I was born into a family of musical impressarios. My oldest brother sat down at the piano when he was only three years old and delivered a perfect rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” At 3, my son was still pooping into a diaper and the only thing he would have done at the piano was give me a splitting headache.
I’m the least musically talented person in my family. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call myself a musician. The brother who is closest to me in age argues that I “am musical,” which sounds like the spoken equivalent of a participation trophy.
That particular brother and I have a multi-layered relationship regarding music. I have always been in awe of his talent; envious, proud and completely daunted by it.
When he was just 11 years old, he picked up a guitar and musical artistry poured forth. He was able to hear things the rest of us didn’t and could recreate songs note for note. He could rock 2-chord simplicity, making the song “Horse With No Name” sound amazing, but he could also carve out complicated, curving, epic solos.
HOW DID HE DO THIS? It seemed ludicrous for me to continue. His genius was too strong a contrast to my mediocrity and I gave up playing instruments.
That’s what happens when you are born into a family of musical geniuses. To be average is intolerable.
About a year ago, I started playing guitar again. I’m not great; I’m not even good. I’m fair. If I play a song, its recognizable.
It’s common for people over forty to take the “fuck you” pill. I’m heavily medicated on that prescription, and consequently, asked my brother to come over and jam with me.
Have you ever googled “what it’s like to be a musical genius?” There are no first hand accounts. People are loath to speak about themselves this way. But one night when we were jamming, my brother divulged to me the story of his musical genius.
He knew the minute he picked up the guitar that this was some kind of “gift from God.” He almost felt as if he was channeling. A force he couldn’t control took over, guiding his hands to greatness.
And therein lies the rub. He couldn’t control it.
He was in bands most of his life, but none worked out. Most of his childhood friends were incredibly talented musicians, and many went on to pursue careers in music.
But people shied away from playing with him on musical projects because his “gift” was so unpredictable.
He’d be in the middle of an extraordinary guitar solo onstage, the kind that people tout as ‘legendary’ – and then hit a sour note. Or three. He never knew when it would happen nor how to fix it.
He tried to harness his gift and devoted himself to the mindful execution of music. But musical training seemed incompatible with the “gift.” To work in this way would make his head ache to where he could not continue.
At one point he studied guitar with a prominent NYC jazz guitarist, a man who required an audition to even study with. During the audition, his musical voodoo poured out and the jazz guitarist thought him much more advanced than he really was. After a handful of lessons in which my brother had no idea what was going on, he quit.
My brother’s entire life he never discussed his “gift” because he felt that talking about it would jinx it. It took him 40 years to tell me how he felt that day when he picked up a guitar and the heavens opened up.
He’s able to finally talk about it, because these days, he’s no longer afraid of jinxing outside forces. At 50, my brother has decided that he needs to start over and learn music from the ground up.
Yes, it’s grueling and draining, but it’s also feeding his soul, to finally reconcile technique with genius.
I always knew there was something magical about my brother; about all of them, in fact, when it came to music. Like most things, it was terrible and wonderful. They intimidated me, but I was raised with a love for music so profound that without it, life would be monotone. One long, silent birthday celebration with just candles.
To hear that this gift I’ve always envied was in fact a curse, something that has prevented him from pursuing his dreams of playing out in public his entire life, was an epiphany.
We’ve both arrived at our own musical epiphanies; simultaneously, but independent of one another. He’s starting at the beginning. And I’m finally playing again.
I stayed up all night the other night playing guitar.
My hands ached; my face was smeared with fatigue but my heart was buoyant. As the room was bathed in the streaky light of dawn, I finally realized that all that matters is how I feel when I play music, not how I sound to other people.
And that’s MY gift.
How much do you love music?? Do you play?
Doesn’t it suck to have a sibling SO much better than you at something?
Talk to me. I’m listening.