Sunday, January 02, 2011


by J J Cohen

On New Year's eve my family wrote wishes on small papers, lit a backyard fire, and sent our hopes skyward. My incinerated scrap stated pax. Katherine refused to reveal the three secret hopes she placed between the sticks. Alex had intended to write a million dollars until I applied some pressure to his conscience. The paper he did place in the pile stated "peace and love (and maybe a million dollars)."

Those are wishes. New year's is also the time for self-promises. My resolution is for more music. I've been thinking about music as the year ends because of powerful experiences this year that have stayed with me. At the shabbat service during which Alex was called to the Torah, the temple's choir did an extraordinary job of improvising with their assortment of instruments and involving even those who knew none of the words of the songs. In Barcelona, Manuel Gonzalez's playing guitar in an ancient church was transcendentally beautiful. In my "Myths of Britain" class, with the assistance of a talented graduate student we had the ninety students sing a haunting rendition of "Full Fathom Five." Music, clearly, is community, and companionship.

Though I have 2,603 songs in my iTunes library (enough for eight days one hour eight minutes and thirty-one seconds of play), I don't listen as often as I could, and I haven't explored new music for quite some time, especially music to run with in the morning. I need to branch out.

Along with never developing the ability to incinerate matter at a glance, one of my great disappointments in life is never having learned to play an instrument. When I was ten my parents relented and bought the cheap and poorly constructed acoustic guitar for which I'd begged, but they wouldn't fund lessons. I tried to use the enclosed booklet to teach myself, but how could I tell if I was making a C or a B, considering I knew what neither sounds like? I'm thrilled to have two musical children, though, even if Alex's enthusiasm for piano has waned somewhat: having music in the house makes the place a home.

Last night we had dinner at our friends' house. Towards the end of the evening J. brought out his guitar and attempted a piece he was re-learning. He didn't quite make it through, mostly because of the amount of wine we'd consumed, but we did have a good conversation about what music means to him. J. moved to Alicante in Spain at age twenty, partly to become fluent in the language, partly because he was restless. For five years he studied classical guitar with a fairly famous musician in Alicante, and progressed from being a novice to becoming moderately proficient. J. lamented, though, the late start he got on learning the instrument: he knew it would never be possible to play as well as his teacher. He then offered to give me lessons, and to let me borrow one of his guitars (he owns three). The idea is attractive and I'm thinking about it, but you know ... if age twenty is already too late, I'm pretty much screwed now that I am something beyond twice that.

Then again, it isn't as if I dream of being able to play for performance. I'd like to learn a musical instrument for the same reason (I think) that I enjoy learning languages ... though this seems a more tactile, more felt version of such learning. Yet I wonder if I really have the time to commit to such an undertaking. I'm perpetually running from one commitment to another as it is, and this coming year does not look to be less intense than the preceding. I have an idea that I could learn something easier, maybe a percussion instrument like the bodhrán (which I learned to appreciate in Irish pubs a few years ago) ... but knowing lazy me these dreams will stay dreams. And I am also certain that the bodhrán is a tough instrument to master -- and where does one find a bodhrán-master anyway?

Still, my pledge: more music, in whatever form, in 2011.


Steve Mentz said...

Sounds as if you've been reading Sat's Times column by Oliver Sacks. "Neuroplasticity" is a nice buzzword for 2011, at all ages.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I'm signing up for voice lessons, myself. It makes no sense to not take advantage of the musical opportunities here.

M.K. Foys said...

Here's a free (and topical) song to get you started . . .

Anonymous said...

I'm a musician, and I always encourage anyone who wants to start playing an instrument to go ahead and sign up for lessons at whatever age they happen to be.

I often encounter the "I'm too old to master this" theory, which depresses me. Do adults who decide that they would like to learn to play tennis give up before they even start because they'll never play at Wimbledon?

Take the music lessons. They might enrich your life in ways you can't even foresee. And you can always quit two months in if you don't like it. Trying is better than not trying.

Jax said...

Do take the lessons. The world will be just a little better, the more of us who can make music, even if just for our friends.

If bodhran is a thing you definitely want to learn, get in touch with me--I may be able to help you find a teacher.

Eileen Joy said...

It's odd to say this, but I'm with Alex on the million dollars. So much good and personal well-being, even, can be accomplished with money. If I had a million dollars I could create a BABEL institute and create new jobs. Money is not such a bad thing to wish for. That's all I'm sayin'.

Joan said...

Last year we heard Manuel Gonzalez play at the Palau de la Musica Catalana. What an experience!

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the other responders here: take the lessons, Jeffrey. I myself took lessons several years ago after a friend of mine started bringing his guitar to parties, and would strum the rudimentary chords to a few songs we all knew the words to. Although my friend couldn't play a dazzling lead guitar lick, or do fancy finger picking, he could still strum the rhythm, and he got us all singing something like Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" by the end of the evening. It was magical, and it was then that I vowed to learn the guitar if for no other goal than to be able to strum a few chords at a party and get everyone to sing along to a song we all knew. To paraphrase the wisdom of Bono: all you need is three chords and the truth. (Because seriously there are books out there with titles like "How to Play 1000 Songs with Three Chords," etc.).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Steve: though the resolution predated the NYT piece, that Sacks essay was the spur to my post, indeed.

Martin: The Young Scamels??!

Anonymous, Jax and Anonymous: THANK YOU. That's exactly what I needed to hear. Really.

Joan, agreed!

Eileen, whereas you would spend your million on BABEL and (let's face it) Hermes ties and scarves, Alex would use it to make his room over in the style of "Assassin's Creed" or "Halo Reach."