Monday, May 25, 2009

My Failed Music Career

My first musical instrument was the triangle in my kindergarten rhythm band, clearly the best one. The tambourines and maracas were a little too much like baby rattles, which we had only recently outgrown, and drumsticks without drums were anticlimactic, like the sound of one hand clapping. Cymbals had no tone and bells were just stupid.

A few years later, it was decreed that I take piano lessons like my older brother. Our father had been a concert pianist in his youth, and the first piece of furniture my parents bought when they married was a Mason & Hamlin baby grand from A Showroom. Apparently, my father preferred its bass registers to the Steinway he also auditioned.

My brother had learned to bang out "Country Gardens," emphasizing every note equally like a military march. He was praised mightily and enjoined to perform every time my parents had company. This charming ritual kept all but their most devoted friends from returning to our house a second time.

My piano teacher was Miss Kelly. She had stiff, cadaverish yellow hair and applied two perfectly round patches of rouge to her pale powdered cheeks that resembled unpressed linen. She sat next to me on the piano bench and spat when she spoke. Dodging spittle took all my effort and besides, I had very small hands so after a few months, we called it quits. My parents were probably as relieved as I was.

My father especially loved to play Chopin etudes, but sometimes he played Broadway show tunes and we all stood around the piano and sang. I had perfect pitch and was proud of my clear soprano voice. On singing nights I got sent to bed late. My brother locked himself in his room and my parents settled at the kitchen table for their nightly pot of coffee with milk and sugar. While my father smoked his last cigarette of the day, my mother washed their cups and saucers and they went to bed, too.

One winter’s night while walking home from school, I heard the strains of a violin through a window and sat on the curb long past dinner, transfixed. After a lot of begging, I got to take violin lessons. In six months I had worked my way through the first several lesson books, which normally takes years.

My teacher, who was first violinist with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, told my father there was nothing more he could teach me. He urged him to arrange for lessons with a master teacher in Manhattan, but my father had no interest in driving to the city for this and arranged for my teacher to give him violin lessons instead so we could play duets. At first I thought he wanted to be closer to me, but what he wanted was to play better than me. Since he was already a brilliant pianist, I wished he would just accompany me on his own instrument and leave me to mine, but nobody asked my opinion.

My father played violin like my classmates sounded out "Dick and Jane." He forced me to practice with him, but it was painful to witness a beautiful instrument being violated nightly as few things sound as ghastly as beginning violin. Before long, I gave it up and never played again.

My father seamlessly returned to his beloved Chopin and I sang loudly in my room every night with the door closed. My target was Martin, the blue-eyed blond boy across the street, not my type but a boy nonetheless, and I needed the practice.

About this time I tried to write Popular songs, as they were called before Rhythm & Blues which became Rock & Roll, eventually morphing into simply Rock. I loved the music but noticed that the lyrics were often ungrammatical, and though I realized that grammar was being sacrificed for rhythm, I couldn’t bring myself to write double negatives. I hated that I was so uptight, but on a deep level I was terrified of sounding illiterate so my brilliant songwriting career never happened. I bootlegged a small radio under my pillow and listened to a New York DJ called Moondog play R&B every night until he went off the air at 2:30.

Years later, living in Nashville, I noticed that every other business was a pawn shop, filled mostly with musical instruments. In the heart of the country music Mecca is a soft underbelly I call the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the place people come to become stars but mostly fail, even though some are immensely talented. I am not a country music fan, but have always wanted to write a song about the pawn shops of Nashville. Because it makes me cry. In my pickup truck. My Blue Tick Hound cries, too. Lord have mercy, it's enough to drive a body to drinkin' moonshine from my daddy's still after murderin' my cheatin' honky tonk boyfriend while awaitin' prison and redemption. My daddy was no coal miner, bless his heart, but maybe I could become obscenely rich, too, writing songs about poverty.


nick said...

That's a shame your dad nipped your talent for violin in the bud because of his own insecurities. So many children must get held back like that. I hope you don't regret not taking it further.

My piano lessons ended in failure too, I think I was too young to take them seriously and just messed around instead of applying myself properly.

"I could become obscenely rich, too, writing songs about poverty." Nice one!

Anonymous said...

That's too bad, really. I guess it's like an sport or performing art - only a small subset have the right combination of talent, drive and opportunities to actually have a viable career. Sounds liek it was the third bit you were missing.

thailandchani said...

The sound of a violin is beautiful... with the exception of those times when it is not played well. I can't imagine the torture of listening to your father butcher it. I tried to learn it, too, when I was a kid but my tin ear made it impossible. :)


On a limb with Claudia said...

Gosh, you are amazing! Look at the wonder of even being able to pick up the violin. Wow.

I am sorry about your father. And, what amazes me about you is how easily it would have been for him to stamp out all the light. Instead, your triumphant spirit remains. YAY.

Can you still play the violin? or is all that lost?

Bob said...

obviously, you are not a David Allen Coe fan (not that I am) for he sings the perfect country song. In the last verse he is drunk, his mom was getting out of prison, it was raining, he's driving a pickup truck, she gets run over by a train.

