Finding My Music

Posted: March 13, 2017 12:03:19 • 4087 words

Throughout my entire life, from an early age, music has been one of my great passions. And not just listening to it, though I do quite a bit of that. But from my earliest memories, I enjoyed attempting to play/perform music, in many forms; singing, drumming, playing any instrument I could get my hands on, all were fun! Unfortunately, like the rest of my childhood creative energy and expressions thereof, my innate musical passions were stifled, rather than encouraged, by my dad. And despite my mom's best efforts to encourage my creativity in spite of my dad, it's taken a very long time for this particular passion to resurface and really click in a way that suits my adult life.

The earliest form I remember my musical passions taking is drumming. Most kids bang on pots and pans and what-not, and I certainly did that too, which is why everyone who heard me just wrote it off as a kid making noise. However, what no one realized (even me, until much later) is that in my seemingly-random banging, I was actually keeping perfect time with songs I liked. I like to think that if there were any skilled musicians in my life at those moments, someone would've noticed, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking; regardless, no one likes hearing a preschooler bang on pots and pans, no matter how well they do it, and they especially don't want older kids doing that. That didn't really stop me, though, I just shifted to drumming on other things, constantly, always in perfect time with whatever song was on my mind at any given moment. Walls, tables/desks, my toys, my own body, it didn't matter; I had a soundtrack in my head 24/7, with drum accompaniment provided by my own hands, something that persists even to this day.

Unfortunately, shortly after my sister was born, my dad was around a LOT more than when I was very young, and his temper had a hair-trigger, going off into a terrifying rage at anything (and sometimes even nothing at all). His fury rarely had any consistency, but one of the few things that always prompted him to lash out was when I was making any sort of noise. It's hard to even allow myself to remember all the times he brutally beat me for idly tapping on things, but if he and I were alone in the same space for any length of time, it was guaranteed to happen at least once, because I couldn't really control it; I had very severe ADHD (not diagnosed until my late 20s, due to dad's refusal to allow me to be tested for it), and tapping along with my mental soundtrack had become a habitual tick by the time I was 5, as a manifestation of my inability to sit still for any length of time. Not doing it took conscious effort, and any distraction would lead it starting back up again, because that's how ADHD works; for kids who have it, sitting still and paying attention to literally anything else are mutually exclusive, so letting them fidget and wiggle generally leads to better mental performance. Dad saw it as the opposite, though; in his eyes, I was doing it on purpose to intentionally defy him, and if he kept beating me up for it, maybe I'd take the hint and obey him. Obviously, things didn't go well, and I never stopped idly tapping out rhythms (almost always in perfect time), but I tried to find ways to be quieter about it. That generally didn't go well, but the one thing that worked was gently tapping my teeth together; no one other than me could hear it, for the most part, and different jaw alignments could produce a wide variety of tones; unfortunately, decades of doing this has caused the same damage as someone who grinds their teeth at night (I don't, but constant light impacts create as much wear and tear as heavy impacts that are less constant). Thanks for that, dad.

In early elementary school, my family was kinda going through the motions of Christianity (my dad was the only true believer in the house), and I had the opportunity to join the church children's choir, at my mom's encouragement. I was already pretty good at singing at that point, and music classes in school were my favorite, so I enthusiastically joined up...for a few weeks. I absolutely loved it, because it was like an extra school music class, but the brutal bullying I endured at school was reduced (not eliminated, unfortunately), and there were other fun activities too. Dad was unimpressed. At the time, everyone was still operating under the assumption that I was the boy my birth certificate said I was, but my dad hadn't yet succeeded in beating the femininity out of me. So, he wanted to "turn me into a man" by enrolling me in Boy Scouts. In his usual manipulative way, he sought out a troop that specifically met on the same night as church choir practice, then offered me the choice of one or the other, heavily pushing me toward deciding the way he wanted me to. Definitely one of the worst decisions I've ever made, which is separate essay; suffice to say, it was not a good fit.

I still had music classes in elementary school, which were pretty fun, and the music teacher was one of my favorites; she was a little hard on us, but she had a passion for music and an eye for talent. She did her best to encourage me, and I did my best to make her proud, but unfortunately, one encouraging voice can't fully overpower a sea of constant degradation and brutality, so I didn't live up to my potential. Plus, there were a couple of wealthy kids in my class whose parents paid for private singing lessons, so they were always the ones to get solos. I, on the other hand, rarely heard feedback other than "quit making noise" and "you sing like a girl" from anyone other than my music teacher.

