Being An Amateur

8:18 pm

My brother and I never really went to any formal classes. My mum tried her hardest to send me for Carnatic Music Singing classes but I was a stubborn kid and she was eventually forced to admit defeat. Our summers were spent in long train journeys to Bangalore, in playing meaningless games with our prodigious circle of friends and in pursuing constant ventures of whiling away time. While most of my friends and cousins complained about how the best part of their day was taken up by Dance lessons or Art classes or some such highly productive activity, I sat around with a smug expression on my face and gave descriptive narratives of the last TaleSpin episode to gullible, cartoon deprived souls.

We somehow managed to learn the things that were really essential or important to us without undergoing any formal training. I don’t know the difference between butterfly stroke and breast stroke but I can swim to save my life. If I attempted to skate on one of those humungous skating rinks (like the one that appears in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Free Falling video) I would probably end up in a hospital but I can put on roller skates or roller blades, maintain my balance and even move around for a while without looking like a spastic. I can sing without initiating homicidal tendencies in the unfortunate lot who end up listening to me. Basically, the over used, yet extremely apt, Jack-of-all-trades and master of none theory has always been applied to provide any sort of justification to curious relatives or arrogant friends.

The only time I tried to do anything constructive was to go for guitar classes when I was thirteen because I thought it would be the coolest thing in the universe to tell people that I could play the guitar. I got bored of learning how to play Christian hymns by the end of two months. The classes weren’t too memorable and I still don’t know how to read music, play scales or anything remotely professional of that sort. But, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference. You can go through your formative, appreciation-thirsty, adolescent life by knowing a couple of basic chords and that’s that.

In different stages of low self-esteem or desperate moments of ennui, I’ve wanted to do different things but the urges have passed with fleeting speeds. Perhaps the only thing that has remained constant all these years, the only thing that I’ve always wanted to learn is how to play the piano. Violins are classy but I didn’t know that when I was six. Guitars are nice but they aren’t very satisfying unless you have a tremendous amount of patience or have John McLaughlin’s genes. I wanted to play the piano. The sort of piano that Elton John played, the piano in November Rain, the piano that appeared in ever rich, palatial house in almost every Bollywood movie that I saw.

Due to sheer laziness or supreme haughtiness, I never did anything about it and as always, owing to the fact that we weren’t a sophisticated, rich family with a piano in our living room, I was forced to make do with poor substitutes. My dad bought me a menial SA-21 when I was nine. It was the sort of keyboard, which had some twenty keys and I don’t even know how many notes that is. The sort of keyboard on which if you try and play with both hands, try to do a Chopin, you see it all end. But I was unfazed and with overwhelming hopes of owning a piano at least by the time I was twenty one, I learned how to play everything I possibly could with one hand. I didn’t know chords or scales but I could play monotonous, yet extremely pleasant sounding tunes. I convinced myself that if I could play Jingle Bells without mistakes then I could play anything.

One night, my dad’s friend invited us over for dinner. Their kids had this huge Yamaha and I was terribly excited that I could finally show off my natural talents. By now, I was certain that I had a 'feel for music'. Just after dinner, when we were waiting for dessert to be served, the older kid decided to give us a performance. The girl was a year older than me and she played a small part of Moonlight Sonata. She really knew her stuff. Right from the first note, struck with both her hands and with just the right amount of confidence, till the small bow that she gave when she was finished. It was as if my entire world collapsed in three minutes of awed spectatorship. The tumult of emotions that I experienced that night still makes me feel a little dizzy. After that, I of course gave up on all my piano playing dreams and the SA-21 was stowed away to the deepest corner of my cupboard, removed in the years to come only to play some horrendous patriotic song, for the occasional Inter-house- group song competition.

One of my favorite episodes of Wonder Years is Episode 7, Season 2 in which Kevin Arnold gives up piano lessons because he thinks that Ronald Hirschmuller plays Pachelbel’s Canon better than him. I watched the episode today for probably the 8th time. In the end, as Kevin watches Ronald playing the piano in his piano teacher Mrs Carples’ house, as he proceeds to cycle in a zigzag way towards the approaching darkness, the older Kevin voice over says a lot of enlightening, characteristically heart breaking things but today I just listened to him with a conditioned, wistful look in my eyes. All I could really hear was Ronald playing Pachbelbel’s Canon, in that perfect way of his, on the piano. In fact, all I could really hear was the piano and suddenly there was nothing that I wanted in the world more than to play that piece. Suddenly the lump in my throat was so over powering that it made me scrimmage through all the endless, piling junk in my cupboard, till I found my decaying SA-21.

I know some things shouldn’t be spoken about. That some things are best realized. But, just because I like maintaining a record of such things, just because, however hard I try, the Entertainment industry always seems to say things in a better, more effective way, I have to make a mention of this conversation. It happens soon after Kevin tells Mrs Carples that he wants to quit his lessons.
‘Mrs Carples: “That’s not the point, who’s better, who’s worse. I mean, that’s not music! That’s not what it is about! Sit down! Sit down. I want you to play something for me. Pachelbel Canon in D major. It’s my final request.”
Kevin sits down and plays the piece and while he’s playing it,
Old Kevin voice over: “All of a sudden, as I started to play, it was like, there was electricity flowing through my veins. Suddenly, I could do no wrong.”
He finishes playing and Mrs Carples says, “There. That’s what music is about.”

The brief moment of panic when you run around all over the house, looking for five batteries to put into your keyboard, the one hour of desperation that you spend rewinding and fast-forwarding the last bit of the episode till Pachelbel Canon in D major becomes an acquired ear worm, the small sigh of relief when you figure that you can finally play the piece. One hand and no chords but you can play it. Without mistakes. That's what music is about.

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