Published Feb 3, 2006

My first musical failure — at least, to the extent that I am aware — came when I was three. We were in Boulder, Colorado for a year, living in a rented house that was, naturally, filled with it’s owner’s family’s posessions. Furniture, of course, and photos, and a cat, and, as I discovered one day, a hot pink toy guitar.

I loved that guitar; I’d stand in the den and play it and make some sort of noise for minutes on end, which was probably pretty good for a three-year-old. I probably sang Puff the Magic Dragon since one of the few things that was strong enough to stick in my memory at that age was a series of Peter, Paul and Mary concerts that we went to. But, at any rate, I loved that guitar. I’d hold it close to my chest and, with the strings facing me, squeeze my arm in between the guitar and me and strum those strings. One day, my parents caught me and revealed the horrible truth: guitars are properly held with the strings facing away. I tried to play it that way once but it felt uncomfortable so I put aside the hot pink plastic guitar and went to do something more profitable, like playing with skunks.

(But that’s a story for another time.)

When I was in elementary school, I was horribly jealous of my classmate Luke, who played the trumpet and who brought his trumpet to music class several times. I wanted to play the trumpet too, but I was too shy to ask.

Finally, my mother decided I should play the piano, so, in third grade, off I went to study with an old lady in the dark basement of the Quaker Meeting House next door to the evil Friends School of Baltimore, which I attended. One day we got a piano at home, and soon that was followed by a small, mustached man with roundish glasses who was purported to be able to teach me to play. My piano teacher, Michael Haberman, and I got along well, although he had this strange idea that I would learn to love to play Mozart, while the only thing I ever enjoyed playing was ragtime music and I will allow that I probably did not play that well at all.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort on Mr. Haberman’s part, anyway. We’d meet every week and he’d review what I’d learned and practice some exercises and give me homework, and it wasn’t my mother’s fault, either, because she diligently put me in front of the piano for 30 minutes every day to practice. However, as I now appreciate, I learned about one year of piano skils in four years of study, a performance that we can all agree falls somewhat short of the inspiration I hope to provide to youth today. Yes, I was a crappy pianist. Perhaps because of my stubby fingers, perhaps because of my almost complete inability to coordinate activities with my left hand while I was doing something with my right (to say nothing of foot movements to control the pedals!), perhaps because of my innate and rather exceptional lack of rhythm, but most likely because I learned how to make my mother’s kitchen timer run fast so that my 30-minute practices lasted barely 10, I was a deeply, deeply mediocre pianist.

(I apologize to all of the mediocre pianists whom I just insulted by comparing their performance to mine.)

One day, my mother suggested that I quit the piano, so I ran away. I realized I should pack for the trip, so I took my school backpack and put in a box of spaghetti, already opened; a can of tuna; and a pack of Capri Sun. I ran to the park down the street, where I sat and drank the Capri Sun. Then I realized it was getting dark, and I had no can opener, so I went home. The next week, my mother suggested that I not quit the piano, which seemed an even worse idea, so this time I ran out of the house crying. However, I was not gone long and, in my haste to leave, had neglected to pack this time.

Somehow, as a result of this, the lessons and, soon, the piano disappeared. I think it was a Steinway, and I wonder now if I have some memory of having picked the color of the finish.

In eleventh grade, I found a kazoo that had somehow been jammed behind a shelf, probably since a second-grade birthday party. I tried very hard to make a tune come out of it but, however I blew, I could only produce one single boisterous, farting, spittle-filled note.