I teach music to young children ages 5 to about 11 or 12. The children come to my classroom and the youngest classes sit in a circle on the floor and we get started on the day’s activities. The children know that we need a circle that includes every child and if the circle is too small I sing a song I made up which is “if everybody moves back just a little bit, there’s going to be enough place for everyone to sit.”
Yesterday, a child arrived late, and class was already in progress, so she lurked on the fringe of the circle and no-one made room for her. I switched to the above mentioned ditty and the children “scootched” back a bit and there were several gaps that the latecomer could have easily sat in, but an argument erupted between the latecomer and another child who was in the exact geographic location that the latecomer wanted. To my eyes, an arbitrary spot on the floor, but to these two, a fundamental right was being trampled on. My intervention was to point out that; virtually no one spot had an advantage over another, and that a solution was needed so we could continue making music. I said to both of them that if they really wanted to sing, one of them would have to shift their rigidity. The sitting child could cede his place, or the standing child could opt to sit elsewhere. I try not to “decide for them” in cases like this. I let them figure it out for themselves with a bit of guidance. The standing child chose an empty spot and we continued the class. We are all equal, and everyone matters. Simple, right? We made music.
Then on the way home I heard about the awful massacre of Palestinian protesters by the IDF. There was much analysis and people from both sides having their say and virtually the only “common ground” was the ground they both wanted. The highly educated people discussing the situation from either side had legitimate points and both seemed logical and reasonable. The need for a Jewish homeland is important. Especially after the holocaust brought on by the Nazis. The need for Palestinians to have a home is important as well. The British kind of dropped the ball on the Palestinians when Israel was formed after the second world war. (1949). They both want the same space and they both desire peace, but there are fanatics on both sides that keep this from happening. The problem is that each side has chosen to not co-exist and believes that they are fundamentally more important than the other. This is not news. I was brought up on the Christian bible, and the stories of wars and slavery and inequity have been going on for ages. I am not being frivolous here, but what don’t these religions get? “Thou shalt not kill” pretty clear commandment from Allah, Yahweh, G*d, God….. If you want to make music, you have to learn to get along. There is enough room for everyone, and no-one has to hate. There is no holiness in hatred.
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard….. “I love to sing, but I hate the sound of my voice” from students, friends, strangers. Worse than that are the “I can’t sing” people and the people who believe they are tone deaf. All of which are exaggerations of a negative self-defeating attitude.It got me to thinking about “tunedness” and “tonal quality” in general. Most people are repelled by hearing a recording of themselves for the first time. We usually hear our own voices not just through our ears but the resonating of our own skulls. When we hear the recording, this resonance is absent, so it sounds “weird” and wrong. This revulsion subsides as with more experience and confidence we accept “what is” over some possible ideal of what is “supposed to be”.
The other day I listened intently to the rough mix of my own recent studio recordings. I was highly critical of my own music and making notes of verses I’d like to overdub because “a note in the verse is slightly flat”; Checking for notes that may need to be “evened out” or replaced. I am ruthless when it comes to my own stuff. I became discouraged with one performance which had sounded great in the studio and now sounded “out of tune” to me.. I had even asked George (whose ears I trust) if he heard any “pitchy” notes. We had agreed just after I sang that this was “the” take. Passion was there, phrasing, timing, tuning. I listened again this morning and it sounded perfect. What changed?
In between the two sessions of listening critically to my music I had listened to a huge hero of mine. I listened to Bob Dylan’s album “Another Side of Bob Dylan” and noticed “pitchiness” on virtually every song on an album which I had never questioned as anything but perfect. I realized that if this music had been overly scrutinized it might have never seen the light of day. The material and the authenticity and integrity of the music surpasses any flaws perceived or not. It took guts and confidence to put that out there.
There is no mistaking Bob Dylan’s voice for anyone else’s. Many people don’t like it. They just don’t get it. Even Dylan has tried different approaches to singing. His Nashville voice, his Guthrie voice, the croak, the “live voice” (my least favourite), and my favourite voice (Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde)mid-sixties venomous punk and fragile lover. I accepted Bob’s performance without once questioning his tuning. I have sometimes questioned the tuning of the guitars on his early rock stuff. Mike Bloomfield’s parts in particular strike me as a bit “off” even as perfect as they are.
Also in between my own two listening sessions of my recordings my daughter Ema Jean sent me her latest mix of one of her songs. She wanted my opinion. I listened intently to the song several times. Each time focusing on a different element, but the last time I listened just for pleasure and I was viscerally transported. I told her (in a text) that it was perfect. She wrote back “Really? You don’t hear anything weird?” I listened again several times and for the life of me I could not perceive any flaws or “weirdness”. I told her it was perfect.
