The summer of the year I turned nine, one year after my father died in Vietnam, Mother announced that I would “take music” from my grandfather. He had already taught my brother, Jack, and he told her he could give me my lesson right before or right after Jack’s lesson. My heart leapt at the thought of taking music. Everyone in my mother’s family possessed an abundance of musical talent. My grandparents had an orchestra in the forties and fifties that had garnered quite a bit of local renown. I wanted, like most kids (and especially after the death of my father – my one, true soul-mate in the family) to belong, to be like everyone else, to fit in and share the family talent. Music lessons, in my mind, provided the golden key to the door of sameness – of familial belonging – through which I had not yet stepped.
With a great deal of anticipation, I asked Mother when I would get my instrument and what would it be – a violin, an accordion, a trumpet, or, perhaps, a drum? Maybe we would purchase a piano! I really did not care what instrument they wanted me to play, having no personal preference or experience, and having been stirred to excitement by only one musical performance in my young life: John Lennon’s harmonica playing in A Hard Day’s Night, a scene which sent thrills of incomprehensible, thigh-squeezing titillation through me.
“You can play Jack’s guitar for a little while, until we see how it goes,” Mother told me. Music lessons lost their shine as I contemplated my brother’s electric guitar. It had never occurred to me that I would be forced to play the guitar. The guitar was the province of Granddaddy and Jack, their special talent and bond. Jack never let me touch his guitar, though I had, in secret, picked it up a few times and pulled at the hard, unyielding strings. My skinny, chewed fingertips could not extract a sound from that guitar.
And so I began. Each week, as I hefted the instrument into my lap, the weight of it depressed me, as did my continued inability to pluck melodic sounds from it (even when Granddaddy plugged it into the electric amp). My child’s fingers barely stretched around the neck of the guitar at its narrowest. The frets bruised my tender fingertips, eventually causing them to bleed. Granddaddy promised that calluses would grow if I practiced enough. I guess I never practiced enough.
Try as I might, the guitar did not sing in my hands as it did in Jack’s, whose playing stopped people and forced them to listen as his fingertips danced up and down the neck of the guitar. The instrument remained a dead weight in my own arms, a constant, chafing albatross of a burden that grew heavier and more dreaded each week. I adored Granddaddy and his ever-patient attitude with me, but the highlight of his visit became the time I spent before or after the lesson playing Barbies with Susie, my same-aged aunt who always tagged along with him on his rounds. In the beginning, Jack took his lesson first, wanting to finish and rejoin his friends outside. After a few lessons, though, Granddaddy tactfully asked Mother to let me go first. I know now that he wanted to be done with me so that he could enjoy his time with Jack, the inheritor of his own considerable talent.
I compensated for my bloody, bruised and bungling fingers by learning to read music. I attacked my sheets of music with a concentrated vengeance, memorizing the notes to “Don’t Blame Me” and “September Song” until I could play them – so to speak – without looking at them. It never occurred to me (and Granddaddy, bless him, never told me) that skillful reading of the notes, without the fire of true talent, is simply skillful reading of notes. Granddaddy would joke that if I had Jack’s hands and he had my ability and willingness to study the music, we would be unstoppable. (Jack, of course, could read the music every bit as well as I could and better, but refused to waste time learning the notes to hokey old songs from the past when he could play “Wild Thing” and “She Loves You” by ear.)
My hands became hated objects to me, ugly and useless appendages dangling at the ends of my arms, symbols of my lack of musical talent, of my otherness. My fine ability to read music only frustrated me more. What my eyes read – and my brain translated – as the jazzy, big band sounds of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, or of Peggy Lee crooning “Don’t Blame Me” with the Dave Barbour Band – my fingers plucked out haltingly and with all the resonance of a stick being rubbed across a rope. I had the infamous distinction of being the only child ever to play at one of Granddaddy’s recitals with accompanying musicians. Granddaddy begged Jack and his friend, James, to play their guitar and piano behind me, much to my brother’s chagrin as this meant he had to learn two more pieces of music. Granddaddy probably didn’t want to sully his untarnished reputation as an instructor with my performance. I bore him no ill will for this; I was thankful to have the help and not the least bit embarrassed. I knew I played terribly.
This first phase of my musical career ended when we moved to Nashville the summer I turned twelve. By this time, Jack had attained the coveted first-chair saxophone position in the high school band and was playing gigs all over the area with his rock-and-roll group. I pretended to love music, buying many records at the Sound Shop that I carried home, only to leave virginal and untouched in their sleeves, perpetually unplayed in a neat stack by my hi-fi. My true desire was to buy books – only and ever books. Mother did encourage me to read, but music still predominated. Our home resounded with music and the conversations of music-lovers and bona fide musicians. And, in the manner of all teens, I wanted to belong, so I professed an interest in music and feigned a nonchalance about my non-playing status which everyone seemed to find convincing.
