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Musical talent … or the lack thereof

Posted: October 16, 2014 5:03 p.m.
Updated: October 17, 2014 1:00 a.m.

I was in Boston recently and just down from our hotel, in the heart of the Back Bay, is the Berklee College of Music.

It is an acclaimed institution, one of the most prominent in the country, educating the best and the brightest of those who are musically gifted. Young people stroll the streets, many of them carrying awkward instrument cases. No doubt, these kids all hold dreams of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

They eat at McDonald’s and cross on green lights and wear ratty jackets, just like all the other young people in this terrific city. But they’re different. They can make music.

Since I was a little boy, I’ve been in awe of people who can do that. Having no musical talent myself, I’m not overly demanding. I just wish I could play one single instrument, sing one chorus on key, strum one guitar chord with just the right tone.

Maybe even plunk a cello, as Camden’s own Claire Bryant can do with consummate skill.

Actually, what I’d really like to be is a symphony conductor. I’ve told you before, that I can’t imagine anything more thrilling than to walk onto a stage, raise the baton and bring down the house with a Mozart symphony played by one of the great orchestras of the world.

Right. I’d also like to hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning of a World Series game or be picked up at a cocktail party by Charlize Theron.

I’ve pretty much given up hope of being a world-class conductor, seeing as how I’m well north of 60 and bereft of talent. London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra isn’t going to fire Charles Dutoit, a wild man on the podium and my all-time favorite conductor, then hire me to replace him.

But every once in awhile, I ponder the possibility of learning to play an instrument. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I don’t see any reason that someone can’t learn to play the piano at the same time they’re depositing their Social Security check.

I wouldn’t expect to become another Rubenstein or Van Cliburn. I’d just like to be able to play well enough to sit down in my own home and clink the ivories with reasonable skill.

My grandmother was a music teacher; she could hear a song one time and then play it. My parents had me take lessons from her when I was in grammar school, but she delivered the sad news to them after only a few sessions: you can’t make chicken salad out of … well, you get the message.

Trombone was next, but I was no better at that than at the piano. The band director, a family friend, delivered the same news to my parents that my grandmother had.

And so it’s gone in my musical life.

The pinnacle of my musical expression came in the basement of the Sig Ep house in Chapel Hill a millennium ago, howling with the band each Saturday night in a cacophony that had to be unendurable to any sober person.

Here’s what astonishes me: those people who can “jam.” Six or eight musicians get together and someone starts playing a song or improvising one. The others just sort of join in, even though they may never have heard the song or have no idea in what direction the improviser is going.

Somehow, some way, a little light in their brain tells them exactly what to play, and the result is a piece of music that sounds as if it’s already been rehearsed.


That’s just amazing.

There seems no more logic to it than if a group of mathematicians all gathered in a room and just started yelling out formulas, and suddenly they would have the answer to one of math’s enduring mysteries despite the fact that none of them knew what the others were doing.

So where’s the fairness in this? How can some people be so talented and others so completely deprived?

That is, of course, what life is all about. It’s why some kids are walking down the streets of Boston with their sheet music while others are playing football or programming computers or repairing automobile engines.

All those pursuits require skill and talent. I just hope the ones who can make music realize how fortunate they are.


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