Tuesday, November 3, 2009


This is my son's jazz band. I'm a lousy photographer, too...

Mine is a musical family.  My wife is a pianist.  My younger son plays the saxophone.  My daughter is a gifted clarinetist, and pianist, and at fifteen, she's the organist for our Sunday sacrament meetings (she was the Primary pianist at age twelve, which a little tiny bit like Joe Nuxhall pitching for the Cincinnati Reds as a teenager).

"The Ol' Lefthander" in 1944.  He played for the Reds 
until 1966, then spent close to four decades in 
the Cincinnati broadcast booth.

Our eldest son is a trombonist, and he noodles around a bit on the guitar and the keyboard, but he's really a singer.  He's a tenor, with a voice pure and sweet, a voice that makes women weep and strong men eye's glisten.

Music for me is like electricity, mysterious and magical and utterly inscrutable, something to be grateful for, not something to understand.  I sit and listen and go a little slack jawed at it all.

My side of the family has a rather dazzling musical history.  My cousin, Danny, who like my father died far too young, was an accomplished trumpeter.  He was a much-loved band director in the Rochester area; my iPod holds a couple of tunes that were produced by his students.  They're really good.  Danny's funeral music included a selection of Ellington tunes, reason enough to look forward to seeing him again when my turn on the planet is ended.

Grand-Pa, as I've written, played the mandolin and the fiddle, and sang up a storm.  Something I did not know until recently was that Grand-Pa was the musical inspiration for my second cousin, Steve, who spent hours and hours under Grand-Pa's tutelage, learning to play traditional Polish music.  Today, Steve is not only one of the world's foremost authorities on the history and culture of Polish-American music (commonly called polka, but including schottishches and waltzes and even orchestral music), he is also an inductee of The Concertina Hall of Fame.

(Let me say that Eastern European music in general, and Polish music in particular, is maddeningly, unfairly maligned by the popular media, mainly because the accordion is for some reason easy to mock.  Los Lobos whip out their accordions and bajo sextos to play some ranchera, and they're called geniuses.  Do you know who introduced the accordion to Mexico?  Polish immigrants, who settled just south of San Antonio.  No Polish immigrants, and David Hidalgo is just another dude from East LA, pretending to be Carlos Santana (that's a little harsh -- Hidalgo is one of the world's great musicians).  The accordion is not just for playing "Lady of Spain": Arcade Fire; the late, lamented Danny Federici of Bruce Springsteen's E Stret Band; The Dropkick Murphys; The Pogues; Tom Waits; and the incomparable They Might Be Giants all regularly use accordion in their music.  And I haven't even mentioned the frequent use of accordion in the works of my favorite singer-songwriter, Al Stewart.  So lay off the accordion.)

There are others: Uncle Peter sings and plays the guitar.  Aunt Kathy used to play for folk masses; now she's carving out a successful second career as the proprietor of a community theater, producing plays and musicals.  It's a musical family.

My own music career was brief and humiliating.  At the end of fourth grade, the year when everyone is required to play the recorder, New York State music teachers determine which students are candidates for Continued Music Education, and which are better kept away from the brass and woodwinds.  Somehow, I made the cut.  The fix had to be in: I'm pretty sure that the kids who didn't take up an instrument received an extra period of P.E., and the Grant School braintrust agreed that 45 more minutes of Dodge Ball each week would cause me, if not mortal injury, then surely psychic wounds that a lifetime of intense therapy would not heal.  It certainly wasn't because of any aptitude: I squeaked and struggled through a year of "Claire De Lune" and "Frere Jacques" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" with earnest incompetence, making a sound that resembled a garrotted gander in its death throes.

But our music teacher, Mister Marsh, a bespectacled man with a combover and a walrus moustache, straightened his bow tie and cleared his throat and handed me the "Instrument Request" form.

Pondering the form at home, I had two objectives: choose an instrument that was easy to carry; and avoid anything with a spit valve.  I wasn't sure what a spit valve was, but it sounded disgusting, and I had a weak stomach.

My mother suggested the cello.  "It sounds so beautiful," she said.  "Cello" sounded a lot like "oboe", and I knew that oboes were small, recorder-like things, that sounded like flutes with a nasal obstruction.  The cello must be like that, I reasoned.  So I signed up.

The cello is not anything like the oboe.

On the plus side, the cello has no reeds, spit valves, or holes to blow into, which is a good thing.  On the minus side, the instrument is roughly the size of a fifth grader.  As I dragged the enormous canvas case holding the oversized violin out to the bus area, Mr. Dugay, who carried the twin misfortunes of being an elementary school principal with "gay" in his last name and possessing a compulsion to wear hand-tooled leather lederhosen, with accompanying knee socks and tyrolean hat, to the school's annual Oktoberfest celebration, stopped me.  "If we ever have a flood, you're prepared!" he boomed.  "You can float that thing like a boat!"

My mother was right.  The cello does indeed produce a soothing and mellifluous sound, when properly handled. In less capable hands, it's four cats in a burlap sack, being tossed down a steep embankment.  I squeaked and screeched and scratched my way through two years of "Beginner Book One" before I finally called it a career.

Part of the problem was that I am lefthanded.  Part of the problem is that I have the motor skills of Rocky Balboa in round fourteen of the big fight with Apollo Creed, stumbling and bumbling, draggy and delayed.  Quickly seizing upon the notion that there was no way this kid was ever going to learn to finger with his left hand, bow with his right, my music teacher, the long suffering Mister Grande, decided to pull a Jimi Hendrix, and reverse the strings.  Problem solved -- 'scuze me, while I kiss the sky.

Only it wasn't problem solved, it was problem made far, far worse.  Reversing the strings meant I could process the mechanics of bowing and fingering.  It also meant that everything I was attempting to do was a mirror image of what was printed in the lesson books.  Everything was backwards and incomprehensible.

Every Tuesday, Mister Grande would lean way back in his chair, slide open a desk drawer where he kept a little ash tray, light up a Kool, take a deep, soothing  draw, and sigh, "OK, Mr. McMurray, show me what you have this week."  And every week, I'd squeak and squeak and scratch my way through tunes with names like "A First Song" and "Delightful 'D'!" and "Five Note Fun" and Mister Grande would squeeze his eyelids shut and groan just load enough for me to hear it over the mangled cats I was creating and at the end of the forty-five minutes he'd say, "Good job, son.  I think with a little more practice, you just might be able to join the orchestra."

We both knew he was lying, that I was no more likely to join the orchestra than Pat Paulsen was to be elected president.  But we kept it up, this sad dance of deceit, for months and months.  My playing regressed as time went on.  At the end, I wasn't even pretending to make music.  It was just a whiny metallic drone, like an engine running without oil and about to seize.

The thing is, I love music.  I am in awe of the talent my wife and kids possess.  I love to listen to them sing and play.  My friend Scott is a working musician in New York City, playing gritty, beautiful music that incorporates all of his influences, from Celtic traditional to punk.  He's one of my heroes.  So is Cousin Steve, the concertina player, who breathes new life into our heritage every time he plays.

I've never much minded that I wasn't good at sports.  That's my dad's disappointment, not mine.  To tell the truth, I've always been more interested in sports uniforms than in the actual games.  But music...not being good at music breaks my heart.


  1. Fine post, Mr. McMurray. "The cello is not anything like the oboe" is the greatest single sentence in the history of blogging. It is, in fact, the most basic truth in the human condition.

    Furthermore, animals in your I'm-a-lousy-musician metaphors meet grizzly ends.

    More Cortstories, please.