
Then she kicked me out of the smelly house, and I would sit on her brick stoop killing ants until my mother picked me up. The old lady had a recital one time in the parlor of her house. I remember it was stifling hot: August and no air conditioning. I played (or attempted to play) Big Chief Wahoo. This is a piece for simpletons and consists of three basic chords played in the manner of an Indian war drum, i.e. lots of pounding. It seemed to suit me but, upon sitting down, I immediately forgot everything and spent the next two minutes ad-libbing something much more complex. It was very embarrassing for all. I took a bow but my parents continued to sweat.
My younger brother, Eric, has that grand piano now. He doesn’t read or understand music, but he plays “by ear,” feeling the notes and making them come alive. It is truly beautiful, and many of his compositions come from somewhere inside of himself. I wish I were like that with a banjo.
Anyway, in high school, I went to the famous Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the rollicking hippie days. I came home with strings of love beads and traded them for a guitar from a stoned-out friend. I got a good deal but, alas, the instrument was not magical or blessed by groovy fairy dust as I had hoped. After weeks of practice, I only managed to play a few chords of Michael Row the Boat Ashore (a big hit back then). Hallelujah! I soon quit the guitar.