I played the Theremin the other day. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Not only is the Theremin a wonderfully mysterious instrument and the source of many eerie Sci-fi movie sound tracks but playing music is something I have struggled with most of my life.
Formal music lessons have eluded me. They are something that many take for granted. My parents encouraged me to take piano lessons. But having witnessed the drama of my brother’s poor results it seemed like I would be signing up for a self-propelled torture machine.
Ironically, when left to myself I would play on the piano making dramatic sounds and arpeggios to create musical rain storms, or this effect or that. But that wasn’t music. Music has rules. There are acceptable forms to follow. One cannot merely play on an instrument; one must learn how to play. I could have been the next Errol Garner had I only stuck with it.
Where I got all these restrictions from I have no idea but you can guess from reading that I missed the rock and roll revolution. By the time Captain Beefheart came out with “Trout Mask Replica” and the liner notes proudly declared none of the band personnel knew how to play instruments, I was a lost cause.
When I was in fourth grade the Middle School band leader, in search of fresh blood, told me I had the perfect hands to play the cello. Little did I know that one needs instruction to play the cello. Lots of people have hands, few play the cello. After several weeks of sitting in rehearsals and getting dirty looks from my mentor because I seemed not to be using my prodigious natural talents to keep up with the other students it occurred to me that perhaps cello was not my instrument. I could carry the cello but I could not carry a tune on it.
I then convinced my Dad to buy me a drum set which we set up in the basement and there it sat gathering dust. It just didn’t sound the same when I played as the drummer did, any drummer did on a record. One huge barrier was I couldn’t stand to hear myself practice.
I signed up for lessons in learning to play the fiddle and after one lesson my teacher moved to Ireland. Was I that bad? Yes.
I got a guitar and painstakingly learned several melodies. Then one day someone asked me about chords. I figured I would get to those other strings once I had the melody down. Chords eluded me. Lead guitarists didn’t need to bother about chords, why should I?
My favorite guitarists were not only the standard favorites. I loved Frank Zappa, Jorma Kaukonen from the Jefferson Airplane and later Hot Tuna, eventually Django Reinhardt. All were amazing. All knew chords.
So the other day I had a chance to play the Theremin for the first time. I really let loose on it. What a blast. The storekeeper, wanting to sell it to me did not discourage me. And the greatest thing about it was no one could say I was playing it wrong. Badly maybe, but not wrong.
And there were no chords to worry about.