Luck/Talent/Work

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. 

Who are you? Who? Who?

Have you ever met someone who knows you, and you probably should know them because you are Facebook friends? I do this more and more these days. Someone about whom I know a little, but who I know visually only through a profile picture the size of a postage stamp. The profile picture is often “dated” that is…you don’t really look like a skinny 12 year old on skis, or batman or a golden retriever anymore (lol).

I am easy to pick out of a crowd because I am big, my hair is long and I have a big beard and if I’m in a good mood, a big personality (in a bad mood I’m a sarcastic SOB). I am easier to tag than a Cardinal in a murder of crows. As a performer and a teacher, I am outnumbered by people who know what I look like better than I know what they look like. I recently had a young man come up to me and refer to me as Mr. Hanchet. He had been a student of mine 18 years ago WHEN HE WAS IN GRADE 2!!!!! Hadn’t changed a bit…..lol.

I am about to have this experience of disadvantage “in spades”. For the next 4 days this boy is going to be hanging with the “folk police” at the Folk Alliance International conference which happens to be in Montreal this year. I really hope there are name tags….. Please introduce yourself to me!


It is starting on a day where we just got a dump of enough snow to cancel school (YAY…for the safety of the kids…for sure ;)…not like we teachers need a rest…)

Apple/Tree

Today as I tuned my guitar in front of a grade two class, preparing to play them a song, I noticed some of the kids furtively holding pieces of paper. When I started to play, they held up the pieces of paper in the air. It took me a second, but I realized they were copying adult behaviour with their “I-phones”. It struck me how this could never have happened at the start of my career.

“confiscated” cell phones.

I instructed them that it was OK to film me, but they had to be very quiet as the “microphones” pick up all noise. Then I confiscated them all…..heh heh heh…never trust “The Man”….. Of course I gave them back after the photo. I wish I could show you the earnestness and accuracy that these kids showed while imitating the adults around them, but the period was ending and I was not sure if the kids had an OK for internet images.

Apples indeed do not fall far from the tree.

Passions

Today in one of my grade one classes the subject of Passions, talents, gifts (aptitudes) came up. I said “I am lucky to love playing music and love kids and love teaching, so I am using my gifts!” Several children offered their own desires and talents. One little girl is a gymnast (can’t do a cartwheel yet…lol), another child interupted to say he was a good listener….. There were soccer stars and hockey stars and a pianist. 

I have a favourite student in this class. We aren’t supposed to have favourites, but this boy reminds me of my happy tenure doing music therapy at Giant Steps. This little boy is very articulate and very individual. The “suits” have labelled him a “high functioning Autistic”.

He reminds me of some other children I have taught who were a pleasure to interact with. “T” was very reluctant at first to even be in my class. First day he said “I don’t like you!” Because I had some boundaries. He tried some stuff on for size, not realizing that this isn’t my first rodeo. After that day, he rushes in to be beside where I sit and he participates pretty well. 

Today as we were all discussing our aptitudes and skills that we enjoy working at, I asked “T.” a direct question. I asked him “and what is your special gift?” Without batting an eyelid he said “I am good at doing nothing!” with a huge grin on his face as he lay on the floor beside where I was sitting. I cracked up and he was obviously pleased with himself for causing me such glee!

I aspire to be good at doing nothing! 

Zelf On A Shelf……Dr. Seuss

Treasures

They’re pebbles. So what? You may say. But these pebbles are not just pebbles. There is one that is long and black and opaque like a triple sized licorice flavoured jellybean. I pulled it out of Great Slave Lake when I was at the first Arctic and Northern Jamboree just outside of Yellowknife in 1968. I gave it to my mother to add to the other treasures I had previously given her from family trips to Lake Huron; the Gaspésie; P.E.I. ; and Nova Scotia. 

Mum kept these pebbles in with her sewing stuff and when I was still little and she was sewing I would pretend I was a doctor I would play at her feet and hum and rub these tiny cold pebbles up and down her calves “fixing her” like a doctor would while she operated her little Singer sewing machine or darned socks or sewed patches on pants that had been ripped to shreds by some stupid adventure I may have imagined I was on while at once defying the laws of gravity and common sense and the limitations of cotton or denim. 

All the pebbles had several things in common: They had to be smooth and be interesting in some way other than just that they were from a place I had visited. Some had stripes, some were opaque like the first one in this essay, some had a bubble or a tiny flaw caused by erosion. There was a flat one that resembled driftwood. All of them were cool to the touch and viscerally pleasing to me and a little inside intimacy I shared with my mother. 

Eventually the number of stones outgrew the sewing kit and my mum moved them to a desk drawer and she kept a few of her favourites in a tiny brass replica of a clawfoot bathtub on the top of her writing desk. 

When my mum grew old and started downsizing, she offered her pebble collection to me. I accepted.

I had had my own treasures. My dad had brought me a piece of petrified wood from a business trip to Arizona. Turned my world around to think that wood could actually turn to stone, much (I imagined) like the witch Jadis turned the fauns and dwarves and creatures of Narnia into stone. There was also smooth beach glass and dried samples of butterflies, a Cicada shell, a sand dollar from my Papa’s trip to New Zealand and there were odd feathers and an empty broken Robin’s egg. 

