When I was six, I loved to sing Edelweiss. I loved the ladder of arpeggio Edelweissing up and Edelweissing down. I loved the hint of melancholy in the downward Edelweiss and the bright burst of cheerfulness in the blossom of snow. I loved that the song professed love for a flower. I loved that the flower stood in for Captain von Trapp’s country. (Other songs I loved included “The Maple Leaf Forever,” “Marching to Pretoria,” and the Marseillaise.) I sang Edelweiss a lot. I did not think I had a beautiful voice. I did not think much about my voice at all. But I did think that what I was singing was beautiful. Until my sister made a crack about how much better it would sound if I weren’t tone deaf. Up till then, I had had no idea I was.
My sister and my father had perfect pitch. They could hear a song and tell you what key it was being played in. In church, my father harmonized, with a deep-seated and apparently unconscious pleasure. At home, he played piano, late at night, with no music — Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven. My brother, Ian, never learned to read music. His ear was so good, all he had to do to play a part perfectly was to hear it once. My other brother figured out how to play Genesis songs on the piano and America songs on the guitar.
At Blythwood School, we took up instruments in Grade Four. I would have chosen trumpet but Ian already played it (Jim had played cello, Sheila violin) so I picked trombone.
My brother’s godfather once gave him the book, Rebecca West: A Celebration, for a birthday or Christmas. I am relatively certain Ian never read it. But I did. And that led me to The Fountain Overflows, a novel I’ve reread probably six or eight times since, and count as one of my favourites. West envisioned it as “a novel of the twentieth century” (there are two sequels) and it features the Aubrey family, whose mother was a brilliant pianist who gave up her career upon marriage to the charismatic journalist, Piers. Narrator Rose and her twin sister Mary are talented pianists also, and their younger brother plays half a dozen instruments with ease. But sister Cordelia, who plays violin, is described as no musician at all. Only a long way through the novel did I understand that Cordelia did not actually play badly. She did not miss notes or rhythms. What their mother and Rose and Mary objected to was not her technical execution, which was accurate, but her musicality, which was broad and treacly.
By dint of practice, I got quite good at the trombone. The Cordelia kind of good, not the Rose and Mary kind of good.
In 1920s my mother’s mother was in England, visiting her brother, Percy. Perce knew people in the theatre and he arranged for Sloanie to sing for the famed voice teacher, Madame Davies, with the thought that the grande dame might take her on for a few lessons. So Sloanie met Madame Davies and sang for her in the drawing room and partway through her song, the double doors to an adjoining room were flung open and out stepped Davies’ son, Ivor Novello, the Edwardian heartthrob composer-movie star (played by Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park) who then and there promised her a part in his next show. Perce had known Sloanie wouldn’t audition for his friend, Novello, so together they had orchestrated the subterfuge. Sloanie was tempted, but back in Toronto, Archie Murdoch had asked her to marry him, and as in The Fountain Overflows, the promise of marriage won out over the promise of a career, in this case, on the London stage. Home Sloanie came.
All through the time I’ve known her, my mother has freely confessed to not being musical, and to the curse of being the non-musical one in a musical family. But in her diaries, kept in the 40s from age thirteen to sixteen, she writes with pride of progress in her music lessons. There are hints that it doesn’t come easily to her, but she clearly wants to think she can play. And then one day, she writes this:
‘To-night I’m in one of those moods where I feel like crying for no reason at all. It started at the dinner table, Mum said that I got along far better in my music when I first started than Judy does. I remarked, teasingly, “Naturally, look who you’re talking about.” Mother said, “But that’s not it at all, Judy is far more musical than you but you had a better teacher.” That struck home. That mother should think that hurts me, she doesn’t think I’ve a spark of music in me. ‘
That is how I felt every time someone asked me to stop practicing my trombone or to play somewhere else. It actually, physically, hurt. In the upper chest. Near the throat. I wanted so badly to be good but knew I was not but wanted too to float, none too conscious, in a sea of delusion.
As I loved Edelweiss, so I loved summer camp, where, naturally, I loved to sing campfire songs. As we got older at summer camp, and morphed into counsellors-in-training and counsellors, my friends began to teach themselves guitar. I wanted to play but had no stamina for it. The contortions it put your fingers into! The pain in the fingertips!
In the late 80s, I went out with a woman who was a drummer in a band called The Magic Binmen in London, Ontario. Her basement apartment was strewn with all sorts of instruments. I borrowed her ukulele, took it home to Kitchener, bought myself a Mel Bay songbook and taught myself to play. You can learn a song on the ukulele in about 30 seconds. Not any song. But a lot of songs. Especially if you’ve ever played any other stringed instrument. Which I hadn’t. My fingers took a small ice age to find each new chord. My practicing would go like, “Come and sit by my side, if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me a-” really really really long pause “-dieu. But re-” pause-pause-pause-pause “-member the red river valley. And the” paaaaaaauuuuuuuse, “cowboy who loved you so true.” It got so the dog leapt up and headed for the farthest closet at the mere sight of me reaching the ukulele. And then the girlfriend dumped me and I had to give the ukulele back.
My next girlfriend, in one of the greatest acts of love the world has known (she was around for those excruciating pauses between chords in “Red River Valley” and “The Old Grey Mare”), bought me a ukulele of my own a few years later, plus the book, “Song Gems for the Ukulele,” which included what I did not know then was the classic, “Ukulele Lady.” “If you like a Ukulele Lady,” the song goes, “Ukulele Lady like-a you.” The dog continued to hightail it.
I found out about the Vancouver Ukulele Circle when I saw Ralph Shaw, King of the Ukulele, playing at the Fringe Festival one year, but I couldn’t make a meeting for the first two years, because I was teaching Tuesday nights. But I got myself on Ralph’s email list, and learned he was teaching through The Moveable Music school, an organization through which small groups of people meet at one another’s houses to learn Swing Guitar or Beginner Banjo. Or Intermediate Ukulele. The lessons are given by professional musicians to groups of about eight. At the end of the set of lessons, there’s a big concert of all the classes.
And so I showed up at an apartment in the West End with my $40 ukulele in the cardboard box it had come in.
“Oh, I see you’ve got the coffin,” Ralph said, about the box. “We’ve all had that, once upon a time.”
I admired a gorgeous instrument lying on the coffee table. It had beautiful mottled wood and was inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I picked it up.
“That’ll be five bucks,” said Bernie. Everyone laughed, but I didn’t get the joke. Turns out it was a Larrivee. A thousand-dollar ukulele.
And then we tuned — and tuned again — and the lesson started and it didn’t matter in the least that I played a forty-dollar ukulele badly while Bernie strummed his Larrivee smartly. I had joined ukulele culture. In ukulele culture, the fact that you play outweighs anything else. There are no ukulele snobs.
Now, yes, in the songbook of the Vancouver Ukulele Circle, is my favourite from age six. Now my Edelweiss blends in with the 25 or 30 voices, sweet, wavery, growly, rich, or, okay, just slightly off, that show up the third Tuesday of every month at Our Town Café. I can only go in the summer, when I’m not teaching, but you can go any month, if you like. Everyone’s welcome.