Throughout elementary school, toy instruments came and went, and despite being inherently terrible instruments, I always tried to play them with sincerity (which usually led to my dad destroying them at some point or another). I picked up the harmonica for a while, but I wasn't interested in American folk songs, so I didn't really know what to do with it other than improvisation (which did sound pretty good, given my complete lack of training). Thus, my musical passions had few outlets until 5th grade, when we started experimenting with real instruments (we had done a little with handheld percussion instruments, but I rarely had the chance to use those in class). There wasn't much to it; we spent a week learning the recorder, the fun of which was greatly stifled by the auditory assault of 40 nine-year-olds squeaking, playing off-key, and just making random sounds because they didn't take it seriously. But then, the high school band came on a recruiting trip, and I had quite a musical awakening. I needed to join the band.

Convincing my parents of this was no easy task; they were on the verge of separation by that point, and money was a major issue. My mom clearly wanted to encourage me however she could, but my dad dragged his feet in every possible way, grilling me about it and lecturing me about how much instruments cost (even though I had just heard the band director say that they'd provide free instruments to use during class, or help subsidize costs, if money was an issue). He also wasted no words trying to discourage me from the instruments I actually wanted to try; at the time, the instrument I wanted to play the most was the saxophone. No, I couldn't possibly play the saxophone, it's much too complicated, and WAY too expensive. Drums were my next choice, but dad countered that by telling me how drums aren't a real instrument and I wouldn't really enjoy that (drums are definitely a real instrument, and I would've LOVED to be part of the percussion section). Ugh. Finally, my dad suggested I try a brass instrument, because they're easy to play, and "very manly" (ugh).

When the day for instrument try-outs came, they started by separating us out by instrument type: brass, woodwinds, and percussion. It sounded like we wouldn't the opportunity to try more than one instrument type, so despite staring longingly at the saxophones propped up at the front of the room, I went with the brass group. We had an opportunity to try all the instruments of that particular type, but only the mouthpieces, not the whole instrument. Of the various brass instruments we were shown, the french horn is the one I had any real interest in, but I had a hard time making noise with its mouthpiece (the director said my lips were too big for it). The trumpet was the one that seemed to actually fit, and once I picked that, they let me try an actual trumpet; I turned out to be pretty decent at it, so much so that I was genuinely excited to learn to play it! I'd finally get to play an instrument! When I gushed about it later that evening, my dad said that was a fortunate coincidence, because his brother (the uncle I actually liked) played the trumpet, and still had his old one that I could use. In hindsight, I'm fairly certain that my dad pushed me to the brass tryouts because he knew I'd end up picking the trumpet. But still, I finally had the chance to play an instrument! I was going to be a musician! And, on top of that, I had a really cool family-heirloom trumpet to play, which was completely different from all the others in class; I was a very excited 5th-grader.

For those who are unfamiliar, the mechanics of brass instruments are very simple. Inside the metal mouthpiece, you create a buzz with your lips, and use a series of 3 (sometimes 4) valves to redirect air through longer tubes to change the sound. Combinations of these valves form a chromatic scale through a single octave. Compared to woodwind instruments, where there are generally more keys/holes than human fingers, it's extremely simple. However, in the world of instruments, simple and easy are never the same thing. With a brass instrument, to play different octaves, you have to change the vibration of your lips, which usually requires precisely tightening or relaxing muscles that few people who aren't brass musicians ever use in this manner. And the trumpet is the highest-pitch brass instrument, with a huge octave range. So, while it's pretty easy to learn, it's extraordinarily difficult to master. But, for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, I gave it my best shot, and during those years, I really enjoyed it.

I was never particularly great at the trumpet, though. I had a lot of difficulty remembering the fingering patterns for each note (my ADHD was still undiagnosed and unmanaged), so I frequently got them wrong. And while I quickly learned how to read music, I could never translate written notes to sounds, nor could I translate sounds to trumpet fingering patterns. I still don't know how to do that, really. So, my playing often bordered on rote memorization. On top of that, practicing was very difficult; my parents finally separated just before I started 6th grade, and my dad was arrested shortly afterward, so my home life wasn't exactly stable. But, I stuck with it, because I thought that maybe if I just kept playing, I'd start enjoying it, and maybe it wouldn't hurt my lips so much.

