Lately my son, The Dude, has been asking me to tell him stories at bedtime. This is after we’ve read books during the nightly milk and graham crackers ritual and involves me making up short stories about whatever topic he gives me. Some of them are silly, some are true, and one or two actually seem like they might make decent children’s books. One night last week he asked for a story about himself, or maybe not. I don’t know. It’s not important. I told a story about a little boy who got a drum set for his birthday, practiced every day, became a great drummer, joined a band, and made a lot of wonderful music. Perhaps not my best work, but if you want my best work you’ll just have to wait until it’s published.
“But I want to be a firefighter,” he protested at the story’s conclusion. This, dear reader, is what we call a teachable moment. I jumped at the chance to explain that you don’t have to be just one thing, and that he could be a firefighter and still play music for fun. Imagine that–music as a hobby! Why, just look at Ol’ Dad: I’m a teacher, but I still play in bands, don’t I?
It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized how much I wish someone had explained this to me when I was young, though maybe not quite as young as The Dude is now. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway (I thought I was going to be the next Bruce Springsteen, whatever that means), but maybe the planting of that seed of thought early on would have saved me a lot of frustration and doubt later in life.
See, I grew up idolizing my favorite musicians. I didn’t just like music; I wanted to emulate the lives and careers of my heroes. But when you start looking at the careers of famous rock musicians, you notice that they all start early. You don’t see many debut albums coming from folks in their 30s and 40s. As a high-achieving kid in most areas, I always put a lot of pressure on myself to be great at anything I did. I developed the habit early of stacking up my achievements against others’, so there’s always been a part of me–a little voice in the back of my mind–that tells me I failed because I’ve never gotten picked up by a label, toured the country, become a “rock star.” You’re too old, it tells me. Time to hang it up, already.
Because when I was a kid, I never saw adults playing music as a hobby*. Outside of MTV and the radio, the only grown-ups I saw playing guitar were the guys who gave me lessons. My dad did at one point buy a guitar for himself to plink around on, but it was never a real hobby of his and he certainly never played in any bands as an adult. Even in media, TV and movie adults never got together with their buddies to play some rock–or if they did, it was a laughable attempt to reclaim their cool youth, not an authentic expression of their interests and talents as mature people. No, that’s not what grown-ups do. Grown-ups get together with the guys to play cards or watch football, maybe go fishing… right?
[*As I’m writing this, I remember that I do have a friend from high school whose dad played jazz trumpet and gigged around a bit. Maybe it seemed different because it was jazz, or maybe just because I was already 17 and had internalized these ideas, or maybe just because he was the only example–a good example, but an oddity nonetheless.]
It seems an awful shame to me, the more I think about it, that our culture has made it cool and normal for adults to sit around and passively engage in children’s games played by other people–to say nothing of the money spent on merchandising and the culture of extreme fandom–but teaches us that it’s juvenile and silly to engage in creative pursuits with like-minded people who have spent years developing a skill for no reason beyond their own self-enrichment. I don’t want to knock sports or anything; it just doesn’t stack up in my brain.
In a way, I envy my children and the kids of my musician friends, because they will grow up seeing what we do as perfectly normal. I have been playing in bands since I was 14 years old. In a couple weeks I’ll be 35. Most of my friends are people I know because we played music together, and I feel lucky to know every single one of them. Although I have never released music through a label or toured extensively, I have created and recorded music I am intensely proud of and have many wonderful memories of small shows in crummy bars with small but earnestly engaged audiences. I even have a few truly badass t-shirts from bands I’ve played in (and many more from bands I’ve played shows with). In the final assessment, playing music has been the most personally fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life (outside of parenting, of course), and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing to hope for my kids to have. I just hope they can have it without that little voice that still calls out from the back of my mind sometimes.
[Pictures included in this blog courtesy of Sarah White, Blake Ulmer, and Julie V. Lunn. All images are copyright and may not be used without artist’s permission.]