When I was a kid I only loved Elvis Presley and baseball. These were both incredibly important and influential in their own way but weren’t things that I could realistically do anything with. But go ahead and ask me who played centre field for the Montreal Expos in 1983.
Then somewhere in my 18th year I decided to try my hand at the guitar. My parents had “forced” me to take music lessons most of my life. It was first the recorder with Mrs. Hopkins and then piano with Mrs. White and then I settled on the clarinet in grade school and high school. Even played in the school band. I tried singing in choir once as well. This led to our music teacher, who was conducting, to ask me to mouth the words while the others sang. It wasn’t a glorious moment for me.
Then I found the guitar.
It had always been there in the music that I migrated to. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Mellencamp and Petty. It just wasn’t something that I thought I could do. I was lazy and this looked like a lot of effort really. Then my best friend snuck me into a bar to watch a local band of legends – Cooper, Emmerson and King – and I watched in awe as they transformed from normal humans into artists in front of my eyes. Seeing those guys play made me want to play. I saw them a dozen more times and just watched their hands move along the fret boards. It really was magic.
So I bought a guitar and for 32 years it has been with me, beating me up every time I play.
The guitar I bought was out of my price range and made me feel uncomfortable but the price alone made me commit to getting value from it. I started playing and I sucked. Bad. But I kept at it and, for years and years and years, I sucked bad. There were moments when I would be walking down the street and hear an incredible performer playing on a corner and think to myself “if this person is that good and playing for coins, why am I doing this?”
There were some highlights during the early days. Like the time I was playing on the front steps of my house and my neighbour walked up and waited patiently until I was done whatever song I was butchering. I remember thinking that I had an audience. A REAL AUDIENCE listening to me play. Was this the start of something? Could I be on my way?!? She placed a $1 coin at my feet and said “for the love of god, please stop.” This, and many other similar interactions made me realize that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living playing this thing.
I didn’t get it.
My mother played the piano and I remember she would sometimes sit down at ours at home and play. She played for joy. That was it. But I didn’t understand that you can learn and read and do things for pure joy until my forties! I spent my time comparing my outcomes to others and was never ever satisfied. It made me give up playing for almost 2 years. My guitar sat in the corner of my basement and mocked me.
Then I had kids and in a world of screens, music seemed to me to be an example I had to set. I picked up that guitar but this time for joy. When they were babies I would just play for them. Sing them to sleep. Teach them words to sing with me. I was still terrible but I would work to improve, slowly. They didn’t judge — mostly because they couldn’t talk.
Today I play every day for at least an hour. I fit it in because it brings incredible rapturous joy to me. Maybe not so much for my family. Both my kids are interested in playing instruments — one the trumpet, ukulele and guitar, the other the piano. They tolerate my singing and playing and I encourage theirs without forcing them. They have to find their joy for it to take.
My secret reason for playing is to give them memories of their old man. There are things they will remember about me long from now — some good and some not so good — but I want them to recall their dad sitting at the dining room table struggling through and then nailing a song. There are so many lessons in that for life and it all starts with taking the initiative by playing the first note and sticking with it for the right reasons.