For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a musician. Even as a kid, I heard songs in my head and tried to find a way to translate them to the outside world. I was a product of my environment: in the mid-‘80s, at the age of nine, I started a rock band with two neighborhood friends; by junior high, I was a self-produced rapper. I do not mean to suggest that my music was remarkable. Looking back, the most noteworthy element about my songs was the simple fact that they were made at all, particularly by someone so young, working virtually alone.
My lone year of formal training came in the fifth grade. I voiced an interest in the drums, so when the rest of my schoolmates went to music class on the ground floor of our school, I went to private drum lessons on the top floor. My teacher was an elderly nun, once a prominent Dayton-area jazz drummer before she committed to serving the Lord. For those who find the image of a wrinkled Sheila E. in a habit, barking instructions at a skinny 10-year-old hilarious, it is hilarious, but the woman was intense! By the end of that year, I could read music, and Sister Emily was raving to my parents about my unusually prodigious mastery of the fundamentals of percussion. But the next year, I changed schools, and my new school did not offer any in-house drum lessons. By that time, basketball was beginning its vulture-like encroachment upon my body and mind and I did not have the foresight (or desire) to request another drum teacher. It is the lone “what if” of my childhood.
Still, the vibrations that God places in your heart will not go away, no matter how fast you run. I am amazed by how my impulses never died, only mutated and shifted. In high school, I wrote raps and poems zealously, made dozens of “Slow Jams” mixtapes for myself and girls that I liked, and toyed with my keyboard whenever I found a spare moment. I am indebted also to my high school music teacher, Mr. Barthold. He was the first adult to confirm that my musical ability was real, if raw, as well as the first to suggest that I had a future with it, if I wanted.
I carried my keyboard with me to college during my sophomore year, primarily because I signed up for a basic piano class one semester. In this class, taught by an inflexible, uptight graduate student, I was alternately the class dunce and genius. ("Mr. Gilmore,” my teacher often was heard to say, “could you please refrain from playing Tupac songs while I am trying to teach the class 'Mary Had A Little Lamb'?") The experience taught me that my capability was more organic and abstract than I had ever imagined.
Now, because I always seem to put something else first, the exact degree of my musical facility remains undefined. I know a few chords, yet can play very few actual songs from beginning to end. I have rapidly taught myself the openings of quite a few compositions (“To Be Young, Gifted & Black,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”), yet after a certain point, they all collapse and disintegrate into thin air. I have several tapes filled with fragments of songs I hope to develop once I make time and find a studio. These are R&B melodies that have come to me in my sleep, instrumental movie scores, hip-hop beats, songs that would be ideal for Beck or Coldplay. I remain encouraged by the fact that the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix never learned to read music and that Irving Berlin played all his songs on the black keys.
These propulsions remain documented solely for the day when I am willing or able to put them at the top my agenda. And maybe, at the end of that tunnel, all my musical labor will turn out to be for nothing, but I doubt it. I have always been an abnormally confident artist -- sometimes to my detriment -- it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized that I had limitations as a writer. In the end, it’s not about the end, but about the journey that took you there. I hope that someday, I will find time to give a certain 10-year-old drummer I know his moment to shine. Lord knows, he’s been waiting forever.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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5.18.05 @ 12:17a
I have to tell you, Jason, I am so totally envious of your ability to take what you hear in your head and make ANY of it come out. I love music with a passion, and am hopelessly tone-deaf. If I had one wish, it would be to make music. Don't take your gift for granted - you may never grow up to be Quincy Jones, but if you don't nurture your gift, you'll lose it. And that would be a loss to everyone.
5.18.05 @ 3:02a
Thank you Juli,
I'm trying to get it together. Writing this article has forced me to be somewhat more accountable over the last few days. Now that I've written a whole essay on it, it's a lot easier to look in the mirror and say to myself, "No, really, what IS your problem?"
5.18.05 @ 9:24a
Yes, because isn't that really the key - "putting it at the top of your agenda."
I do the same thing with singing. I take lessons for a while, then drop them. I want to join a community choir, but then my voice isn't warmed up enough for the audition (I think) so I don't go. I write song fragments, then put them away. Why? Because it's not at the top of my agenda.
There's something quite wrong with that.
