• Otter Views: Notes of a Designated Listener

    Sharing a thrift store milk crate at a yard sale the other day with dozens of Barbra Streisands and Guy Lombardos was an old Decca recording by the great Spanish guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia.

    How great was he? Urban myth claims Segovia was so highly esteemed that guitarists all over the world flocked to his concerts and recitals. It is said some even brought their guitars so the instruments could hear the maestro too.

    I have a little trouble visualizing that. I suppose you could cradle the guitar on your lap, or buy two tickets and prop the instrument in the next seat. But if too many guitar necks poked up, the audience in back could get testy and yell “down in front!” Piano and organ virtuosos don’t have that problem.

    I never did hear Segovia play live, so I can’t verify the story about the guitars. But I have been listening to his recordings for 50 years. Sometimes I pull my own cobwebbed guitar case out of the broom closet, withdraw the instrument, play one of the maestro’s records for it and say: “You hear that?” So far, it hasn’t rubbed off.

    A recent visit from my brother Mike brought music to mind. Like most of my relatives, he is a fine musician and performer. Folk guitar and vocals are his specialty. My other brother plays drums and keyboards, my dad played jazz piano, my sister sang opera, and my niece plays rhythm guitar, drums and keyboards. An uncle directed an award-winning barbershop chorus. I could go on.

    If music indeed runs in the family, it took a caesura when it reached me. Whether trying to sing along, play an instrument, or even clap out a rudimentary beat, my efforts have always led the relatives to the same conclusion: Ouch! Or, to put it more diplomatically, “you can be the designated listener!”

    Mike the guitarist is as well aware of this as anyone, but he is long suffering enough to humor me. Every time I show up with another thrift store ukulele or guitar, he looks the instrument over thoughtfully, as if I were really going to learn how to play it.

    “I’ll help you re-string this and show you how to tune it,” he’ll say of an instrument he deems halfway sound. With lesser ones, he might sight down the fret board to show me how a neck had become warped, or how the strings did not all lie in the same plane. Then he might say, not unkindly: “This is probably worth about what you paid for it.”

    Of course, the instruments – even those with warped necks – are not the problem, but I have trouble admitting this. As a result, strewn in my life’s wake is an entire orchestra of instruments that have failed to make me musical. I’ve tried harmonicas, recorders, violins, potato horns, bongos, keyboards, slit-log drums, shekeres, flutes, scratchers, penny whistles and bamboo saxophones, all to no avail.

    Looking back, I think I can see where I went wrong. The school I attended in third grade offered music as part of the curriculum. The first instrument was piano, and a number of these stood in a corrugated metal “Quonset hut” near the school playground.

    Running to or from recess, I would pass this curious building and wonder what was inside. One day I stood on tiptoes and peered through a window set into the door. I was amazed to behold two dozen small pianos lined up along the walls. They were all scaled to third graders, and each had its own little bench. Through the dusty pane, the piano keys looked pliant and regal in their rich ebony and ivory hues.

    I could hardly wait for our class to have its turn in the Quonset hut. When the day finally came, I made sure to be near the head of the line. I had already chosen which piano looked most inviting, and I intended to hurry in and claim it.

    When the music teacher opened the door, we burst into the hut, hastened to our benches, and placed our hands excitedly on the keyboards. Alas, no amount of pressing, fingering or prodding produced any sound. The piano keys were simply painted onto flat wood!

    Perfidy! Treachery! Duplicity!

    In time, my classmates got over the shock and learned what the teacher intended: music is partly about notes, finger placement, pattern recognition, memorization and repetition.

    Some of my old classmates persevered on the wooden keyboards and can play real pianos now. Some branched out to strings, brass, reeds and percussion. Others became singers, composers, songwriters and arrangers. Many took up ukulele, bass or guitar.

    But destiny took a chosen few aside and said, “You can be the designated listeners!”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 1, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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