It was expected that I would join the high school band, but I held out until the tenth grade, only joining after I realized what a boon it would be to my social life. During football season, I insisted on marching in the Color Guard. In my short, black skirt and jaunty, plumed hat, twirling my flag to the music and showing off my legs, I believed myself to be almost talented. During concert season, I toyed with an instrument, mainly to stay in Band and avoid taking Phys. Ed. (a hellish class for any female even remotely shy about her chest size). Playing the clarinet laughably was preferable to changing clothes in a locker room filled with cheerleaders.
I rebelled, though, in a small, insipid way that was peculiarly my own, by never practicing, not even for the chair tryouts held every January when school resumed. As I tortured the ears of the judging panel sitting behind the blanket, known only to them – I believed – by a number, I kicked myself for not practicing, at the same time as I professed not to care.
“Is that you, Browning?” Miss Hood would always yell around the curtain, scaring me enough to stop the music, even as I came to expect the interruption.
“Yes, ma’am,” I would reply.
“Did you practice the tryout piece even once this year?” she would ask, every year.
“Well, um, I did look it over,” I would begin, too honest to lie.
“Get out of here!” she would shout, though not unkindly. And to her credit, she never once mentioned Jack’s name or his musical reputation, though she had directed him in Band long before I came along.
My brand-new, shiny, black – and very expensive, my mother was quick to remind me – Buffet (pronounced, for the neophyte, boo-fay) clarinet rarely needed a new reed, I played it so infrequently. In a perverse sort of way, I wanted to be last chair, just as my brother had always been first chair throughout his years in the high school band. If I could not be first, I did not want to be mediocre. I would be last and worst, a cry to the world to see me and recognize me as NOT a musician. Unfortunately, my playing never succeeded in sounding bad enough to get me placed in the last chair. Even without practicing, my fingers unerringly picked out the notes of the music, my lips covered the mouthpiece of the horn in such a way as to prevent most squeaking, and the song rolled out of my horn recognizable enough to place me in the first chair of the last row of five rows of budding clarinetists. I think Miss Hood was trying to force me to take responsibility for the small bit of innate talent I did possess by giving me a chair accountable for a row of horn players worse than me.
Never practicing proved to be a bitter triumph at best since I secretly regretted my ineptness each time the band played in a concert or a contest. I would feel the music soar through my soul only to belch indifferently from the end of my beautiful clarinet. My Buffet clarinet, still virtually unplayed, was stolen the last week of my senior year of high school, thus ending my second foray into music. (It is my sincere belief that someone with a genuine talent for music but not much money rescued my Buffet clarinet and gave it a far more productive musical life than I ever could have or wanted to give it. I bless the thief who took my horn.) When I received the insurance money, I purchased a new stereo, determined that my future enjoyment of music would be strictly passive.
Two months ago, I received a call from David, the music director of my church. A little bird, he said, had told him that I had some musical talent and might be interested in joining the Adult Handbell Choir. After the initial shock wore off, a tiny, hopeful wave of excitement coursed through me which I immediately attempted to squelch by telling David – and reminding myself – of the twenty long years it had been since I read a sheet of music or touched a musical instrument. “No problem,” David assured me, with the confident voice of someone for whom music is like breathing. “Just like riding a bike. It will all come back to you.”
During the first practice, I sweated bullets as I hefted my handbells – notes A, B, A- flat and B-flat – and attempted to ring them with confidence as my head bobbed, counting the time. And one and two and three and one and two and three and one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Reading the notes came back to me quickly; counting the measures made me a nervous wreck. By the end of the hour, I played my part without too many glaring mistakes. By the Christmas Cantata, I rang my bells with conviction, amazed at what pleasure performing could be, and thrilled with the payoff of actually having practiced on my own at home.
No longer am I a passive audience member, drumming my fingers and tapping my toes, detecting mistakes because I know just enough about music to hear when it is not being played correctly. I have an instrument that I play which brings pleasure to others. No one says, in a pseudo-whisper, “Jack has all the talent,” or, worse yet, “If only she had Jack’s hands.” I read the music and my hated hands, beautiful in the white gloves worn by the Handbell Choir, translate the notes into ringing melodies that people recognize and enjoy. I don’t just read music. I play it. I still don’t know which little bird ratted me out as a potential bell-ringer, but I am forever grateful. Having music as an integral part of my life again has filled an empty hole I refused to believe existed. In a strange way, I feel as if I belong now.
Maybe this year, I’ll buy myself a new clarinet. Or a guitar.