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I like listening to music but I have no talent for making music. To put my musical ranking in blunt terms, I’m a musical moron. I was about ten years old before my limitations in this regard dawned on me. Part of the explanation for my cluelessness is that I come from a family of musical morons. With no singers, players or pluckers in the house against which to measure my talent, I suspect I went through my early years blithely whistling melodies so out of tune that they were unrecognizable to others and jumping from key to key as I sang, completely unaware that music has a rhyme and reason to it. Nevertheless, I liked making music, or whatever is the word for what I was doing. It sounded fine to me. I remember seeing the Walt Disney movie about the Vienna Boys Choir when I was young and I thought I would really like to join up if and when the opportunity arose.

My first inclination that I would never be asked to join the Vienna Boys Choir came in sixth grade when a new teacher, Mrs. Swanson, came to our school and decided we needed a school choir. Mrs. Swanson was something of a musical celebrity in tiny Victorville. She starred in community theater and rumor had it that her husband had been a member of the cast of the hit Broadway Musical, The Music Man.

To build her choir, Mrs. Swanson arranged to have every fourth, fifth, and sixth-grader at Del Rey Elementary come to her room, two-by-two, and sing America the Beautiful while she accompanied on piano. Paul Jaramillo and I were summoned together. On the way to Mrs. Swanson’s room, Paul told me he didn’t want to be in a choir. I confessed that I did. I told Paul that I liked singing.

Paul was asked to sing first and, with the help of a sheet of the lyrics and some gentle encouragement from Mrs. Swanson to sing louder, he sang, rather timidly, the whole song through. When it was my turn, I decided Mrs. Swanson wouldn’t have to prompt me. I turned up the vocal chords to MAX and began to belt one out to the cheap seats. Somewhere between “Oh beautiful for spacious skies” and “purple mountains’ majesty” I became aware that Mrs. Swanson had silenced her piano and she was speaking loudly the words “Thank you Lief.” My audition was over. A week later the names of the chosen were posted in class. My name was not on the list. Paul’s was. Roughly one third of all those who auditioned were asked to join the choir. Apparently the bar had not been set very high but it was too high for me.

Confirmation of my musical inadequacy came in several forms over the years, including three fruitless months of accordion lessons and a brief high school fantasy involving me, an electric guitar, and an auditorium full of swooning teenage girls.

My relationship with the piano dates back to high school too. I have never been much of a listener to recorded piano music but live piano is another matter altogether. I enter a dream world when I watch someone seated at a piano tickling the ivories.

I distinctly remember visiting a music store with my mother about this time. I had started piano lessons and we were shopping for music. The store employee who helped us was a young man who volunteered to play some of the sheet music the store sold. I was a total beginner and the music he picked showed that he had misunderstood my level of skill. He launched into a classical piece composed of handfuls of notes requiring dizzying dexterity. But the reason I remember this scene is that when I looked at my mother, who was watching him play, she had tears in her eyes.

I asked her later about the tears and she said

“It was beautiful, that’s all.”

I knew exactly what she meant.

My piano lessons started well, or at least they seemed to. I practiced several hours a day and I quickly finished John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano, Grade One. Unbeknownst to my teacher, however, I was memorizing the music, measure by measure instead of learning to read the notes. This showed early results but in the long run, it worked against me. As the music became more complex, my memorizing technique no longer sufficed and I soon became frustrated. I painstakingly memorized a handful of popular songs like Mr. Tambourine Man and Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago but as a piano player I was doomed and I knew it.

I knew very well what the problem was and over the years I have started over at the beginning, learning to read (music) but I’ve never kept it up long enough to see much improvement – until now. This winter I have been practicing a couple of hours a day and I’m seeing results. I have several books of fairly simple music that I can actually sight read at a modest pace. Yesterday Mary paid me something of a compliment. I was practicing Beauty and the Beast from the Disney movie and Mary said

“I recognize that!” Presumably, this means she hasn’t recognized anything else I’ve been practicing but when it comes to my piano playing, I’ll take compliments where I can get them.

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