One never knows when the inspiration hits. Maybe listening to a favourite recording or the radio, sometimes watching on television or stage, oftentimes it comes from having a friend or relative who plays. But one day, early or late, the fire to play an instrument is lit and the odyssey begins.
I grew up with my father playing. He started with the guitar, and those are my earliest memories, but we also had an old upright piano for awhile and an organ in our home at different times. I will never forget the day we walked into a music store in Colorado, on one of our cross-country trips, and Dad discovered the dulcimer. He played around on it for the longest time before he figured it out and then started playing tunes on it. Other customers thought he had been playing for years but it was not so. By the time we left the store, he had purchased a kit to make his own dulcimer once we returned home.
Then, one day, after performing bluegrass for a number of years, Dad picked up the mandolin. Oh, he had tried his hand at the banjo and the fiddle as well, but it was the mandolin that captured his heart. I can recall the hours and hours of “noodling” that first weekend he had it, over and over, interrupted run after interrupted run, but by the start of the next work week, he knew how to play it and he was good.
I was not so talented. My main instrument was my voice. But I did try the guitar repeatedly and I have my father’s old guitar, as well as a banjo, two dulcimers, three fiddles, two autoharps, a bodhran, a baby grand…I still even have my tambourine from when I was 11 or 12, a la Partridge Family … all waiting for me to catch on to the mystery of the instruments and learn to play. I did finally figure out how to play the upright bass. I know very well the concert I attended when I saw a talented lady playing the bass and realized that I could probably master that instrument to some degree. Shortly after, we lost our bass player in the band, and by necessity, an acoustic bass was purchased for me. Since we had a gig within a week, I didn’t have much time to learn, and my father imbedded fret markers along the side of my Kay bass, like a guitar. I got onstage with those markers, some flesh-tearing steel strings and a set list that had every chord change listed on our every song, and I got by, but we had to get new strings for the tender “baby butt” fingers that I had bandaged up from that performance and, to this day, I am lost on any other bass that does not have those markings.
My daughter caught the music bug very early. One afternoon, while working in another room, I heard my bass playing disembodied tenderings and went to check it out. There stood my preschool baby, standing beside the instrument that was three times taller than she and, as she noticed my presence, she turned to me and proclaimed, “Only girls play basses, right, Mommy?” Now she has her own guitar and her own piano and a voice like an angel.
I don’t know what calls people to the instruments that become the extensions of their very selves. I don’t know why some musicians master instruments as if they had all the secrets encoded in their DNA and others struggle to become accomplished. I don’t know what part of the spirit calls out to be a musician and I am sometimes surprised when I discover a closeted instrumentalist out in the workaday world. But I do know this. Call these kindred spirits together for a jam and, no matter what the mastery level may be among them, magic happens. There are few strangers at a bluegrass festival. All are joined like family to the common need to pick up wood and strings and make plaintive expressions of the inner soul. So it has always been…. and so it will always be.