Choosing a musical instrument for your child: my story

July 28, 2010

When I was thirteen, my parents decided to buy me a musical instrument, and debated between a saxophone and a guitar. We already had an upright piano which evidently wasn’t one of the options. On my birthday in 1963, they bought me a guitar and an instruction book so that I could teach myself. Being one of three preacher’s kids (PK), they didn’t have a lot of disposable income to afford lessons. So, I taught myself to play the guitar.

The guitar’s job, it seemed, was to provide the chords. The melody was to be sung by me. That was my musical reality for quite some time. This meant that I learned to develop a good sense of how chords go together by playing the guitar. I played folk music, Beatles, Byrds, Buffalo Springfiield, Crosby Stills and Nash, Doors, Cream, Hendricks and Dylan. I realized, looking back, that I played my guitar all the time from 1965 to 1973. Then, I got tired of pop music and got tired of the guitar. I wanted more notes. I wanted cooler chords. I wanted more of a challenge.

Sitting in my dormitory room in 1971 in Madison Wisconsin, listening to Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, my life changed. If THIS was what was going on in classical music, I wanted to be a part of it. I auditioned to be accepted as a music major a year later and was accepted.

My parents’ choice of a guitar for me had the following effects: I developed an excellent ear for playing along with whatever music was playing. This may be a genetic trait as my father’s father, and my mother’s mother’s sisters all played by ear and barely read music. I did not develop a good sense of reading music, as guitar music, especially in the 60s, did not require knowledge of reading music. All I needed to know was the names of chords. I didn’t develop the ability to pick out melodies or basses on the guitar until later when I became bored with the endless chugging that a rhythm guitarist does.

Later, when I became a classical composer, my music, at first, was harmonically driven. Then I discovered non-sung melody. The guitar didn’t have enough notes for what I wanted to do, so I studied piano in college. I was never a good sight-reader, but could crash through music at my own pace if need be. As my love for melody grew, so did my ability to write good tunes. Then I discovered the magical world of counterpoint and how it is melodic, free-flowing chord progressions.

Had my parents bought me a saxophone, my guess is that I would have gravitated more towards jazz. I probably would have played in the marching band, or the jazz ensemble in high school. I would have had a much better sight reading ability, at least for a single line. Who knows whether I would have developed a good sense of harmony playing only a monophonic instrument. And perhaps had I played in ensembles more, I might have been more gregarious and social. Instead, I gravitated towards being a loner, as composers tend to do. Perhaps my parents saw that in me as a 12-year old and that is why they bought me a guitar. Or maybe that didn’t want the sound of a honking saxophone in their house.

One of the purgatorial experiences professional musicians must endure, is the regretful party-goer: “My parents paid for me to have [piano] lessons when I was little, and I did it for a while and then stopped. I SOOOO regret not continuing in my lessons, but I wanted to …” They take a swig of their vodka, and I then absolve them of all regret as the Father-Confessor of Music, and say “…there there, if you really wish you had continued your lessons, start again next week. But budget time to practice your instrument every day. Otherwise, get over it.”

I am very happy the way I turned out. No, I didn’t have a career as a concert pianist, nor have I ever been a great performer, but I get by just fine. I can play along with almost anything as I’m hearing it for the first time. I thank playing the guitar for this. My sense of harmony eventually translated to the piano (keyboard harmony) and to being a composer who can look at a page and “hear” the music.

I recently bought a new guitar–first time since 1970. I realized that I know thousands of songs on the guitar, and why the hell was I not playing them or sharing them with others? The beauty of the sound has brought back a flood of all the great songs I used to play between 1965 – 1973: a golden era in popular music, and I was there, playing along.


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