Thursday, October 11, 2012

Applied Rhythm

Often in moments of quiet, driving down the road, sitting in a waiting room, resting on a bench at the Inner Harbor, my father, almost involuntarily, would put his hands together and begin softly clapping out a rhythm. A simple four-four beat. Leaning forward a bit, his arms resting on his legs and his hands dangling between his knees, he would one way or another add music to his day, like applying mortar to widening cracks and crevices. In his head, and in his heart, was a song always waiting, like a great conversation you can’t wait to continue. Or maybe it was his soundtrack, and in the quiet moments it resurfaces into consciousness. Whatever. Music was as much a part of him as an arm is to you and me. Natural. Flowing out like a spring. Music gave him joy.  Music gave him company.  Music gave him God.

Moving from piano to guitar to the banjo player, my dad had perfected the chord-melody style, allowing him to play melody but with a richer sound, without accompaniment. The largess of this benefit was not when he was performing to the crowds, but when he was alone. How I remember him playing mostly is where he was seated on the side of his bed, his collapsible music stand perched before him, practicing for hours. Tune after tune filling the rooms. He strummed with these large, triangular, brindle plastic pics; and from time to time, in between beats, he would drag the edge of his pick across his forehead, squeegeeing off his sweat. He would emerge from his room after a couple of hours only to guzzle a large glass of cold water, the front of his button-down shirt soaked in a big V from neck to navel.

From time to time, after an especially enthusiastic run-through of his extensive repertoire of standards like Whispering, Five Foot Two, Bye Bye Blues, he would resurface, shaking his head mildly in disbelief, and muse, "I played things on that instrument that I've never been able to play. It was like I was talking to God."  He was.

In the 73rd Psalm, St. Augustine writes, "...He who sings praise, not only sings but also loves him of whom he sings." Yet over the centuries, Augustine's words have become known more as He who sings [to God] prays twice.  Common among these words is the exultation of music and the exultation of God through music.  It is speaking to God.  The gift of music is a grace that allows us to reach our highest potential as human beings, and through it we're expressing our thanks and our joy and our gratitude. 

Music is one of the few sustenances other than food that feeds us beyond measure, as essential as love, family, and friendship.  It is the great communicator.  It is the great uniter.  It sends us as far away as we want to go.  It brings us home when we need to be.   It digs deep down into us.  It elevates us to distant pinnacles.  It stretches across the universe.  There is no one out of its reach.  It blankets us all.  Thank God.  Because it covered my father when he most felt uncovered.

As a predominantly deaf man, who retained a low percentage of hearing in one ear only after enduring an extended bout with childhood meningitis, my father stockpiled years of lonely, isolated hours full with music, banging on an old upright piano or slashing across the strings of an acoustic Epiphone.   Eventually parlaying his sweat into playing professionally in one of the most sought after duo's in Baltimore.  And later selling pianos and teaching music.  Wherever he turned--music.

After a neighbor who was downsizing for a move sold my grandmother a well-used upright piano, my father, still in grade school, saw his own mother sit down and begin to play, which he had no idea she could even do.  Songs like Heart of My Heart, Somebody Stole My Gal streamed out of her fingers; and she sang out loud and sweet, as though she were in a revival.   And then his sisters would chime in, Ain't She Sweet, Bye Bye Blackbird.  No hesitation.  Completely unabashed.  Music invaded his home and clung to the walls, new life permeating everything, like thick, overgrown ivy. 

Soon, too, my father sat before the piano and, as though for the first time, began to breathe, introducing  himself  to his own music, his own heart, his own soul, a new acquaintance growing into fast friend and then old love.  The peace enveloping him from the knowing that no matter what came and went, whatever was given and taken, implanted and extracted, music is constant.  This is what God gives us in music--an always.  My father would never truly be alone again. 

It's no wonder my dad became a performer and then a music teacher; he had to share what was shared.  Although song was so personal to him, and always with him, it wasn't all his; and that's probably why he positioned a guitar in my arms when I was four.  My dad once told me that the great Itzhak Perlman had said that his father forced him to play the violin when he didn't want to, and he now can't thank him enough, not because of his success, but because of his joy.  That's what my father wanted for me.  If I could stick it out, wrestling through the Volga Boatman and Marianne, eventually--the joy. 

I remember feeling a bit surprised to find other families in which no one played an instrument.  I thought everybody played something, or at least sang.  My sister played clarinet.  I toyed with the French horn and then the tuba and sang in one chorus or another since the moment I was old enough.  I didn't last long with my father as my teacher, especially because he knew when I practiced and when I didn't.  There was just no hiding it, so my lessons only lasted about four months, just long enough for me to learn the F chord for Silent Night.  To my dad's great delight, when I was 18 I did learn the guitar.  And to my great delight, it can never be unlearned.

I admit to being a little guilty of being a "helicopter parent."  I hover a bit too much, and I want to create for my kids a well-rounded childhood.  And so with the Brownies, the clubs, the camps, soccer and lacrosse, I want my daughter, who's old enough, to learn an instrument, hopefully of her choosing.  I may even apply a little bit of that force that Perlman remembered.  And soon, I'll prop my guitar in my son's arms.  I don't care about greatness or playing before crowds, but I can see farther down the road to that joy, loitering, to be discovered.  That gift waiting to be unwrapped. 

A couple years before my father's passing, a recording surfaced, found by an old fan of my dad and his partner.  The reel-to-reel, featuring my dad's partner playing wild Dixie banjo and my father providing the flawless foundation on rhythm guitar, highlighted absolutely extraordinary moments in musicianship.  It is documented proof that my father experienced what so many of us clamor to experience--to be a part of something great.  That recording, which is now on CD and MP3, has evolved from bootleg into artifact into heirloom.                                                        

Somewhere in my father's last hours, as he lay in his own bed, in home hospice, I leaned in and spoke into his left ear, his "good" ear, and I asked, "Dad, do you want to hear your songs?"  Although it was a time for silence, for peace, I felt that his music was his peace.  His eyes closed, he nodded yes.  And one last time he visited with an old friend, the old tunes, the old music, the old joy, assuring himself that he was not alone, that there is what God promises when we pray to Him twice--an always.

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