I went to the dentist last Friday for a cleaning and a small repair. After the cleaning was over, I was moved to a different room. I was waiting in the chair; a young, cute Black girl came in to set up the room. I took off my Ultreya Rocks! hat to put aside with my glasses, so they would be out of the dentist’s way. The young lady said, “Ooh, nice hair!” (My hair is shoulder length and a little curly on the ends.) “Were you ever in a band?”
“I’m in one now.”
“What do you play?”
“Oh, I love bass!” she said. “I sing. I love music! I have to sing every week.” I didn’t have the chance to ask where she sang because she walked away to tend to other tasks. But the exchange left me smiling and feeling a little warm inside. I agree with her: I love music. Music is one thing I couldn’t do without.
I grew out of childhood listening to the music on my parents’ and grandparents’ radios. I’m actually old enough to remember when The Little White Cloud that Cried and Sh-Boom! were on the radio. The radio and I sort of grew up together: Venus, The Happy Organ, Mack the Knife–until the night when I was supposed to be sleeping I was DXing radio stations and ran across one playing classical music. That night my music world changed.
After more experience with classical music I began to understand the background music and songs on the Children’s Record Guild stories our grandparents gave us as kids. And there awoke in me the desire to make my own music. I had a few weeks of piano lessons from my mother as a teen. (She was the church organist for most of her life.) And I was doing pretty well. But I chickened out when suddenly there appeared in the lessons two notes played at the same time.
But by the time I finished high school I was making serious attempts at writing original music. Most of the pieces were hymn tunes and, in retrospect, were terrible. I did manage to salvage some of it and made something of it. Anyway, my high school class assigned me the task of writing and directing the senior class song. The tune was borrowed in part from a very old song, but it suited and we did all right.
College, for me, was an emotional disaster. Being away from home with nobody I knew took its toll, even on my work. I even wrote, in my freshman year, a short story about a guy in much the same situation as I, who discovered by accident that he could teleport himself home. With regard to music, I tended to haunt the conservatory, making acquaintances of kids in the music department, and especially of a guy who consented to play my writings so I could hear them a tempo. As time went on, I figured out how to grope my way through my writings myself. To correct the problem of not having the vaguest idea what I was doing with harmony and notation, I took two semesters of harmony from a kindly teacher in the conservatory. By that time I had picked up guitar from my acquaintances and was becoming competent in folkstyle playing. But with harmony under my hat, and a good understanding of chord progressions, I came to find out that voice leading, the construction of vocal parts so they could be sung and have an organized, logical progression, was one of my gifts.
In retrospect, there was musical talent on both sides of my family. My mother played piano and organ. My father, however, did not have any music education because his family would not have allowed it. But I remember something that happened once when I was home, that is, at my folks’ house, when I was a young adult living a couple hundred miles away. I had built a musical “instrument” using a relaxation oscillator that produced a sawtooth waveform and had a buzzy sound. It was started by pressing a button and the pitch was controlled by a handle attached to a rotary control. I took it home with me that time. My dad picked it up and played a tune on it that was accurate, well-timed, and in tune with itself. He handed the thing back and said, “I bet you didn’t know I could do that, did you?” And I didn’t. Wow!
So where is this going? Well, after a rather stormy marriage in which not much music got done, I moved to Miami. There I picked up music again. I wrote some folk songs and some church music. I did some arrangements for voice and an assortment of instruments that people at church could play. I wrote some songs for a few of the Via de Cristo (formerly Cursillo) weekends I served on. I reworked some of the older stuff that I still had. Not too long ago I unearthed some of those old things that had been put away. I looked through them. And some of those old writings weren’t that bad. But again, my choice of music to listen to was almost exclusively classical. My composition style was classical.
But then the classical music station was sold and started playing stuff I had no desire to hear. I started to listen to a Christian contemporary music station to keep me awake while I drove to work, as I told myself. The station played some music similar to those VDC songs we sang on weekends. I switched back and forth from the radio to CDs of classical music, until the CD player in the car died. Eventually my preference for listening in the car became the Christian station. This continues even today.
I also dream about music. Some dreams involve guitars and other instruments: broken guitars that I’m trying to fix; big organs I’m trying to play, or explore; new things that are impossible to make or impossible to play; singing in choirs, especially music I’ve written; and last of all, new music. I often wake up with music running through my head that came from a dream. Sometimes it’s new. If I can quickly write it down, I remember it. Some of the music I’ve written is from my dreams.
So. Where am I now? Back a few years ago, I was the lay leader, or rector, of a Via de Cristo weekend. Among the candidates were two musicians, one of whom I knew and who has since moved away. The other, without my knowing about him, I had seated right next to the first guy. That second musician has, over the years, become my best buddy. Brion is an expert who has been in the music industry, played guitar in Nashville with big names, writes, and plays two and a half orders of magnitude better than anyone else I’ve ever known. By the time I had come to know him better, I had begun to play electric bass due to the urgings of my church choir director. Brion and I performed together on a VDC weekend. I remember saying, jokingly, “We ought to form a band.” This eventually became the Christian rock praise-and-worship band called Ultreya. Several other musicians have come and gone, including two lead singers, two rhythm guitarists, and three drummers. What’s left is Brion on guitar, Michael on drums, and myself on bass. Sonshine Via de Cristo has come to consider us the go-to band to play for Celebrations (also known as Ultreyas) and other functions. Two of my favorite expressions are, “I learned to read music in church choir; so can you,” and, “If music isn’t fun, something’s wrong.”
If, ten years ago, someone should have predicted that I would be playing bass in a rock band, I would have laughed HA-HA.
You never know what God will do with you.
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When I first started writing this essay, I wondered if it might be too self-serving. But it was meant to be a sharing: who I am and something that is important to me. I hope you, gentle reader, will forgive me this once.