Author: Daniel, Bert

For Whom the Bell Tolls

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." (John Donne)

A few years ago I wrote a column here called the Eight Year Rule. The premise revolved around an observation that I had made as a kid from listening to my friends play music. Often I'd be impressed by the unexpected musical talent of an acquaintance. And when I asked how long they had been playing, the answer was always eight years. I concluded that someday, assuming I could stick to an instrument for as long as eight years, maybe I could be good too.

Thus was born the Eight Year Rule. I've since seen some good independent justification for the concept. People talk about ten thousand hours of practice as a standard for true proficiency on a musical instrument. The pop neurologist, Oliver Sacks has touched on the subject as well. But is the Eight Year Rule actually true?

My, how time flies! It seems like only yesterday when a medium size package arrived at my doorstep while I was at work. The package attracted some curious stares and as soon as I got inside the door of our house, my two kids started peppering me with questions about the contents of the mysterious box: "What is it Daddy?", "What is it?", "Is it something for ME?"

"I think that's my new mandolin", was all I said. "No, really", they said. "What is it?"

I opened up the package and showed them my brand new instrument. Until now, I had said nothing about my crazy idea to put the Eight Year Rule to the test. But in the preceding weeks, I had been doing some furious internet research during my lunch hour. I had weighed various pros and cons and then made a bold move. But the whole thing had been in secret. Even my wife Joyce didn't know about it.

Maybe it shouldn't have come as such a total surprise to the others. Six year old Juliet and her three year old brother had actually given me the idea in the first place. Juliet had been taking some music lessons on piano and Ethan was getting ready to start violin. Sometimes, after listening to my daughter practice, I'd pick up her small guitar and noodle around a bit, remembering how fond I had been of strumming the guitar when I was a kid.

While I was growing up, our family didn't own a guitar, but my best friend GP had a sister who had a four string guitar. I spent a lot of time over at the Callison's house because, with six kids in their family, there were always plenty of folks to play with. And I had a crush on Rebecca. She was a year older than I was, but she was just as nice as she was pretty. And when Rebecca took the time to show me all the chords to a song from a Walt Disney movie (starring Hayley Mills), it was heaven for me. "Let's get together yeah, yeah, yeah. Why don't you and I combine? Let's get together yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll have a swingin' time."

In some ways, my childhood musical experience was limited. From the standpoint of playing a musical instrument, it certainly was. Other than Rebecca's guitar lesson, I only took a few piano lessons as a ten year old and played clarinet in the junior high band. But my overall musical experience was very rich indeed. My mother studied voice at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, and some of my earliest memories were of Momma singing beautiful Italian arias around our house. She took us to concerts, even a couple in Atlanta where her music school roommate had a part in a real Metropolitan Opera production. I collected vinyl LPs for my phonograph and I listened to all sorts of music on the radio. I appreciated music greatly. I just couldn't play it worth a darn.

So for the better part of my life I listened to other peoples' music. I did buy a second hand electric bass with guitar amp once. And I fooled around on it for a while, but I never got very far. Try to lay down a perfect bass line like Stanley Clarke. What's the use? It's too hard for the average person. Just take the easy route. Put on a Santana record and listen to some really good music. You'll never sound like that anyway. I finally gave up and sold my bass.

Twenty years went by and I never picked up another instrument. Oh, maybe every now and then I'd try to play a few fondly remembered tunes if I came across a piano somewhere. But during that period of time, music went through my soul a lot. And it rarely came from my soul.

So, when I decided to take up music again at the age of almost fifty, I resolved to go "whole hog". This time I'd put my heart and soul into it and see where it could take me! You have to do this, I told myself. And from the time that I opened that mysterious package, I have practiced like mad. Videos, books, a few private lessons. I've literally driven my family crazy with my incessant preparation. I even bought a backpacker mandolin so that I could cram in more practice time no matter where I happened to be. When I felt my proficiency was almost good enough, I tried jamming with others and I went to a few music camps. Festivals, new friends, joining my first band. Each step in the journey became a new thrill.

But it's been eight years now. The bell tolls. Am I actually any good now after all that effort? Is the Eight Year Rule valid? Well, certainly not like I thought it would be. Listen to the average jammer at Grass Valley this year and then listen to me. You'd probably say I'm pretty average, but only because you're nice. Let's face it. The CBA parking lot pickers can sometimes give the main stage a run for its money. I still have a very long way to go after eight years of toil. The Eight Year Rule may not hold for me but, if I never got any better than I was at year four, would I still enjoy playing? You bet!

And in a way, I think the Eight Year Rule actually does hold true. What if I ask myself this question: "Back in those days when you first formulated the Eight Year Rule, if you had heard a friend play then, at the level you play now, would you have thought they were good?" I'll bet I would have.

We all need to keep picking and trying to get better. And if we have never played an instrument, yet we love the music that instrument can make, we need to start now. I don't think it matters if your brain is not "formative". Sure it would have been better if you had started an instrument when your brain was developing, but it is never too late if you have the interest. I once had a music camp classmate who started mandolin when he was seventy. And he was good after (you guessed it) eight years! Keep picking and pick solid. Be it eight years or eight years more, this music playing thing is more fun than a barrel of banjo pickers.

Posted:  2/12/2012

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