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Music

By Kwame Dawes

My children are musicians. In this I am living a desire vicariously through them. I have been scrupulous about avoiding that kind of thing. After all, while it seems quite difficult to come up with any unselfish reason for having children, to blatantly try to live out one’s fantasies through them seems somewhat self-involved and, at worst, a clear path towards therapy for the child as an adult. But in this I have not been able to avoid that pathology. They are, all three of them, musicians. And I just think it is fantastic. Now I could be called a musician, but I don’t really believe that. I learnt how to play the guitar when I was eighteen. This means that some friends taught me three chords and that was it. My then girlfriend (who would become my wife) took time to teach me chords and to encourage my playing. She was a real musician. She had done music lessons—piano lessons. She could read music. She could harmonize as a singer, and she played the guitar. She would always look too small for the guitar as she ran her fingers over the frets, bar-chording and picking out phrase by phrase notes. Whenever I got the guitar, I worked my three chords, learning, in the process to complicate my playing with rhythmic ploys. I was no musician. Reading music was (and still is) a mystery to me. I would go on to play in a three bands, record two CDs, to write hundreds of songs, and to even compose music for a full-blown musical that was performed on the West End in London, but I still don’t call myself a musician. My children, though, are musicians. They real deal, they are. You see they can read music. They play instruments, the play in band and orchestra, they talk music. It is a fascinating thing to me that pleases me no end.


