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Saturday, January 29th, 2011 23:59

Inasmuch as I've always thought it'd be neat to play a musical instrument, for the longest time I considered it to be out of reach -- something that only "cool kids" did. I was a computer geek, so being good with technology was my lot in life, and making music wasn't. I toyed with the idea of picking up an instrument for years, and of course never did.

Something twigged when I went to the Writing About Testing conference this past summer, though. Chris McMahon, the organizer of the conference, played bass professionally for years, and puts together a jazz night every Thursday. It's about as informal as you get -- a few friends getting together in someone's house to play some jazz standards. As it turns out, a couple of the WAT attendees are accomplished musicians in their own right, and we were treated to a fantastic show.

I thought to myself -- here are a bunch of largely amateur musicians who throw together an amazing jam session every week. This is totally something I want to get into. I have no idea how to assemble it here in the Sault, but still.

This was also my first real insight into the workings of jazz. It came across to me as "musician's music" -- there's a library of standards that everyone's more or less familiar with, everyone gets a turn to solo, and improv is the name of the game. It's music for those who enjoy not just playing music, but creating music. =)

When it came down to thinking about I might like to play...well, I've always liked percussion, and I've been drumming on desks, my lap, whatever I could get my hands onto. as long as I can remember. Drum kit jumps out as something I could try, but...while I understand why the drum kit is so popular -- it's incredibly versatile and finds a place in any genre of music -- it's also incredibly common, and I want to do something different. I've been completely fascinated with timbales ever since I learned of their existence, and would love to pick up a set. Unlike, say, rock music, though, I have practially no familiarity with the different styles of latin music. There's also the non-trivial problem that Sault Ste Marie isn't exactly a hotbed of Música Cubana either.

The other thing was that I'd like to pick up pick up something that can carry a melody. I've adored the sound of the bassoon since the age of about five, when I first heard Peter and the Wolf, but they run thousands of dollars just for a student model that isn't even made of wood. Strings? Cello and Double bass are amazing, but part of the point of this exercise was to be able to jam with the folks I might meet up with while travelling, and there's no way in hell I'm trusting a musical instrument to the tender mercies of an airline's baggage handling. Violin is wonderful but can get a bit shrill -- I'm looking to play something a bit lower, and frankly, I'd rather that beautiful singing E string be next to someone else's head rather than my own. What about viola? A fifth lower than a violin, it's got a deeper, darker sound; it fits in a reasonable-sized case, and while there's not as huge a repertoire for it, violists are not that common a bunch. While on the surface it doesn't seem like an instrument you'd find outside of the classical setting, I coincidentally stumbled across the music of Basia Bulat, whose backing band includes Allison Stewart on viola:

I wondered about finding an instrument that I could play solo, on a concert stage, in a pub, or just in the living room with a few friends, and this tipped me off that I might have stumbled across one with that potential.

As it turns out, all this speculation on which instrument to take up was cut short by my family buying me viola lessons for Christmas. This coming Tuesday will be my fourth lesson, and while I can't say that I'm making anything like a pleasing sound yet, I'm improving every week, and it's really cool to not just be able to hear a note that you've made, but to be able to feel it and see it as you draw the bow across the strings.

We'll see how things pan out. =) My goal right now is to not suck, which is a loftier goal than it sounds. "Not sucking" -- a notion I also got from Chris -- is roughly defined as "if you hear a tune in your head, you can play it on your instrument", and do so without stumbling or hesitation. Being able to play on a stage with a symphony or a bunch of folk musicians might one day be nice, but I'll be happy if I can get to a point where I can express music through the viola as fluently as I can type words on a keyboard.


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