I went to see the folk trio The Good Lovelies recently and they were amazing as usual. They make singing in perfect harmony seem so effortless. I’ve never heard the three—Kerri Ough, Caroline Brooks and Sue Passmore—hit a bum note. They also play a bunch of instruments, from guitar, to banjo, to mandolin, to percussion.
What must that be like?
I’ve always dreamed of being musical. I’ve always liked to believe that I’m a musical genius whose talent has yet to burst forth. I just haven’t found my instrument.
However, on the way to finding my instrument, I have left a trail of musical debris behind me. I began with the cornet. I never quite got the hang of it. Everything I attempted sounded like a version of Swan Lake in which the swan was choking on a discarded pop can tab. When you’re eight you can’t argue your music is Avant-garde.
So I was given a euphonium instead. That also went badly and my music lessons ended abruptly. I was fine with it. There is something about a “spit valve” that turns me off anyway.
In Grade 7 I got another chance to embrace the wonderment of creating sounds that when strung together resemble a song. I was dying to play flute. I imagined myself wandering through the forest entertaining the woodland creatures and finding peace deep within my soul.
Unfortunately, my lip size put me in clarinet. I don’t actually think that’s a thing. I think the music/history/geography teacher made it up because no one wanted to play clarinet.
I loathed everything about it. I hated licking the reed—it was gross—and I hated the sound of the instrument, also gross. So I spent the class moseying around the room and hanging out with my friends in the flute section.
For my lack of interest and lack of aptitude I was duly punished in Grade 8. I was put into the “special” music class with the other losers who couldn’t master a band instrument. We spent the year making xylophones out of hockey sticks.
We were encouraged to go down to the local arena and beg for broken sticks, as if we were method actors cast in Oliver! We were instructed to look out for fiberglass sticks because they have the best sound. And by the way, that’s all I learned from that class. It’s been incredibly useful through the years. I’m waiting for it to come up in Trivial Pursuit.
We spent every music period trying to cut through the sticks with a dull saw. By the time the bell rang I was typically only halfway through one stick and there was a line of people, mostly boys, waiting for the saw. There should have been a fundraiser to beef up the music/shop program budget. Maybe the gifted band nerds could have played during a bake sale.
At the end of the year, we each had our moment to shine when we stepped to the front of the class to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on our xylophones. It was magical. Ting tang bing tang ting ting ting.
I’ve always prattled on about how I wanted to learn piano but never got the opportunity. Tony signed me up for private lessons about a year ago. I hate it when he does that—you know, listens to me and then takes me seriously.
It was a huge risk to take lessons because it could shatter my long-held belief that I’m a natural. I might discover that like the cornet, horn, clarinet, and hockey-stick xylophone, the piano is not my instrument. I may be left with the triangle.
Because my musical education was so neglected, there is a part of my brain that has been in a coma for a couple of decades. I wondered if it was too late to learn an instrument, from ground zero, smack dab in the middle of middle age.
I went to my first lessons somewhat reluctantly but soon discovered at 40-something I am in fact a prodigy. So there you go folks: follow your dreams and all of that.
Maybe prodigy isn’t the right word but I am a standout. Claryssa’s students have homework and parents who drive them to lessons. I don’t have homework and I drive myself. I’m probably the oldest student by three-and-a-half octaves.
Claryssa is sincere and adamant when she insists it’s never too late to learn. That’s easy for her to say, she’s been playing since she discovered she had hands. She’s about 23, a Laurier University music grad and general musical genius. She has played violin and piano, and practiced voice all her life. She can play anything with strings.
She has perfect pitch and can tell, without looking, where a fiddler is on the neck of the instrument, which fingers they’re using and the direction of the bow—up or down.
She’s trying to train my ear. To do that she plays middle C and then another note and I have to figure out what note she played in relation to C. That exercise usually goes like this: Claryssa, “OK, here’s C and what’s this?” Me, “E?” Claryssa, “No. Close. I’ll play it again.” Me, “F?” Claryssa, “No. Here it is again.” Me, “D?” Claryssa, “No. One more time.” Me, “Q?”
She encourages me to sing and experiment a little bit so I added my own lyrics to “Ode to Joy.” I wouldn’t categorize them as “joyful” so much as a spontaneous rap that could make Snoop Dog blush.
When I play for Claryssa and hit the wrong notes, I think she worries about my mental health. She gently and soothingly reminds me we all make mistakes and that we have to be patient with ourselves. I don’t do the rap version of “Ode to Joy” in front of her, but instead sing like a pirate, ARRRRGGGGHHHHH, accompanied by hand flapping. I’m working on my stage presence.
I’ve watched great pianists like Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk play. Even with the sound off you can see how great they are. They’re fingers look like they’re part of the instrument.
My fingers look awkward. It’s like I just got them from Amazon and I ordered the wrong size. So, when I play, the saints don’t march in so much as stumble over their robes.
I think it may be time to shelve the dream of a musical career. I don’t think I’ll be getting a Grammy or a Juno or even a Golden Raspberry. But when I play a song right, the whole way through, once or twice, I get a sticker from Claryssa. Right now that’s just as good.
And if I go into a town with one of those “play me I’m yours” pianos set up on the street or in a park I’m pretty sure I could pound out “Oh Susanna.”
So I guess that’s middle-aged reality, which is still better than never playing the blues.