I remember one of the songs on my first album where I was reaching for a particular phrase in my improvisation that I played “wrong”. I had a sound in my head and my fingers were a bit behind and it came out “different”. No one else heard it because no one could have read my mind or known my intention. Because we were recording live to two track in an expensive studio I left it as is. I always heard it as wrong (while everyone else who has heard it accepts it as what it is). Until a few months ago when the song came on in the car. Sharon likes to put her iPod on shuffle, and often, surprises come up. I was delighted to hear a piece I had written so long ago come up randomly. I did not hear the wrong passage at all. I heard the phrase as what it has now become, which is perfect.
Ema’s song may not be exactly what she hears in her head, but to an objective listener, it is perfect. Independent of my being her dad, her work is of a consistently high quality.
Virtually all of my favourite singers have released music that have a characteristic of uniqueness that can be seen as pitchiness. Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ellen McIlwaine, Leonard Cohen, J.J. Cale, John Lennon, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Jerry Garcia, Jeff Tweedy. And so on.
Listening critically requires objectivity, but we always listen to our own music through the burden of ego and the liability of subjectivity. I hold myself to standards that are virtually impossible to achieve and that I don’t require from others…..
“Use what talents you possess; The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” – Henry van Dyke
I was playing the piano at school yesterday and a substitute teacher happened by and remarked: “You are lucky!” I stopped and asked him why he thought that. He explained that he meant I was lucky I could play music to which I replied: “Luck had nothing to do with it!” Whatever skill I possess is a product of desire and hard work. Perhaps in a sense I am lucky to work at something I love. I only just thought of that now as I write. I may be lucky in other ways, but good luck and bad luck go hand in hand.
Our conversation continued as I queried whether he loved music or not. He said that he adored music and was an eager consumer of recorded music and a frequent attendee at live venues. I told him that that was great, and he and his ilk are very important to me and my ilk. Listeners and fans are important to keep the art alive.
I thought a bit and drew a parallel between the subject of our conversation and the subject of cars. I said that I enjoy driving, but had no clue how to do any but the most basic repairs on a car. Mechanics also love cars and have the skill set to repair them. I have a skill set to write and/or interpret music. Like the mechanic, I had curiosity, I gathered knowledge and experience. I may have had an underlying aptitude, I don’t know. I do know that learning the guitar (and continuing to learn daily) has been a lot of hard and frustrating work. Rewarding work. Enjoyable work. But definitely work.
It is ironic that all this “work” results in ability to “play”. People often remark on how easy I make it look. They refer to this quality called “talent”. Looks are deceiving. I have worked hard on and continue to work hard on: tone, technique, harmony, chord substitution, etc. Many many thousands of hours. My guitar playing friends know.
Today I encountered a little girl in grade one who told me she “knew how to play the guitar well!” and as I enquired further, she told me her dad had been teaching her for years. I was skeptical, but I asked her if she could play me a song on my guitar. At school this rarely happens. My guitar is “off limits” at all times. She said she could play “My Heart Will Go On”. What transpired next was baffling. The dreadnaught guitar in her hands reminded me of Snoopy playing at the Christmas pageant. She started to sing and was scratching and flailing at the guitar with both hands. Neither hand making any cohesive sound to accompany her able singing of this dreadful song.
I asked her if her dad maybe held his fingers on the chord shapes while she strummed. I asked her if that was the way she always played it and whether she “knew” another song. She answered that this was the way she always played it. I asked her if there was anything she could do to improve it and she said it was perfect. Her Daddy and Mummy think she should go on “La Voix”. (Crappy artificial TV talent show). I hope not.
I like this little girl. She is very smart! Quick as a whip. There was something that struck me as odd about this, though. I asked the other children in the class if they enjoyed the performance, and the answers were all of the opinion that the guitar and the song didn’t “quite” match. They were kind, but truthful. One child said they couldn’t hear a beat.
I did not want to discourage her. I told her she was very brave to perform for us.
She must get a great deal of positive attention at home for an admittedly cute performance, but rewarding a dreadfully unmusical and nonsensical performance that is beyond her skill set and fine motor development should not be thought of as perfect. I hope this little girl’s delusion will one day be replaced by desire to actually learn the guitar which will of course, require work. I hope it is not an indication of how the music dies.
Have you ever kissed a dead body? Neither had I. I did on March 17th, 2002.
I had just seen my father the night before. I had hugged him good-bye then, a warm and real embrace, not knowing it was to be our last hug. The drive back to Montreal was a good one. Visiting my parents in the Laurentian mountains was almost always that way. My girls received lots of grandparental attention, and my parents had both been sympathetic to some of the crises I was experiencing in my life, and were loving and reassuring to me. They told me everything was going to be alright. Just what I needed. We were happy. I was safe.