During those middle school years, I was an avid fan of country music, and I started going to concerts, where I immediately latched onto the dream of being in a small ensemble band putting on an energetic show. I wanted to be like Billy Ray Cyrus or Toby Keith; standing in the spotlight, singing my heart out with a guitar, while a crowd cheered. And it wasn't just the allure of fame itself; I wanted an audience for my music. There was no room for a trumpet in a country band, as far as I could tell, but I briefly tried to join the school's jazz band, which seemed like a lot of fun, even though I wasn't really into jazz. Sadly, that didn't pan out very well either; I was already having difficulty with the mechanics of trumpet playing and the finer points of music theory, and the school jazz band was almost exclusively focused on the music theory aspect of jazz and blues. Plus, it was an after-school activity, and I generally had no one to give me a ride home (and no friends to help out), leaving me to take the city transit bus home, a journey of over 2 hours. Naturally, as a kid who was already having a very difficult time functioning, that didn't work out so well.

The music-star dream stuck with me, though, and I eagerly wanted to learn to play the guitar. My dad said no, of course, but he no longer had veto power over what my mom did. So, on one unforgettable Christmas, despite barely making ends meet, my mom got me a beautiful Fender acoustic guitar, and a book on how to play it. I've never had a better Christmas. Immediately, I dove into the book, excited to finally learn to play the guitar...and I hit a brick wall. The book made no sense. Since a trumpet is incapable of playing multiple simultaneous notes, the concept of chords never really came up in school (or if it did, I wasn't paying attention). And like most instructional books I've read, it overcomplicated the subject in an attempt to relate the material, which made it seem like I just wasn't getting it. Had it said "A chord is several notes played at the same time, and they interact in ways that sound good", I would've had zero issues. Like how I went through a half-dozen programming books and concluded that I'd never be a software developer, because this "object-oriented programming" thing they spent entire chapters explaining was just not registering; had they said that it's just writing code in reusable modules, I would've said "Oh, ok, makes sense" and kept going.

So, despite my best efforts, I couldn't make sense of what this book was telling me to do, and there was no one around to explain it better. We definitely couldn't afford lessons, and we never seemed to have the time to look for a different book, or maybe a video. I occasionally plucked at the guitar from time to time, trying to look at it again with fresh eyes, but I never made any progress. After a few years, my mom asked if I was still trying, and I had to say "no"; I gave her permission to sell it, and to this day, thinking about that makes me sob. One of my deepest regrets in my life is failing to learn to play that guitar, because with that failure, I gravely disrespected one of the biggest and most meaningful gifts my mom has ever given me. Mom, if you ever read this: I'm still sorry for that, all these years later.

By the end of 8th grade, I was a somewhat decent trumpet player, at least. I made it to first-chair for a couple of concerts, and I even had a solo once! It was very much the highlight of my trumpet "career". It was at this point that we had to switch to marching band in high school. It would've been a good chance to bow out and do something else, but I was starting to feel good about my musical talents for the first time in my entire life, so I gave it a shot. It didn't go well.

Throughout middle school, there wasn't one single band that everyone was part of, there was one for each grade. Thus, the experience levels were pretty evenly matched, which gave everyone a pretty good chance to shine. High school, on the other hand, had two concert bands (representing two different skill levels), which combined into one big marching band for football games and parades. I was disappointed when I wasn't invited to the upper-level band, but I was devastated when, during marching band, I started as last-chair trumpet. Most of the freshmen were, because older students obviously had more experience, but there were a few who inexplicably went from sitting next to me to ranked so far above me that we were barely even playing the same songs. Every part in a band is important for creating harmony, but I had just spent three solid years striving as hard as I could manage to get to the upper melody parts and earn a solo, only to be told "no, you actually suck at this, now sit with the kids who can't hit an A above the staff". The middle school band director was warm and encouraging, but the high school band director was a drill sergeant who made no secret about who his favorites were (which happened to be the most popular kids in school, whereas I was the school's official punching bag). Since the high school was also within bike-riding distance, I started bicycling to and from school, but that meant that I couldn't take my trumpet home to practice. So, I didn't, because what was the point? My performance suffered, thus confirming the band director's preconceived notions that I wasn't good at it, in a perfect causality loop.

