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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Music Hath Charms…

The larger son came home from school today, and made an unusual request: “Dad, can we get your trombone out of the attic? I want to learn to play it.”

Glenn Miller notwithstanding, the trombone’s not where it’s at. It’s plumbing, not music, as I used to say. I played it thirty years ago, and haven’t touched it in twenty years. How he even remembered I had one is beyond me. He’s probably seen it once since he was born, and then just in the case while we looked for something else, something useful, in the attic.

He’s back in the public school after four years in private school, and every kid in his fifth grade class but one is playing an instrument. And he’s crazy enough to want to try playing the trombone.

Telling the story of how you ended up playing the trombone is like pointing to a spot on a map where you caught dengue fever. “Avoid that spot” is the moral of the story, every time.

Like my son, I went from parochial school, where scholarship was king but physical education was tag in the schoolyard and music was hymns, to public school where they had a band and an orchestra. The intercom voice intoned: Anyone who wishes to learn a musical instrument, report to the music room after school. My older brother was, and is, an accomplished musician, and I noticed that it didn’t hurt him any, at least when he played Stones covers at the high school dances and had girls camping out on our doorstep. He’d play Vivaldi on the gut string guitar for our Aunts in their parlors in their three decker flats in Roxbury and Dorchester too, and they’d drink it in and exclaim: “He’s got the gift, surely.” So he does.

So off to the music room I went, and the Music Teacher, who looks up in the assembled throng and asks me, the new guy, what do you want to play?

Why, the drums, sir.

How hard could it be? I wondered to myself. No sheet music-- so I thought-- sit in the back, beat the skins and Rock on! Of course I’d have to suffer through some strictly squaresville music teacher stuff first, but I’d have a big ‘fro and be playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida in no time.

The music teacher looked at me like I had just soiled the carpet, and he didn’t have a rolled up newspaper handy to swat my nose.

“See those kids over there?” He asked the way drill sergeants ask questions-- like he’s daring you to answer, with extra abuse for a dumb or wiseguy remark.

I looked over and saw over a dozen sullen 7th and 8th graders lined up against the back wall, trying to avoid eye contact with me, the teacher, and each other, which didn’t leave many places to look.

“Well, they all want to learn to play the drums too, and after two tympani, a set of crash cymbals, and a triangle, it’s gonna be “Lord Of The Flies” with the rest of them. Go in the closet and pick out something else.”

I go in there, and the place is wiped out. All the boys had grabbed the trumpets, all the girls took all the clarinets and flutes, and that was about it. I started opening the remaining cases, and tried to figure out what the hell kind of sounds the disassembled pieces would make if I could put them together, which I couldn’t.

Even a boy of my tender years and sheltered background knew the sousaphone was something people would be assigned as a punishment. I had no idea what a baritone horn was. Glockenspiel? I think not. French Horn? You jam your hand in the bell of the French horn for a reason: It’ll have to do until you find a seat cushion to stuff in there. The only thing left was the trombone.

“This, you want to play this?” His incredulity gave away my error. “Suit yourself. No one wants to play that, it’s hard.”

I brought the thing home, clutching sheet music that might as well have been driving directions to Mecca in Sanskrit. My mother was very pleased, thinking classical music was a worthwhile endeavor, and would no doubt be better than the Turtles covers my older brother’s rock band had blasted in the basement a few years earlier.

Wrong, so wrong, Mom.

My first assignment was to try to get a note out of it. Any note. “Make a fart sound with your lips, and blast away until you get a note” were his instructions. There’s a “spit valve” on the end of the slide that toggles open to let the condensation that a stream of warm, moist air causes when blown through a long metal tube. That’s if you know what you’re doing; it’s plain spit if you don’t, and I didn’t, and that sent mom packing.

The house I grew up in was about the size of a trailer home. My mother wouldn’t think of discouraging me from sticking to it, but that house was one area code too small for that noise. And being fifteen, there was no power on earth that could dissuade me from endlessly playing glissandos-- mindless penny-whistle slides up and down the scale-- and never quite learning to make a pure note.

I can picture it now, me banished to the basement, the nails slowly working their way out of the siding from the din, and my mother upstairs, ironing the clothes and eying the steak knives.

Anyway, my large child took quite a bit of dissuading, and his stoic refusal to consider another instrument reminded me that no matter what you say, your children watch you and mimic you. Dad played the trombone, and I’m gonna too.

Music’s a lovely thing, it’s true, and the scarcity of people who can play a tune on an instrument these days is a shame. People my parent’s age generally had many friends that could bang out a popular tune on the piano, while their friends gathered around, Highballs and Seven and Sevens in hand, and sang along. My mom still can do it.

Rock music killed all that. It seems counterintuitive, but the idea that a few people with some simple cheap instruments could bang out a tune is all a sham with Rock. It’s all ‘tude, and attitude doesn’t often carry over into amateur hour. Amateur –hell, professional-- rock musicians can’t play much of anything, and few can accompany themselves on a guitar and sing a simple song. If you doubt me, go to a music store. There’s a reason why almost every one has a sign that says: “No Stairway to Heaven.” Everyone in the store loves that tired anthem, but they can’t stand to hear little bits of it butchered over and over again.

Someday the big one will learn to play popular music on the guitar, bass, or drums, as I did, and that’s fine; but we measured him for a violin, because we want to give him a chance to play a melody first, a real melody, in a small room with a sweet tone. He can mimic the snarling lament of talentless, rapidly aging adolescents who think becoming billionaires without ever rising before 1:00 in the afternoon “is a drag, man” later.

To lure him away from the trombone, I had to tell him that the violin bow was made from Mongolian horsehair, and that was deemed appropriately exotic and downright dangerous sounding enough to get him to forget the HVAC piping masquerading as a musical instrument that is the trombone.

But a little music in your life is lovely, isn’t it? Not the recorded kind, but sitting and listen to someone conjure sounds out of an instrument right in front of you.

Every night at bedtime I still sing and play a little nursery rhyme for my big son I cobbled together, on a cheap spanish guitar. He will always be a boy, my boy, even when AARP has him on their mailing list. And tonight, sitting in the darkness, broken only by the feeble light from the nightlight, I played the halting pizzicato notes and open strummed chords, my voice whispering the singsong rhymes that send him to sleep knowing that his father loves him-- the loveliest ritual of my entire life-- when who appears but my little son, just two years old and long since asleep, slowly turning the knob, entering his big brother’s room, closing the door, and standing sleepy and serene, transfixed by the music. When I finished he left as noiselessly as he came, and went back into his bedroom to sleep.

That’s why you learn son. Nothing much, just three chords and a little melody, and you’re the piper, the wizard that draws life in the air with sounds that blesses and embellishes the day in your own rude way, like a peasant that can’t read or write, but carves stones for a cathedral.

Just not the goddamn trombone, okay?

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