This is a rather more personal post than most, and I am very anxious that it not be misconstrued. More about that later.
Have you ever had a childhood memory that has stayed with you forever that suddenly revealed itself to you in a new light? This happened to me recently and I’m still not quite sure how to interpret it.
It happened when I was somewhere between 10 and 13 — my best guess — one afternoon. My father and some man were sitting on the sofa in the living room, trying to have some conversation. I was at the piano, picking out a melody that had popped into my head.
I remember very vividly making this melody note by note, trying to hear the next one, playing the sequence, failing, trying again, until it sounded right-er and right-er (GESTALT/SUCCESSIVE APPROXIMATION).
Let me say that although I knew how to read music and had started band class (flute) in 4th grade, I was not then — nor am now — able to play the piano. I was literally hunt-and-pecking this melody.
I can only imagine how annoying it must have been to my father and his friend, this dweeby little kid incessantly fumbling his way through note after note, starting over, doing it wrong, doing it again. It must finally have gotten to him, because he told me to stop it and go play somewhere else.
I remember being kind of disappointed that I couldn’t share my melody with them, because it seemed to me that I had really come up with something good.
So what was this melody that nagged at me in my head until I had gotten the notes just right?
Yep, I had composed the second theme of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.” STEAL FROM THE BEST indeed.
We must have had a recording of the piece in the small, scattershot collection attached to the stereo that my father bought one year at Christmas (apparently without my mother’s input). I don’t remember it specifically, but that’s the only way that melody would have been in my head. At any rate, it wasn’t long after I “composed” the melody that I chanced to listen again to the Schubert and realized my folly.
For years, this memory has meant two things to me. First, I’ve always grimaced — forgivingly — at that little dweeb, plinking out someone else’s melody without knowing it. Second, it planted that little seed of fear in me that whenever I’ve come up with a really good tune, I’m afraid that it has arisen from my subconscious and I’ve actually stolen it. Again.
When I wrote “7. The King of Cats Orders an Early Breakfast,” for example, I was so scared that his little schottische was Rodgers & Hammerstein that I sent the score to every musical theatre geek I knew trying to identify it. I’m still not sure I didn’t steal it from somewhere.
So that’s the memory. For reasons I’m sure a good psychotherapist could help me with, it popped up again recently, but this time I was shocked to see the episode in a completely different light.
Here’s this kid, working earnestly and with complete concentration, and he manages to plink out a very famous musical theme. Yet no one in the room said, “Wow, Dale has a great ear — let’s make sure he gets all the training he needs to be able to give us more music.” (This would continue through my middle school and high school years: I would fumble my way through composing some piece, and no one ever thought that maybe I should be offered training.)
Instead, I was left to hack my way through music, scrambling to pick up the crumbs of music theory willy-nilly, and to this day not able to distinguish a 6/4 chord from a ii°. I feel it intensely every time I compose — what should take no time if I were a “real” composer takes me days as I battle my own ignorance.
Let me not be misunderstood: there is no one to blame in this scenario. My parents bought me a flute — they already had spent money on my musical training. My two sisters were being given piano lessons; I don’t know that we could have afforded me to take them as well. (I also was taking art lessons; I probably was presented with a choice and I chose art.)
Nor were my parents Leopold Mozart, eager to hear “genius” in their offspring — nor was I anything at all like 4-year-old Amadeus. And 1970s Newnan, GA, was certainly not 1770s Vienna, so it’s not if there were Papa Haydns sitting around waiting for star pupils.
Finally, there’s no reason I could not have pursued training on my own as an adult, other than, you know, Life and TASK AVOIDANCE. Radical self-reliance, as we hippies say in burn culture: it’s a thing. And it’s not as if I haven’t written more music than the average untrained dweeb, some of it pretty good. I think, maybe, some days.
Why, then, am I telling you all this? I’m still not sure, other than as a cautionary tale: be alert to intense interest or apparent talent in the people around you. Support them. Provide them with materials and training if you can. Be the reason they MAKE THE THING THAT IS NOT. The Universe will thank you for it.