When I was a kid my parents gave me a little guitar one year for Christmas. It was a Trump classical guitar, made in Japan. Not an expensive one, but solid enough and…well…real. I didn’t learn to play it. As with most endeavors, when I couldn’t master it at once I lost interest. The same thing had happened with the accordion. I had accordion lessons until it came time to learn the black dots. Musical notation frightened me. I seemed to have a mental block against it. When the teacher, a gentleman in the neighborhood called Mr. Demerrit, told me that if I learned the notes by the next week I would receive a bag of chocolate, I stiffened up and my mind completely rebelled. I did want the chocolate, but the pressure caused me to blow a fuse. The day he was to return I told my parents I did not want to take lessons anymore. I was told that the chocolates would be forfeited. I felt the pinch, certainly, but I decided to pay that price to avoid failing at the notes.
I played trumpet for a while in fourth or fifth grade. Everyone played something that year at Enatai Elementary — maybe it was mandatory — and an awful lof of us played trumpet. Mine was rented. I don’t recall how I got by without learning the notes. I only remember playing one song: “España Waltzes”. We played it on stage in front of our classmates and their parents and our teachers and we nailed it. Perhaps I simply lexically mapped each note to the instrument without really learning what notes they were in the larger scheme of things. In any case, I didn’t continue any longer with trumpet than I had to.
My sister, who had played piano since she was three or four, picked up the old guitar as a teen and taught herself to play it so she could accompany church-group sing-alongs in places where the tonnage of an upright piano would prohibit its inclusion, such as parks, or other people’s living rooms, or just about anywhere. She taught herself pretty quickly, so I thought I might have some luck, too. I remember watching her practicing out by the fence in the front yard, and feeling an absurd jealousy that music was being made on my guitar and I was not the one making it. Soon after, I signed up for lessons in downtown Bellevue from a man who asked me to bring examples of what I wanted to play. I showed up with my vinyl copy of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy album so he could hear “From the Beginning”. It’s been a long time and the man’s actual visage over time has slowly morphed in my memory into that of Alan Rickman, whom I see rolling his eyes and grousing that every punk kid came into his studio wanting to be a rock star. He started me out very slowly picking a series of repetitive notes and kept telling me to slow down, so that I would learn to alternate my index and middle fingers. While I did this, he sat three feet away and called his wife on the phone. I only went twice, I think.
I did eventually teach myself to play guitar. It happened over those long hours, those interminable hours, that I remember having to fill when I was in high school, say between getting out of school and dinner, or between dinner and bedtime. There was nothing but time, it seemed. I was not involved in any groups or activities. By high school I already thought of myself — and behaved — as a loner and nonjoiner. I had only a few friends. If they were busy with choir practice (Kip) or off smoking weed with the burnouts (another whose name shall remain nameless), I played my guitar. I came to regard the little classical guitar as a toy, so I saved up $100 and bought a Mateo from a store in Kirkland. It was not a good guitar, but it was acoustic and it sounded really cool.
But something was amiss here. I didn’t learn Beatles tunes or Joni Mitchell tunes or folk songs or any number of other popular kinds of music that would facilitate my joining in musically with groups of revelers. At that time I was not interested in anything that anyone else liked, and in particular I thought the music of the Beatles, minus the Magical Mystery Tour, was boring. I had also not yet discovered Joni’s soulful and brilliant lyrics, in which she sacrificed herself over and over again that others might know true and lasting love. I didn’t know from folk music. I was into progressive rock (“prog”), which included at its more accessible end Yes and ELP and the Alan Parsons Project and Pink Floyd, and at its more rarified end the indomitable Genesis (though they were starting to arc into the mainstream), Gentle Giant, Renaissance, Triumvirat and a number of really exquisite Italian bands led by Premiata Forneria Marconi and Banco del Mutuo Succorso. It was the classical guitar strains of this genre that I tried to emulate, and I actually created quite a few really far-reaching epic original works that were both romantic in tone and convoluted in structure. Some music theory might have helped, but I found that just hammering away at stuff for days usually gave me something interesting at least. Some of these I could never play, because they existed only as symphonies in my head, and no one else could play them because I could not write them down. Some of them I can play still, on the old classical guitar, which is leaning up against the wall a few feet away from me right now. See, I finally realized I was never going to be really good at playing guitar, and it seemed silly to have two bad guitars around. I gave the Mateo away and kept the little classical. Over the years I had come to realize that the classical guitar, and this little one of mine in particular, has a sweet, honest, earthy sound that I just love. I can’t do much with it. But I picked out “Moon River” on it to sing to Mara when she was a baby and once in a while we all sing “When the Frost is on the Punkin'”, Ted Jacobs’ arrangement of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem. I can also play the beginning of a beautiful classical-style piece by Steve Hackett.
