Playing . . . in Time

By Jeffery Cohen

I come from a musical family. Although none of us really played an instrument of any kind, my father claimed to be some kind of virtuoso on the violin, having supposedly taken lessons in his youth. And if anyone questioned it, he’d climb up to our dusty attic to retrieve a beat up old fiddle with one string that he claimed was a copy of a Stradivarius.

“Why don’t you play us a tune?” I’d ask.

“Now how am I going to play anything with just one string?” He’d shrug. “But if I had just a few more strings, I’d play you a rhapsody that would bring tears to your eyes.” I already had tears in my eyes…from laughter.

Music actually did fill our house every Friday night. After my mother cleared the dinner dishes away, my folks would sit down at the kitchen table with my brothers and me and begin to reminisce about the good old days. Then my Dad would start singing a few bars of a song he’d learned while riding boxcars around the country. “I’d give up a palace if I were a king, it’s more than a palace, it’s my everything,” he’d sing out. Then he’d smile at my mother and croon. “There’s a queen waiting there, with a silvery crown, in Shanty, in old Shanty town.” Though my father never had what you would call a great voice, he made up for it with loads of heart.

My mother, on the other hand, had a sweet sound, and would answer with, “When I fall in love, it will be forever,” and finish with, “And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too, is when I’ll fall in love with you.” For the next two hours they would dig up songs from bygone years. “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Me and My Shadow,” “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” “Over the Rainbow.” They’d cover popular hits from the ‘20s on up with my brothers and me chiming in on tunes that were written long before we were born. The evening would always end the same way. Mom and Dad joining together to sing, “You always hurt the one you love.” “So if I broke your heart last night…” Their eyes would meet. “It’s because I love you most of all.”

One Friday evening I decided to liven things up by accompanying the vocals with a musical instrument – the kazoo. As I began to buzz out the melody, my Dad just shook his head. “Why don’t you give a real instrument a try, like the violin?” And with that he headed up to the old attic. I scratched around on that one string for a couple of days before deciding the violin was not for doe-re-me. But what was, I wondered?

I had watched Jerry Lee Lewis bang away on the keyboard as he rocked and rolled. I studied Fats Domino’s fingers tickle the ivories playing “‘Blueberry Hill,” and dreamed of following in their footsteps. And then there was Liberace, the master of  glitz, adorned in sequins, sitting at the keyboard of a Grand piano, a gold chandelier on its top. I imagined myself up there, an audience nodding with approval as they wildly applauded me. “How about if I learn to play the piano?” I asked my Dad as my bow screeched across that lone string.

“Piano? There are eighty-eight keys on a piano. You can’t even master one string on the violin!”

“I could take lessons,” I said.

“Do you know how much lessons cost? Do you have any idea how much a piano costs?” my father asked. By the way he was shaking his head, I guessed it was far more than we could afford. “It costs a fortune just to move a piano, let alone buy one!” he added. I realized that hoping for a piano was like wishing on a star, so I decided to lower my expectations. I’d settle for something simpler – a trumpet. Three valves to press down and that was it. Simple enough to learn and I could get one on loan from my school. Unfortunately, half of the kids in my class had the same idea. By the time I’d made my request to the music department, all the trumpets had been given out. I had to settle for the only horn that was left. A trombone.

Practice as I might, I may have been one of the worst trombone players my school had ever had. I may have been the worst trombone player the world had ever heard. So, upon my music teacher’s request – more like his begging me to leave as he held his hands over his ears, I turned in my horn.

Years later, fearing that my brother might decide to play the trombone, or worse, the piano, my parents bought him the trumpet that he asked for. My brother loved its smooth lines, its golden shine, but he never quite got the hang of playing it. I think he polished that thing far more than he ever practiced on it. Every once in a while I’d pick up that brassy horn and blurt out “Taps” or “Reveille” before my brother would snatch it back, complaining that I was getting finger prints all over the thing. In the years that followed, my musical life amounted to nothing more than strumming an old guitar during the folk music revival, but I continued to marvel at TV performances of Van Cliburn’s classical magic or Dave Brubeck jazzing through “Take Five.” Whenever I was anywhere near a piano, I plunked around on random keys, but pretty much gave up on any ideas of ever really learning to play.

A couple of years ago, I was out for a walk and noticed an electronic keyboard box on top of a pile of trash. Although I was pretty certain that it was empty, I decided to take a peek. There inside was a Yamaha keyboard. I smiled at the possibility that it still might work. Who would throw out a perfectly good instrument? I said to myself, but I decided to cart it home anyway. What did I have to lose? I unpacked it, plugged it in and, to my astonishment, it played perfectly! I started right in, experimenting with the keys. Almost instantly, I began to feel a certain rhythm. After just a few days I was able to figure out simple tunes. I practiced regularly, overjoyed with the sounds I was creating. The more I played, the better I got. After a while, my fingers just somehow instinctively began to find the right keys. One day a friend who was a child protégé overheard me play. “Interesting,” she said. “You seem to have perfect pitch. You play by ear, don’t you?”

“And all this time I thought I was using my fingers.” I grinned, but I guess she was right. I could pretty much pick out almost any song that I’d heard. I started sitting down at pianos wherever I could find one. Last week I discovered a grand piano in a local church and got permission to practice on it. And so, I began to play. The sound was sweet, the acoustics wonderful. As I went from one song to the next, I hadn’t noticed that people began to wander in and sit in the pews. Finishing a string of tunes, I looked at my watch and realized it was time I should be getting home. As I stood, I heard applause. I turned and found a couple of dozen people clapping and nodding with approval. One woman in front smiled and said, “Can you play just one more?”

I sat back down and played an old familiar song. “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. When you wish upon a star…your dreams come true.”

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen

    Jeffery Cohen

    Freelance writer and newspaper columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Women’s’ Keats Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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3 Responses to “Playing . . . in Time”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Love this story and your tenacity to play by ear.
    Your writing style and stories are superb.

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    Jeffrey you have such a way with words, and this essay illustrates your ability to draw the reader in. Wonderful story.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    The ‘old one stringed fiddle/Stradivarius ‘—that was great. Hurray for your persistence and love of music!!

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