After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Music must be the purest form of human endeavor. Think about it. We take an empty space and silence (or at least quiet) and fill it with sound, the only purpose for which is to make something pleasant, to share emotion. It marks our lives in such a way that we can be taken back into our pasts in just a few measures of a song. Music is truly the universal language. It brings very different people together – for good. Music touches this healthy emotional core of many of us. It allows us to express feelings that are difficult to express any other way. There are songs that inspire, songs of praise and worship, protest songs, love songs and lullabies. Songs are sung at birthdays, weddings and funerals. What would our lives be like without it?
From the time children are quite little, they experiment around with their voices in a quiet room. Babies in cribs coo and gabble, sometimes running their voices into incredibly high registers. When they get old enough, they hum or sing to themselves. They make rhythms on tables and chairs and any other surface around with their fingers, pencils or anything else that happens to be around. Mothers and daddies sing to the children from the very beginning, creating our own lullabies as we rock and caress and soothe.
A few weeks ago, Heidi and I went to Colin’s chorale concert at the high school. There were actually five groups singing, and Colin’s was last. The auditorium was very filled with parents and brothers and sisters. There were grandparents too. Although it was still the beginning of the school year, the high schoolers were amazingly prepared. From pop songs to ancient Latin songs, the effects were mesmerizing. Tall and short, stout and slender, the young adults worked together to create something beautiful and inspiring from nothing. It worked. Maybe it was just me, but the power of those voices washed over me and made my heart race. During that time, there was no place I would rather have been.
I have a few friends, Kevin, Thomas, and others - whom I have taught their first few guitar chords, maybe their first song or two. They have proceeded to zoom past me in technique. I have had some students in the past who, when we cross paths again, have told me that they picked up guitar or bass because of the songs we sang together back in second grade. There is no finer feeling than knowing that I might have started a little musical echo in someone's mind that became an avalanche. But it really wasn't me. I know. It is simply music.
When my dad dropped me off at college, on my very first day, when I was scared and lonely for my neighborhood gang, when I felt like my family would be thousands of miles away – I had my old Toyota guitar with me. I know that it sounds syrupy sentimental, but there was comfort knowing that that little wooden box strung with simple wire (thanks Harry Chapin) would take me home any time I pulled it out. And it did. Within the first half hour of getting to my sweaty little dorm room I heard guitar chords coming from down the hall. I picked up that old $60-six-string and invited myself into the room of another freshman guy, sitting on his bed, looking a little afraid. Pat Gallagher and I became best friends for many years from that one chance moment.
In the next week or so I had other happy coincidental meetings. Walking through the lounge of our dorm I heard brilliant piano music. I had to stop and listen. He became my old friend Marty Lucas. I met my old friend Tad Robinson similarly. He was singing Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” the first time I saw him. Then it was, “Hey you gotta meet this guy…” Bob McCarthy. It wasn’t long before we were jamming and harmonizing. And Jeanne and Joyce would sing sometimes and we would fill our dorm rooms with folk rock and laughter and friendship and the stories of our lives.
It seems like everywhere life took me I was able to find a friend or two to jam with. Some for a short time, some for many years. It might be a sad commentary on my ability to form bonds with adults, but so many of my friendships outside of work revolve around music.
Last weekend my mom came down to visit for a couple of days from North Carolina. We did all kinds of things from bouncing around on the boat watching Colin do amazing feats on the wakeboard, to looking around at condos, to eating homemade pasta for dinner. But we always get around to music. She always asks to hear me play. And I always oblige. No need to twist my arm though, playing and singing for my mom is one of the best things in my life. Because she listens.
My mom is a fantastic musician. When my brother Pat and I were in the CYO band when we were kids (second through eight grade for me) my mom taught us to play the clarinet and tuba as much as Mr. Suroviac our band instructor. Sometimes she would go months at a time and not play and then pull out amazingly complex classical piano pieces. She was always self-deprecating about it saying something like, “I used to play that so well,” or “You should hear that the way it was meant to be played.”
Sometimes at Christmas she would play carols on our old, out of tune, upright piano and we would sing along with the gusto of little kids enchanted by the season and vacation and anticipation of the presents that were always left by Santa when we were out looking at the lights.
My mom is a John Denver fan and I’ll admit it, I am too. I could say that it’s because I am a child of the 70’s, that many of my high school chums were into him too. But honestly, I am a sucker for a troubadour. I love his voice, his songwriting, his fingerstyle guitar, his often used 12-string.
The other day I heard “Rocky Mountain High” coming through the wall of my classroom after school. My buddy Chris was playing a little JD in his room while he was working on progress reports for our students. “John Denver’s cool,” he said. What sold him was a John Denver/Muppets Christmas album they had when he was a kid. Chris is at least 15 years younger than me. I really respect his musical taste. When he asks me to listen to music, I know I’ll like even before I listen. So if Chris thinks he’s cool…
Back to my mom’s visit. I wanted to let my mom hear “This Old Guitar”, one of my favorites by John Denver. She hadn’t heard it, so we went to YouTube and found this old TV special where he explains the song. Great song. Enjoy.