I am sitting in the lobby of Mees Auditorium at Capital University, I’m in a small alcove off to the side of the main lobby, sitting on a couch next to music lockers and a low table with a very academic lamp. There are two other men sitting with me. We haven’t acknowledged each other. One is reading a novel with his glasses unworn and hanging from his shirt collar. The other man has just finished a bowl of BibiBop Korean food and is now squinting at his laptop. The three of us wait in our own little separate bubbles, waiting for Junior Winds rehearsal to finish.
Our little area is quiet enough that I can hear the familiar sounds of this building that I have known for over 30 years. I can hear Mr. Dowdy in the auditorium, giving instructions to my daughter and the rest of the Junior Winds ensemble. I can’t make out any words, but I know his voice and know his patter with the students a little at this point. The echo in the auditorium isn’t friendly to an human voice without amplification, but it loves the sound of music, and soon I can hear the swell of horns and winds.
I can also hear conversations of students passing by from one room to the next. Some conversations sound earnest and academic, others dumb and irreverent. These are also sounds very familiar to me. At one time they were conversations I had in this space, long ago. Now those conversations belong to others while i hear them as ambient noise.
I like coming here to Capital. I like that my constant returning here over the years…first as a student, then alumni, then as a faculty spouse, and now as a parent… has prevented the home of my youth from becoming alien to me. It is not my home anymore, but neither is it so far removed from me that I feel uneasy here. It has simply become one of the many settings of my life, holding music and the love of music within its walls, constantly welcoming new voices in and then later propelling those voices out into the world. So many of my friends became music teachers, band and orchestra directors, professional musicians… and then there’s me, who did my best to help my kids love music even more than I do.
Tonight I am grateful for music. For its ability to bind my family together even during the rough times. For its persistence in breaking through the power of my own personal demons. I am grateful for Mees Auditorium and Capital University. I am grateful to professors and peers who helped me be the best singer I could be during my time here. And I am grateful for every note that I hear tonight, echoing off the walls and through the halls of this place that has loved me so.
I unzip my guitar case, lift out my guitar, select my pick for the evening, and take my seat in the living room with a music stand in front of me. I place my iPhone on the stand and select an app to tune. I don’t have to make too many adjustments, which pleases me for some unknown reason…it feels like I earn bonus points if my strings are at least moderately in tune.
I switch to the Yousician app to begin my practice, and it takes me through a couple of warm-up songs. I like playing along to the tracks they provide; it makes me feel accomplished. However, that feeling goes away as soon as the lesson proper begins, because I still can’t play chords properly. I roll my fingers up and down, left and right, but every strum sounds out dead notes. I can’t proceed to the next lesson until I produce perfect chords, and the mic is way too good at picking up my mistakes.
I swear. Silently.
Marty Music on YouTube is friendly, enthusiastic, and couldn’t care less if I play wrong notes, and I’m tempted to just switch mid-lesson over to his channel… but I feel like if I do that it’ll be like taking a dangerous short cut, and I really want to get these chords right.
So I roll my fingers a few more directions. Maybe this time the dead notes will be gone.
Or maybe this time.
No, this ti-…
For Christmas 2016, my wife gave me a guitar. No frills. I would have to get up and get it out to tell you what brand it is. It’s a good guitar, from what I can tell. It more than serves my needs as someone who has never played guitar before.
I started to learn guitar in the first weeks of January 2017, but even though it was something I’ve wanted to do for awhile, it just didn’t take. It broke my heart to see it in its case in the corner, but my heart wasn’t broken quite enough to do anything about it. It sat there, an entry in my continued work: Things I Start But Don’t Ever Quite Finish. Instead of happiness, the instrument brought guilt.
This past Christmas, one of the gifts my wife gave me was a set of guitar picks with the art of Vincent Van Gogh on them. Picks with sunflowers and stars. I smiled.
I have loved Van Gogh for a long time but my love for him intensified upon watching a 2010 episode of Doctor Who titled “Vincent and the Doctor.” Maybe one day I’ll take the time to write more fully upon the impact that this episode continues to have on me, but for now, suffice it to say that there’s a scene where the time-travelling main character (played by Matt Smith) asks a museum curator (an uncredited Bill Nighy) to talk about who Vincent Van Gogh really was:
The Doctor: Between you and me, in a hundred words, where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?
Curator: Well… um… big question, but, to me Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular, great painter of all time. The most beloved, his command of color most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.
Taking pain and producing joy. I tremble at the idea.
What if medication, therapy, meditation, prayer… what if they all work to fight my depression and it’s not enough? What if there’s a missing element…that of recreation, of play, of creativity. What if I’m supposed to put something back into the universe that wasn’t there before that quiets the demon inside.
I will admit, those Van Gogh picks lay on a shelf until today, when I happened to see them, and that dialogue about Vincent jumped into my head. I thought about all the music in my life and how I consumed it. I thought about all my friends who loved being professional and amateur musicians. I thought about my kids and how wonderful they are at their chosen instruments. I thought about my wife whose very mission in life is to teach character through music. I thought about them all.
I picked up my guitar today. I picked up my Starry Night pick. And once more, I started the process of learning to play.