In college I became interested in Celtic music, what I called “diddly music”. It started when I began helping a guy named Eric work on and sail his sailboat — a 37-foot Tayana cutter — on Lake Union on Saturdays. Eric used to come into the Arco Mini-Mart where I worked and chuff about how much fun sailing on his boat was, and I would always say it sure sounded fun, and he would say you should come out sometime, I’m always looking for good crew. And I’d always say, yeah, I’ll do that sometime. And one day he told me to show up Saturday at such and such slip at such and such marina on Westlake. I did, and he and two other volunteers my age showed me the ropes (the “sheets” as ropes are called on a sailing vessel), and we would tack back and forth on Lake Union and sometimes even Lake Washington. He always had Fiona Ritchie’s “Thistle and Shamrock” playing belowdecks on the radio, and so I came to associate the jigs and reels with good times under sail. I rented a fiddle and took a single lesson from a very quiet, nervous woman in Wedgewood, and even though my interest in Celtic music cointinued to grow, and even though I came into possession of my grandfather’s violin for a time afterward, I never went back for more instruction from her. I don’t recall what excuse I made that time, but I’m sure that it just was too much work for the caterwauling and scraping that emanated from my efforts. At the time, I probably blamed her for being boring and failing to sufficiently inspire me.
There is a story of a middle-aged man who ran up to Itzhak Perlman after a performance and with a heart heavy with regret said that he had always wanted to play violin but that he had studied piano instead, and that hearing Mr. Perlman play that night had made that old desire rise in him again, but that at his age he feared it was now too late for him to start playing violin. Mr. Perlman said to him these words: “It’s never too late. But…there’s no time to lose.” I love that saying. It expresses both the assurance that however old you are, you can start now, today, and the urgency of not losing any more time to procrastination. I don’t know whether or not this really happened, but I am grateful to those who kept this anecdote in circulation long enough for me to hear it. It is something I could stand to say to myself every day, not just about learning to play musical instruments, but about many aspects of life.
With this thought lodged in my cerebrum like shrapnel, the fantasy I have always had of myself as an old gent playing in a local contra dance band, or sitting in on a circle of bluegrass musicians at folk festivals, or contributing here and there in gatherings of family and friends when the music is up has been impossible to indulge in as a fantasy alone. The thought kept nagging at me that it was not too late to make that dream a reality. Itzhak said so.
But what should my instrument be? My long history of half-assed guitar playing made me uneager to begin formal guitar lessons again. I have so many bad habits there, and my old identity as a non-joiner is so wrapped up in the very feel of holding a guitar. And besides, everybody plays guitar. If the point is to find a pathway for me to abandon my aloofness and learn to join in with others through music, I reasoned, I would want to play an instrument that there was not already a surplus of. Too, I thought, the thing should be small and portable. Tuba and pipe-organ, not for me. I’ve always loved the sound of the clarinet, but unless I started hanging out with Klezmer musicians I couldn’t really see myself whipping it out at parties. I thought of retrying the violin, but I’m already getting creaky in middle age, and the affront to one’s neck in playing the fiddle seems completely untenable going into the muscularly problematic half of life.
At some point my ear picked up on the concertina, a.k.a. squeeze box. It’s a little thing with bellows for drawing and pressing air through internal reeds, and whose notes are regulated with buttons on either end. Ironically, it is very much like an accordion, only smaller and without the keyboard. I don’t know when it began, but I started noticing how sweet its reedy little sound was, and I began to love it. When I think of how I have always cherished the soulful clarinet, and even the little wail of the oboe, it occurs to me that I might just be, genetically speaking, a reed man.
Well, it was decided. For years now, I have known that the concertina would be the instrument of my dotage. Small and portable, relatively few people play it so few bands or circles have one, it’s designed particularly for contras, squares and other folkdancing forms, and you can play it without contortions of the spinal column. A couple years ago, my friend Ed Z., who plays and teaches guitar professionally, found a 20-button Anglo concertina (C and G scale) in an antique shop and bought it on a whim. What he didn’t know, and I didn’t either, was that the concertina is not really intuitive to learn, especially an Anglo. Each button on an Anglo renders a different note when you pull (draw) than it does when you push (press), like a harmonica, so that you have to keep track of two sounds for each button and you have to know whether you’re coming or going. An English concertina (yes, the words “Anglo” and “English” both mean the same thing etymologically, but those are the words that have congealed around the two different types) plays the same note on draw and press. My friend Ed fiddled with it but could make no immediate headway and had more important things to do, so I bought it off him for what he paid for it, which was too much.