As I outgrew the nest and lived in places other than home, these first treasures of mine did not make the cut of being necessary. I had new treasures. A nascent record collection, a stereo, a guitar, and books. Boxes of books. Shelves of books and images to hang on the wall. 

One of the first posters I remember owning was a poster of Dennis Hopper on his Harley giving the camera his middle finger.

I had seen Easy Rider with my cousin Thom and I related totally to the outsider, rebel, counter-culture images in that film. The poster is lost to history now, although I just Googled it and got the image above. My mum took the poster down when I first left home to go to University. I guess she didn’t want guests who would stay in what had become the “extra” room to be greeted by a middle finger.

Another significant poster I had is one that I stole. It was Allan Ginsburg’s poem “Howl” set in a very psychedelic print . It was on the wall in a rec. room at a hospital and I remember coveting it and then making my nefarious plan to make it my own. I never actually displayed it. Perhaps it was shame from not getting it honestly or maybe it was just too much to see every day. I do remember recognizing the idea that having something for my pleasure alone robbed others of the opportunity to discover it, but that was after the fact.

I also had a treasured image of a Rhinoceros by Durer. The Rhinoceros party was my favourite political party as a teen-ager. They were absurdist and irreverent and satirical. Everything you would want to govern a country.

Vote for me!

I have several objects that have historic value to me only. My great grandfather’s carved Book Of Common Prayer. My Grandfather’s father was a Stone Carver in London England in the late 1800’s.

I have had so many silly objects that are important only to me. Among them a bust that had a light inside (probably used to display brassieres) We fondly referred to it as “The Tits”. They eventually became damaged and were left on the curb in the great upheaval. I also have odd and unusual shaped boxes that I would put old keys and other treasures in.

I have a brass fire hose nozzle that is dear to me. I intend to make it into a lamp one day. I have used it as a candle holder.

Bought it at an apartment sale in 1983 when I lived on Aylmer street in the heart of the “McGill Ghetto” (older residential neighbourhood filled with University students that has homes typically partitioned into small cells). They are solid brass, so quite heavy.

For some reason I don’t throw out sunglasses. This is most of the pairs I have owned since I was 18. One pair at the bottom of the Sacko river. I have always worn the same model (Ray Ban Wayfarers).

Dead Ray Ban collection with hilariously
offensive bumpersticker

Bigger rocks that are perfectly imperfect.

Rocks from the shore, Rhode Island.

Heart shaped stone between a rock and a hard place…

The tub with guitar picks and feather

Such random items bring me joy. Bric a brac. I have lassoed comfort and fond memories in these odd treasures. On the surface these items have zero value. They are not the only things that bring joy and truth, but to me, they are souvenirs of infinite renewal and beauty. I love them and do not wish to part with them, but I will let go of them. When the time comes for me to leave this life and return to dust, They will lose their magic, but may catch someone else’s eye.

Tarantula Dreams

I met Sid and Phil exactly two years ago. (January 17th 2017) after Phil put out a message asking if anyone wanted to jam some Dylan? We meet regularly to play and to rehearse new material. It started off good, and we are now very good. Harmonies, subtleties and the fine touches that can make or break a gig. We are tight and loose and we trust each other.

We haven’t had as many exploding drummers as Spinal Tap. I hope Tony Odze our present drummer doesn’t explode. It is really fun to lay music over his drumming.

Last night Tarantula Dreams played a couple of sets at L’Escalier which is an Artsy Bar/Café in the heart of downtown Montreal. A small venue for a rock quartet, but a young, hip, artsy crowd. I wasn’t the only bearded, long-haired guy dressed head to toe in black. We play a repertoire that is “limited” to “only” Bob Dylan and Neil Young. We went over very well with this crowd. We rocked. It was transcendent.  It was a night where my guitar could do no wrong…every solo had a contour and told a story. I am thrilled that the Telecaster is glowing these days. Sid and I complement each other very well. He gets outrageous sounds out of his rig and his solos are rooted in Rock. I have a cleaner sound and on the Telecaster I get my Steve Cropper on.

The night could very well have gone differently if our bass player Phil had not found a solution to a particular problem. While setting up, Phil could not get a sound from his amp. We tried the usual tests. my guitar and cable in his amp, my guitar and his cable,  my amp, my cable his bass, the problem was the bass input jack was compromised…dead Bass.

Fortunately the venue is virtually next door to a music store. For the record, Archambault doesn’t rent equipment. Steve’s music is several blocks away and Phil has been shopping there for years (as have we all) and went there to see if he could rent a Bass. Rentals closed. Phil thinking fast, got the manager on the line and it was decided that he could buy a Squier bass and return it the next day and be charged a rental…pretty good. Ironically, Phil owns several dozen basses, but his home is half an hour from the venue. Like having spare tires in the garage, but not having one in the trunk and getting a flat on the highway.

