A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to tell a story at Arlene Paculan's Wonderfest. Since it was a night of music mixed with speakers and storytellers, I talked about my long held secret desire to be a musician. And my absolute failure to do so. ________________
When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. I didn’t dislike the piano, I was just indifferent to the instrument at the time. Every week, my mother and I drove to this small townhouse, knocked on the door and were greeted by my teacher’s husband. I remembered him being a very tall man whose eyes didn’t seem to blink and hair that stood up straight from his scalp. He was blind and always insisted on leading us down the stairs to where the piano was situated. There waited his wife, my teacher. She wasn’t completely blind, but used a giant magnifying glass to see anything. If I made a mistake or she needed to see something on the page, she grabbed her magnifying glass and leaned over within an inch of the paper.
Every once in a while, when I wasn’t playing something right, my teacher sat down beside me and played the piece I was working on to show how it was supposed to sound. She couldn’t see the notes on the page, but kept them housed in her head. Her playing was incredible. These moments of inspired playing taught me two things: 1. You can know how to play music from notes on a page, but what’s really needed is that extra dimension of emotion to make people feel the music. And 2. Some people have it, and some people don’t.
I retired from playing the piano. As a teenager, grunge exploded with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and I wore out the audio cassettes of their albums. You know, cassettes, that you’d put in these things called Walkmans. I wanted to grow my hair long and wear flannel and put together a band and EMO my way through life.
I decided to buy myself a guitar and learn how to play. I found some courses on CDROMS - wow, I’m really dating myself. I don’t understand why, but many of them consisted of religious songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore or Amazing Grace. I could read music, but I was having trouble with the guitar - all the chords and frets and so on - and no matter how many times I tried getting Michael to that shore, he just wouldn’t go.
I was practicing one night when I heard a creaking sound, something you might hear in the hull of a ship or the sound whales make when they’re talking to each other. One of the guitar strings snapped and slashed me on the cheek. I threw the guitar across the room. As it hit the floor, the rest of the strings snapped one at a time. As I cleaned the blood from my cheek, I rationalized that I tightened the strings too tight, but deep down I knew the truth. Because of my terrible playing, my guitar attacked me.
So, I retired from playing the guitar. Despite all these setbacks, I never let go of my dream. A few years ago, I attended a karaoke night at the Gladstone. I was there with some friends and they challenged me to go up and sing. It is my opinion that there are three types of karaoke people. First, the people that just have fun with it and don’t take themselves too seriously. Second, people who are actually good singers but are not showing off. Third, people who are terrible and too earnest and take themselves too seriously. Guess which kind of karaoke singer I was?
I will not be revealing what song I sung, I still shudder at the thought. During the short walk up to the stage, so many images shot through my head. This was going to be my moment. I imagined years later being interviewed for a documentary about my music career and saying, “It all started from that time at the Gladstone.” I saw recording studios, tours, long hair and flannel.
I started singing and I sung passionately. I sung from my heart. For those three minutes, I was a star. The crowd was silent because - I believed - they just couldn’t comprehend the incredible talent in front of them. When I was finished, the entire bar had fallen into silence. They were stunned, not by my incredible singing skills, but by the unbelievably terrible performance they witnessed. They just could not process in their minds that someone was possibly that horrible of a singer. The karaoke host cut the song short. The bartenders were frozen, beer overflowing from taps. The other patrons tried not to make eye contact as I left the stage. My friends pretended they didn’t know me.
I retired from singing.
But I found my voice in other ways through books, writing and storytelling. I now leave music to the musicians.