When I Was Very Little
|“That boy needs lessons,” said my father. “Someday he’ll thank me.”|
I didn’t want lessons. My friend Glenna took lessons and had to stay in while the rest of us were playing on the street. “Just take lessons for three months,” said my mother, and then if you don’t like them you can stop."
So I took lessons for three months. The teacher would play the song and show me the notes, which I wouldn’t read. Instead I learned by listening to the teacher play, the way I used to listen to my grandmother.
“Don’t look at your hands,” the teacher would say. “Look at the notes.” So I learned to play the songs without looking at my hands but I wasn’t reading. After a while the music got too long for me to remember by ear, but I still couldn’t read the notes, so things got very difficult. Luckily, three months was up and I quit.
“I didn’t think you’d remember about the three months,” said my mother. “I counted the days,” I said.
When I got older I met a boy who played the saxophone. He showed me how to play The Tennessee Waltz. That evening at dinner I asked for a saxophone. My parents looked at each other, then at me. My mother said, “The saxophone is not a valid instrument.” My father said, “Learn the clarinet instead. Someday you’ll thank me.”
The next day my father brought home a clarinet, and my mother brought home a teacher from the symphony orchestra. “Read the notes,” said the teacher. “That note is flat. Bite harder. That note is sharp. Bite softer.” I did not like to read notes. I did not like to bite harder and softer, and I did not like Brahms. I quit.
When I got older I was at a party and somebody played a Charlie Mingus record. I fell in love with the bass. The next evening I asked for a bass. “I want to play The Haitian Fight Song like Charlie Mingus,” I said. My father and mother looked at each other, and then at me. “The bass is very limiting,” said my mother. “The notes are all too low.”
“Take up the cello,”said my father. “Someday
you’ll thank me.”
“My heart was too filled with banjo music for me to
concentrate on biology.”
The next day after school I didn’t go home right away. I sat by myself for a while in some bushes in a vacant lot around the block. I got home late for dinner and there was a cello standing in the corner of the dining room which my father had borrowed from his school. But since they were angry at me for being late they forgot to talk about the cello, and the next day my father took it back to school.
One day when I was fourteen, I was up in my room, supposedly doing my homework. I heard a strange sound coming from the living room. I threw down my comic book and ran downstairs. It was a friend of my older brother playing the banjo. The moment I heard it my heart opened up and the banjo music jumped right inside. That night at dinner I didn’t say anything.
The next day I got an old broken-down banjo from my brother’s friend. Then I got on my bike and visited my grandmother, who gave me $20 to help buy a banjo skin and some strings. I used a wooden Venetian blind slat for a fingerboard, and some screws to fix the pegs. Every day I would come home from school and play the banjo.
When my mother would come home from work she would say, “I’ve had a very difficult day, dear.” My father would say, “Stop that racket.”
I would retreat to my room and play as quietly as I could, but banjoes are loud. My parents would yell at me from downstairs. “Stop that racket.” I would go up to the furthest room in the attic, stuff an old pair of socks in my banjo, and play for hours.
Eventually my parents finished the basement in knotty pine, moved the old sofa and TV down there, and for three years while I learned the banjo there was a sort of no-man’s-land on the first and second floor of the house. Occasionally I would meet my parents on the stairs and they would ask me how my school work was coming. “Fine,” I would say.
But my school work was not exactly fine. My heart was too filled with banjo music for me to concentrate very well on biology. And even though I promised my parents I would try, I never did become a doctor. Instead, when I grew up I became a banjo player and made many people happy. My parents were very proud.
“That’s my boy!” said my father.
“I always said he had a natural talent,” said my mother.
Eric Nagler is a family and adult entertainer (perhaps best known as the star of the children’s television show Eric’s World), children’s recording artist, speaker, writer, and relationship counselor. He plays a variety of instruments besides the banjo, including the fiddle. A version of this story appears in his book, Making Music With Eric. It was published in Life Learning Magazine's first issue in 2002.