Why I ruined my life for music

2 minute read
"I couldn’t wait to see what it would be like." (Photo by woodleywonderworks, via Flickr/Creative Commons)
"I couldn’t wait to see what it would be like." (Photo by woodleywonderworks, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

My first musical encounters were at home and in church. My earliest memories involve my mother singing me songs or my father sitting me down by the stereo to listen to Neil Diamond through headphones.

At church, my father sang in the choir that sat up on the “porch,” as I called it. I’d join them, feeling the sound vibrate all around me. A local doctor, a member of the parish, was also a composer and string bass player. He’d set up his instrument along the side wall of the church. At four (or was I only three?), I had never seen anything so enormous — short of an 18-wheeler — in all my life, and it made an almost equally earthshaking sound.

Around the same time, my cousin and I were in the middle room of our grandparents’ house. He sat down at the piano, beat the hell out of it such that the noise carried down the hall and outside to the family picnic, and then ran off. I sat down just to quietly play a note or two — I couldn’t wait to see what it would be like — only to have my father come in to stop me.

A while later we moved across town and attended a newer, uglier church. The mortgage having been paid off, it was being dedicated, with trumpets blaring from the front of the room. I was amazed.

Soon I started taking piano lessons, and a few years later, trumpet lessons. By the time I was a high school senior, I had decided to become a professional musician. On a trip to New York with some relatives, my uncle and I were at the theater.

“Let’s go down and talk to the musicians!” he said.

“Let’s not,” I retorted.

He yanked my arm, and we went. Only two oboists remained after the show.

“This guy wants to be a musician,” my uncle said, pointing at me. “What do you have to say to him?”

“Don’t do it!” they replied, in uncanny unison. We laughed until we realized they were serious.

I did it. Some days I have failed miserably, but even in the most frustrating times I have only been tempted to regret it for a fleeting moment. Regret is an adult pastime motivated by extraneous concerns like finances and social status, but the only way to play music is as a child, that is, for the sheer joy of it. Maybe that’s why I take comfort in Oscar Wilde’s claim that it is disastrous to destroy one’s life for prose but perfectly acceptable to ruin it for poetry. Those oboists evidently had forgotten that, and sometimes I do, too, but I can never walk way, since the child’s love of music always wins.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation