A month into fourth grade, my class wandered down to the music room for our lesson and after gathering in a circle on the floor, Mrs. Davidson distributed recorders. After showing us a few things, she stood up and retreated to her harpsichord. While she plucked at the keys, we practiced notes. It was quite possibly the worst sound ever to be produced by human beings.
Twice a week for the duration of the year, I was expected to play the recorder. To be honest, I never really took to the instrument. The sound it produced was forever unpleasant and though the notes were easy to follow, I rarely hit them right. More often than not I blew too hard and screeched out nothing more than a piercing wail that could summon dogs.
One day I decided to clean my recorder. I pulled the plastic pieces apart, piped a rag through the insides and then put it back together. Except I somehow jammed the mouthpiece to the bottom at a weird angle. And no matter what I did to correct the placement, the sections wouldn’t budge. My mom refused to buy me a new one, not that I blame her, so I finished out fourth grade playing the instrument on a slant. In case you were wondering, the sound I produced was no worse with the recorder contorted.
“PJ, pick an instrument to learn,” my mom instructed my first day of fifth grade.
“Piano!” I excitedly exclaimed.
“No, no. I’m not buying a piano. Clashes with the country French decor of the house. Pick something else.”
“No, it won’t fit in my car. Try again. Perhaps something you can carry on your own.”
“Flute it is.”
The following day, we went to a local music store and rented a flute and a week later I had my first lesson. Sitting in Mrs. Lenape’s dank basement, I learned how to put it together, how to clean out the gook that accumulates inside and how to make a sound. With additional lessons came growth, though the pace remained slow as I really had no interest in learning the flute. Translation: I never practiced.
“How are your lessons going?” my mom asked one random night while I helped her make dinner.
“I’m learning how to play Joy to the World,” I answered, as I dropped a green bean stem into the accumulating pile and released the edible part into a colander by the sink.
No Jewish mother, not even one who was raised Catholic and converted to unify her burgeoning family, wants to hear that her daughter is mastering a Christmas Carol. I was given permission to quit the flute the next day.
As much as I disliked the wind instruments I was exposed to in my youth, I’ve always enjoyed music. One of my first purchases was the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie. My collection grew when I won the Purim carnival costume contest dressed as a cherry hamantashen. My prize was a Shaun Cassidy album. I must have kissed the cover fifty times during my walk home. A few months later I came into possession of an Andy Gibb album. Clearly I was well on my way to becoming a music aficionado.
When cassettes were introduced, I became obsessed with making mix tapes. Finally I had a chance to condense my favorite tunes into one spot. Sometimes I recorded music off the radio and other times I lifted songs off of the family record collection. And yes, on more than one occasion, I presented a crush with a personalized tape. It felt like a good idea at the time.
It appears old habits die hard because to this day I make mixes. At the start of every month, I create a new playlist in iTunes. From Just January to Merry March, Absolutely August to So-So September, around sixteen songs are selected to be in the designated collection. Some tunes reappear and others never make the cut. No matter what, the playlist is created, the songs arranged and the music burned.
In the driver’s side door of my car sits the vehicle registration, coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond, and around twelve homemade discs of music. As I worked my way home from dinner the other night, droplets of rain splattering against my windshield, I sampled my collection. It was funny how each disc had a different feel, offering insight into the progression of my mood over time.
When a song is placed properly in a film or play, commercial or television show, the story gains additional dimension and depth. Sure the plot worked fine as it was. But it’s unquestionably stronger when overlapped with the throaty serenade of Nina Simone or the haunting echo of Imogen Heap. Even a tune played during the closing credits of a film can set the mood as names and titles scroll up the screen.
This may sound silly but I like thinking there is a soundtrack to my life. I don’t have a song for everything but I have a lot of it already mapped out. I hear So Much Mine every time I cross the Tappan Zee Bridge. When I curl into a ball of aching heart sadness, Be Be Your Love plays in the background. As I pull myself together, dusting off the dirt and remnants of the past, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough sets my pace. And once I am back to my old sassy self, I’m strutting every which way to the rhythm of To Be Real.
Sure, go ahead and laugh. In fact, I give you permission to point as well. Because if you don’t have a personal soundtrack, if you don’t have certain songs that describe you and define you as the days unfold, you’re living a life I would never want.