When I was 9 my primary school teacher decided to rank the children in my class according to musical ability by making each of us sing a verse of “Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo”. The embarrassment of singing in front of my classmates made my voice come out breathy and wobbly. The following day I was sent to see the peripatetic music teacher who gave me a violin and my first violin lesson. To this day, I’m not sure whether this was a reward or a punishment for my performance the previous day.
I did not take to the violin though I didn’t tell anyone. Save for a weekly outing to school on violin lesson day, the poor instrument lived on top of my wardrobe. I passed my exams by scoring high marks in the listening component of the tests. My actual playing was so poor I set my own teeth on edge. When I was 13 my nana bought me a violin of my own, an act of kindness and generosity since she didn’t have a lot of money. I left it on a bus a few weeks later. Not deliberately. Well, not consciously, anyway. I felt terrible about it but for some reason the shame gave me the courage to admit that I didn’t want to play the violin ever again. My teacher was, of course, ‘very disappointed’ because he had ‘expected better from me’. I might have felt bad had I not been so dizzy with freedom. It was years later, decades in fact, when I realised my mistake. I could have had a lot of fun if I’d simply converted my violin into a fiddle.
When I was 16, a friend of mine asked if I could stand in for the ill bass player in her boyfriend’s band for a couple of days. Just until Tuesday when they had a gig at the Cumberland Arms under Byker Bridge. Up until and including Tuesday. She’d heard that the strings on a bass guitar were the same as the ones on a violin, GDAE. Not in the same order but still, how hard could it be? Her boyfriend was an older man (i.e. 22) and very cool (i.e. 22). I don’t know what possessed me but I said I’d do it. And I did. For one night only I played bass guitar for Dirty Desmond and the Day Trippers. And even though the audience, all 7 of them, seemed to enjoy our heavy metal version of “Staying Alive” I found it a horrific experience. I couldn’t stand the attention – the pub was tiny and there was nowhere to hide. I imagined that the only thing that could ever be worse than this would be my wedding day. I vowed to stay single. I never fancied any boys anyway so it wouldn’t be a hardship.
When I was 17, the teacher who was most disappointed in me when I packed in the violin became a Christian. As a sign of his forgiveness of my past sin, he leant me the school’s tenor saxophone. I thought it was beautiful and wasn’t bad at it. But I left school a year later and had to hand it back. I couldn’t afford to buy one of my own and anyway, I couldn’t see myself joining a band, so there was no point in saving up for one. So that was the end of that.
During my first year at Oxford University when I was 19, I went on a theology reading trip to Iona and found myself playing a guessing game with the other theologians: you think of a person and then the others in the group have to guess who it is by asking questions along the lines of, “If they were a kitchen implement, what would they be?”. The Dirty Desmond incident paled into insignificance next to this. A boy I called Lord Snooty (in my head) was first up and he said the person was thinking of would be East Anglia, a flat cap and an accordion. I guessed correctly. It was me. Anyone who truly loves music understands that the accordion is a wonderful instrument, versatile and capable of emotional nuance. Lord Snooty did not. He thought I was unsophisticated, flat, dull. He put me off the accordion for years – a crime far worse than his casual, cruel snobbery.
Eventually I decided to give up my quest for the perfect musical instrument and, instead, do what I do best: listen and use my imagination. I wouldn’t walk anywhere without a Walkman and over time I learned to break down songs so that I could mentally tune into any instrument I wanted to. As my confidence grew I started to play along with the band. Initially, I’d choose one instrument – rhythm guitar, bass, drums – and play it for the duration of the song. With practice, I was able to move seamlessly from one instrument to the other, always playing the best lines, always in the limelight. Which in my imagination I loved, lapping up the attention and appreciation of the audience. I even learned to sing, in many styles and voices, female, male, falcetto, bass. I sounded fantastic and not remotely Exorcisty as you might expect. There really was no end to my imaginary talents.
There was a downside though. My urge to play music in real life did not go away. But I’d reached such a high standard in my imagination that trying to go through the motions necessary to learn something new was a painful and frustrating experience. When I tried to learn the ukulele I couldn’t stand the hiccoughing of my inflexible fingers which caused the instrument to buzz rather than sing. I had no patience and so never became good enough to play with other people. I cursed my excellent listening and imagination skills, useless with so little practical ability.
Then one day I had an epiphany. David Byrne, my favourite artist of all time, released a new record, a collaboration with a singer who goes by the name of St. Vincent and an 8 piece brass band. I suspected I’d love it and I did but it wasn’t until I watched a video of a performance that I was confronted with the truth. A truth which was reinforced the very next day in one of those events that seems like a coincidence but is simply what happens when you pay attention. I watched the first episode of David Simon’s Treme and such was the quality of joy in my heart that I failed to feel depressed, as I was supposed to, at the inadequacy and harshness of human response to the suffering of others.
This is not me.
This is the truth and there is no getting away from it. I have to learn the sousaphone. That giant brass fossil of an instrument. A contraption that produces a noise so deep you feel it rather than hear it. I am a strudy women. By that I mean I’m about a stone and a half over weight, but also fairly tall and freakishly strong. I have lugged many a settee up and down a flight of stairs over the years. Single-handedly. I’d be up to it.
I just know I’ve found the perfect musical instrument for me. If I ever get a good job again and years later get made redundant with a generous pay off I will buy a beautiful, old, dented sousaphone and I will take lessons and move to New Orleans and form a band. I really will.