Music to Somebody’s Ears

In a previous life, beginning in adolescence and proceeding until the creaky announcement of impending middle age, I listened to music whenever I could. Draped over a kitchen chair, entranced by the tinny monaural emissions from the Bakelite radio atop the refrigerator—Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, the others arriving with a minimum of commercial interruption from an Omaha radio station. In the bedroom I shared with my older brother, a transistor radio with an even tinnier speaker tuned to KOMA in Oklahoma City, a station with a signal that would reach our farmhouse in rural Iowa more or less intact late at night. It was there, tucked into the covers with the volume turned low enough to avoid attracting parental attention, that I first heard Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly and others who seemed to be telling me that life wasn’t just the drudgery of chores and school and going to church on Sunday. The guitar licks and beats of “Who Do You Love?” and “Not Fade Away” and other songs entered my body like a virus that was going to change everything, although I didn’t know what that change would be or when it would come.

Later I was seized with passion, sometimes long-lasting and sometimes brief, for other rock groups. I developed a taste for folk music, for blues, for soul and r&b, for various expressions of jazz, for much of what falls under the umbrellas of roots and world music. From time to time I listened to classical music, but it never became a radio or record player staple.

But now, trudging into my ninth decade, I might go days without listening to music other than the soundtracks of TV programs or movies. Our house has shelves of vinyl albums and drawers filled with CDs. There are thousands of digital music files on my computer. We have a subscription to Pandora. When we have guests for dinner, we usually put on something to play in the background. But what I most often want to hear when I am alone is silence. Or the closest thing that passes for silence in an urban environment, which even late at night is a kind of hum punctuated by honks and sirens and errant noises impossible to identify.

My brother, whose breadth of musical knowledge and size of collections far exceeds my own, tells me that he has experienced the same phenomenon. And my sister, too. Both say their preferred audio environment is silence. I take this to be a matter of age, not genetics.

My sister plays the piano, and some years ago she gave my wife a digital piano she no longer wanted. Neither my wife nor I played any sort of musical instrument, but she had a desire to learn and took some lessons from a woman who lived within walking distance of our house. When our grandson became interested in playing and actually displayed a bit of musical talent, my wife bestowed the piano on him and bought a more advanced digital model for herself.

At the risk of making this tale overly convoluted, I need to go back almost seventy years, to junior high school and a music teacher who recruited me to play in the school marching band. I was assigned an instrument, not on the basis of my own interest, but on what the band needed. I would have chosen to play a trumpet, or drums, but instead I was handed a clarinet. I hated it from the very beginning, the feel of the reed on my lips, the screeches and squawks it emitted, and not least, the fact that an older girl who played first clarinet expressed her disgust whenever I missed a note or fell out of step. I’d scarcely heard of such clarinet virtuosos as Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, and maybe if I had been encouraged to look at them as role models I might have regarded the instrument more sympathetically. As it was, I refused at some point to keep playing it, and it sat for years in its case until it disappeared, to where I have no idea.

Over the years I made some half-hearted efforts to learn to play other instruments—guitar, harmonica, recorder. I even took some singing lessons, but the less said about that experience, the better. My wife’s piano eventually beckoned, though, and a few years ago I began to plunk around on it and signed up for some lessons with the woman in our neighborhood. My progress was so plodding and practicing so sporadic that I couldn’t justify more than a dozen lessons, but I did learn to play simple versions of “Amazing Grace” and “The Entertainer” and one of my all-time favorite songs, “At Last.”

A friend who owned several pianos but was downsizing offered to give me one of them, a black, upright model that had been a practice piano in the music department of a local university. It cost me $400 to have it moved to our second floor studio where I have my office, and the first time I sat down to play I was startled by how much better it sounded than the digital piano, even though my layperson’s ear could tell that it wasn’t perfectly in tune.

Now I play it every day, never for a long time, sometimes only for a few minutes. I still play the same version of “Amazing Grace” and I’ve learned a basic version of “Summertime,” and for months now I’ve been practicing the opening section of “Für Elise.” My fingers don’t dance over the keys. Fumble or grope is more descriptive. I could once lose myself in listening to music, but now I lose myself in attempts to make it. The fact the attempts don’t amount to much isn’t important, I’ve decided, it’s that sitting at the piano takes me into another world.

The long arc of the past, crowded with the gems and the detritus of experience, so often insists upon attention. When I was 14 years old, plagued by the miseries of adolescence, listening to Buddy Holly on the transistor radio late at night was an escape from existential burdens that seemed too numerous to count. Now, picking out the notes of “At Last” on the piano is an escape from the past with its burdensome memories and the future with its urgent message to stop wasting time and get things done.

I’ll never be as good as my sister or certain piano-playing friends, although it’s probably inevitable that I’ll get a little better. However, it no longer matters. Those moments when the mind is filled with nothing but the sound of the hammers striking the strings is a kind of bliss that doesn’t require guitars and drums and loudspeakers and a volume control but only a desire to exist in the moment and nowhere else.

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