5.18.05 @ 10:36a
My mother, who was a fair to midling jazz singer, used to say there's a musician in each of us. Even the people I know who are completely tone deaf have from time to time expressed the desire to play an instrument or sing. We had a girl in high school chorus who simply could not ever hit the right note, and was painfully aware of it. The choral teacher took her aside one day and instructed her just to mouth the words and not make any sounds during performances. You've no idea how relieved the poor girl was, and she got to "perform" with us and be a part of the group. Everybody had always liked this girl, and now we liked her even more when she wasn't bolixing up our very hard work. It worked out very well, I think. She confided in me one day that if she could have one wish it would be that she could sing like the rest of us. Since she was the best dancer in our modern dance troupe, I told her I envied her dancing ability, so we were essentially even when it came to wishes. I suppose it's basically a good thing that none of us seem ever to be completely satisfied with ourselves, or else we'd be arrogant and insufferable beyond toleration.
5.18.05 @ 6:44p
That's why I gave you that Beatles "ABLUM". You seem to have a love and appreciation of music that's been abandoned by our youth. You keep on doin' what you doin' because I truly believe that you are a BMF, and that's real.
5.19.05 @ 3:11a
Irving Berlin played all his songs on the black keys.
Not only that, but in his pre-digital era, he had a special piano built that would transpose to whatever key was required with the pull of a lever. His hands could be playing in F#, but the notes coming out might be in C.
Actually, I too have discovered that "doing something" with your musical gift is the hardest part. Keep us posted on how that goes.
5.19.05 @ 12:07p
Why does this seem to be such an issue for most people? I know personally that being involved with music is such a joyful thing - and don't we add more joy to our lives on a regular basis?
5.19.05 @ 2:10p
Oh, I do, Tracey. I sing all the time.
The unfortunate side effect is that I remove joy from the lives of others when I do so.
(By the way, if you ever have a chance to hear Tim's song "The House Where No One Lives", do so!)
5.19.05 @ 2:54p
Tim should link it!
5.19.05 @ 11:22p
Jason, I like this one alot man.
Being a musician and one who likes to write music and play out I feel you alot.
I can play a few instruments well, but none more than guitar. I taught myself this instrument. I started on piano, then drums, and guitar came natural to me after that.
I don't need to tell you what's wrong with the musical industry these days, but I sympathize with the raw fact that alot of the best talent on God's green earth will be passed by. I could write a whole column on this right now.
Commercialism sucks, and remember that there was a day a guy could have time to serve his music and not have to bag groceries to keep a roof over his head. No time to serve the music now...
5.20.05 @ 2:22a
I'm a pretty average drummer with zero formal instruction. I've played a a good bit of drums since the late 70's when I first heard Zeppelin and Sly Stone and thought 'wouldn't it'd be sweet to play beats like that?' I recently started strumming a guitar and find it a more sensitive alternative to hitting things with sticks.
It bums me out that the rhythm section is so dimimishied in modern music, because I think of Stanley Clarke and Bernard Purdie and wonder why don't the kids appreciate their shit?
I'll never get why urban music today involves a dance line and not a good bassist and drummer.
5.20.05 @ 2:42a
Tim should link it!
Actually, Tim should get around to recording it first. I don't think it will have the same effect if I just yell the song at my monitor and hope a link appears automagically.
Funny thing about finding the time to do the music ... I now work more hours per week than I ever have - mostly to keep the baby in daycare so I can keep working - but I find time more often these days to do the music thing than I had for about a year or so before Cecilia ("Looks just like her daddy, only cute") was born. That's not to say I play my instruments a lot, but it's a far cry from when I wasn't playing at all.
The best part of it is, Cecilia is almost eight months old, so she's big enough now to sit on my lap while I play the piano and reach for the keys with her go-go-Gadget arms.
5.20.05 @ 2:52a
Which reminds me - I need new pictures. (Showing them to the monitor won't help.)
5.20.05 @ 3:08a
Juli, watch your e-mail, they're on the way.
5.20.05 @ 10:49a
Good point Dan,
Bernard Purdie was SICK. That's how I know that I think like a musician, because I notice the little things when I listen to classic songs. (Billy Preston's electric piano on Sly & the Family Stone's "Family Affair," Purdie's drums on Aretha's "Until You Come Back to Me," McCartney's bass line on "Dear Prudence.") And like you said, the MUSIC is being taken out of the music. Or as Lenny Kravitz recently said, "It's rare nowadays that you'll find a kid who sits at home practicing the trumpet for four hours a day."
Thank you all for your comments.
5.20.05 @ 10:58a
What's a BFM?
5.20.05 @ 1:16p
I think you already know.
5.20.05 @ 1:19p
Yer goddamn right I do. The path of the righteous man...
5.20.05 @ 2:05p
...as he takes God's name in vain trying to explain his point...