Instrumental Illness

I think I want some bagpipes. And a harp. (And not just some pansy beginner harp… I want one of those totally gawdy, ornate and beautiful monstrosities of an instrument.) I have no idea how to play either one, and from what I understand, they’re both ridiculously difficult instruments to learn how to play correctly. But... so what? I didn’t say I was going to learn how to play them properly; I have neither the time nor the inclination to undertake such a tedious venture. But with that being said, I don’t feel that I need to be technically knowledgeable and completely educated about something in order to use it. Do I need to know how to build a car from scratch in order to feel like I can drive around town listening to The Carpenters Greatest Hits at full volume with the windows down? No, I just run with it. I have a vehicle, and I’m not afraid to haphazardly jump behind the wheel and make an ass of myself if it’s fun for me.
That’s the way my brain works in terms of musical ability. Whether it’s a road that I love to drive down already, or whether it’s driving around somewhere I’ve never been and getting lost, they’re both adventures. Through both formal instruction and independent study, I’ve learned more proper music theory than many people who are much better technical musicians than myself… and then I promptly flushed it down the toilet of my mind. Why? Because I personally don’t need to know how to build the engine from scratch, I just want to go for a cruise and have fun. I’m very glad that there are people who know the nuts and bolts inside and out, but I don’t feel like that’s my role in life. Everything can be looked at in such a scientific way, that it makes me feel like the adventure is gone if I start to understand it too efficiently.

I’ve heard so many stories over the years of people taking music lessons and abandoning them soon after, because.. well, it quickly turns into work. I did it for the first time when I took piano lessons as a kid. While I do think it helped cultivate my appreciation for music in general and it gave me the confidence to know that I was capable of doing it, it didn’t last long and none of it ever stuck. Because looking at a piece of paper and having all my practice translate into me playing “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” wasn’t exciting to me. Quite frankly, that song sucks ass. It always has, as have most of the staples of beginning music instruction. I wanted to play the piano, but even at that age, I couldn’t possibly have given a rat’s ass less about whether I would ever play that song correctly. But to get to more interesting material, I needed to master the least interesting things imaginable first. I didn’t have the fortitude to keep up with it as a young lad, and looking back on it, I’m so glad.
I’m also glad that when the time came that I wanted to pick up a guitar a few years later, I decided not to take traditional lessons. Looking back at it now, I’d say it would have been about a 50/50 chance that I would have quit that too. I wanted to learn to play Nirvana songs, and playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to perfection before I could do it very well might have dulled the sharp edge of my youthful musical passion. Instead, I did it by myself. I started with Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” from their Unplugged album. That single note guitar line is actually simpler than “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, but somehow it was so much more rewarding to me when I was able to play it along with the recording. After I had perfected the single-note line, I turned my attention to the chords themselves. I bought a tab-book for the album and figured it out, and played along with that song for hours on end until I got it.

At this point I feel like I’m at risk of deriding the idea of music lessons, which is certainly not my intention. I think music lessons are a great thing, as long as they are undertaken with some kind of relevant context in mind. I’ve never given a musical lesson, but I can tell you that if I ever do, it will be from a very personal and very individualized perspective based on the student. What kind of sounds does the student hope to make? If you make that happen, it’s the possibility of igniting a lifelong growing process. If you just buy a “How to play crappy songs that are familiar, but no one actually likes them” book and build a lesson-plan from that (and charge $30+ an hour), it’s a recipe for disinterest. It’s so simple, yet such a rare point of view.

Anyway, back to the original point. I have an accordion, and I have no idea how to play it. But if you’re a fan, you WILL hear it at some point because I have fun playing with it. I don’t know how to play the harmonica either, and it can actually be heard faintly in the background on a few tracks on the first album. I got a cheap set of harmonicas and did just enough to be able to do what I wanted to do at the time. If I put my mind to it, I believe I could be a good harmonica player.. but I’m ok and at terms with where I am. I guess what this is all leading to, is the point that you don’t have to fully master something if mastery is not what you hope to achieve. But if you want to be great at something, do it.

Musically or otherwise, just do what makes you happy. If you accomplish that, the rules of success are re-written for you every day as you proceed in life. If you pick someone else's mold and stick yourself in it, you already know what you’re going to be. Where’s the adventure in that?

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