One of the very first birthday presents I can remember, or at least that left an impression on me, was a small 45 record player. I thought it was so cool that I could play my own music on my very own record player – just like Mom and Dad played their music on the big record player in the living room. I would sit in my room by myself for hours, playing Disney records. My parents recognized this love of music and, during my early years, I received many music-themed gifts, such as toys that you could “play” music on. They even bought me a small electric keyboard at one point.
Even as a very small child, my favorite part of our church service was singing the hymns. My Dad would hold the hymn book to where I could see it and would point to the words as we sang so that I could follow along. Even today, when we sing one of those old hymns, which in these modern times is now projected onto a screen, in my mind, I'm following along in the hymn book, watching my dad's calloused finger following along with the music.
Music class was always one of my favorite classes growing up, right along with art class and English class. And my favorite part of being in Girl Scouts was that we regularly sang campfire songs. The very first symphony concert I attended was when I was 8 years old and it was Beethoven’s Fifth. I can even remember the very first cassette tape I ever bought (Welcome to the Real World by Mr. Mister), and of course, I can remember the first CD I ever owned (In Utero by Nirvana - my musical tastes had grown since that first cassette... ha ha).
When given the choice of attending my junior prom or going to a rock concert, I chose the concert without a second thought. In college, I took as many music classes one could possibly take as electives, without being a music major or minor. In fact, music brought my husband and I together. That, however, is another story for another time. The point is music has always been a love of mine, throughout my life.
When most people say they grew up “surrounded by music”, that usually refers to the fact that their parents or members of their family sang or played instruments. I grew up surrounded by music, but my parents, for the most part, did not play any instruments. They just loved listening to music.
I have fond memories of my mom putting on her favorite records as she cleaned the house and did chores. She loved top 40 rock and pop tunes and modern country western music. My mom took me to my first rock and roll concert when I was about 11 years old.
Dad actually did play a few instruments. He played the trombone when he was in high school and, when I was growing up, he played the ukulele (more as the occasional party trick than anything) and he played the harmonica.
What he played the most though, were records. He had a huge record collection: Elvis, classical guitar, the old country western music where they told cowboy stories, classical symphonies, jazz and swing, harpsichord and organ music, comedy records like Bill Cosby, 60s and 70s rock and roll, the Boston Pops – you name it, he had it. I used to love looking at all the different album covers. I’d sit on the floor and pull them out and admire the artwork, and then carefully put them back.
My dad would listen to music that he didn’t even especially like, in order to learn more about it and come to appreciate it. I remember he'd purchased a retrospective collection of big band and swing music and was listening to it, and reading the book that had come with it. I had asked him if it was some of his favorite music and he said, "No, not really. But I'm interested in how it came to be, and how it evolved into early rock and roll." He was a connoisseur of music, with a desire to explore every aspect of it, to taste and sample it all, instead of limiting himself to just the music he liked. No matter what type of music you liked, my dad could always strike up a conversation with you about it.
He was that way about a lot of things.
Our stereo system was in the living room, and my father would normally listen to his music in the evenings with headphones on, so as not to disturb anyone trying to watch TV in the nearby family room. One of my most vivid and cherished memories, centers around that stereo. I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and my dad called me into the living room and told me he had something he wanted me to listen to. I climbed up into the big blue chair and he helped me put on the gigantic black padded headphones with their spiraled cords. They were so heavy and I was so little, I remember feeling like they were going to topple me over so I rested my head back on the chair. They blocked out all sound completely, which was a little scary, but then they were filled with the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. To this day, I find that I am at a loss for words to describe how beautiful and magical that moment was. It was like my father had opened a secret door onto a wonderful world that I didn't even know existed. I was captivated.
Ater the song ended, my dad lifted up the headphones and told me the story about the composer, Beethoven. He told about how he had gone deaf but still made music, even though he couldn’t hear it. The piece he had played for me was called "Für Elise”, performed in all its beauty on piano with a full orchestra accompaniment. (To this day, I absolutely cringe every time I hear someone clobbering “Für Elise” on a piano. It's unfortunate that it has become such a common piano recital song, and is so very rarely heard or performed with a true understanding heart and master hand. But I digress...) I begged to hear more, so my dad played “Moonlight Sonata” for me. Again, there are no words to describe how the music moved me, or how vivid this memory is to me, to this day. When it was over, I remember asking my dad why it was so sad. He told me that some people thought Beethoven had written it for a girl he loved, but she rejected him and broke his heart.
I was hooked and found myself, more often than not, drifting into the living room and sharing the headphones with my dad in the big blue chair instead of playing with my toys in the other room.
My dad, among other things, was a skilled mechanic. He had turned one side of our garage into a shop and he was always outside tinkering on something or working on the neighbor’s car. He had a stereo in his shop, which was always tuned in to the oldies station. I used to love to sit on his stool by the workbench, listen to the music and watch him work. He would occasionally stop what he was doing and tell me stories about some of the songs, like how he was actually dating a girl named Cathy when the song “Cathy’s Clown” was popular, or he would tell me stories about the artists, like how Buddy Holly died in an airplane crash. I listened to oldies almost exclusively in my pre-teen years, shunning the current top 40 rock and pop tunes for oldies and doo-wop instead. If I was inside the house, and the radio station was playing one of my favorite songs, the door to the garage would pop open and my dad would call me outside: “Hey! They’re playing ‘Blue Moon’!” And I would drop everything and run outside to listen. I had a teacher in high school that was always whistling oldies tunes, and he was continually mystified that I could identify them.
Everyone has experienced that moment, when you hear a song and instantly you are transported to the summer you were 14 years old and hanging out by the pool, or some other vivid memory. Music is magical that way. For me, not only is music simply a reminder of fond memories and different times and places in my life, but most of all, music helps me remember and feel close to my dad, who has passed away, 11 years ago today. When I hear one of his songs, I’m instantly transported back to his shop in the garage, or to the blue chair in the living room and the big giant headphones, or to the passenger seat of his truck. I can’t eat at a “5 and Diner” restaurant or go to a symphony or concert without feeling like he’s nearby.
And it always makes me smile.
I started out writing this article to explain the importance of music to me, but I think I knew all the while what I really wanted to do was talk about my dad a little. And in some way, thank him again, for passing on his passion and love of music to me. It is truly a gift that I cherish.
And thanks to you, Loyal Readers, for taking this little musical biographical journey with me. If you like, leave me a comment with a song (and maybe a link to it on YouTube?) that brings back a vivid memory for you. Let's share some music today. My dad would have enjoyed that... :-)