I was born with music playing in my ears

Little boy, little guitar
Little boy, little guitar

When I was about ten, my parents signed me up for piano lessons. The genesis of this decision is lost in memory to me. Did I beg and plead? I know I exhibited musical interest, but piano lessons require a piano. Pianos are expensive, and I know for sure we didn’t already have one. (We bought a player piano so that my father, who is not a musical genius, could also play pian.) My parents were far from wealthy, but somehow there it was. A piano. And there I was in lessons with Mr. Hunter, while his two young children listened in the next room.

I have an excellent memory, so I’m a little appalled at how little I recall of these lessons. They went on for years with two teachers. I remember that my mom combined the piano lessons with my brother’s weekly trips to Yelm for futile vision therapy. I remember the silver books and the arpeggios. I remember that I was terrible at site reading but could memorize pretty easily. I remember some recitals most vividly playing “Take 5” with Tyler in a duet. I don’t remember practicing particularly diligently. And I certainly don’t – can’t – remember being successful. After years of piano lessons, we were left to conclude that maybe I wasn’t so musical after all. Then I got a trumpet, got my pride in a huff and became one of the best high school trumpet players in the state — playing in a premier Youth Symphony. I briefly considered going to conservatory for college.

All this is to say: I love music, I care about music, I want my children to love and play music, and I know that sometimes you have to try a few instruments before you get to the right one.

Grey and Thane both show musical interest and some aptitude. They both sing nicely, and have at least partially inherited their parent’s tendency to sing often. Last year, we tried a piano lesson for Grey. It went ok. But he was dutiful instead of passionate. We didn’t do a second one. Then Grey started asking for drum lessons. Heaven help me, he wants to be a percussionist. My orchestra-snob instincts rebelled. I mean, do percussionists even use notation? Can they read music? I struck a bargain: become a competent guitar player (still a cool rock ‘n’ roll instrument) and I’ll consider your percussion request. He reminded me several times: how about guitar lessons, mom?

Finally, I found a school (right next to our library!) and took him to a free trial lesson. His teacher, shy with distracting earlobe extensions, emerged from the room half an hour later. “We don’t usually take kids this young. But Grey seems really passionate, and ready to work hard. He’ll need a half size guitar, but I think I can teach him.”

And so it is. We tracked down an adorable half-size guitar for him. He’s gone to two lessons so far. He’s supposed to spend 5 minutes at a time pressing down on the frets to build up finger strength so he can actually play. He talks about the “1-2-3-4” (clearly he’s being taught to count time). He daydreams about sounding like Simon and Garfunkel. He looks proud as punch with his guitar strapped to his tiny back.

A few years ago, on a cold night, we were camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The boys were scattered across the floor of the test, and Adam and I tried to catch some chilly sleep, knowing that Thane would wake us up at a brutal hour. In the campsite a few twigs away, friends were gathered around a fire. One of them, some anonymous voice, pulled out his guitar and sang. Despite our weariness, the cold, the knowledge of an early morning, Adam and I listened and loved every moment of it – this shadowed serenade.

My son may give up after a few months of guitar, with no mastery. He may rise to the level of mediocrity through years of practice, as I did with piano. He might find an enjoyable level of accomplishment – enough to break out his guitar around a campfire and make his attempting-to-sleep neighbors glad instead of grumpy. Or perhaps he will become a master – classical, jazz, rock. Perhaps he will forget that it is possible to have uncalloused fingers, and find it hard to imagine not knowing how to turn those strings to music. Whichever way he ends up, I wish him the joy and the love of it.

A boy and his guitar
A boy and his guitar

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3 thoughts on “I was born with music playing in my ears

  1. Beg is perhaps too strong, but you certainly wanted to take the piano lessons. The first teacher was in Morton — not a success. Jason Hunter was the second. You didn’t love it … but I am glad you did it. If only we had known that the key to inspiring true industry in you was opposition and insults, we would have hired the neighborhood thugs. That’s what worked with the trumpet!

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  2. Interesting story. Sometimes kids go through phases of wanting to learn a musical instrument. They don’t always stick at it and the interest wears off. The important thing is not to push them into doing it. If the child is pressured into taking lessons for something they have no interest in, or have lost interest in, thet will not enjoy it and will give up.

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