February 18, 2009

We All Play Together

The house is quiet now, but when the kids were with us, we were always surrounded by music. We made them practice their instruments in the living room so we could hear the progress they made. Boy, am I glad we did. Though in the beginning the sounds they made were more reminiscent of geese flying overhead than anything musical, they improved.

Josh, who is a genius and therefore welcome to make his own mistakes, left school for a period of time to play guitar in an alternative rock band, which is to say he really waited on tables. He had one of those VH-1 Making the Band experiences and is now back in school. Matt, while an undergraduate studying physics at Berkeley, was the principal bassoonist for the school orchestra. He's scheduled to begin a Ph.D. program in the fall, but I'm sure if he had his choice, he'd play for the San Francisco Symphony instead. Aaron is the most serious musician of the bunch. A jazz trumpet player and multiple DownBeat Award winner, he's the 2008 Jimmy Lyon Scholar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (the other Berkeley).

When I was a young father, my dream was to have a family band. You'd think it had been within my grasp. Unfortunately, our tastes in music are so different that when we try to play together, we nearly come to blows. Yet, my sons are my greatest joys. Music, as you'll see here, is pretty high on the list, too.

A week before I began my sixth-grade year in school, my father set in motion a series of events that would lead to nearly every good and wonderful thing that has happened to me since.
And he did it against my will.

Early that morning, before he left the house to register me for my classes, I reminded him of the courses I didn’t want. At the top of the list were these: art, drama and music—especially music.
Back then I had a clear vision of my future self. I would be the kind of man who could walk into the hills with just a pocketknife and a shaker of salt, then return two weeks later with a full belly and the stink of wood smoke and something feral. I wanted to attend formal gatherings dressed in thermal shirts and mukluks, knowing all the while that other men envied me. I planned to be a boxer—and not just a boxer, but the undisputed champion of the world—because Ultimate Fighting wasn’t an option at the time. And that picture of me as an adult didn’t include a musical sound track.

After registering me for school, my father returned home, carrying something that resembled a briefcase. It must be a tool kit for shop class, I thought, but no. My father handed it to me and said: “This is what you’ll be playing for your middle school band.”

At first I figured he was only kidding, but then I opened the case and there inside was a shiny brass trumpet. To this day I have no idea why he did it. Music wasn’t important to my folks and we rarely listened to it at home. If you were to ask my dad who the greatest musician of the twentieth century was, he’d probably shrug and say: Hank Williams? Patsy Cline? I can only suppose my father was motivated by the kind of inspiration to which loving parents are entitled.

But for the first week of band I didn’t play a note—only sat and fumed. The second week began in much the same way, except that I began to listen and critique the kids around me. (Johnny keeps missing that F#, I’d think, and Mary can’t count to four). Then at home I’d take the trumpet out and play it when nobody was listening. By the third week I was an unapologetic band geek.

I couldn’t get enough of music, so in high school I joined the choir. Oh, I still played sports and went camping, but music became a passion. My best friend then was 6’6”, 220 pounds and as strong as an ox. He would eventually play college basketball, but he was first and foremost a choir nerd. We would go moose hunting each fall and, while traipsing through the woods, we’d sing from Mozart’s Requiem Mass. We especially liked the bass line from Dies Ire, which is a movement about the Judgment Day. We would sing it like we were Pavarotti and Domingo. Unfortunately, the music’s effect on moose was to put the fear of the Judgment in them and cause them to flee.

Then on Easter morning in 1975 I had the opportunity to sing at the Vatican with a wonderful choir and my life changed completely. We were ushered into an alcove off the main dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, were we began to sing Karl Heinrich Graun’s motet: Surely, He hath Borne Our Griefs. The piece begins with the word “surely” sung in a pensive minor chord, followed by a rest. It was after we gave voice to that first chord and we were waiting for the director’s next cue that two disarming things happened. First, we heard our own voices whispering through the catacombs in the back of the basilica, repeating with quiet assurance: surely, surely, surely, surely. Then the second thing happened: My eyes filled with tears, my voice choked up, and I couldn’t sing another word.

I was completely unprepared for what happened. At home my parents didn’t talk about spiritual matters. My mother had been raised a Buddhist and my father was a self-proclaimed “Jack Mormon”, who would roll his eyes at any reference to religion. As a kid, one of my few experiences with the church occurred a few months after we moved to Alaska and two men dropped by and knocked on our door. I suppose my father’s membership records had finally made their way to the local branch, but Dad wasn’t ready for any welcome committees. He glanced out the living room window and said quietly, “Don’t nobody move.”

That’s when one of the men—the one whom I would later know as Brother Carlson—rapped a knuckle on the window and said: “We’re your home teachers and we can see you in there breathing.”

Dad told us to ignore them and eventually they went away, but they continued to rap on our window every few months, only to be ignored again or told to go away. My father was dismissive about them and wouldn’t explain who they were, aside from telling us they were nuts. The whole affair was quite bizarre to me. What were the men hoping to teach us—some Tony Soprano-styled lesson? And why were they spying on us? My brothers and I wondered if we’d moved to Alaska under the auspices of some witness protection program.

I tell you this to describe just how unprepared I was when the spirit touched me that day in 1975. As I stood there in St. Peter’s Basilica, I wondered what could inspire someone to compose such a beautiful motet, but that only led me to ask other similar questions. Where had Michelangelo obtained the inspiration to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and sculpt the Pieta, both of which I’d seen that day? And what had caused so many people to sacrifice so much to build the edifice in which I stood?

In the end I could only conclude that it had something to do with the man, Jesus, of whom I knew so little and must know more. Within days after I returned home, Brother Carlson’s son, Dave, invited me to attend church with him and I couldn’t refuse.

Taped to a wall inside the middle school band room where my kids once played is a list of rules the students are expected to follow. The first rule is my favorite. It reads, quite simply: We all play together.

The ideal of playing together is one reason why music is so compelling. No matter the geography or culture of origin, all musical forms share an oddly familiar beginning. You can hear it in the melodic chants uttered during a bar mitzvah, or a Buddhist funeral, or a Native-American powwow, or the Islamic call to prayer. In every case, they are meant to join communities of people in a spiritual communion. When all our voices blend together—expressing longing and joy, angst and perfect love—the nature of that communion puts us as close to heaven as nearly any other earthly experience. But what if we don’t sing in tune or in perfect rhythm? If getting there is half the fun, the road to perfect harmony can still be exhilarating, despite the occasional need for a tune-up.

I had a dear friend once who happened to be a dog. Jesse loved music and had impeccable taste in it, preferring the masterworks of the Late Baroque composers. It didn’t matter where he was, whenever Lori played a movement from Handel’s Messiah, or some other similar piece, Jesse would come running. He’d flop down beneath the piano’s soundboard and roll onto his back with legs in the air and ears outstretched to capture every note. The grin on his face suggested a kind of spiritual ecstasy. A year before he passed, Jesse was diagnosed with a tumor in his hip that required one of his hind legs to be amputated. Afterward he couldn’t balance on his back anymore, but he still loved to lie beneath the piano. I don’t want to be maudlin here, but Jesse seemed to take refuge in music, as if it transported him to a dog-version of heaven, like the long walks through the woods we eventually had to curtail. Is there any wonder why David tells us to, “Sing to the Lord a marvelous song?”

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