A Brief History Of My Failed Attempts To Learn An Instrument

I had my first banjo lesson last week, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more nervous than I was in the hours leading up to it. We’re talking sweaty palms, red face, shortness of breath — the works. Part of the reason was that I love the banjo so much (as I told my teacher, “It’s my favorite instrument, my soul mate instrument, my happy place”) so my first lesson kind of felt like a first date with the guy of your dreams; the stakes were high, and I didn’t want to mess up. The other source of my nervousness was my musical history. I knew that all of my previous attempts to learn an instrument had failed spectacularly, and I seemed to attract strange and dysfunctional music teachers like moths to a flame. Below, a few vignettes from my sad, weird, musical past. Oh, and my banjo lesson went great, actually. Let’s hope this trend continues!

Recorder, age 10. When I was in 5th grade, my elementary school — so broke that half of the “classrooms” were actually converted mobile homes parked in a muddy field — performed some kind of budgeting miracle that allowed us to have a music teacher for the first time in generations. Our little town was buzzing with excitement at the prospect of all us little country bumpkins having the chance to become the next Beethoven or Billy Ray Cyrus. The teacher we got — I’ll call him Mr. Nada — was passionate, charismatic, and … a little off. When he was “on” he’d lead us in exuberant arrangements of Beatles B-sides and play the Mario Brothers theme song over and over on the keyboard. On bad days he’d berate us for not being able to remember the lyrics to a song about the benefits of the electoral college and go sulk at his desk for the remainder of class, leaving us to entertain ourselves (thank god for Derek Brown’s epic hangnail).

One day, Mr. Nada opened up a box to reveal a huge pile of recorders, and gave one to each of us. It was very exciting, especially because the cheap plastic tubes were the first instrument many of us had ever touched. He gave us a brief lesson on how to play, “Ode to Joy,” then instructed us to practice at home as much as we could. We’d all have to play it, solo, next week.

The solo test happened to fall on the Friday before Halloween. All of us filed into the music class, palms sweaty with nerves, frantically blowing into our recorders. I’d been practicing dutifully, but I kept flubbing the fifth note, and now I felt the pressure bearing down on me. Would I be able to pull it off? Would I get an “F” in 5th grade music and ruin my chances of becoming a Spice Girl?

When Mr. Nada finally walked in, the frenzied din of the classroom turned to complete silence, instantly. He was bobbing his head and snapping his fingers to a beat in his head. “Happy Halloween!” he sang out, but we were all too stunned to respond. He was wearing a skintight Superman costume, at least two sizes too small, and completely transparent. His, umm, treble and clefs were outlined in graphic detail through the strained red spandex. A jersey cape fluttered delicately behind him as he walked. He seemed completely oblivious to his massive wardrobe malfunction, like he’d gotten dressed in low light and hadn’t thought to double check the transparency. “Alright,” he said confidently, clapping his hands together, “who’s ready to play?”

I biffed my recorder solo that day. We all did, I think. Between the see-through Superman costume, the realization that our music teacher didn’t wear underwear, and the general difficulty of playing a satisfactory rendition of “Ode to Joy” on a plastic toy instrument, we never had a chance.

Saxophone, age 11. Just before middle school, I entered the “aspiring jazz musician” phase of my pre-adolescence. My parents rented me a saxophone, and signed me up for joint lessons with my friend Caitlin, who played the clarinet. Each week, we would get dropped off at the nondescript suburban condo of a man named Ron (who I’m hoping was a family friend or something, because if not, WTF mom?), where we’d each have our half hour lesson, while the other one watched cartoons on the living room couch. The one thing I remember about these lessons, besides the slow, painful realization that I had no natural aptitude for saxophone, was Ron’s armpit hair.

Looking back, I truly don’t remember if his armpit hair was actually spectacular in any way, or if it was just a random detail Caitlin and I fixated on, but for some reason every drive home from our music lessons was dedicated to one-upping each other with (mostly made-up) tales about our teachers’ armpits.

“I measured his armpit hair with my eyes today,” Caitlin would say. “It’s 10 inches long!”

“Listen,” I’d say, “I didn’t know if I should tell you, but today when I took a big breath in before a long note, my saxophone actually sucked up some of his armpit hair. It went all the way up into the reed. I almost choked on it.”

Every week we’d make up new stories, each one more perverted than the last, and collapse in laughter in the backseat of our parents’ minivans. When the jokes stopped being quit so funny, and my interest in my teacher’s armpit hair finally waned, so did my interest in saxophone.

Piano, age 17. I’ve always loved to sing (it’s the one musical activity I’m actually fairly good at), and finally got up the nerve to try voice lessons in my late teens. Unfortunately the voice teacher I called insisted that all potential students have at least a year of experience on piano before they even thought about learning to sing. This didn’t seem like too big of a deal, and playing the piano seemed like a cool skill to have, so I signed up for weekly lessons with a local teacher I’d found on a billboard at our small town grocery store.

The beginning of my piano playing career was fairly straightforward and forgettable (literally, because I never practiced), but took a disturbing turn a couple months in, when I noticed my teacher’s breath smelled strongly of vodka one week, bourbon the next. The lessons took place in his living room, which was directly connected to the kitchen, where his wife clanged dishes loudly and muttered things like, “Empty promises, always empty” while my teacher yelled back insults thinly veiled as piano instructions: “Play it with EMOTION, for God’s sake! You can’t go through life not showing ANY EMOTIONS! People will think you’re a COLD, MEAN WOMAN!”

At some point, his wife moved out, and my teacher’s mood transformed from anger to self-pity. Reeking of peach schnapps, he’d push me off the bench so he could play a mournful rendition of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” voice cracking with sadness at the high notes, then he’d put his head down on the piano and sit very still. Meanwhile I sat in the living room eating mandarin oranges, clapping half-heartedly at the end of his ballads. I spent at least 20 minutes of my half-hour lesson as a confused spectator to his emotional breakdowns. As the clock ticked away, I wondered if this still counted toward my piano requirement. After all, I was technically still taking piano lessons, even though I barely touched the piano.

One day his son answered the door when I arrived for my scheduled lesson. “Dad’s not here,” he informed me with a shrug. “He decided to ride his bike to the beach.”

“Wait, really?” I asked, but the door closed in my face before I could ask for specifics. We lived 60 miles from the coast.

I quit piano after that, only 4 months short of the year requirement for voice lessons. And I still can’t listen to “Annie’s Song” without craving a stiff drink.

[Photo via Shutterstock]