“You have the hands of a drummer.” One of my supervisors at work says this to me. It’s a fairly curious and intimate thing to say to someone you don’t know very well who is not a drummer and has never drummed. I look at my hands. I have always thought I had music in me. But if there is music inside me, the music is having a very hard time getting out. Not bursting out eagerly like the head of a ferocious beast from the body of an unwilling host in the movie “Aliens.” The music inside me is blocked up and choked off like gridlocked traffic on a busy New York City intersection during rush hour where no one can move in any direction and all that is left to do is to honk your horn irritably – a sound signifying nothing in particular to no one at all.
I don’t have the temperament of a drummer. I’m not loud enough. Not terribly daring. Not in-your-face enough. I’m quietly subversive like a kazoo. If my supervisor had told me I had the hands of a triangle player that would have been more believable. Maybe the triangle player hits his instrument delicately three times or so during an entire orchestra piece. The triangle player is not going to get wrapped up in his playing and take off on an unscheduled solo. He’s not going to have to worry about groupies gathering backstage who have fallen under his spell. He’s just adding to the chorus of life in his own quiet, peculiar way.
My first questionable contribution to the world of music was in the children’s choir in First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s hard to imagine this was my idea at the age of ten. But I enjoyed being a part of something. And I liked the sound of the other children’s voices even as I hated the sound of my own voice. To hear more of their voices and less of my own, I often simply mouthed the words to the hymns. It’s not uncommon. I’ve seen a group of a dozen singers perform at school functions and in churches with only five children actively singing. The rest were rolling their eyes, examining the floor or just mouthing the words mutely. Most of the lip-synchers I’ve noticed are boys. That’s why most children’s choirs have a very high, girly sound. I’m just saying.
I took piano lessons in middle school. We had a piano in the house. It always seemed a little out of tune to me. But we did have a guy come to the house to tune the piano once. This is a profession like professional chimney sweep that probably has existed for centuries. A good piano tuner costs an unreasonable amount of money. I think it might have cost them more than a hundred dollars to get the piano tuned, which was a crazy amount of money to my parents back then. Back in Charles Dickens’ day, small boys were sold to Chimney Sweeps as apprentices who lowered them down into the chimneys because they could fit in the smallish places that needed to be cleaned. Life as a piano tuner sounds much less hazardous and more financially rewarding by comparison. Maybe it always has been.
I learned to play “The Entertainer” from the movie “The Sting,” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It’s a Scott Joplin tune that I love. I learned “Fur Elise.” I practiced the scales. Learned about half notes and quarter notes. The bass cleff and the treble. Both my pinkie fingers curve inward, making it hard to reach an entire octave. It’s a genetic thing, as my father’s pinkies curve inward that way and my son’s do as well. Possibly it has to do with too much inbreeding in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina on my dad’s side of the family. That’s pure speculation. Just idle gossip I heard once. Pay it no mind. But it’s also actually true. I’m just saying.
I took piano lessons for almost two years as I recall. I suffered through one piano recital in a stuffy shirt and tie, but I bailed on the enterprise before the second recital could roll around. I just wasn’t into it. If God really wanted me to play piano, he would have straightened out my pinkie fingers, I decided. My mom told me she considered letting the doctor break both my pinkies and set them straight as a baby. That was my only option available for getting straight pinkies. She decided I could probably overcome my tiny defect without brute surgical force. It wasn’t like I had a horn growing out of my head or a hunchback. No doubt she would have had my horn lopped off post haste or made me wear a cumbersome corrective back brace until I was twenty years old if I’d been hunching around the house as a child.
I was a miserable trombone player in my middle school band. I watched what the band’s other trombone player was doing and mimicked that movement as quickly as possible so that I was usually hitting the right note about half a beat behind the rest of the band. Most of the time, I simply moved the slide around and pretended to play. During a brief stint in the marching band, I found it easier to march in the right pattern since I didn’t have to worry about playing at the same time.
Many years after the piano lessons, I was living in a home in Spencer, North Carolina not long out of college. I thought it would be a great idea to learn to play the guitar. I liked carrying the guitar case. I thought it made me look cool and bohemian. I had taken about five lessons before I toted my guitar to the campus of UNC-Charlotte where I was taking graduate level classes in education and sat down on a warm spring day under a tree to pick out notes to “Midnight Special” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I thought perhaps a pretty young woman or two might gather admiringly to listen to my primitive finger picking. But I was living in a fantasy world. My five lessons were not enough to lure in a crowd of groupies or even a single coed to my shady tree.
I think my musical ability was inherited from my father like my crooked pinkies. He stood on cue like we all did in our customary pew at church when hymns were sang. He sang. But it wasn’t really singing. It was more like a low, toneless recital of the words. My sister and I put our hands over our ears. We whispered in his ear that he was too loud. His chanting became softer. “Nope,” we said. “Too loud. We can still hear you.”
Some years after the guitar, I collected a harmonica. I hoped to become a harmonica master. But I soon grew dispirited at my lack of musical acumen and put the instrument in a drawer where it collected dust. A pair of maracas I picked up one time in Tijuana during an epic family trip to California suffered a similar fate.
My wife used to sing to our sons when they were small. “The Water is Wide.” “The House on Pooh Corner.” “I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” She has a beautiful voice. I’d linger outside their bedroom doors to listen as she sang to them. They would never have stood for me croaking out a tune at them.
Before we lived in New York City a year and a half ago, I would sometimes sing along to songs on the radio as I drove my car around Wilmington, North Carolina. No one outside my vehicle had any idea how horrible my voice sounded. How mismatched it was to the sounds coming from the car speaker. As I tried to wake up for an early 6 a.m. work shift, I’d belt out whatever song was playing. I found it gave me a fresh energy, a hopefulness about the long day ahead.
Here in New York City, I don’t dare sing aloud as I walk to the subway, much less on the subway train itself. I don’t know any of the people I’m walking or sitting around, but it doesn’t seem fair to inflict my toneless voice on them.
I hear music in the subway often. Other people singing for dollars. I dig in my pocket when I can. I sometimes stand in wonder, held spellbound by the sounds they make. Sometimes it’s just a guy and a couple buckets with a pair of drumsticks banging in a rowdy fashion with a broad smile. He might even twirl them around in a showy fashion as he plays. Or it might be the unearthly sound of a handsaw that looks brutal and sounds elegant. It could be a simple a capella rendition of a hymn like “Amazing Grace.” I forget where I was going for a moment and why it seemed so important to get there. I clap like a madman when their songs end.
If I could make such a joyful noise, I surely would. My gift isn’t to make music like that, I’ve decided after years of experimentation and failure. It’s simply to appreciate the disparate sounds and love the world a little more when I hear the stray notes drifting across the tracks while the local train lumbers slowly toward my station. My hips sway slightly to the distant beat.
That’s the music in me. It hums through me as I stand waiting. Vibrates inside. Lifts me somewhere better. It doesn’t come from me. But it pierces through to my essence. Plucks some hidden string. Strikes some chord in my soul. Fills me up. And that’s enough.