Column: The family that plays music together stays sane together
A decade ago, I was lucky enough to see my literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, speak at a writers panel in Hartford, Conn. The highlight of the evening was a question-and-answer session during which someone from the audience asked Vonnegut to identify the single most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“My Lord,” he said, “that’s a tough question, because there’s so much beauty, really; it’s what keeps me going in life, is just glimpsing beauty all the time. I suppose the most beautiful thing, though you can’t see it exactly, is music.”
This answer rocked me back in my chair. Though I’d never articulated it so succinctly, I felt just the same way. Nearly every moment of pure joy in my life had been accompanied by music. It was the one art form that could dependably bring me to tears.
I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot over the past few months, because – to be completely honest – it has been a rough time.
My mother passed away last year after a long and painful illness. I battled my own health problems. And the fractious presidential election led to a rift between my wife and her family, which has heightened tensions all around. Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been struggling to feel good about things in 2017.
But the one bright spot amid all this has been music, which our family has been listening to, and making, as never before. And it all started with a ukulele.
Actually, three ukuleles.
To elaborate a bit, my son Judah, who is eight, put just one item on his Christmas wish list: a ukulele. This request – along with some crossed signals – resulted in his parents, his uncle, and his grandfather all purchasing him ukuleles.
By the time he’d opened the last of these, we were all laughing. We made plans to return two of them. The kid didn’t need three ukuleles, obviously.
But then a funny thing happened: I picked up one of the ukes and began strumming it, and I fell a little bit in love.
I recognize that the ukulele is something of a joke to serious musicians; it’s sort of like a guitar with training wheels. But for guys like me – music lovers without much actual musical aptitude – the ukulele offers something miraculous: a shortcut to making music.
Within a few minutes of picking up the uke, I had figured out how to play an actual song (“My Darling Clementine”), and within an hour, Judah and I were performing a duet.
Did we sound good? Well, let’s put it this way: We sounded great to each other.
So great that we began holding jam sessions every night in my basement office. I began to look online for the chords to some of our favorite songs – we were partial to the ones that didn’t include E or B chords, which are really hard to make – and we quickly built a repertoire of half a dozen tunes.
Then we began noodling around with our own chord progressions. Before long we were writing songs, scratching down the notes in a little composition book that my wife bought us.
I doubt that “Hard Snow” or “Pipsqueak the Penguin” is likely to chart internationally. But that wasn’t really the point. We were learning to speak the language of music.
In fact, something even more elemental was happening during those jam sessions: I was feeling a form of elation I hadn’t felt for months. The simple act of making music with my son, however ineptly, cleared away the clouds of my depression.
My wife wasn’t surprised. She had grown up playing violin and flirted with attending a conservatory. As a teenager, she traded in the violin for an electric guitar. Playing the solos of her favorite heavy metal songs had been one of the few unbridled pleasures of her turbulent adolescence.
That guitar, in fact, soon reappeared in our home. She busted it out after she heard Judah and me playing our latest selection, “Creep” by Radiohead.
This led to several loud and very silly family jam sessions, with our older daughter, Josie, playing violin and three-year-old Rosalie contributing by spinning in circles and shrieking with glee while throttling an egg shaker.
As should be apparent, these are rather disorganized affairs, and often it’s not exactly clear, even to us, what song we’re playing. But that’s part of what makes them so much fun; there’s a sense of liberation in simply producing noise.
A century or two ago, of course, the idea of a family making music together was perfectly natural.
Leisure hours hadn’t been taken over by radio or TV or the internet. Making music in the parlor was one of the central ways families spent time together. It was also one of the great pleasures of attending church. Singing hymns offered parishioners a path to spiritual connection – and the chance to be part of a larger human chorus.
Folks back then were on to something.
Researchers have studied the effects of listening to and making music and found that both goose the level of endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, in our central nervous system, which causes us to feel optimism and contentment and can decrease pain. Music also releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin. That buzz we feel isn’t some emotional fluke, in other words. It’s physiology.
Music hits us on a primal level and allows us to feel emotions that we are unable to access by other means. I can still remember what it felt like to hear my favorite song as a kid. I used to listen to my local Top 40 station, KFRC, for hours at a time, in the hopes of hearing “Undercover Angel” or “Games People Play.”
Later, when my parents allowed me to play records on their phonograph, I would save money for weeks to buy an LP. I must have listened to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life a thousand times when I was 10 years old.
Strange as it might seem in today’s distracted, videocentric world, sitting on our living room rug and listening to that album was an activity in and of itself.
As part of our ukulele partnership, I’ve introduced Judah to a bunch of my favorite bands. Every few days, he asks me to make him a new CD mix, which he immediately takes upstairs and listens to 20 times in a row. He’s doing exactly the same thing I did as a kid – finding a refuge in music.
It’s what my parents did throughout their lives, too. My dad was an accomplished opera singer, and my mom a concert-level pianist. They met and courted over music, and often performed together. In another life, I suspect, they would have been professional musicians. But they had other ambitions as well, and both wound up pursuing medicine.
Still, my mom in particular remained devoted to music. Throughout my childhood, I could hear the music of Schubert and Mozart and Scott Joplin sweep-ing through the rooms of our home. A decade ago, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of buying a grand piano, which she played, beautifully, until the last months of her life.
That piano still sits in the living room of my parents’ home. When we fly across the country to visit my dad, all three of our kids gravitate toward the instrument. They don’t play songs, exactly. But they do plink out notes and chords, the warm, bright sound filling the room.
So maybe our family’s musical renaissance is a way of paying homage to my mom, of keeping her spirit alive.
I don’t expect that Judah will become a professional ukulele player or that either of our daughters will pursue careers in music. But that’s not the point.
What the kids have recognized is the lesson I had to relearn the hard way this year, which is that humans were born to make songs and to listen to them.
This is why I now keep a ukulele in my office. It’s why I pick it up every hour or so and strum one of the dozen songs I’ve learned and sometimes even sing, rather terribly. It’s why our family jams together every week or so and holds dance parties even more often.
Because music isn’t just background noise, a form of disposable entertainment. It’s something far more profound. As Vonnegut suggested all those years ago, music is the language humans seek out to keep us in touch with the joy and beauty of being alive. n
Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
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