3. First Steps in Making Music

When I have a profound or moving aesthetic experience, I often wish I were able to create something like it myself. I’ve felt a strong impulse to make art in various ways. Sometimes the artistic achievement seems too impossibly distant (painting like Rembrandt, for example, or playing the cello like Yo Yo Ma) and I quickly dismiss the impulse. For many years, I pursued the impulse to write poetry and fiction, because even though I never imagined I could write like William Stafford or William Trevor, some more modest creation seemed within my grasp.

When I look back at my life, I see that I’ve made several efforts at making music with various instruments. Like many middle-class children of my generation, I took piano lessons beginning in my grade school years. (There had always been an upright piano in our home, because my mother played some.) I continued lessons until I was in high school. I never felt able to read music well enough that I could sight-read a simple piece of music. I remember avoiding practicing, especially when I was little. My goal was to practice just enough to convince my teacher that I had practiced. Sometime around my junior year in high school, I tried to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but never got beyond the slow opening section. At the same time, I greatly admired Dave Brubeck and used to noodle around to a few chords in a primitive approximation of his piano playing.

I was always tapping on things as a young boy, so my family encouraged me to take up the drums. I took lessons and played snare drum and percussion in the Lawrence High School band and orchestra. (To the disappointment of some, this didn’t cause me to stop tapping, which continues to be a source of annoyance to my wife.) I remember admiring old-time jazz drummers like Gene Krupa (1909-1973) and Buddy Rich (1917-1987). One Christmas during my early teen years my parents—to my great surprise and delight—gave me a drum set with snare, bass, high hat and cymbal. I never felt like I was very good at it, but had fun pounding. I stopped playing after I went to college.

Some time during my late high school or early college years, I went through a period of admiring classical guitarists such as Julian Bream (born 1933) and Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), and flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya (1903-1993). I took classical guitar lessons for a while and then got too busy or lost interest and abandoned them.

In the 1960s, I bought harmonicas and fooled around with them, but didn’t apply myself to learning to play properly. In the 1970s, I bought a tenor recorder and some music books and learned to play a few tunes. I found that quite satisfying even at the relatively simple level at which I could play. Then my life got complicated and I stopped playing, but I thought of getting back to it “one of these days.”