I stuck with it for a couple years, because I managed to gain a few friends who I assumed I wouldn't see if I wasn't in band. And the marching band aspect was kinda fun, but for reasons completely unrelated to the marching or the music. By 11th grade, I realized I was just going through the motions and sticking with it for the wrong reasons, and I was the only upperclassman still in the 3rd Trumpet section, so I left at the end of 11th grade, heavily discouraged.

Outside of band class, my musical tastes shifted from country to heavy metal. I tried the drums a few times during high school, but I had no real guidance on how to do well with it, and no access to proper drums of any sort outside of a few rare occasions. I bought a cheap, crappy electric guitar from a friend (in hindsight, he probably stole it), but history repeated itself and I never got very far with it, with the added bonus that I couldn't afford an amp. What I did have, however, was my singing.

Early in high school, my grandma joined the church choir; since I was old enough for the adult choir, and this was during my brief period of actually believing in Christianity (it didn't last long), I joined too. I had zero interest in singing hymns, and I definitely didn't enjoy singing bass, but it was still kinda fun at first, and a lot more musically-encouraging than any other experience I'd had since middle-school band. The music we sang was profoundly dull to me, though; there were a few exceptions, but for the most part, I had zero interest in what we were singing, and there was no flexibility for jazzing things up a bit. So, around the time I left the church, I also left the choir.

There was one shining exception, though; on exactly one occasion, I had an opportunity to sing one of my then-favorite country songs solo, with a piano accompaniment composed by the choir director. I poured my heart into the music for that performance, and while the feedback was pretty reserved, it was still universally positive. Definitely my best performance ever, and I was hungry for more. So, I turned to some of my friends, who had been talking about starting a metal band, and volunteered to be the lead singer. It didn't last very long, and we only played one gig (which could barely be called a gig) primarily consisting of covers of Metallica songs, but it was awesome! After that band fizzled, I sought out other groups looking for singers, but no luck; they were all too far away. I even sent a demo tape to Slash when he was first forming Velvet Revolver; not much of a response.

After high school, my musical aspirations fizzled. I still dreamed of playing, and still longed for an audience for my music, but that music had no form. Even my singing voice lost its edge without regularly practice, and my transition put the final nail in that coffin (I'm still a decent singer, but my singing voice has such a mismatch compared to the rest of me that even karaoke is unbearable). I had an electric piano for a while, and while I could improvise pretty well once I found a starting point, I didn't have the time to learn to play it properly. And while I was great at playing ritual drums for extended periods of time, I didn't have enough opportunities to justify the expense. I even tried picking up my trumpet again, but after so many years of not playing it, I could barely do anything with it. I tried going back to my first lessons, but I could tell it would take a lot of years of constant practice to get anywhere close to the skill level I used to have (which was good for a kid, but much less useful for an adult). So, I moved on, assuming that making music is just not something I was cut out to do.

A couple years ago, one of my friends found a Native American-style drone flute while helping someone move, but it was missing its block (the piece that connects the two air chambers). He asked if I could help fix it, and while I'd never played one at that point (nor is woodworking among my skills), I offered to give it a try. Using some wood scraps, I experimented with it a bit, and I did manage to get it to play, but not very well; it was made from a kit, and it looked like the maker didn't cut the sound holes consistently with each other, so the two halves weren't in tune with each other. However, despite not being able to fix it, I learned quite a lot about them in the process, including how to play one; I was no stranger to the sound they make, but I always assumed they were a lot more difficult to play. As it turns out, they're pretty easy, and when I ignored the single-note side of broken one, I was able to improvise some decent melodies with zero training. I instantly wanted one of my own.

It took a couple of years to be in a position to afford one, but a week prior to writing this, I finally ordered one; a G# flute made of beautiful box elder wood, with a horse carving as its block, handcrafted by an artist within my tribe. And after reading a fingering chart and watching a Youtube video, I was making beautiful, soulful music. I spent most of the day playing that flute, and once I nailed the fundamentals, I let my heart and spirit sing through it. It quickly turned into meditation, and at several points, a prayer, with my music cleanly reflecting my thoughts. It was very much an epiphany.

My playing that first day wasn't perfect, of course, but it felt perfect. And I already ordered a second flute in a different key, with a third probably not far behind it. I still have a lot to learn about this particular instrument (and I need to re-learn how to read music), but I'll get there. I never really got the hang of guitar or piano, my trumpet skills were mediocre at best even with years of hard work, and drums are difficult to have in an urban condo. But this? I was born to play this. And after a lifetime of failed attempts, I've finally found my music.