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Judith Edelman

I Hate Music

Here's the routine: three kids, ages 8, 13, and 16, spend three interminable hours struggling through the chamber piece of the moment, Dad conducting and playing violin. I'm playing the piano, my middle brother is on violin, and my eldest brother, who also plays piano, is at the harpsichord (yeah, we had one; yeah, my dad built it--another story). I don't remember what we played--how many pieces could there have been for two violins, piano and harpsichord?--but it doesn't matter, because by 9 p.m., Family Chamber Night is disintegrating into a painful violin lesson for my middle brother, a crying jag for me, a lecture for my eldest brother, and massive frustration and a sore throat for Dad.

It was the hard truth that none of us, except my dad, were any good. I'm sure there were visions of little classical prodigies dancing in his head, but, like many fantasies we have about other people and family vacations, the reality was much bleaker. I think it was around that time that my dad started using cryptic sayings about how real life never lives up to our imagination. He started calling Family Chamber Nights "The Triumph of Hope over Experience." He could also be heard muttering darkly around the apartment, "Never visit the Easter Bunny." It's hard to be so much of a disappointment to your father that he compares your musical ability to the Easter Bunny turning out to be a bastard if you're stupid enough to try to visit him.    

My first piano teacher was a man named Mr. Goldberger. Another little girl who also took lessons from him and I called him, predictably, Mr. Hamburger. Except we made it into a chant: "Mr. HaaaaaaaaaaamBURGER!" Never to his face. Actually, he scared the shit out of me. I got so nervous around him, I'd forget whatever I'd practiced that whole week. And I did practice. Because I had to. Because my parents made me. Every day. For an hour. I'm here to tell you, that is a long time when you're five. Anyway, I'd screw up in my lesson and he'd stop me and say--so quietly it was creepy--"You didn't practice, did you?" But it wasn't really a question. And even though I had, I'd just swing my feet hard a few times, stare at his bald head, and give a weak giggle. Mr. Hamburger would pull out his imaginary handgun from his imaginary holster, hold it to my curly head, pull the imaginary trigger and say, "Kapow." Not loud, either. In that same creepy whisper. Then he'd bring the gun up to his face, blow on the invisible barrel, and make me play whatever it was again, thinking--what? That after I'd had my little head blown off with his imaginary 45, I'd somehow play better? Ok, I'm sorry, but that is sick. The Easter Bunny may turn out to be a bastard if you ever meet him, but at least he isn't a sick bastard like my piano teacher.

Eventually, my parents did find me a great teacher, who I continued with until I stopped taking lessons when I was 18. Still, the damage had been done and I didn't really play the piano again until last year, when I turned 39.

The truth I've fought with, the truth I've hidden and been ashamed of, is music has never been easy for me. In the years I didn't play the piano, I learned how to play the guitar and to write songs, I played bluegrass, I went professional (whatever that means), I've recorded, I've toured, I played Americana, then folk-pop. But not without struggling ceaselessly against bad stage fright, self-doubt, and deep ambivalence. More often than not, it has been compulsion rather than joy that has kept me playing and writing. Lately, when I've thought about quitting music altogether, it's been the profoundly disconcerting thought that I don't know how to do anything else anymore that has kept me onboard another day. And another day.   continue

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