Sunday, March 25, 2012

Music as a Second Language

I love music.  I breathe music. I feel music.  Music grows out of every follicle and into every hair on my body (which is why I shave daily – nothing but a tangled mess of notes on my face otherwise).  I have always enjoyed using my voice for new music, whether it’s singing it, or telling people about it. 

I used to feel the same way about the French language.  When I first lived in Hammondsport, multiple life-changing events occurred to me there.  First, I met my first bully.  Second, he crushed the skull around my right eye using the leveraged momentum of his textbook-laden backpack.  Third, I began taking French classes.  After the head was pieced together, we moved from that town to neighboring Prattsburgh, where I had more of the same fun adventures being the odd man out.  Sadly, their language programs didn’t begin until seventh grade, so I no longer took any French classes. 

This was a brief hiccup in my linguistic endeavors.  Several years later, we ended up moving back to Hammondsport.  Good times were had there- first kiss, first girlfriend, first skinny dip, first time with the internet, and a return to French classes (all occurring in that order).  I was rusty, but quickly excelled again.  This is a study that continued until - due to my ‘rebellious’ attitude - I was transferred to a parochial school.

Important side notes:  I was not rebellious, in the traditional sense.  I was fourteen, smoking, had a paper route, rocking the grunge look four years too late, something weird was going on with my hair (I think at one point I tried the Kool Aid dye trick, and ended up with this orange, crunchy, dreadlocked mess  for two weeks), I was listening to rock and/or roll, and had a closet full of nudie magazines.  I was given the option of staying in my current school where I felt like I had no place, or go to a parochial institution of my mother’s choosing.  Second, there is a distinct difference between parochial and private school.  Namely, parochial institutions not only provide religious education on top of basic studies, but they are primarily run as part of, or by, a parish. 

In this stellar example, the school begins in standard fashion with a full-sized chapel.  Easily has seating room for two hundred or more bored souls.  The basement has been converted into a school capable of handling anywhere from 40-90 students, grades pre-k thru 12.  They even had a computer room with then top-of-the-line IBM 386.  Well, top of the line in 1991- this was ’98.  Speaking of, in 1998 (my 8th grade year), had seven students.  They had to merge our class with seventh in order to fill most of the sessions in the different classes. 

The pièce de résistance was the gymnasium.  Rather than having your run of the mill half-sized gym, they wanted to have the same square footage as the big boys.  From wall to wall, they had a half-sized court, with the ‘sidelines’ being down a hallway that connects the dome to the church, and a massive dome, akin to a planetarium.  Complete without acoustic tiles.  Know what the means when you’re having a basketball ‘game’ going on? – It sounds like MOUT training through a cinder block course as done by twelve year olds.  But I will give them credit where it’s due: they did achieve the same square footage.

What intrigued me was the challenge of this institution- Their failing mark was an 85, not the 65 I was acclimated with.  This will account for why I failed Algebra.  Twice (71 and 83, respectively).  A majority of the classes were a breeze, as the standards were behind what I’d been doing in public school.  Grammar is an excellent example.  I loved the English comp courses I took there.  If anything that is the only instructor’s name I have remembered in all my years of education, and he was the only one that didn’t look at what I was writing, but how I was writing it.  His wife was the French instructor at this school, and she taught what was easily the most thorough – and, subsequently, hardest - class I had ever taken (until Algebra).  This is why it killed me the day this French teacher, gave me what was the greatest advice of my educated youth: Drop French, or fail.  I was New York State decent; I was not good enough for her class.

