The Music Wouldn’t Play
I was asked if I play an instrument, since I love music so much.
My answer starts with, “Sadly, no.”
But I do love music. Very much. Sometimes I hear a song and it fits my mood, or it creates the right mood, and I feel so good. Things are possible. I can believe.
I sometimes imagine myself playing guitar and singing a Martin Sexton or Ryan Montbleau song, for a few people, or a small crowd, and they are surprised and delighted by the beauty of my performance. I enjoy the little fantasy for my own starring role, but just as much, I enjoy the thought of sharing this music that more people should know about. I would love to give to others what I’ve been given myself. I want to share that experience and that feeling.
So why don’t I play, then?
I’m not “musically inclined.” I don’t have an ear for it. I can’t sing. Or at least, I can’t sing well. Of course I can sing. I sing all the time, but mostly to an audience of myself, my wife, and my daughter. My daughter is young enough that she doesn’t realize how bad I sound. My wife is patient and enduring.
But these are terrible answers, aren’t they? Negative and defeatist. What’s with this “can’t” bullshit? It’s self-limiting. It bothers me when I hear my daughter limit herself. Why should I get in my own way?
Natalie Goldberg wrote about how an older cousin labeled her as tone-deaf, and that this shut her down: “the world of music was not available to me. I was tone-deaf. I had a physical defect, like a missing foot or finger.”
Several years ago I took a singing lesson from a Sufi singing master, and he told me there is no such thing as tone-deafness. ‘Singing is ninety percent listening. You have to learn to listen.’ If you listen totally, your body fills with the music, so when you open your mouth the music automatically comes out of you. A few weeks after that, I sang in tune with a friend for the first time in my life and thought for sure I had become enlightened. My individual voice disappeared and our two voices became one.
I love that. It sounds like magic. To be able to sing, just by learning to listen.
I’m a really bad listener. Maybe if I worked on that? If I really wanted to do this, I could become a better listener. And I could practice. I could sing! I could play something.
I don’t know. I don’t think that’s it.
And it’s not that I think I’m too old too start. (“It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing.” — Benjamin Button)
I’ve had opportunities to play, but I never did much more than plink a few keys on the piano we had in my childhood home. We’d play a song we called, “The Snake Dance.” It was about a place in France, and some ladies, and something about their clothing choices. And there was a “song” where we’d roll our fist on the keys, first descending, then ascending, and punctuating each roll with two fist bumps on the keys. (I wonder if it’s a real song and has a name. I looked for it on YouTube, but have you ever tried searching for music without lyrics? I was impressed when a friend tracked down the Sabre Dance based on our shared recollection of it being used as “frantic” music.)
Several years ago, I bought an electric piano for $1000 and signed up for lessons, and attended a few, but once again it “didn’t take.” I sold it a couple of years later for $500, with my true lesson being that you should always buy used musical instruments. Someone else’s disappointment and lost dream becomes your good deal. The height of my achievement on that piano was learning a simplified version of “The Entertainer.” I wish I could still play it when I encounter a piano, but my fingers have forgotten it.
I just seem unwilling to do what it would take. I don’t stick with it, and I don’t feel compelled to try anymore. My love of music is apparently limited to the listening and to the sharing of it. There isn’t that drive to practice and perform it, other than in my daydreams.
That’s how it is for so many of my ambitions and pursuits. I haven’t stuck with them. I’m just kind of here. I regularly alternate between programming and writing. When one of them starts seeming like too much work, or I get discouraged by the futility of “making a difference,” I imagine the other is what I’m really meant to do.
I do stick with writing. I keep doing it, one way or another. I start to wonder if I have to do it. If I have no choice. It seems odd to me that there are people who love to read, but they don’t want to write the way that I do. For them, maybe it’s much like music is for me. They can love to read, and enjoy sharing the words they find, but they don’t feel they have to do it.
I think I do. I must have to do it. It causes me so much unease and restlessness and outright anxiety. Why would I do it if I didn’t have to?
Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, hoping that I’m one of those brilliant tortured artists. And maybe I’m still in love with the idea of it more than the cold, brutal reality. (With the reality being that writing is just like any other work, and no one cares.)
But I’m going to choose to believe this is my thing, and that I do have an instrument, and it is this keyboard. It makes audible sounds only for me, with the fifteen-year-old keys and their clackity noises, but I hope for others I can create a kind of music. Something that is true and beautiful, and sad and funny, and all those things we feel and want to share.
I can hear Mama Cass singing, “You’ve gotta make your own kind of music. Sing your own special song,” and while the song plays, I believe it. Music has power.
The written word has power that I should likewise believe in, and go after it with everything I have.
To stop wallowing in my doubts and fear, to believe in having something to say, to not let the voice of Resistance talk me into “quitting” again.
And to trust the wisdom of these old words:
Until he can manage to communicate himself to others in his full stature and proportion, he does not yet find his vocation. He must find in that an outlet for his character, so that he may justify his work to their eyes. If the labor is mean, let him by his thinking and character make it liberal. Whatever he knows and thinks, whatever in his apprehension is worth doing, that let him communicate, or men will never know and honor him aright. Foolish, whenever you take the meanness and formality of that thing you do, instead of converting it into the obedient spiracle of your character and aims.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
They give me such great encouragement, and permission, to try communicating whatever it is that is in me.
It’s all I can do. And the music will play.