I always loved St. Patrick’s day in Montreal. We always went to the parade which was usually a display of what was great about the city. No tensions, no politics, just joie de vivre and some silly public drunkenness. People letting off some steam after the brutal winter. Some floats were very creatively done, some were just lame. The usual “celebrities” (local newscasters and the odd sports figure). The marching bands were always fun to watch. Pub bands on floats with green beer, etc.
We usually stood near the start of the parade on Fort St. and the fingers of the musicians were not yet numbed by the March weather. Some years the sun shone and you knew Spring was not far away. Some years were less accommodating, and the revellers drank more.
The parade does not usually fall exactly on the 17th. It did this year, and it did in 2002. If I had savant skills I could tell you which other ones did, but I don’t have that particular gift. The weather in 2002 was cold. Hovering around the zero mark. Today is a bit colder, but not by much. In contrast with last Friday which saw major melting and breaking up of ice, today is very cold.
I remember returning from the parade with the girls and going down in the basement to play the guitar when my former wife called down with a note of urgency in her voice and told me I had to drive up north immediately. My dad was en route to the hospital in Ste. Agathe. I shot out to the car and drove like a maniac out of the city praying and hoping that my father was holding on. I still believed in prayer then. I still believed that hoping was good enough. Everything was going to be all right. My parents always were able to convince me that “this too shall pass”.
My gas light came on about 15 km out of the city, and I realized that I needed to fill up if I was going to make it. I cursed myself for not being what I had promised to do so many times in Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs. I was not living up to the “Be Prepared” motto. It is not that I am a slow learner (or maybe I am, as I have run out of gas at very inopportune moments), I have been known to procrastinate.
The time to fill up was excruciatingly slow. The pump seemed to be coughing up spurts of gas rather than a steady stream. I know how fluid time can be.The minute it took seemed like an hour. The drive after that seemed like a second.
I parked next to the hospital and scaled a snowbank as a shortcut to get to the emergency and immediately looked around and inquired where my father “David Hanchet” might be? The nurse gestured without speaking, and I knew that the door she pointed toward held the news of a day I never wanted to face. I opened the door and my mum immediately lit up and rushed to hug me with tears in her eyes and said that “Dad never regained consciousness and they stopped trying to revive him an hour earlier.”
I looked over to the gurney where my father was supposed to be, and there was a dead body there. It sort of resembled my dad, but it was clear from first glance that my dad was not there. I went over to the body and planted a kiss on his forehead. I am not in the habit of being comfortable in hospitals and around illness or suffering. I am most definitely not in the habit of kissing dead bodies. This was the exception. The love pouring out of my heart at this moment for a man who I now knew was a mortal being was like protective armour and even though the inanimate matter that had been home to my father could not feel it, it gave me a form of closure. It was time to grow up.
I was 46. My dad was a month shy of 82. I had some papers to sign and to find a way to coax my mother to come with me back to their condo. She was so disoriented. We drove back to Morin Heights and I started the task of informing my relatives. I first contacted my own nuclear family. Told them that “Panda” was gone. “What do you mean, gone?” He was dead.
I tried to call my older brother first, as he was teasingly called “heartbeat” by my dad, obliquely meaning that Guy was a heartbeat away from being the head of the family. Guy was not home, and a message was not appropriate. I felt very alone. The burden of carrying the news of my father’s death was too much for one person. Next in line was my sister, who miraculously picked up (because she was entertaining guests at the time). I told her the news and the bond of our mutual grief is the closest I have ever felt to anybody. I knew exactly what she was feeling and she, I. I don’t remember if I called my younger brother, or if I asked Elaine to do the rest of the calling while I attended to my mother.
My dad had started the day like any other Sunday. He went to church and sang in the “choir” and attended to the duties of one of the offices he held at the church. He was sometimes an alderman, sometimes treasurer, sometimes server. My mum did not often attend that church, as her choice of worship was more evangelical than my father. He came home and made lunch for himself and my mum. He broiled two hot dogs split down the centre and covered in barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese just on the verge of turning darker orange. They then sat out on the terrace on their “chaises longue” and soak up some rays of the mid day sun surrounded by chickadees and Blue Jays. My mum asked him if he might “consider going to Stratford this year?” My dad did not respond. He just stopped. Everything stopped.
I don’t like to think of the efforts to revive him when the Urgences Santé paramedics arrived. My mum thought there was still a chance. She called my home (Of her four children, I lived closest). I am glad I was there for her. I stayed the night, and then commuted as my siblings arrived on the scene over the next few days.
I have not attended the parade since then. It has now been 17 years. I am not sure if I would have stopped anyways as my girls got older. I have mixed feelings about the day.