So, I took Greek.  Loads easier.  Seriously - I took the self-study credit and aced four levels in under a year.  Lot of good that did me ever

I came back to a public school in upstate New York partway through my tenth year.  New York has what they call a Regents Degree, which expounds on the standard high school diploma by adding several elective credits, and two additional secondary language credits.  I achieved that, with honors, and several college credits by graduation.  The bugger was that language credit.  I had no proficiency with a secondary language in the state's system to qualify, and less than two years to do it (each credit is a year’s worth of one-hour classes).  But wait! – I could use Music as my secondary language!  This is brilliant people: want kids to learn music? – This system has it built in.  Now, if one were to take band, concert choir, and a music theory class…

Which, is what I did.  For the next two and a half years, I played tuba, sang, and studied the history and composition of music.  I would play at the state level once, sing at that level twice.  Keep singing for colleges after that – even when I wasn’t a part of that college.  All because some teacher said I should rethink my options.

I’m rethinking a lot of options, now.  I’ve spent nine years knowing my course.  Alright, I spent two years in there knowing my course.  I tried damned hard for it, too, and all I have to show for that is a worn cane and two, steel shanked, and jointed leg and ankle bracers.  Not to mention some credits at Temple U and two BDUs with some fancy decorations.

See, I pushed so hard for this thing to happen, but that wasn’t actually who I was.  I wanted this to define me.  I instead ended up hobbled, with more than $32K in student loans, and no service contract thanks in large part to me pushing my body further than it literally could go.  I didn’t whimper at the time.  I came back to civilian life, resumed my old job, and kept beating the old horse.  It wasn’t until this week – until tonight – that I was able to put a finger on why it has bothered me for the past thirty-plus months.  I have had no clue what it is that I’ve wanted to do, and I keep grabbing these crazy things, putting them in front of me, and saying that’s the way I want to go.  Whether it’s making a comic, a movie, developing a narrow-band augmented reality system with asymmetrical networking protocols that could be tethered to a cellular device, or even being a photographer, I can’t tell if I wanted to do all of those things, or to be all of those things.  Okay, the AROS system was a damned good idea, and I would like to be involved with that; I just have no clue where to start with that.

I am slowly realizing how much of myself I let be defined by what I did for a ‘living’.  I’m also realizing how much potential I’ve wasted because of it.  Those were the times when I’d say “Later” the most.  The long shift at work when I was meeting my wife for dinner – there’d be time for better dinners “later”.  The closing shift followed by opening (Clopens, as they came to be known), where I really wanted to record a song, but only had six hours to sleep.  “Later,” I’d say.  The times I would be at a grocery store after an opening shift, and get a really good writing idea, but still had to cash out, go home, make dinner, actually spend the one hour a day I could to see my wife, wash up, demo whatever god knows what, only to be so effing tired I fall asleep over Facebook.  Those days, I’d say “later” as well.

“Later” is here now with all the time in the world, and it’s playing the same old song back from these nine years.  Only now, I’m not the composer: I’m the audience, and I don't like the music I’m hearing:  It’s a lot of screeching, with uneven starts and stops.  The highs are shrill, and the lows are this middling whine.  But it’s the time that I can’t get.  7/8, 9/4 – it’s all over the damned place, wasted as it’s hurled against the wall one after the other.  I see the strings tie together all the things I’ve done on my own.  The tympani echo my raised and lower pulse, beating the rise and fall of each day with little variation from a rowers pace.  The brass is the constant drone of all the things I kept saving for later – deep thoughts I’d regret forgetting laboriously reverberated on a tuba, while flighty whims shoot out of the French horns one after the next, but the flugelhorn just wants to get that one side note in every fifth beat.  On the woodwinds, light, soft, are the people around me, removed, off-time, and rarely harmonizing.  The strings keep working in a mad dervish above it all, around it all, behind every last note, they just keep doing and doing and doing.  There’s not one part that is actually observant of the conductor.  He’s just waving his arms, trying to keep it all together, but he’s just moving a piece along.  He hasn’t studied it, altered it to his own style; he hasn’t taken the time to breathe it in and roll it out over his fingertips.  The conductor is as much a slave to the piece as it is under his own flailing arms, and I realize: I’m pissed.

I never made actual time for me, but I sure as hell wasted a lot of it.

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