An Off-Key Apology to All the Musical Instruments I Learnt to Play

Music

An Off-Key Apology to All the Musical Instruments I Learnt to Play

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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very time I lay eyes on a guitar, my instinct is to pick it up and begin playing the Jaws theme song. You’ve surely heard it – that famous “dunnnn dun”, two simple notes that create an ocean of atmosphere, and that last detail is crucial. The beauty of the basic arrangement of the Jaws theme is that anyone, even someone as musically illiterate as myself, can play it on nearly any instrument. It’s a feel-good moment for those who would never otherwise get a chance to showcase any musical talent whatsoever.

Lets face it: Most of us have harboured secret dreams of becoming a rock god or pop star, belting out hit tunes before legions of adoring fans. Right around the time we switched from Cartoon Network to VH1, most of the kids I grew up with started to nurse ambitions that were completely at odds with our natural talents. There was a beat-up, old Givson (not Gibson, mind you) acoustic guitar that was passed among the building kids like an heirloom, changing hands every time the current owner realised he would never be able to nail that final solo in “Stairway to Heaven”.

Surely I’m not alone in feeling like playing a musical instrument is some kind of unsolvable equation, and anyone gifted enough to play them is a problem-solving warlock. I did not become musically illiterate for want of trying to learn. My parents bought me many things while I was growing up, but my most shameless waste of their money was unequivocally the multiple musical instruments I purchased in my ill-fated quest to become the troubadour my teenage self so desperately wanted to be.

I began like so many other kids from my neighbourhood, at Musicians’ Mall on Charni Road, in search of my first guitar. The rush you experience as a virgin instrument buyer is multisensory: There’s the arresting visuals of rows and rows of mint-condition instruments both electric and acoustic, there’s the smell of polished, oiled wood that lets you know you’re in the company of handcrafted guitars, and then there’s the auditory assault that is the sales rep correctly identifying you as a first-timer who hasn’t the faintest clue about what to buy, and therefore trying to get you to purchase the store’s entire catalogue. At that point, the intoxicating atmosphere of the store as well as the sales rep’s practised patter will have convinced you that you are the second coming of Jimi Hendrix. You will start to feel more comfortable in your surroundings, and start picking guitars off the racks and strumming the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water”. Eventually, you’re going to leave with a guitar that’s way too expensive for a beginner and a false estimation of your own gifts.

Many budding musicians, and I’m just as guilty of this as anybody else, have abandoned their instrument when faced with the reality of the intensive effort it will take to actually play something to which people will enjoy listening.

Mastering an instrument does not come easy. There’s a reason why the good players call music a “discipline” and the average Joes call it a “hobby”. This is not your regular stamp collection or outdoor trek; something that you need to practise for multiple hours on a daily basis, despite its steep learning curve and snail’s pace of progress in the initial stages does not qualify as an avocation. Many budding musicians, and I’m just as guilty of this as anybody else, have abandoned their instrument when faced with the reality of the intensive effort it will take to actually play something to which people will enjoy listening. Ask yourself how many kids do you remember from your school years who were enrolled in music classes, and then cross-check those names to see if any of them stuck to it after it stopped serving as an extra-curricular credit. The drop off rate of musical classes is high enough to rival the most hardcore IITs in the country.

The worst mistake I made after I purchased my first guitar is not accepting my complete musical ineptitude and dropping off like so many others. Instead, I announced the worst sequel after Golmaal Again by buying a bass guitar, since my acoustic six-string wasn’t panning out for me. I think my parents had abandoned any great expectations, because six months later, when I told them I wasn’t going to be continuing my lessons, they already had a buyer lined up to take the instrument off my hands. A normal idiot would have stopped there, but I’m no normal idiot. It took my folks paying for three more months of drumming classes before I finally declared my musical innings, having failed to learn how to play rhythm guitar, lead guitar, bass guitar, and drums – basically every instrument there is in a functioning rock band.

Nowadays, the sight of a person casually picking up an instrument and producing melodic magic with it gets me feeling a little jealous. It’s not just the confidence boost or the inherent coolness that comes with being a musician I’m after (at least, not only those things). Studies have been conducted that show learning an instrument helps maintain the brain’s cognitive function deeper into old age, which means real guitars aren’t only more attractive than my air guitar, they will also prevent the onset of dementia.

So maybe it’s time I realised I owe my long-forgotten musical instruments an apology. Some are lying in a dusty attic somewhere, some were sold off, and others were simply lost somewhere along the way. They might have been scattered to the four winds, but they’re all capable of carrying a tune. All that remains is for me to be able to do the same.

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