Playing sports about my feelings
On piano lessons, David Bazan’s first drum set, and my silly little guitar riffs
My daughter started piano lessons this month and has been practicing at home on my Casio keyboard. One afternoon while I was working, she called me into the room and asked me to block her view of the keyboard and songbook.
She turned to me and I dutifully held my palms to the side of her face. She locked eyes with me, felt around for middle C on the keys, and played a piece of the beginner song “Merrily We Roll Along” from memory. She giggled when she flubbed a note, started over a few times, and finally nailed it. I was proud of her, but I think she was even more proud of herself.
I find myself agreeing more than ever with the sci-fi humanist Kurt Vonnegut, who said once that he’d like his epitaph to read, “THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC.” Music, specifically the ability to make it, is one of the best gifts we can give each other.
Of course, the arts are often first on the chopping block when states impose austerity budgets on public schools. When the titans of industry tank the economy again and begin to throttle school funding, there is a tendency among some defenders of the arts to point to the supposed career-readiness benefits of arts education. I suppose the case can be made, and I don’t fault them for trying, but I see it as a concession to the capitalist mode of education whose only goal is to generate compliant and productive workers.
I want music for my kids, and my neighbors’ kids, because I want to increase their opportunities to feel joy.
David Bazan of the band Pedro the Lion has been releasing a series of albums named after the towns where he grew up. The 2022 album Havasu, which I guess takes place around his adolescent years in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, includes a song called “First Drum Set” about playing in the band at his middle or high school.
The story goes that David was proficient on the clarinet and wanted to play saxophone after hearing “The Heat is On” in the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack (can you blame him?). But the band director told him there wasn’t room for another sax player in the band: “I’m up to my ears in tenors and altos.”
And so, after a tense negotiation between the band director and young David’s dad, David found himself switching to an unexpected instrument to fill a gap in the band: the drums.
I showed up early to the band room
And heard some kid land a fill into a beat
Oh how I pestered that poor drummer
Begging him to show me repeatedly
To play sports about my feelings
Being in my body not my head
Oh it still sets my heart a-reeling
I would already be dead without
My first drum set
I don’t play the drums, but parts of that song ring so true, they bring a lump to my throat. The serendipity, for one thing, is familiar: One of my best friends, Gardner, picked up the upright bass in large part because he was the tallest student in his middle school band class and the teacher needed a kid who could reach the top of the neck. He plays the bass beautifully to this day. We’ve played concerts and recorded albums together, and the creak of the strings when he presses them into the fretboard is one of my favorite sounds on earth.
My brother was a diligent and virtuosic piano player who picked the instrument up at a young age and then used that foundation to learn other instruments: handbells, saxophone, cello (later, he would meet his future wife in a dormitory at Clemson when she heard him practicing in his room and walked in to listen). By the time I was in high school, after years of watching his recitals and marching band halftime shows, I had decided to learn something.
Screamo music was in vogue in the South Carolina suburbs, so I wanted to shred. My parents, God bless them, signed me up for electric guitar lessons with Mr. Daniel, my brother’s patient and talented teacher, and I took a few months’ worth of lessons before leaving off to play in my friends’ metal band.
I was lazy about theory and tended to cheat with online tablature rather than learn to read sheet music. But I learned enough scales and chord shapes to fake my way through quite a lot: I could come up with little riffs, keep a rhythm in drop-tuned power chords, and once or twice I even made people dance in a mosh pit.
I wouldn’t go as far as David Bazan and say I’d be dead without music, but the ability to make songs, by myself or with friends, has lifted my spirits in the depths of depression and brought relief during my worst bouts of anxiety.
I was lucky in a lot of ways growing up. I had the option to literally “play sports about my feelings,” as Bazan sang, in youth soccer leagues and eventually on my high school’s JV team. I was no great talent, but soccer got me out of the house and, more importantly, out of my head. Music does the same for me.
There’s no practical use for my music. Even in my most grandiose moments, I have never imagined any commercial prospects for the songs I’ve filled up notebooks with since college. I sing and I play for the love of it, and sometimes I even summon up joy as if by an incantation.
As I watch my daughter learn her way around the piano, I am rediscovering the wonder I felt as I learned my own first songs on the guitar. The sounds are not always lovely, but the feeling is close to transcendence.
Please pardon the self-indulgent essay. I had a few different pieces in the works on the depravity of Deep South politics, but I’ve had a difficult week and needed to write something a little less bleak than usual.
My tall bass-playing friend Gardner, mentioned above, records electronic music under the name Gardnsound. His 2021 album Atmospheres is one of my favorites. If you want to hear the two of us revel in the weird and accidental glory of music for a while, you can listen to episode 23 of the Brutal South podcast here:
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