For most people the start of a new year is a time to think about new directions. But it can also be a time of reflection, as we ponder past choices and wonder how things might have been different…
Oh, and by the way:
I once came across a cartoon of a man sitting in a bar saying to the bartender,
“I always wanted to be a doctor, but instead of medical school I spent years in hospital waiting rooms waiting to be noticed.”
Was that me? I wondered. Like so many in the business of music and entertainment I worked on the premise that I could teach myself the necessary skills and then go it alone until my “big break” came. But the message of the cartoon hit me like a slap in the face. Did I made the mistake of my life by thinking I could have a career as an entertainer just by trial and error?
Obviously, being a doctor and being a sultan of strum are two very different jobs. As an entertainer the audience couldn’t care less about my qualifications. Whereas, you’d want to know I’d completed some serious training before I started digging around inside you for that kidney stone.
The one who cares most about the gaps in my education is of course me. And it’s while working with trained actors or musicians that my feeling of imposter syndrome really starts to shine. For there’s a minefield of potential embarrassment lying in wait for those of us with an incomplete sphere of knowledge.
Like the time I handed out chord charts to a show-band I once performed with. My personal glossary of musical terms included the word ritard. – used as an instruction to slow the music. But I had never seen the word written down, so, on the bottom of my chord charts, in capital letters I had written the word RETARD, which created a moment of thigh-slapping hilarity for the musos. The worst of it was they thought I’d done it on purpose, as a joke.
Another cringeworthy moment was before a live CBC stage broadcast of Basic Black. They had a segment called The Hum Line where listeners could phone in some partially remembered tune or lyric which the CBC researchers would then attempt to find. Their resident musician for this spot was Danny Marks, a well-known musician on the Toronto scene.
I was brought in as a guest to play the song I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones.) Danny and I were supposed to play the song together but I had changed the arrangement slightly. During rehearsal, as I called out the chords for the intro, he stopped me and said,
“G7 then G minor?”
“Yep.” I replied.
“But there is no G minor in the key of C. …I’ll tell you what, I’ll stay out of this one and you do it on your own.”
This was said in front of the cast and crew and, at the time, it didn’t really bother me. Only in retrospect was I hit by the musical dismissal I’d received – I’m sure he saw that dubious chord as a red flag to signal that I didn’t know what I was doing and our collaboration might reflect badly on him. I couldn’t verbalise it at the time but to this day I still argue that my unorthodox Gm gives the word complain a pleasing dissonance.
While performing in the Vancouver region it was common for someone or other to come up to me after my show and say something like,
“I enjoyed your performance, thanks …BUT HAVE YOU HEARD THOSE KIDS IN LANGLEY? AREN’T THEY AMAZING?!”
They would be referring of course to the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, a crack team of thirty-plus highly-trained teenage harmony-singing ukulele players hand-picked from the Langley school district for over 3 decades and led by the force of nature known as Peter Luongo.
Whereas I had bumbled along teaching myself, throughout the ukulele void of the 1990’s, these kids had actually been taught and were playing everything from Rock and Roll to Hawaiian to light classical pieces.
The first time I met Peter, he went into a little speech about how he saw the ukulele as a tool for teaching music. Which was interesting because it never occurred to me to see the ukulele in that way. To me it was only ever a means for making music. And if my workshop students happened to learn any music theory along the way then that’s just a happy circumstance.
The approach of honing one song after another has mainly worked for me. Anything I might have picked up about chord theory and timing has come via gleaning and feel. When I tell people that I never practice, what I mean is that I never practice abstract musical ideas like scales and arpeggios, I have only ever played songs.
But I do see some of the glaring holes in my knowledge. One of these gaps is my inability to pop out a harmony line. I joined a barbershop chorus in order to learn harmony but instead found that my ease as a lead singer made harmonising seem tedious in comparison, so I gave up trying. And that’s the problem right there, a more formal education forces you to learn the dull and difficult bits that a self-learner can choose to ignore and shove to one side.
I sometimes lament to my more learned friends that I could have done so much more if I’d gone a different route. Perhaps they are being kind, but they invariably reply that they don’t see the gaps in my knowledge, indeed they often tell me about their own shortcomings brought about by their education. It seems that for some, being confined to a curriculum can make it harder to see outside the musical box they’ve been put in.
Others have who told me their formal education in art, acting or music destroyed all the joy they’d previously had in the subject. And then there are those who get to the end of the education process only to find they are unable to make the jump into the “real” world.
I once stopped to refuel my car in Langley. The young man working at the gas station looked in the rear window and asked, “Hey is that a ukulele?”
“Yep” I replied.
“Ah” he said, wistfully, “that takes me back. I used to play one.”
This troubled me, I wondered how could someone so young be gazing at a ukulele with such nostalgia.
“You used to play the ukulele?”
“I was in the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, did you ever hear of them?” I admitted that I had.
He continued, “We went all over the place. Hawaii – a few times. Those were good days.”
It was an unforgettably sad moment to realise that his musical education had given him so much and yet had not prepared him to continue on alone. In a flash I wondered how many kids in school music programmes all over the world have put their instruments aside the moment they leave the school band, never to play again. There’s nothing really wrong with that, I just couldn’t imagine me doing it.
I felt lucky right then. Lucky that in 1990 I’d discovered for myself an instrument that no-one was suggesting I play. Lucky to have found a niche that wasn’t on any college curriculum. Lucky that I’d had the opportunity to learn my craft in front of the public.
Sure, it would have been nice to have had one or two mentors: external minds to observe me and tell me the truth of how I appear from the outside. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. When you go it alone, you make the same mistakes over and over again without knowing you’re making them.
Maybe, like my friend James Hill, (a virtuoso ukuleleist who is a former member of the Langley group and a Bachelor of Music from the University of British Columbia), it is possible to have the best of both worlds. He has used his musical education, combined with talent and focussed hard work, to achieve results that are clear to see in the astonishingly high level of both his performances and teaching programmes.
But James is a rarity. And I imagine that, if his education had been entirely different, by studying physics for example, he would still have found his own musical path. For you cannot stop the musical soul.
My own high school rarely encouraged any ambition toward art or music. In fact they are on record as actively dissuading students from following careers in the arts. A friend of mine who’s had a successful life working with the likes of Tom Jones, Rod Stewart and Yo-Yo Ma still has the letter that the school sent to her parents basically telling them that studying music would only lead their daughter to a life of misery and penury.
It was through the same disregard for the natural aptitudes of young people that I was pushed towards studying for a physics degree, a subject that I neither enjoyed nor had much talent for. But even this path had the ironic side-effect of causing me to become a banjo-player, largely as a distraction from the miseries of theoretical physics. Because, and I’ll say it again, you cannot stop the musical soul.
It all comes back to figuring out what it is you do …and why.
A wonderful graphic that perfectly expresses why I entertain is summed up in a cartoon by Gary Larson: We see a guy in a world of his own whistling a merry tune as he pushes his wheelbarrow of rocks through the burning fires of hell. A pair of irked-looking devils gaze down on him and shake their heads saying,
“You know, we’re just not reaching that guy.”
Have a great year!