My Grandma Mae got us a secondhand Kimball piano somewhere along the line, back when she still worked for the schools and they were getting rid of one. I don’t remember now how we got it from Maple, Wisconsin to Escanaba, Michigan, but it sat in our dining room. I would pick out tunes on it, and my mom taught me to play “Heart and Soul,” and somebody else, might’ve been my cousin Becky, taught me “Chopsticks.” I started taking piano lessons in the 4th grade with a teacher named Karen Pratt. I loved her, and so I loved the piano. She had beautiful handwriting. Seems to me I wasn’t a great practicer, but I wasn’t a bad one either.
We moved to Manitowoc the summer between 4th and 5th grades, and my mom found both me and my brother a new piano teacher. I didn’t love her, and my interest in practicing piano suffered for it. She was the kind who was always nagging you to curve your hands a certain way, and poking her bony finger in your back to get you to sit up straighter. I took lessons from her for a little over 2 years, and practiced less and less until I quit, both the practicing and then the lessons shortly thereafter.
I started public school for the first time the year we moved, and they offered 5th-graders the opportunity to play orchestra instruments. (Band wasn’t offered until 6th grade.) So I signed up to play the violin on top of the piano lessons, my mom rented me a violin, and it became my new love. Colleen McMahon was my teacher, and I loved her, too. I worked hard to impress her, and I started off strong, practicing every day.
But though I played in school orchestras until I graduated, in time, my devotion to practice became spotty at best, and it always was on the violin, because if you’re not playing the first violin part, it’s pretty boring to play alone. Unless you’re playing concertos, you really need the whole orchestra to bring the music to life. A lone violin part is like being just the flour in some really tasty cookies: necessary, but dry and dull all by itself. You spend a lot of time counting and playing repetitive rhythm bits until you finally fall asleep and crash head-first into your music stand, risking life, limb, and a bow up the nose. However, sometimes I’d be willing to practice without my mother having to holler at me to do it, and up to my room I’d go to do my cat-torturing impression, which (generally) became more sad and shrill in direct proportion to how much nagging my mother had to do to get me to practice and how much I didn’t want to practice at that particular moment
My bedroom in our place on Michigan Avenue was in back of the house, and it came equipped with a balcony that overlooked the back yard, garage, and alley, which I loved. On nice days, I would put my music stand out on my balcony, drag a chair out there, and bring my violin outside to serenade the neighborhood for half an hour in the breezy, careless manner that only a 12-year-old not yet stricken with the extreme self-consciousness of adolescence can manage. It never occurred to me that the neighborhood would not enjoy the dulcet strains of me scratching away on my fiddle. It never occurred to me to think of the neighborhood at all. I was 12, after all.
I was put in mind of those carefree, caterwauling days recently when I unexpectedly discovered that the boy across the street had come into possession of a drum kit. Did I discover this information because I saw him and his dad carrying the drums into their house?
Let me just say that it is monsoon season here in the Old Pueblo, which means that everyone who has an air conditioner (in addition to a swamp cooler) has it cranked, and all the doors and windows are shut tight, because only the Rockefellers are able to afford A/C AND gasoline this summer. But nonetheless, I know that the neighbor kid has a new drum kit, because I can hear it.
In my house.
My house with all the doors and windows shut tight.
My house across the street from the kid’s house, which also has all the doors and windows shut tight.
Sadly, the boy is a diligent practicer, and I hear drums from across the street from the time I get home from work at night until bedtime, and even more on weekends. Frequently, his long-haired buddies from the neighborhood come over and contribute the cacophony.
On the one hand, I think kids having the opportunity to play music is one of the best things we can give them, and for all my mother’s struggles to get me to practice, I am grateful every day that my folks invested in musical education for me. I’ve gotten more out of it than I can ever quantify. And though it took 25 years, I’ve become a diligent practicer of the guitar, even if I never was on piano or violin.
And in truth, it’s better than the situation we had in our first apartment here in Tucson. There, our bedroom shared a wall with the neighbor’s living room. And the neighbor had a budding clarinetist in residence who was fond of practicing in the living room before noon on Saturdays. Lemme tell ya, there are few things more startling (and homicidal rage-inducing) than to be awakened from deep slumber by the squeaking and squawking emitted by a novice’s clarinet at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
The only way it could be worse is if it were an oboe. Which may be what one of the neighbor children to the east plays, but whoever it is tends to play only at night, and we don’t have to share a wall. Thank heavens.
But regardless of this somewhat tarnished silver lining, the fact of the matter is that I get to listen to the kid across the street put in serious time on drums, and I can only consider myself lucky in that it isn’t MY kid and my house he’s playing in, even though it sounds very nearly like he is.
I think back to that young girl who played her violin for the neighborhood. And I think about the old girl who plays her guitar in the back yard now from time to time, and I think “Damn, karma’s a bitch.” And then I think, “I’d better plug in and crank this amp to 11.”