Hello Troubadourians! A good friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook: name two talents you always wished you had but just don’t. Probably 95% of the answers were either play an instrument or sing or both. Think about that for a minute. This column is written for, and mostly read by, those of you who play an instrument and sing and perform, at least occasionally. You probably know a lot of other people just like you who play and sing. It probably seems normal to you, doesn’t it? Well, judging by the response to my friend’s question, it’s not really normal at all. As musicians, we tend to hang out with other musicians so a lot of the people we know play and sing. But the truth is that most people don’t play an instrument and, apparently, a lot of them wish they did. Does that make you feel special? It should. No matter how good—or not good—you might think you are, you can do something that many people, people you know, wish that they could do. I’ll bet that even when we’re struggling to play something or to learn something new, we tend to take our playing for granted. Do you ever think about when you hadn’t learned how to play? Most of us started when we were young and, since then, our music has always been a part of our lives. We struggled to play even the simplest things, whether it was in the school band or orchestra, or a neighborhood garage band, and when we finally started making sounds that resembled actual music, it was like the sky opened and we had tapped into something magical.
In the beginning, there was an element of nerdiness for pretty much all of us. While other kids were doing cool things, we were practicing our instrument and taking lessons. For those of us who played band instruments like trumpets, clarinets, and such, the nerdiness probably lasted much longer than we ever thought it would. How many of you remember playing the theme from Hogan’s Heroes? Even piano players had to endure the endless silly songs in our lesson books or learn whatever was the latest movie theme song that either featured or was adapted for the piano. Anyone remember Chariots of Fire? How about Nadia’s Theme? Guitar players had it only a little better… We started with the Mel Bay books, but the nature of the instrument and it’s ubiquitousness in popular music gave us the option to branch out into “cooler” music that we could play on our own. John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, the Doobie Brothers, and, ultimately, the Eagles opened the door to my own enlightenment.
Okay, so some of us kept playing and some of us didn’t. It didn’t really matter which instrument we played either. If we had the talent and put in the work, we found a way and a place to play. Some of us even tried to make a living at it. A few succeeded… but that’s not the point of this column. The point is that those of us who persevered and actually gained some skill with our chosen instrument—or instruments—have been able to do something that many people didn’t or couldn’t do. Now, isn’t that worth all of the suffering? I guess the answer would be “that depends…” or “it’s complicated…”
When I was in grade school, one of my friend’s mom could play the piano just like Floyd Cramer. If you don’t know or remember who Floyd Cramer was, I strongly suggest that you look him up and listen to his music. He invented the bent-note style of piano playing, which became the template for modern keyboard players. My friend’s mom was very impressed that I knew who Floyd Cramer was and I was impressed that she was actually that good. I have no idea if she played professionally or just at home—it never occurred to me to ask—but she had definitely put in the time and work to get good at something quite extraordinary. Of course, I was directly inspired by my Uncle Bob. He was a guitarist in the old-school country style, who actually played semi-professionally. I just thought that everyone had somebody in their life that could play an instrument. It just was… but it obviously isn’t. If you were fortunate enough to be inspired to pick up an instrument and get some sounds out of it, that is truly special. Was it a relative? A friend? Or, as has become legendary for many musicians, the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show? Whatever it was, you were moved to make music a part of your life. And have you kept up with it? I know I have. I’ve said it before: people who I haven’t seen for a while ask me if I’m still playing and my answer is always “am I still breathing?” I sort of understand the question, but I’m still always amused by it. I guess I never really realized how rare it is to be able to play and how many people wish they did. And why is that? Is it a lack of inspiration? A lack of effort? Or, tragically, a lack of opportunity? I think I was extremely fortunate to have my Uncle Bob to be my inspiration and my champion. I’m certain that without him my parents would not have supported my musical desires. Whether it’s music in school or from family, it’s vital that anyone who wants to play an instrument gets the opportunity to try. We lose so much when kids are denied access to music through playing an instrument. The regret expressed by those responding to my friend’s post is evidence of that. The guitar was, and is, my salvation from the ordinary world and has led me to many extraordinary experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. I’ve learned so many life lessons through my playing that have served me well far beyond the stage. Lessons that I’ve been able to teach my daughters. They know how to be cool and be a good hang. Funny how that works…
So, when you pick up your instrument, you are doing something special. You’ve invested time into learning how to play and you can entertain, yourself at the very least. And many of you perform for others who enjoy your music. How cool is that?
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (email@example.com)