Monday, October 3, 2016

Facing the Music

The list of all of the musical instruments I have attempted to learn how to play is both long and strange.  It all began with the shining glockenspiel, then an unplayable cardboard cowboy guitar, next came the horrid silver clarinet, the dusty upright piano in the church dining room, the nylon string guitar when I was a college freshman, the Guild six string guitar, the handcrafted Appalachian dulcimer, the former four-string banjo refashioned into a five string banjo, the kid’s tom-tom, the nickel doumbek, and finally yet another guitar complete with an auto tuner.

A relative gave me the glockenspiel when I was nine and I had some fun trying to play it but lost interest fairly quickly. Although it did have pretty red and gold tassels.

Cowboy, Lassie & Hilton are my audience.
The cardboard guitar from Sears Roebuck was a Christmas present when I was ten.   Elvis had taken the country by storm and I was a huge fan.  I wanted to be Elvis (or a singing cowboy).  But as mentioned before, the guitar was unplayable and un-tunable – a mere prop.

When I was twelve we were impelled to choose an instrument and be in the junior band.  Our school has an award winning senior marching band that travelled all over the state so they always needed up and coming members.  I chose the slide trombone.  The teacher kindly pointed out “girls do not play the slide trombone” and handed me the clarinet.   I remember only a few lessons because he was trying to teach us how to read music at the same time. 
My mother was really excited to have a musician in the family and immediately set up what she called the Music Room.  It was a tiny room off of the second living room which she decorated with musical items like famous paintings of musicians and the like.  She forced me to go in there every day and then she hid in the kitchen trying not to howl with laughter as I squeaked and squawked away on that hated thing.
I made it as far in this endeavor as the first recital and it was agreed upon by all concerned that my time was best spent elsewhere.  But not before we had to buy the uniform - shiny white satin dress shirt, pleated trousers and a purple satin tie.  Ugh.

Which is more awful - the bangs, the glasses or the uniform?
My best friend Mary had taken piano lessons and she and I had fun playing around on that upright in the church.  It had not been tuned in years but we banged away on the usual tunes – "Chopsticks", "Heart and Soul", and I even tried picking out the notes of a few hymns from the hymnbook.  The only one I remember is making a small success of the first few chords of “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  Real lessons might have helped me but it was an expense we could not afford.

When the Great Folk Scare hit in the sixties I found myself enamored by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and I longed for a real guitar.  I met Paul in my first year of college and since he played guitar, I saved up my pennies and he took me to a music store and helped me pick out the best one I could afford.  It had nylon strings and was very hard to play but he taught me some chords and we worked out charts for a few folk songs.  I labored away at that thing for a couple of years with little success.  I developed callouses on the tips of my fingers but that was about it.

The Guild steel string guitar came next, and it was slightly easier to play but that doesn’t mean I could play it any better.  I tried using a pick, I tried using my fingers.  I wanted to be able to play like John Fahey – but I would have settled for John Prine.  Unfortunately I proved hopeless.  I did, however, have an awful lot of fun making a collage on the case.

Collage complete with Donovan, Janis and John Lennon.

At the Newport Folk Festival one year we saw Mimi and Richard Farina.  They played the dulcimer.  I had to have one!  It looked so easy to play.  We found an ad for Appalachian dulcimers hand made by a craftsman named Edd Presnell from Banner Elk, North Carolina, and ordered one made out of walnut.  We found Ed’s card pasted on the inside with his name, address and motto, “If it’s made of wood we might make it.”

The dulcimer was a beautifully crafted instrument but with wooden pegs in wooden holes, it was nearly impossible to tune.  Once again I lost interest.

Walnut dulcimer by Edd Presnell

The banjo belonged to Paul’s grandfather and it only had four strings but since five string banjos had risen in popularity thanks to Pete Seeger, Paul found someone to craft a new neck with five strings.  I wanted to play like Earl Scruggs and tried to convince him to have Scruggs pegs installed, but he insisted I ought to learn the basics first.  Well, so much for the banjo.  I had no interest in frailing.

Years passed and drum circles became the thing.  Everyone I knew had a drum.  I wanted a drum!  How hard could that be to play?  No strings attached!  On an impulse I bought a kid’s tom-tom, repainted it bright red and put black handprints on it for decoration.  That’s about all I did with that because by then I had fallen in love with the shiny nickel doumbek I found at a festival.  What a beauty!

I banged on it a few times and when a famous drum instructor was brought to town for a workshop, I signed up.  There were about thirty people in the class and mine was the only metal doumbek.  Everyone else has wood ones; a few even had beautiful djembes.

I tried, I really tried.  But I just could not seem to get it.  I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever.  The instructor even kindly told me I was very brave to take his class since I was so musically challenged.

Another guitar was gifted to me a few years back.  It was said to be a fairly nice one for a beginner.  I tried it one evening and realized I was having a lot of trouble tuning it not to mention I no longer had callouses so it really hurt my fingers and my hands no longer had the needed strength.  By the time I had the adapter for the tuner I had lost interest.
So, while I may have some mad skills as a picture framer and some art skills and the strange abilities to fix things and to make stuff out of nothing (I have been called MarGuyver), and I guess I am a sort of writer, I have at long last come to the conclusion that my only musical talent is the ability to appreciate it in many of its glorious forms – not try to play it myself ever again.  I will be more than content to savor the many blessings of my musical friends, relatives, and acquaintances.