Finding the right key

By Chuck Sigars | Jan 02, 2013

I sat between two women at dinner the other night, both of them engaging, lovely, smart, and articulate, and only one of whom had the questionable taste to marry me.

In situations such as this, the better part of valor for a guy like me, a guy who specializes in examining his trivial life in an attempt to figure out why he can never find a comb when he needs one, is to shut up and eat.

But even given the interesting subjects these women could enlighten me about, including academic politics, religion and the role a glass of wine plays when it comes to grading papers, the dinner conversation turned right into my wheelhouse.

The calendar seemed to be on everyone’s mind, in other words, and in particular the way those pages appear to flip at an unreasonable rate. I could go on about this all night, of course. I’m doing it right now.

The woman to my left, a dean at a major university, mentioned the shock she’d experienced when she realized one of her first students, back in 1978, had turned 50 a couple of years ago.

There were murmurs of recognition around the table at this amazing fact, how it seemed impossible that decades had passed when it only seemed like a few years, although I was tempted to mention that, in fact, I’d been in college in 1978.

I did not resist this temptation, as it turns out. This is because I’m a jerk. Also, I’d pretty much cleaned my plate by then and had nothing else to do.

I understood her sentiment, although a little math can make it easier. I had several professors in college who were only a few years older. It’s not like she was teaching first-graders.

This relative gap between age and authority had been on my mind, anyway. I’d been thinking about Miss Page.

It was her first teaching job, fresh out of college, so let’s call her 21. I was in the eighth grade, making me 13. That eight-year age difference seems insignificant now, almost a rounding error, although I wonder if Miss Page looks back on her first students and imagines that they’re now in their mid-50s. Wine might come in handy.

A 13-year-old boy is a particular sort of human being, and that’s probably being too kind. Having been one and parented another, I have plenty of sympathy for all concerned and more than a couple of ideas on the best way to navigate through this difficult time of life (e.g., boarding school, preferably on another planet).

But place one of these messy creatures into proximity with a young, pretty, kind and charming woman who, in this case, taught music, and an amazing transformation can take place.

A sullen, squeaky, acne-plagued mass of hair and hormones can turn into a solicitous, eager student who would have gladly waxed Miss Page’s car on a daily basis for a smile and a nod. I was seriously infatuated.

I was also intrigued by music. I’ve had a tangential relationship with it over my life, mostly wandering around the edges. I was friends with musicians, married one and fathered another, and I’m well aware of my bystander status.

I could play the guitar, mess around on the piano, and sing reasonably on-key, but I remained a watcher and admirer only.

But one day Miss Page began to demonstrate the solfège (think do-re-mi) using hand signs, a classic sight-reading technique, and suddenly it struck me: There’s a SECRET to music, a code, a way to deconstruct what seemed to me just another art form I wasn’t all that good at into a subject I could, maybe, learn.

I never did, but I never forgot. I’d wander by music-theory classrooms in high school and then college, swaying to the sound of metronomes and dreaming that maybe one day, I’d get around to deciphering the code.

I mentioned this to my daughter recently, as I probably have in the past, and apparently she either got inspired or tired of hearing me talk about it. Under the Christmas tree this year, then, was a college-level AP music theory textbook. Not a simple overview book with a large font and lots of cartoons. A textbook.

“There will be a test,” my daughter said. She means it. I think she figures 40 years is long enough to put something off.

There’s a downside to looking at the calendar too long. Not only does time seem to speed up, but dreams can grow distant. Even little dreams, notions really, minor ideas that never ripen, for lots of reasons.

So I’ve decided 2013 will be my music theory year. A little bit each day, maybe. A minor third here, a perfect fifth there. I don’t want to join a choir, perform a recital, do anything other than learn something I once wanted to learn, but the calendar is a tricky thing.

It will tell you stories of all sorts, accomplishments and regrets, lives led and ones never realized. It’s up to us what we do with it.

I looked up Miss Page a few years ago. She’s an accomplished composer, and a leader of Presbyterian choirs, as my wife is; imagine that.

And imagine this: She inspired me once, as teachers do, to learn something, and now I will. The years have a rhythm and a melody, I like to think, and it’s about time I learned why.

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