Music lessons. Like a rainy Saturday or a flat tire on a bicycle, they were the buzz-killers of my childhood. More summer punchball games ended because the third baseman had to go home for a music lesson than a ball lost over a fence.
They provided the background noise to the baby boom generation. We were raised in the 1950s on Mickey Mantle, Mickey Mouse and a metronome ticktocking on the top of a piano.
My oldest brother took guitar, my sister the ladylike piano. My brother Toby opted for the mandolin out of sheer contrariness. I have a clear memory of watching a little Italian fellow chew him out while pointing to a chord he missed. I was only 8, but it made me shudder.
It wasn’t much later that I decided that I would be the one to break the link. No music lessons for this kid. No games broken up by the siren call of my mother. No summer afternoons squandered plunking out “Chopsticks” and pretending it to be grand art.
Summer meant baseball games on the radio, Bugs Bunny on the black-and-white television and the perfect bliss of an afternoon unencumbered by something to do. There was no room for music lessons on that tapestry.
My parents didn’t fight it. That was the miracle of the whole thing. When my time came and they asked me what I wanted to play, I answered “center field.” They laughed and said if I didn’t want music lessons that was fine with them. Like a lot of battles in the war of raising kids, they were sick of it after my three older siblings and I was cut loose and fancy free.
The punch line came in the summer after my freshman year in high school. The Beatles had invaded and every kid in my universe was putting together a garage band. They picked through chords they once slaved over for “Lady of Spain” to create the magic of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And I sat there in garages and basements watching the girls watch the guys and blaming my parents for not raising me right.
The black hole in my education would revisit over the years. In my senior year in college there was an old piano in a house six of us rented and three of the guys would have fun with it.
As I got older, I would see a guy fooling with a guitar, and think how cool it would be to be able to play an old Kingston Trio song like “Tom Dooley.” My brother could have fun on the mandolin until the last.
The wife says that I should take up something, but I remind her of old dogs and new tricks. My fingers are too fat and my brain hasn’t processed anything new since Billy Joel’s last big hit.
The other day I was driving through rural Pennsylvania on one of those three-digit two-lane state roads. It was a warm spring afternoon and I had the window down when the music came to me.
A guy about my age was sitting on a stone wall entrance to a country cemetery. His legs crossed at the ankles and his elbows out, he was playing the flute.
I don’t know if he was looking for a quiet place to practice or serenading a lost soul. But I couldn’t help but think he was doing God’s work.
The Book of Psalms ends this way: “Praise God in his sanctuary. ... Praise him with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre. Praise him with tambourines and dance, praise him with strings and pipe. Praise him with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Alleluia” (Ps 150: 1-6).
To sing is to pray twice. Add music and you have an eternal psalm.
Then there’s me. Still paying for the sins of my childhood.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.