When I was growing up, our house was home to some of the greatest names in jazz and swing. Not a cocktail hour or dinner passed without the presence of Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Erroll Garner and – my personal favorites – Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughn. Our extended family – in stereo.
My parents took their music seriously. They first met over a piano at a ski weekend in New Hampshire, and making music remained a cornerstone for the 40 years of their marriage. They weren’t professionals – but they were very serious amateurs. My father played in jazz bands well into his eighties; when he died, he owned no fewer than four trumpets. If World War II had not intervened, he would likely have attended Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. That he didn’t was one of the few regrets I ever heard him utter.
My mother had perfect pitch. She could listen to a song once on the radio, then sit down at the piano and play it flawlessly – not simply the melody, but replete with harmony and underlying chords.
They jammed regularly in the living room, my mother at the piano, my father on his horn, running through a playlist that rivaled that of any big band. We would call out our favorites, and they would oblige: ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ ‘What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,’ ‘Route 66’… That last one is the only song, besides ‘Happy Birthday’, to which I know all the words.
It was years before I realized that not every family in America engaged in this sort of thing.
In a cruel twist of genetic fate – imagine George Clooney and Natalie Wood giving birth to Quasimodo – I inherited precisely zero musical talent. It took me only a few piano and trumpet lessons to figure this out, but it was years before my parents recognized or accepted it. Before they did, many skilled music teachers and otherwise dedicated educators had the acute misfortune to cross my path.
My first torture victim was Donald Cunningham. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken and gentlemanly, with long, wavy gray hair of which any conductor would be proud, Mr. Cunningham ran the school system’s music program. In his spare time, he gave private lessons at his home. Some of his students even enjoyed them.
For me, the piano was simply work masquerading as fun, and my effort was commensurate with my commitment. I fooled no one, especially Donald Cunningham, whose life I gently but persistently ruined for half an hour every Monday afternoon. The Don was the first of many to discover what my folks blissfully ignored: That if you make me do something I don’t want to do, I will find ways to quietly sabotage you.
My parents eventually decided that the trumpet would be a more manly pursuit. That brought Jack Thompson, the junior high music teacher, into my sights. Under Thompson’s instruction I managed to ascend to the lofty heights of second trumpet, second chair. For those who’ve played in school bands, you’ll know that second trumpet, second chair sits squarely at the center of mediocrity. To top it off, Thompson was far less adept than Cunningham at hiding his disdain for my disinterest. That made my weekly lessons all the more awkward and painful.
What can I say? The trumpet never spoke to me. It just made my lips feel funny.
But the true nadir of my apprenticeship occurred the day my mother enrolled my younger sister and me in music school – not just any school, but a precursor to the Suzuki Method. Some clever wag had convinced her of our exceptional gifts, and that we’d only fully blossom under the tutelage of serious professionals. Mind you, my mother was a retailer’s dream – the kind of woman who would purchase and subjugate the family to every new frozen food fad that came to market, however bizarre or inappropriate. And, trust me, in the mid-1960s, the frozen-food aisle wanted for nothing in experimentation. Convincing her we were prodigies was a walk in the park.
That first rainy Saturday morning – yes, we were giving up half of every Saturday for this opportunity – we drove out to the imposing waterfront home on Sachem’s Head that served as the school. There we were awkwardly introduced to a dozen solemn children of Asian extraction. Every last one of them carried a string instrument of some kind. We were the only Caucasians. Their pity was palpable.
I shook hands dutifully, took stock, leaned over to Linda, and whispered in her ear.
We spent the following months learning the difference between fugues and concertos, how to hold a violin, how to denote a G clef, and how to compose our own modest arrangements. But mostly we tried not to appear too much like the Martians we were.
As Don Cunningham and Jack Thompson could have predicted, I didn’t want to draw F and G clefs, or scribble the Sanskrit that I tried to pass off as harmonic composition. I wanted to draw sailboats. More often than not, that’s what came out of my pencil. To me, notes on a scale looked not so much as a melody to be deciphered as sperm cells standing at attention – an observation I was foolish enough to make out loud to my teacher.
Needless to say, we didn’t last long there – though it certainly felt that way at the time.
My mother and father took it in stride. Over the years there were many times when I thought I must have been a profound disappointment to them, at least in the music department. To their credit, they never once even hinted at regret. I suspect they were still hoping, right up to the end.
It hasn’t been a complete loss. I got a good ear out of the deal, which has resulted in skills both practical and less so — some facility for languages, and the ability to impersonate anyone from Marlon Brando to Quick Draw McGraw. While I play neither the piano nor the trumpet, I can still read music, and tune a guitar solely by ear.
But deciphering the nuances of another language has been my most accomplished parlor trick. A number of years ago, when visiting our French office outside Paris, I fell into a hallway conversation with a colleague. We spent several minutes chatting casually, about high-tech marketing and other issues of grave import. Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence and fell silent. Her mouth opened, and she stared wide-eyed at me.
“Mais – vous parlez français sans accent!” she exclaimed, astonished.
I couldn’t have been prouder than if I’d just won a Grammy.