As soon as it came into my ownership one of the reeds became dislodged, which left its corresponding button wheezingly mute while the reed itself, a small piece of metal with a slot in it partially covered with a spring of paper, rattled around inside the bellows. The only thing for it was to loosen the screws holding one of the wooden ends on and fish it out. Borrowing some advice and piano glue from my dad, I reaffixed the reed and put the box back together, but in the process of removing and replacing the end I compromised the leather seal, which causes it to leak air.
The next problem was finding a teacher. I learn best from humans, in person. There are no people advertising in Seattle that they will teach you how to play the concertina. I think this is because it would be madness to claim such a thing. I got a book right away, which in four pages explained everything and then gave a number of songs you could play with a 20-button Anglo. But without being able to read music, this was almost useless. What I needed was for someone to give me a lesson, show me how to play one tune — an interesting one, not “Good Night Ladies” — to get me started. It took years. Angela had a friend named Chris who plays concertina for contra dances, who declined to become my teacher but whom Angela pursuaded, as a birthday present to me, to come over to our house for an hour and “show me what she knows” over a cup of tea. Chris brought her concertina over, showed me how she holds the thing, taught me a practical way to play a G scale, played a few tunes, and gave me some pointers. Lastly she gave me two names I might call. It took me another year to get my courage up, but I finally called a man named Kevin whose number Chris had given me.
He didn’t want to teach me at first. For one thing, he doesn’t play a 20-button, he plays a 30-button. The 20-button concertina is very limited. Most Irish music, the kind Kevin plays and the kind I am likely to want to play along with, makes use of keys that require more notes than can be achieved with just the C and G scales. But he was sympathetic to my desire to learn. I sensed that there was an ethos at work here (as among smokers, who will never decline a request for a fag if a fellow smoker asks, unless it is their last), whereby Kevin felt obliged to advance the cause of concertina playing. He kept not hanging up, until he had agreed to meet with me and get me started with a couple of tunes that would be playable in C or G. For payment for an hour of instruction he joked that a sixer of beer would suffice, but when I pressed him he said “twenty bucks…a dollar a button”.
So last December I took my concertina to his house, where he had set up a couple chairs and a music stand. Kevin had taken the trouble to create written notes which he charmingly titled “Lesson 1” and printed out for me, along with the musical notation for two tunes, “The Old Favourite” and “Sally Garden”. We hammered out “The Old Favourite”, I watching him play a measure on his box and then trying to copy him on my box. It was alarmingly difficult, and I felt a lot of stress, because he seemed to expect that I could just up and do this. But this actually brought my meager abilities into full and sharp focus, and even though I made many wrong notes, drawing when I should press and pressing when I should draw, or hitting the wrong button altogether, I actually stumbled through it with him. It felt to me like a disaster, but Kevin showed no exaspiration at all. It felt good to be a student again, to be completely over my head, asea in that foamy mix of ignorance and determination. Kevin did not show any doubt that I could succeed. Therefore I did not doubt myself. It was like being a very young kid again, learning to read. The thrill was intoxicating.
I had brought a small interview tape recorder and recorded Kevin playing the tune both slowly and at full speed, and left his house with my head spinning. I was so mentally exhausted that I left behind the clef illustration he had made me (he insisted that I would eventually have to read music). He emailed it to me.
Within two days, strange to tell, the tune began to feel itself in my fingers, and I was actually playing it all the way through. My concertina is not a good one. It is sturdy enough and its sound is sweet, but it’s difficult to play — you have to really manhandle it to get any smoke out of it — and mine is leaky to boot. Concertinas are expensive. There is not a surplus of cheap, good quality used boxes out there for sale. What you find available is either low quality or high cost, with little in between. My original promise to myself was that if I learned ten tunes reasonably well, I could go ahead and lay out for a decent beginner model, but Kevin is encouraging me to move up as soon as I can, decrying the maxim that “if you learn on a lousy instrument first you’ll be able to play anything” in favor of the practical truth that “if you have a better instrument you’ll be more likely to play it”. So I’m on the very cusp of buying a Rochelle 30-button Anglo, which was designed especially for spanking tyros like myself by a concertina maker who otherwise builds and repairs top-of-the-line boxes. To get into any kind of truly high-quality concertina, you’re looking at at least a thousand dollars. The Rochelle sells for several hundred, handy carrying case and tutorial included. My history with musical instruments gives me pause, but I feel committed to it this time.
I took a second lesson from Kevin last week and I’m now working on “Sally Garden”. It’s going well. I’m frankly astounded at what my brain and fingers have managed to accustom themselves to in a couple of months. And for the first time in my life, I’m reading the music. You know…those little black dots with the sticks and flags.