Sunday, January 31, 2010

Virtual Musicians

Way back in the days before Virtual Reality, Garage Band and Guitar Hero, children were expected to develop their musical abilities by learning to play real musical instruments.... like the piano or violin.

It was never too early to start. The hope in many families was that they were harboring a budding Heifitz or at the very least, a Gershwin. This was a fantasy encouraged by many Hollywood screenplays of that era and the fact that Jascha and George had obviously lived with ordinary parents, sensible enough to see the value of encouraging their talents.

The intersting thing here, is that in my childhood, almost everyone took piano lessons. In our family, there was extra onus. My father was a professional musician. The story went that as a young child, he had been beaten daily to practice his violin to eventual renown, and my sister and I were, therefore, suspected by everyone, except him, of deliberately hiding our innate talents under a bushel. Given some encouragement, who knew what we could do?

My dad knew better. He had begun, as did many first generation children of Jewish immigrants, with or without potential, by studying the violin. We heard the Dickensian stories about how his poor father, the tailor, Sam, (not Mottel) sewed pants for the violin teacher in exchange for lessons. How he wasn't allowed to play baseball with the other boys in case he'd hurt his delicate fingers. It turned out, my father actually had a great talent. He was a natural musician who loved his fiddle, but not the nightly floggings he got because his evil stepmother lied to his hard-working father about how little he practiced. Fed up, he finally ran away, at the age of 15, to the North, to work in the mines and forests. He took his violin with him and played 'Mother McCrea' down at the local radio station for his landlady, in lieu of rent. Things were tough, during the Depression, in case you didn't know. (My sister and I became experts on this decade). While living in Timmins, he picked up the sax and clarinet with ease, and returned to the big city to work for one of the leading dance bands of the era. He was to go to New York to play for Glenn Miller when the war broke out and all work visas were cancelled. Ever resourceful, he opened a jazz club and developed an interest in the bassoon. During our childhood, he was steadily employed by every musical variety show on live television, so we didn’t actually see much of him, except on TV, where he was always seated on the far right of the sax section in every variety show on CBC.

With all these instruments lying around the house, you’d think we would have had our pick, but actually, we were forbidden to go near any of them on pain of death, which did not endear us to the pastime, or, frankly, my father. We were not like those cute movie families who gathered around the old fireplace to play in musical ensembles or sing duets for our own amusement. Oh sure, once in a rare while, when practicing at home, my dad would break into “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and we would prance around, paws akimbo, like demented cubs, to indulge him. However, unlike Joe Jackson, my father had no fantasies of his little girls breaking into show biz. On the contrary, he wanted us to stay as far away from it as possible.

Our mother, however, didn’t want us to miss out on any opportunities that children of the fifties were enjoying, so she signed us up for piano lessons at the local church. Although I was only seven, I suspected that something key element was missing but I was assured that I had nothing to worry about. Indeed, on the very first day we were each given a special package which, when unwrapped exposed a folded-up cardboard strip with black and white stripes, which, when unfurled, vaguely resembled a piano keyboard. We spread these out on the floor in front our crossed legs, placed our fingers on the appropriate ‘keys’ and proceeded to bang out our first notes. I immediately noticed that something was strangely silent, but since nobody else seemed to be complaining, I kept my mouth shut. For once. As the lesson progressed, I began to identify strongly with the kid in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” but didn’t quite have the confidence to expose this fiasco at such a tender, trusting age. It wasn’t the first time in my life I sensed that I was in on something that everyone else just didn’t get. It certainly shook my confidence in authority for the rest of my days.

After weeks of virtual paper-pattering, my mother convinced my father that all this dedication deserved a real instrument. Any enthusiasm for actual playing had long been sucked out of me, but we were expected to make the gesture pay off, so had to practice scales and little ditties for a few years. My father had no interest in replicating the teaching methods inflicted on him, so there were no beatings. Without that crucial encouragement, we never really got very far. Eventually, our mother just gave up on us. How long can anyone stand to listen to 'Heart and Soul' or 'Chopstix', after all?

The music gene skipped a generation to my nephew, who, while not a professional musician, definitely has the stuff.
(And the old piano!)

Mind you, he never had to play on a piece of paper.

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