Monday, January 28, 2013

Giving Your Kids the Gift of Music

Michele Catalano/Forbes

My earliest memory is of when I was two years old, dancing in the living room to “Go Now” by the Moody Blues. It’s no coincidence that almost every memory I have after that is attached to a song, because there was always a song playing in our house. From my first record player which I used to play cardboard 45s of The Archies – cut from the back of cereal boxes – to the enormous stereo/television/liquor cabinet in the living room, to the multi component system that kept growing to the tiny AM/FM portable radio that blared WCBS-FM from the kitchen counter, music was ever present in our house. My father built speakers into the walls of the kitchen so my mother could listen to music while she cooked and did the dishes (hey, it was the early 60s, she wasn’t quite liberated yet) and later there were speakers built into the living room ceiling, speakers outside and yes, even speakers in the bathroom so we could rock out while taking a shower.

The best thing about the music that forms the soundtrack to my childhood is that it is so diverse. It was from my mother’s eclectic taste that I learned to be open to allkinds of music and not limit myself to one genre. The day might start with us eating breakfast to Bobby Darin splish splashing, then dusting the living room to the soundtrack to Hair (where I accidentally learned what sodomy means), reading outside while the Andrews Sisters serenaded us with “Rum and Coca Cola”, then finishing off the evening with Elvis or The Beatles. Later, there would be mom dancing to The Knack or singing along to Dexy’s Midnight Runner right after swinging to Glenn Miller. Then the Pink Floyd, so much Pink Floyd. It wasn’t unusual for the entire block to hear “Dark Side of the Moon” blasting from the windows on a summer day.

I listened to everything she played for us. I listened when she thought I wasn’t listening (hence the sodomy lesson). I memorized the words to every single Broadway show tune. I knew the songs of the 30s, 40s and 50s and sang along even though I was a hippie-wannabe teenager obsessing over the songs of the 60s and 70s. My mother taught me not just how to listen to music but how to fully enjoy it without care about who was watching you enjoy it. I sang along to every cheesy song of the 70s from “Run, Joey, Run” to “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” at the same time I was buying 45s by Kiss, Sweet and Led Zeppelin.

My mother taught me everything I know and love about music. She taught me how to fully listen to music, how to go beyond the melodies and riffs and really hear what was going on between the notes. She raised me with a song constantly playing in my head and my heart. Her excitement about music nurtured my passion for it. Even though there were so many times when she wrinkled her nose at what I was listening to (especially the Doors) or told me to turn the music down (that was my sister listening to Motley Crue, not me!), she always understood my need to constantly have music playing, because that need came from her.

I’d like to think I’ve done the same for my children. That day eleven years ago when my son confessed to feeling bad about River Cuomo’s love life, I knew I was headed in the right direction.

Music is not just to be played. Records, CDS, cassettes, they are not simply objects that hold sound. They are doorways to other lives, to stories and emotions that might be left unexplored if they didn’t come with a melody.

Eleven years ago. I was in the laundry room when I heard my son – nine years old at the time – playing his guitar, trying to replicate the bass line from Weezer’s “Only in Dreams.” I could hear him softly singing along with the music. I stopped what I was doing and walked over to his bedroom door, put my ear against it to get a better listen. Eventually the music stops. I walk away quickly, lest he find me eavesdropping.

He walked into the laundry room, found me innocently folding shirts. I could tell he wanted to talk.

“Mom? That song is really sad. Like, when he says But when we wake, it’s all been erased, and so it seems, only in dreams…” He pauses. Dramatic effect. “It makes me feel sad.”

I smiled despite his obvious emotional state. I smiled because he got it. He got the song. He really listened, the way I taught him to, the way my mother taught me.

Eleven years later, my son still plays the guitar. We have almost nightly conversations about music while I’m cooking dinner. He tells me what he’s into these days (He’s on a Blur/Stone Roses/Oasis kick) and I tell him what I’m listening to. Sometimes we discuss the few bands we have in common and there are times we will argue the merits of our favorite artists and times we find out we have the same favorite Beatles song (“I’m So Tired). And there are definitely times we argue. He still doesn’t get my love of Queens of the Stone Age and I don’t know how he listens to any Van Halen past the David Lee Roth era.

Music is our common ground, the way it was between my mother and myself. When you pass on your passions to your children, there will always be something to help navigate the tricky roads between adolescence and adulthood, a thing you can always rely on to ease a strained conversation.

I wanted my children to learn from me what I learned from my own mother; that life is better with a soundtrack. I think I’ve accomplished at least that much.

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