We often hear stories of various wunderkinder who, as soon as their pudgy toddler hands become articulated enough to thump keys on a keyboard, play back heard melodies with astonishing precision. In fact, in this, the era of YouTube, it is almost impossible to avoid them. Their parents are all-too avid to monetize the content generated by these Millennial Mozarts.
That is, of course, assuming the parents have any love for or interest in music or that there are any melodies heard in the house at all. A musical prodigy may sit and stew in such a household, wondering what the hell is wrong with them. There are tunes (and attempts at tunes) to be heard driveling constantly on television, most unavoidably in commercials, and they prove to be the bad musical currency that drives the good out of circulation. It amounts to melodic malnutrition.
Our natural musician might find an out-of-tune piano crammed into a corner of a rec room, only to have Mom or Dad screaming at the child to “knock it off” just as they’re composing the first notes of their Opus 1. They’ve been meaning to get rid of that piece of junk for ages, except that it costs money to have someone haul it away.
In school they may have a battered horn stuck in their hands (if the Board of Education hasn’t defunded the music program). Trying to press the sticky valves in this grubby hand-me-down is itself a form of discouragement, though a pure note may emerge from its bell. Or a well-meaning relative may have bestowed a cheap electronic keyboard (“Play it with the headphones, please!”) that is not quite entirely unmusical. Their long-delayed First Concerto sounds like a hive of bees buzzing at different frequencies.
Their friends, similarly musically malnourished, opt for screaming electric guitars, the grinding thud of drums and bass, or the disgruntled auctioneering of rap. Unheard melodies are indeed sweetest—and they are indeed unheard. Our thwarted prodigy is by now thoroughly perplexed.
Nevertheless, even an actively-discouraged, over-the-hill wunderkind may stumble into a semblance of (if not a proficiency in) music. I have vague memories that, as a very young child, I had a toy piano. It wasn’t a Schroeder piano; it was a tiny upright with a soundboard and strings. It had been removed from my reach early on and crammed so far into a corner of the basement that I didn’t find it until a thorough cleanout. I expect that my mother’s headaches took precedence over my budding musical genius.
In its place appeared a Magnus chord organ, the dreadful misbegotten child of an accordion and a harmonium on which I could pick out one-finger melodies but the chords baffled me. What is this “harmony” of which you speak? I could not fathom it. I had melodies galore in my head but they were not reproducible by me on anything at hand. Equally maddening was the trombone I was given. I was taught one note per lesson, every other week. I never had enough notes to play a song. To hell with it.
When I was 12, I happened upon another not-entirely-unmusical instrument, a ukulele. For some reason, that stuck. I finally realized what chords were, and why they were important behind a tune. Now everybody is playing the uke again, but in 1974 they were blessedly rare. You didn’t hear tuneless strumming in every third TV commercial. Mastery of a handful of chords was enough to convince me that I quite possibly wasn’t not a musician.
It was a brief swim from the kiddie pool of the uke to the deeper waters of the guitar. And when I was 19, I was chagrined to learn that a friend had stolen a march on me in learning the piano. I was determined not to be outdone, and I began to teach myself to play. I plugged away at it relentlessly, maternal migraines notwithstanding. In spite of reinventing the wheel (and the Circle of Fifths) I soon had hundreds of songs by ear. Some people said that I sounded almost as if I knew what I was doing.
No, I am not Dick Hyman, nor was meant to be—but I had gigs. I played any place that would have me, I accompanied myself singing (both popular songs and my own compositions), and I backed and coached other singers and groups.
It’s now been almost ten years since I was last engaged to play the piano in public. Life intervenes in funny ways, and hitting the keys isn’t something I naturally do in the course of a day. I do keep a beat up guitar by my computer to pluck while poky software is booting up.
I was recently struck by the thought that so many musicians have been struggling to get their public chops back or reconnect with others after three years of no music. The more technologically adept attempted Zoom concerts or other remote presentations, but many didn’t play much at all. It was a devastating period, for people generally but also for singers and instrumentalists whose skills have grown rusty with disuse. I can thoroughly empathize with those struggling to recover their skills from the time lost to the pandemic.
I can sit here and write about music all day (and I do) but the truth is I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t struggled my whole life to make music, despite the indifference and active discouragement I faced. I believe it’s high time to come out of the woodshed and actively share the joy of what we love.
For all we know, our heartfelt melodies may catch the ear of some young syncopation-deprived genius and save them from a life of wondering what the hell they’re missing.