As you have successfully survived your insecure, over-achieving parent, becoming the special person you are, there must have been some redeeming qualities he passed on to you. And for that I salute him.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


My impression is that more children get pushed to succeed, even when they have little talent, to make their parents proud. And I do regret that I was unable to continue not because I didn't take it seriously, but because I did.


It's impossible to make your own opportunities when you're a child.


I love all instruments played well, but as a child, I was IN love with violin.

Your "tin ear" does not extend to the written word, happily.


I doubt that I could play violin now. I carried mine around with me for years and finally gave it to a guy in North Carolina who wanted a "fiddle."


There were many, musical ability for one. I salute him, too, for his many genetic gifts to me, and a gorgeous pair of Imperial jade teardrop earrings when I was 21.

I tried to include every country music theme I could think of. Please forgive me if I missed a few.

seventh sister said...

I think we should team up and write that song. The pawn shops of Nashville where dreams are left hanging in the windows until the next dreamer comes along....

BTW, Bob, that is a Steve Goodman song. I still remember the first time I heard it. I was sitting at a traffic light in Arlington, TX. When Cole got to the part about being drunk the day mom got out of prison, half the drivers started laughing and the other half looked at us like we were crazy.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I like it! We could have a huge hit on our hands. I'm just surprised that nobody's thought of it before.

I'll look up the Steve Goodman song. I had the same experience years ago when I loved Country, and Junk Food Junkie was blasting on the car radio. My kids and I were singing along laughing our heads off, and other drivers thought we were all drunk (or getting out of prison.)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Bob and Seventh Sister,

Here's a reprise of that perfect Country song. It's great!!!


Jocelyn said...

I apologize that I am so boring in response to your glorious posts--the writing, the sensibility, the cutting wit, the storytelling--well, all just leave me gasping with joy, helplessly.

So sad that your father had to one-up you on the violin. So lovely that he could not. I'm sure you look better in the jade teardrop earrings, too, than he ever could have.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Oh, honey, ain't nothin' boring 'bout you. Where'd you ever get that idea?

They were my favorite earrings of my life, and they met with a very bad end. Maybe when I die and go to heaven I'll see them again.

Molly said...

Where's the usual Heartinsanfran can-do attitude??I've heard it said that the only things we'll regret at the end of life are the things we didn't do. It's not too late. Get out there to a pawn shop and find yourself a fiddle!

Bob said...

It seems no matter where I am, if that song comes on, EVERYONE stops what they're doing and sings along. And laughs.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thanks for the reminder. I have also heard that saying, and it always gives me pause.


That last verse was apparently an add-on because someone told Goodman that he had not, in fact, written the perfect country song. And now he has!

The CEO said...

I won't apologize for the WW2 generation, they were my parents too. Much to your credit, you did find a way to develop your talents, and turn into a wonderful person, in spite of them. I say, well done!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


This post wasn't meant as a diatribe against my parents. My father was a character who provided well for his children but didn't know how to nurture them and especially had no idea how to relate to a daughter. I think he was more comfortable with his son, but my brother would be the authority on that.

LittlePea said...

We had an electric organ in our house but no lessons. I can play chopsticks so good it will bring tears to your eyes :o)

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I think you need to pick the violin back up.
I want to. I'd love to learn violin, piano and saxophone.

Those instruments are on the list of things to do...

So do you still sing? What do you sing?


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

I can't wait for your concert tour!


I still love to sing. And I would love to play violin, trumpet and guitar. And piano. Harpsichord. And 7 or 8 other instruments.

Gayle's Joy In Life said...

You ended that story with a touch of humor and that says a lot about who you are. Your loss of making music was painful to read. I worry sometimes that, without conscious intention, I am limiting my daughter's world. Anyway, good for you that you don't get caught up in the funk of it.

As for 24, no, it's not over. That was just a vicious rumor that bubbled up as we waited endlessly for the season to start. No way that season finale could be the LAST!!!

Be well...

the walking man said...

I am comfortable knowing that my father hated poetry and hated knowing that I wrote it...I after all never wanted to compete with him over the use of his slide ruler.

In disparate passions there is often an easy accord.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You're not in any danger of clipping your daughter's wings because you are more concerned with her wellbeing than your own ego. She's lucky to have you for her mom.

The show is a great adrenaline rush. I'm glad it's coming back.


There is much to think about in what you've said about disparate passions. I don't believe that competitiveness is inevitable when they are shared, but probably easier to avoid.

The Fool said...

Nice writing, Heart...from your evaluation of bells as "just stupid," to the coloring of Miss K's "cadaverish yellow hair," to the desire to write a song to the Nashville pawn shops because it makes you cry...the details in this piece made me smile. Thanks for sharing.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

No Fool,

Thank you for your unfailing kindness. If I've made you smile, my work is done here.

meggie said...

I wish I could write a song about poverty... I know it quite well.
On the other hand, I would like to write a lush song about plenty...which I have also known.

I always wanted to learn piano. Perhaps my son's songwriting success had it's beginnings in me.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I'm sure it did. You must have instilled a love of music in him as well as the certainty that he could succeed.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Then do it.


Scarlett & Viaggiatore