My son plays the saxophone. Recently, we were faced with the question of what he would do about music in high school. Would he play in the school band? Would the challenges of high school and a rather rigorous academic program make playing in band a mistake? Driving home from school one day I asked him what he wanted to do. He is thirteen, now. He was all legs in the front seat of the car, fighting off sleep. He has already developed that gangly slouch and fold of teenagers who are just trying to get used to their limbs. He declared, “I really can’t read music, Daddy. Basically, I fake it. I mean I play by ear. I just learn the pieces and then I play them from memory. I can’t read.” I was appalled by this news. After all, this is what made him stand as a musician for me. Crude and a tad ill-informed, I admit, but you must see my point. So I say to him, “Well, why are we having this discussion? You can’t play in band. You can’t pursue a career in music. Here I thought you could play. Well, that settles that.” I have not told you something, though. But son also plays percussion. He is the main drummer for a steel-band troupe at his middle school and he plays with the youth choir at church. He has his own trap set—and he is quite good. He wanted to play percussion in high school band, but he had been placed as a saxophonist. So perhaps, this whole “I can’t read music,” bit was a rather unsophisticated way of trying to say that he would rather not play sax. “It’s settle, man,” I said. “You are illiterate in music.” This wording must have bothered him because he started to protest. “I can read it, but I, well… it takes so long and it is easier the way I do it.” So he was playing with me. I knew why this was really getting under my skin. In my head I was saying, “If I had the talent you have or half the opportunity as you have, man, I would want to do everything!”
We had no music lessons when I was growing up. Other children did, but not us. I am not sure why. My father, we found out in our early teens, was actually a trained and gifted jazz musician. We did not know any of this. He played the piano. We found this out one day when we were touring one of the old plantation great houses in Jamaica as part of his work as the director of the cultural Institute of Jamaica. We were in another room, staring out across the manicured lawn to the postcard blue sea. We heard music wafting through the old building. We followed the sound and found our father at the piano, his fingers moving with familiar ease across the keyboard, making sounds, complex musical sounds. It was a revelation. It was a shock. He had said nothing about this. Nothing at all.
But he knew we wanted to make music. He must have seen us collecting pots, pans, boxes, and pieces of string to fabricate our home made instruments and to set up concerts in the house where we would sing, dance and play Jamaican versions of the Jackson Five. My older brother had a flare for rhythm and he had taught himself to play some chords on the piano. He could play a boogey-woogie line in ways that amazed me. His musical recall was striking to me even then. But he had had no lessons and he was really just trying his best to make sounds. My father must have seen us trying to do all of this and he never said, “You know, some lessons would be good for you children.” Maybe he could not afford this, or perhaps he just never thought of it, but watching him playing filled me with a combination of awe, joy and anger.
So when it came time to encourage my children, music was a natural. They started lessons young. They were going to have a go at it and as I saw them take to the music and to enjoy it, I found myself living a pleasure through them. My daughter is a gifted bass player and my youngest daughter plays the viola with confidence. They all play a couple of instruments. They like music. They like playing. I can’t explain how that excites me.
So what I had to say to my son was that he was crazy to be talking about giving up on music for now. I said he would regret it. I said he could not know what he was doing right now. So this was a little over the top, and I did back down and tell him that whatever he wanted to do was fine. I also admit that a part of me was weeping as I watched a couple of decent college scholarships floating away. My greatest sorrow that this trifling kid was about to wreck my great fantasy of jamming with all my family in the living room some sweet day on some reggae or something. That day must come. Now he wanted to end that. This was just not right.
Well, as it happens, he wanted to do both—to play both sax and percussions in the school band. He was not sure he would enjoy just playing the sax. He thought he had auditioned well for percussion and was disappointed that they placed him as a saxophone player. The band teacher agreed that he could do both, and my son was happy as can be. So, I am happy again. This has made me think about why none of this anxiety or concern has even crossed my mind when it comes to the question of whether any of my children might be interested in being writers. In truth, I really couldn’t care less. I suspect that one of them just might—I don’t know which, but the odds are against them. And if they chose to be writers, I would be very happy and I would find all kinds of ways to support them. But I have never pushed them to take writing workshops or to attend writing programs for gifted children. Perhaps I juts don’t think that kind of thing would be especially useful for a future writer. Whatever it is, I know that my attitude to their music is quite different. I am fascinated by their performance and their skills—I am in awe because it is something I could not do, something I cannot do. And for them to be musicians, they will be creating a completely unique path for themselves. That excites me.
At my core, though, I want them to be deeply engaged in the arts at some level. I want them to come to see the beauty of the arts, the humanity of the arts, and the complex sensitivity that comes with engaging in the arts. Tonight, my eldest performed with her school orchestra. They are good. Really good. I was surprised when the final piece the performed was a Handel piece that I knew by heart. Why? Not because I carry the melodies of classical music in my head. I don’t. Indeed, my children’s music experience has exposed me to more classical music than I have had in all my years growing up. All these recitals, repeated performances of a wide range of pieces—this has been a good education for me. So I am a bit of a musical illiterate. But I knew this piece. I knew it because it was simply the only classical piece that I knew apart from Beethoven’s 5 which anyone growing in the seventies would have to know by heart—you know what I am talking about.
A childhood friend of ours, Beverly Hall, who happened to be a few years older than us, was an actress and a collector of records. She had one of the best collections of vintage Rock Steady and early reggae music. She died of liver failure when we were still teenagers, and the loss was quite painful for us. She left us with these records. So occasionally we would plough through the box to see if there was something we had not played. She collected forty-fives, not albums. One day we found a forty-five that, as I recall it, was labeled, “Spring Time in Holland”. Out of pure idleness we put the record on the turn table and played it. We were surprised to her the grand anthem-like strains of what I would come to know many years later as a Handel piece. It began as a kind of mockery of the music, this dancing that we did, leaping across the living room, prancing over the sofa and the chairs and raising our hands in clumsy ballet poses; but soon, we began to play this record and bellow out the melody, the shift in instrumentation—the movements, the various parts the dialogue between firsts and seconds and so on, while leaping about the place. We came to adore this music. We knew it was “good” music, but we did not know how important it was. The rhythm, the swelling sounds, the rich, rich orchestration, all engrossed us. So you must understand how much restraint I had to muster to prevent me from humming the piece while the orchestra played tonight, or to keep my hands still instead of carving through the air to give shape to the music dancing out from the stage.
Music is something else. And children are something else. I am convinced that the opportunity that my children have had to play instruments and to make this wonderful noise with other children is a gift, and for this I am grateful to the public school system of South Carolina. But there is more to this whole business. I am grateful for the mastery of the thing that these children must feel sometimes. This mastery is probably what I have come to understand as one of the sweet benefits of being a writer who is decent at what he does. Making art that can move people is a powerful thing, and I remain a complete believer in this act of making art for all people. I don’t know if my children will write, if they will come to learn the mastery of the thing in the making of poems. But I know that already, they understand the sweetness of making art that can enliven an evening in powerful ways. So I am glad I had these children. They really make me feel good. I am living my desire to be a great musician through them, and I have to say, if this is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, May 11th, 2007 by Kwame Dawes.