I remember my brother saying at the time how funny and ironic it was that dad died on St. Paddy’s Day. One story that my dad used to tell was when an inebriated reveller came up to him on a St. Paddy’s Day and asked him what he “thought of the Irish?”. My dad, without skipping a beat and highly unlikely to give spare change to someone drunk said: “why, I think they are the scum of the earth!” I am pretty sure my dad was joking (although I come from a long line of British superiorists). The man retorted “I hope yaz findz yer razor!” Best put down retort. My dad’s “beard” at the time was best described as pathetic.
Sharon and I are pleased to announce that the second printing of our CD Tumbleweed is ready to go. We can now fill orders that we were unable to fill because we sold out in the rush to reach our charity goal before Christmas. If you would like a copy, send me your address and send an e-transfer to email@example.com. Most people paid $20.00 plus two bucks to cover Canadian postage, but paying it forward is also part of the deal, pay what you can. We will be putting the money aside in order to contribute to the St. James Drop In Centre again when we have amassed a good round number. One of the men who benefits from the services of St. James Drop-in centre bought a copy. He is homeless, does not even have a CD player, but insisted on supporting this project. Be yourself, but be like him.
I have a friend who happens to be a “world class” luthier. Every time we talk, we exhibit our passion for music and guitars and tone and, quite frankly, a plethora of diverse subjects that one would expect between friends. Time spent together is always a joy.
One day I visited him in the “wood nest” as he affectionately calls his workshop and we were hanging out talking and drinking espresso coffee with the sun streaming through the panoramic windows of this loft space and I spotted a guitar that was fully built and stringed up and ready to go. Michael (almost) never has one of his guitars “hanging around” because all of his guitars are all pre-ordered two years in advance. Michael had to make a phone call and had to excuse himself for a bit. I asked if I could play the guitar that I was admiring while he was on the phone. He nodded and I entered a new world.
Like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, this guitar opened up into areas of creativity that were new to me. I played some single note melodies that I had been struggling with, and the lines were seamless. A particular chord sequence that usually required concentration and a shift in my arm and torso to play, just fell out of this guitar effortlessly. I played some Jazz Standards on it, my own compositions on it, andthen put it through the paces of songs I’d always wanted to play, but there was some technical aspect that I was not consistent. All of my limitations and barriers seemed to slip away as I sat playing. It was sublime.
Apparently Michael re-entered the room after his phone call, apologizing for how long it took, but if I heard him, it was not apparent. Some time later, I re-emerged from the trance and looked at Michael and said “I wish I hadn’t done that!” to which he responded “Why not? It sounded great and you were obviously enjoying it.” To which I explained: “I’m a teacher and a musician!” Neither income streams are huge. Michael’s guitars are handcrafted, performance level instruments and priced accordingly. “There is no way I could afford it.” He said “You’d be surprised! We’re friends, right?” I nodded. “It takes two years. Plenty of time for you to plan and save.”
I went home conflicted. I told Sharon of the experience and that Michael offered to build me a guitar. I was convinced that it is “too much guitar” for me and anyways I’d be 63 by the time it was made and blah, blah, blah. All of this negative stuff coming out ofmy mouth. “I don’t deserve it!”
Of course, Sharon negated all of these arguments and got me to thinking about what another old friend told me about his Martin guitar. He said that it took him a few years to pay off the debt, but he said if you look at it as 50 cents a day to own an instrument that brings you joy and advances your art, why not?
A few months passed and I forgot about the whole thing until I opened an envelope on Christmas day 2016. The envelope had pictures Sharon had taken in the workshop printed on a paper with the news that she had made a downpayment on a new guitar from Michael. My heart nearly stopped,and my eyes welled up.
I went back to visit Michael and we agreed on the materials used and other details of the guitar that are standard options like Cutaway or no cutaway?
I started to save. I took on some extra work and co-incidentally with the ending of my car payments, it was not as hard as I had feared. A year passed. I was on track for my goal when I got another envelope from Sharon. Another instalment. Rare to have a partner that is so supportive of my art. I love her anyway, but this is an endearing quality for sure.
I started to get little notes from Michael in my e-mail with details of it’s progress. “Wood is selected for your guitar” and “body is glued” and “waiting for another coat” etc.
The build up mounting like a tantric encounter. Wait…not…yet…
One of the last ones was: “she is built! She is a (strong word that rhymes with “trucking”) monster!” I phoned and asked what exactly that meant? “Even better than the one you played!” was his response. Nuances that only musicians or luthiers might notice.
It used to be that two years actually took two years. Not anymore! Like my trip to Narnia, time seems to have become fluid. Some years drag on and others flash by. Like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” I want to drag my feet to slow the circles down.
Yesterday I received my guitar. She is beautiful. She feels just right, but hadn’t been played. I activated the molecules by playing her and she is continuing to be “broken in’ with every hour I play her. She will settle in in about two weeks as I get to know her and she, me.
First minutes with my new Greenfield.
I am so thankful to Michael and to my wife, Sharon for this beautiful instrument.