It’s bigger than I expected.
The ukulele was an easy pick.
Because I’d reached a milestone at work my employer sent me a catalog of items with three hundred “credits” to spend any way I wanted. The ukulele was one-hundred and fifty so the hard part was figuring out how to use up the other half, but I got some okay stuff, like an electric toothbrush and a backpack and a gasoline-powered turtleneck. The ukulele was the thing I really wanted, though, because I love music and I’ve always had a longing to learn to play an instrument. I’ve kept it pretty deeply buried, and when the ukulele arrived I remembered why that is, and it suddenly terrified me.
At my age, I think, I should be past any unreasonable fears. I should only be afraid of things that are genuinely dangerous, like heights or ferrets. Learning, or trying to learn, to play an instrument isn’t something that should scare me. What’s the harm in trying? But for most of my life I’ve had this deeply internalized belief that I’m completely hopeless when it comes to music. This goes back to fifth grade when some local symphony musicians came to talk to my class. The violinist showed us how part of the bow was made of horsehair, undoing it so it hung limp then locking it back in position, which seemed like a magic trick, and she played a little of “Ode To Joy” and that was it. I was hooked. I wanted to play the violin.
Let me add here that I had no background in music at all. We’d learned to play recorders in third grade—badly—and I loved tapping out tunes on a xylophone but I’d never learned even the basic notes, much less how to read music. The violin was jumping right into the deep end of the pool and I’d never even seen a puddle.
In spite of this my parents found that my school did, in fact, have a strings instructor, and they got a secondhand violin from some friends whose daughter had been playing for years and was ready to move up to a better instrument. Even though it meant showing up at school half an hour early three days a week I was excited to start the violin lessons, eager to learn. There were three older kids who also played the violin, and one cello player. The strings teacher asked me how much I knew about music.
“Nothing!” I almost shouted because I was so eager to learn. And that’s when she turned her back on me and got one of the other kids to give me a quick lesson in reading music before he had to go practice. Then I was sent out to the hall to play pizzicato scales so I wouldn’t disrupt the existing quartet. The bow, the thing that intrigued me most, stayed in the case.
The teacher spent a little time showing me how to hold the violin, criticizing me for handling it like a fiddler, as if aspiring to be Roy Acuff or even Tevye were a bad thing, then sent me back into the hall to pluck the strings until it was time for me to go to class.
At some point I got a report card which baffled me since I thought the violin was extracurricular. Was my soccer coach going to start sending home report cards too? Even worse it was almost all F’s, with one D—I don’t even remember what that one thing I excelled at was. It certainly wasn’t “plays well with others” since I never got a chance to play with anyone else.
At the end of the year the teacher told me she didn’t think I should continue with the violin, and I got another report card, this time getting straight F’s. As an adult I can put that into context. Maybe I needed to practice more. Maybe I needed someone who could give me more individual attention. I know I needed a better understanding of how to read music. Since then I’ve also met three different violin teachers. All of them literally doubled over with laughter when I told them what a lousy student I was, which tells me that a lot of violin teachers are just jerks.
In middle school we had a music class, but only for a month, and even then only for an hour a day. I really enjoyed sitting at one of the electric organs and could even pick out a few simple tunes, but the time I could spend doing that was limited, since “music class” also involved watching Oklahoma! and The Music Man and The Making Of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. At the end of middle school a high school band leader came and we each got a one-on-one session to talk about what instrument we might like to play. I thought I could try the trombone, since it seemed the easiest, but after asking me about my musical experience and telling me I was supposed to blow in the other end he said, “I think you should consider something that doesn’t involve music.”
Jumping back to the tenor ukelele that I now own, an instrument I’d actually been thinking about trying even before I had the opportunity to get one for free, because Ive been inspired by Ann Koplow, and meeting a local group called The Ukedelics. Also I’ve been told it’s a good starter instrument and I still want to at least try something musical, so I’m trying to let go of all that negative history. When I was young I thought I wanted to play the violin, and maybe the piano, and maybe the trombone, but there was also pressure: grades and the expectations of adults. Now the only pressure is what I put on myself. The ukulele also comes with free online lessons, and, hey, there’s this internet we didn’t have when I was a kid and it’s full of tips and tricks and support. It’s not the same as working with another person but I can repeat an instructional video as many times as I want. It will never get tired, it will never have its own schedule, it will never get frustrated. It’s like being taught by The Terminator.
And maybe, if I want to go further, I can find someone who’s willing to work with me, to provide individual, real, instruction. Of course before we start I’ll have to ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a violin teacher?”