A Failure at 5 and 11

"I need to be startlingly clear. This thing of finding your authentic voice, expressing your blessed weirdness and revealing your soul isn't an elegant process..." Jacob Nordby.

Fall, 1977. I was in 6th grade. And I was a failure.

I’ve had a long-running fascination with art & music, from a very early age. Music runs in the family; my great-aunt (Dad’s aunt, his mom’s sister) was a Carmelite nun & the organist/choir-director for our church. When I say “organist”, I’m talking one of those huge old-fashioned pipe organs with massive pipes and two extensive keyboards that took real skill & learning to play — Sister Jean was known throughout the diocese, not only for her music skills, but also as the person who ran our parish. Our church was the best spot in the city to have a wedding, not only because the church was gorgeous, but because of Sister Jean’s music skills; the Christmas services were always Standing-Room-Only and the choir was known throughout that part of the state.

Anyway, Grandma — Dad’s mom — used to take me and siblings every Monday during summer break. She & my aunts (Dad’s two sisters still lived with her) would take us to the library, which was just down the street from their house, or to the park, or on walks around the downtown area, or would just let us play in her yard or attic. The attic had lots of cool old games that Dad & his siblings used to play, like Mousetrap, and weird religious memorabilia, old craft projects, etc. Sometimes Dad’s youngest brother, John, would be there; he was the “hippy” of the family, bearded, Beatles-mop hair, always in jeans & t-shirts & never held any kind of steady job. He had an electric guitar that he’d play for us kids, showing off the wa-wa pedal and other funny sounds he could make, or he also draw for us, joining us with coloring books and markers and crayons.

Unfortunately, John also has long-running problems with drug addiction & was diagnosed schizophrenic — and violently so — and refused to take his prescribed meds. (To be fair, the psychiatric meds at that time turned you into a shuffling zombie, so I totally understand now why he refused them.)

Like my dad & his other two brothers & my own brother, John often made grandiose plans, insisting that he was always about to “hit it big” & that he was going to get rich, be a rock star, be a country music star, make thousands with his art, someway, somehow. He also has the family-male ability for schmoozing: a personable, friendly exterior that encourages the listener to believe he’s a “nice boy”…until things don’t go his way. With his plans, John would move away to some distant state, then come back when the scheme evaporated…and he’d be high, angry, and violent. He’d terrorize Grandma & my aunts, who’d always call my Dad for help & beg him to deal with John, until, finally, the neighbors called the cops to cart John off to the county/state mental institution or jail.

That was one of the constant patterns of my childhood: Uncle John went away, Uncle John came back (sometimes with “friends”, or a new “girlfriend” who believed his bs), the phone would ring over and over until Dad picked up, Grandma & my aunts would beg, and Mom & Dad would get into screaming fights over it as us kids huddled in our rooms. Then Dad would leave, and we had to stay inside until it was “safe” for us to out.


A Magnus chord organ. Basic ’70s cheesy music education.

Now Grandma often gave us kids old toys and odd things that had been stored & abandoned in her attic. In third grade, I’d claimed an old wooden recorder — a wind instrument that sounds like a flute but looks a bit like a clarinet — and using an old church missalette, I tootled & squeaked & screeched my way through the hymns in the back of it, figuring out music notation and fingering on my own, until I finally got the noise sounding like music. Grandma & my aunts noticed this and, on a whim, bought a cheap Magnus “chord organ” at a yard sale — a plastic toy thing where you pressed buttons for chords while picking out the melody with your other hand. They were popular in the ’60s & ’70s, cheap “music enrichment” for your kids. Grandma kept it at her house over the summer so Mom & Dad didn’t know about it, and that organ & the library visits became the highlight of the Monday visits. I was all over that thing; I was constantly playing it whenever we were there. I figured out chord structure, major, minors, 7ths; I could pick out basic melody of pop stuff on the radio.

At the end of the summer, Grandma gave me that chord organ & its music books and let me take it all home. A bit more backstory here: when I’d been in kindergarten, I’d begged Dad to let me join the church choir — I wanted to be part of those beautiful voices I’d heard at Christmas & I’d loved singing along to the stereo. Sister Jean (his great-aunt, remember. A nun.) had announced in church that she was looking for more volunteers for the choir, especially for the kids’ part.

Dad shot me down, hard. “You want to be in the choir? Really? Then sing for me, right now.”

The house was quiet. Nothing on the stereo. My five-year-old self stared at the floor, embarrassed and humiliated, not knowing what to sing, scared of messing up, and very conscious of Dad staring at me, waiting to judge my five-year-old voice.

“If you can’t sing for me, how’re you gonna sing in a choir with all those people watching?” Dad said, and walked away.

My adult self is enraged, remembering that — pressuring a five-year-old with no performing experience to sing, right there, right then, under your judging, staring eyes, a solo one-on-one performance with no backup, no music, nothing to help me along, and denying a reward because I “failed” to perform on cue. That’s NOT the same as being up in a choir loft, an anonymous part of a crowd with music backing you up. I’d sung hymns in church along with the congregation every Sunday; I’d sung with my classmates in my school’s Christmas and spring programs, onstage, in front of an audience.

So why was I suddenly a failure because I couldn’t sing solo in front of my dad??

Fast forward to the sixth grade, 1977. The Catholic school had hired a new music teacher, who was putting together a new music education program for the middle and high school kids. He wanted to have an actual band; he gave presentations to all the grades, explaining what was needed, what he wanted to do. I begged Mom & Dad to let me try. I’d managed that recorder; I already knew how to read music. Because of the recorder, I knew I could manage the clarinet, and after Mom & Dad talked with the new music teacher and with one of the area music stores, I had a clarinet, brand-new and shiny in its case.

It lasted all of two weeks.

Two. Fucking. Weeks.

Mom & Dad took the clarinet away & returned it to the store. Why? Because I “didn’t practice enough”. Because I wasn’t spending “hours” practicing, I didn’t deserve the instrument. They took the clarinet away, and my pleading and explanations only got them yelling that I wasn’t any good since I wouldn’t “practice”.

Because of the recorder & the chord organ, I already knew how to read music. I already knew about time signatures & beats & keys; I knew the basics. The initial lessons of the first two weeks were all that stuff I already knew, with one/two/ three-note pieces that were repetitive & boring. I’d already mastered those things & the fingering & the breathing. It didn’t take long. I’d even gotten compliments from the teacher, Mr. Gregory, about how well I was doing & how fast I’d picked it all up.

Not good enough for Mom & Dad. The clarinet was taken away. I’d “failed” because I wasn’t “serious”. I “failed” because I wasn’t playing that damned clarinet for whatever “serious” goalpost my parents never told me about, and never mind that I had already mastered the fuckin’ lessons!

I had to explain to Mr. Gregory what had happened. I had to explain why I had to drop out of band, a failure at 11 years old and incompetent after only two weeks & four lessons. He could only stare at me in shock. He thought this was *my* decision, and he tried to talk me out of it. When I managed to explain about Mom & Dad, he tried calling them himself.

Yeah. You can imagine how well that went down.

My parents did not want “music” in my vocabulary, period. Me joining the marching band in high school — drill team — and staying as part of “miscellaneous percussion” (xylophone & chimes) for the orchestra season earned me parental cold-shoulders and constant lectures about “real” skills, that I was wasting my time, I was wasting my brains, I was wasting etc etcetc. And me using hard-earned money from skipping lunches, a part-time job, & school-honor rewards at graduation to buy myself a real Roland JUNO-106 synthesizer?

That’s the next post.

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