We hit the stage only a few minutes late but made up for it by providing intelligent music from the heart.

tarantula dreams
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Phil pointing out the menu

Constant Struggle For Relevance

I am on the shore waving good-bye to several boats steaming away from me, never to return. Or is it the other way round? I am on the boat slowly slipping out of harbour leading to new adventures.

My younger brother goes out for lunch about  every second week or so with a friend and colleague who has recently retired. This friend is also a grandfather and like many patriarchs nowadays, his family is spread out across the continent. He described his present life as: “a constant struggle for relevance”.

This came up in conversation with my brother recently as I was complaining how my progressive retirement was evolving, my job as a dad receding and my music reaching fewer and fewer ears. A constant struggle for relevance.

I have been, and for the next year and a half, will work at 60% (3 days out of 5)at a music teaching job that used to be 100%. This means I am done my week when my colleagues are celebrating hump day. They ALL comment. There is a growing resentment or perhaps envy and quite possibly hatred. Like anything there are up sides and down sides. On the up side I have a four day week-end. Down side is a pay drop. 60% minus still getting deductions as if 100%. Learning to live with less is not a problem yet.

I feel lower on whatever grapevine there is. I miss out on many of the social activities that fall on days when I don’t work. I am not lamenting this as missing the activities (I don’t) I get whatever gossip there is when it is already history. Just don’t feel “a part of” I feel “apart from”. I feel “a part of” many other things in my life, so no big deal….

The marginalization at work of being essentially a part-time worker, in my case is compounded by the physical necessity of our school needing to open 2 new classrooms this year. Guess which subject had to move? They wanted me to travel class to class with a cart like a musical Dim Sum cart pusher. Just call me “Squid girl”… or maybe a homeless person with all their worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

So…piano into storage….no smart board, no sound system, no place to store the roomful of instruments (most of which are mine anyway…congas, drum kit, synthesizers, etc. No office to retreat to for silence, no place set up to research new music for the kids. Homeless. Oh, and put on a concert that is as good as before with virtually no resources and due to travel, reduced instruction time…. all while feeling de-valued, disconnected, demotivated, and increasingly irrelevant.

I know in my career I made a difference in many lives. I am pleased for the most part that I have been able to spark imagination and foster creativity, and be inspired by thousands of kids over the years. I genuinely love teaching, music, and kids. This was the right field for me.

I have been particularly drawn to the children with “special needs”… I hate that phrase… the kids (some dyslexic like me) whose learning was not in a straight line, but an oblique and original, phantasmagorical way of seeing the world. Others whose physical, social or mental processes required empathy, humanity and patience.

I wanted to end my career feeling that I made a difference right up to the end. Now it appears that I am just a ditch digger making the same old trench that has been in construction since schools were invented. Grin and bear it. A constant struggle for relevance.

The other main area where I feel like a footnote are my own children. Now in their twenties, the girls are off on their own, living full and creative, useful, independent lives. One in Spain and the other in N.Y.C. On the one hand I am so proud that they have the tools to survive in an unforgiving world, and are resourceful enough to create opportunities for themselves. The other hand… is heavy with my decreased presence and relevance in their lives. From 24/7 daddy to a few texts and a phone call. A constant struggle for relevance.

I know they love me and I see lessons they have learned from me guiding them. This will never fade, but I know that time and distance erode even the fondest of memories. My dad has been dead for 17 years now, and he is still the principal influence on my life. I don’t think about him often. I can go days, perhaps weeks without thinking of him, even with his picture here in my office. Today I said “Hi, Dad” to his picture as I sat down to write, but this is a rarity. He never replies. That is constant.

I wish I had spent more time with my Dad. I got caught up in career, kids, marriage, the works. Dad always wrote to me if I was away, and I have mental images of him and my mum waiting around weekly for the phone to ring at the pre-determined time. I witnessed this several times when I still lived at home and there was a sibling who was going to call. Needing to be needed. Struggling to be relevant.

Most of the music I listen to and play is music that has enormous meaning and relevance to me and is rooted in styles from the previous century. My tastes change, but lie within the parameters of pre-determined styles and forms. It happens, but it is rare that I hear new music outside of these parameters that I would return to.

I find myself being ill-equipped to say anything positive about some of the popular styles of today. I hate those songs that start as a slow four beat, four measure piano sequence that segues into some artless plaintive vocals that eventually become what is considered a “Rock Ballad”. This seems to be ubiquitous. To me it is contrived and lacking in originality and authenticity. Then there is auto-tune….just NO! I don’t get the kind of songs that are extemporaneous disjointed phrases over loops that may or may not be in “time”. I need groove. I need swing. I need dynamics. I need surprise. How can a guy who spins discs sell out the Bell Centre? As good as he may be at what he does, what the hell is that shit?

Am I my grandfather dissing the Beatles? Am I a music snob from another era? This used to be my era…. This is still my era until I am dead. I have a constant struggle for relevance.

Why is everyone staring at a rectangle in their hand?

Have I missed the boat?