I don’t come from a musical family. One of my parents admits to being stone deaf, and the other never developed much musical taste beyond the musicals and popular songs of the Fifties and their latter day equivalents. As a result, most of what I know about music I’ve learned through trial and error on my own. And, as might be expected in a writer, my tastes show a strong preference for music that includes poetic and intelligent lyrics.
I certainly never learned much about music at school. In elementary school, the teacher was a semi-professional musician whom those with musical training adored. Unfortunately for me, he had no interest in teaching those of us who didn’t already have a musical background. Given a trombone to play because that was what my brother had used, I was put into the band class with no understanding of what I was supposed to do, and no one who was interested in showing me.
Predictably, I suffered as only a proud child can suffer. Bad enough that a solo passage for trombone in “More” was given to a friend who played the French horn because I was incapable of it, but, by the end of my penal servitude in band the teacher wouldn’t even bother to see if I was in tune. That I was good academically and athletically, and that these humiliations were very public, with an audience that included several girls on whom I had crushes only made the experience harder to endure.
But I’ve always been a whistler and a singer, and somehow I started discovering some musical tastes on my own. I started with Simon and Garfunkel, attracted by Paul Simon’s songwriting, and soon branched out into Bob Dylan, whose cryptic lyrics made my tastes an oddity in my neighborhood and generation.
Stumbling blindly and still not really knowing what a flat or a sharp was (since no one had ever bothered to show me), I kept on in the same vein, discovering singers like Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Maddy Prior, Stan Rogers, and June Tabor, all of whom were either song-writers themselves or at least selected intelligent material. I didn’t completely neglect acoustic music, but the music that I’ve kept coming back to all my life has generally had strong lyrics.
Needless to say, it was definitely not Top 40. But Vancouver is full of small concert venues for those who have come to listen rather than mingle, and, at times, the greater part of my social life has been going out to concerts.
Neither was my taste classical. To this day, my knowledge of classical music is made up mostly of enthusiasms. I know enough that I can tell Chopin from Beethoven or Mozart, but my favorites are a haphazard lot: Vivaldi, a lot of romantics or eccentrics like Sibelius or Grieg, some Wagner overtures, and even Scriabin, whose complexities are intriguing even to my erratically trained ear.
My blue and jazz knowledge ditto, although it’s been broadening recently. As for opera – well, English isn’t the language of operas, is it? If there are words, I am half-maddened by not being able to understand them. And a little light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan goes a long way, rather like reading too many P.G. Wodehouses in succession; you start longing for something of substance.
Still, I’m not complaining – much. Considering my unpromising musical education, I’m surprised that I have any musical interest at all. The best use I found for my trombone was using its case as a sled after school, and, unsurprisingly, I used the transfer to high school as an excuse to drop band.
Mostly, I don’t think about my musical mis-education. But, when I do, I start to get angry, not just at remembered humiliation, but at how unnecessary my lack of musical direction was, and how easily it could have been corrected by a competent teacher. I know I have a reasonable if limited singing voice, because I’ve used it at parties with no one fleeing. Yet when I think how close I came to eliminating music altogether from my life, I’m still full of resentments.