I flunked Flutophone.
There, I said it. In elementary school, before color was invented, I got the only F I ever received … in Flutophone, that plastic instrument that later became known as a “recorder.” I really believe a chimp could be taught how to play that thing, but I was a lost cause. And it’s a shame because I adore music.
This painful memory came rushing back earlier this year when I took guitar lessons for about eight months. My sons had gotten me a used acoustic guitar because they knew I always wanted to learn how to play. I promised to take lessons when I retired, and I kept my promise. I learned some basic chords (C, A, E, D, G, E-Minor, etc…) but when it came time for me to take the next step and begin playing some songs, I gagged.
Again. I’d see kids aged 6 to 10 show steady progress from week to week. Me? I was still trying to get my chubby fingers to find the correct string. Look up tone deaf in the dictionary, and you might just see my photo. And don’t even mention that *!&/;$%# F chord.
Music is very much a part of my life, I’m happy to say, so long as someone else is playing it. My parents’ very limited record collection provided a lukewarm introduction, and I was blown away when my sister gave me a 45 RPM of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” for my seventh birthday.
A few years later, my older brother enlisted in the Army and made the mistake of leaving his albums behind. I remember listening to Little Feat, King Crimson, Fleetwood Mac, The Band, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Chicago, Santana, Cat Stevens. I would park on the floor next to the phonograph (hi-fi?) and lose myself in the cover art, lyrics and liner notes. Homework, schmomework; I had to memorize those songs and stories.
In high school, I worked part time as an usher at Morris Civic Auditorium, and got paid to see so many acts on their way to stardom. Groups like Aerosmith, Kansas, Rare Earth, Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynrd would blow into town and I’d be there looking like a square in a shirt and tie while my peers donned boot cut flares and flannel shirts and partook in certain illegal substances.
The acts that had made it already played at Notre Dame, Chicago Stadium and other larger venues, but seeing the up-and-coming performers at Morris Civic was special. They were trying to get to the next level, and most of them made it. Working there also meant we had to endure the Bobby Vintons of the world, but that was a minor price to pay.
The first major concert I remember attending was Elton John in 1973 when he visited Notre Dame. He came out in what looked like an aluminum foil cape and dunce cap and I was mesmerized by the spectacle. Since then, I’ve seen John Denver, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Earth Wind & Fire, Bonnie Raitt, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, Lyle Lovett, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Loggins, the O’Jays, Gladys Knight, and Neil Diamond, among others.
I recall Rod Stewart getting angry with the crowd at Notre Dame when we were more enthralled by his opening act, the J. Geils Band. Chicago was—and is– my favorite band, and I’ve seen them perform solo and with other headliners at least 35 times. I have never seen a Beatle, but my fingers are crossed I’ll get to see Paul or Ringo before they reunite with John and George.
So yes, music is very much a part of my life, even though I missed the play-it-yourself train so many enjoy. Live music is especially enticing, and I enjoy seeing local bands whenever I can. It never ceases to amaze me how one obscure shrug of a shoulder or nod of a head signals something to others in the band. Their transitions usually are seamless, even though they’re speaking a language I don’t understand.
I get transfixed by guitar and bass players especially because they just seem to be having so much fun. I know it isn’t easy and that they’ve put in years of practicing and playing, and I truly admire people who can make such a difficult thing look so effortless. They got a gift I never got, and though jealous I thank the heavens these people are willing to share their gift with us.
The Flutophone brought me my only F, but it also made me realize how special music can be. I’ll keep plucking away, swearing between chords and straining to hear some semblance of a note, but I’m content watching others do it so well.