Sunday, January 02, 2005

Musical Milestone; or...

...What the Hell Was I Thinking? Part 1: The War Years

Music wasn't part of my childhood. The only thing I remember is my father playing the occasional cowboy tune or barbershop quartet. We watched a lot of tv. I had a transistor radio that I'd listen to but it was always tuned to a country station. I think it was out of fear of my dad that I did so, I didn't enjoy the music and didn't listen much.

There was another problem with music in our house. My father was an alcoholic and my survival strategy was to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Playing loud music was definitely contraindicated. Mom did buy my a Jimi Hendrix double greatest hits album for Christmas one year but I suspect that was after my dad died.

So why did I join my elementary school band? I don't know. I have a vague memory of going into the band room in the basement and everyone was already there. I can't for the life of me figure out how I ended up there. That tardiness, a sign of a true musician if there ever was one, is probably responsible for my choice of instrument: the flute. I'm pretty sure that was the only thing left by the time I got there.

I never practiced. I only remember doing so once. Sweaty, heart racing waiting for it..."Shut the fuck up!"...The expected response for dear old dad, obeyed instantly.

Another great mystery is why I kept it up? I played flute in my school band until the end of grade 10. I still never practiced, I was awful. I had stage fright like nobody's business and at every exam choked to the point of sputtering silence. I'd be interested to see what marks I got, they can't have been very good and yet I was allowed to continue.

As you might imagine I was teased pretty mercilessly about the flute. I was a skinny white kid with glasses and braces, bully bait in other words. The "fag" taunts were endless and eventually wore me down. I used to ponder how this could be. There were two other male flute players in my highschool. One was my best friend, Andrew, who played in the same band as me and the other was a nouveau-hippy child. He used to wear a floppy leather hat and sit in the middle of the sports field playing his flute for a small crowd of tight-jeaned, tie-dyed, long-haired hippy girls. Man I was jealous.

I never saw anyone hassle hippy guy, but teenagers being what they are (barbarians) I suppose they must have. On the other hand A was never bothered at all. He was Chinese and cultivated a reputation for martial arts. I have no idea if it was true. I always suspected that it wasn't, he wasn't very good in gym and never had to bail on anything to go to a lesson. On the other hand I once saw him throw a pencil 6 meters and have it stick point first, dead center of some poor kid's sweater. He also knew for sure where the big nerve in your upper arm was, a favorite trick was to pinch it and make you scream. So I don't know.

Years after we'd lost touch I ran into him late one night. He was depressed and over a plate of cold fries in a all-night diner he confessed that he was gay and didn't know how to tell his parents. I really should have seen that one coming, god is after all an iron.*

After I gave up on the flute I did take a basic guitar course in grade 11, I think. I wasn't very good at it, but I'd decided that if I was going to play anything it was going to be something more modern. Of course this was 1983 and guitar was anything but modern, but that's how I thought of it. I retrospect I wish I'd picked bass or drums there's more call for those instruments. Seems like 1 in 3 people play guitar and 1 in 4 people play guitar in a band, but that might just be the kind of community I'm part of.

That decision to take up the guitar was the first conscious one I'd made about my musical life. What was I thinking? The only thing I remember was that I didn't want to be mocked for my instrument. (insert penis joke here) I had no aspirations to play in a band. My self esteem was so low that getting girls out of it was laughable, or at least would have been if I'd even thought of it. My experience with learning and performing music was uniformly one of teeth gritting, flop sweating anxiety. What the hell was I thinking indeed?

I can only speculate that while I was cringing consciously some part of me was hearing what I was a part of and glorying in it. There's nothing quite like playing in a big band. To be immersed in the music, literally. To be a part of the creation of something bigger than oneself that, even in a highschool band, has moments of true beauty. Somehow it got into me without my being aware of it, an infection of the soul that has no cure. It snuck in while I was dodging spit emptied from trumpets and choking on my fear of being noticed and has never left.

*If a person who commits felonies is a felon, then surely god is an iron.


Esther Kustanowitz said...

Dang. I wish I were in a band.

Coelecanth said...

E: Go for it! If you don't want to spent the time learning an instrument I supsect that group improv would provide a similar experience.