A year ago, motivated primarily by a long-held desire to play the heartbreaking intros to slow country weepers, I took up the lap steel guitar. Having fooled around with regular guitars for decades and made little progress beyond the usual bluesy noodling, I decided to be more purposeful about this midlife project. So I found a teacher at the neighborhood music school, a jazz ace whose formidable chops and command of music theory more than made up for his lack of familiarity with country music. It was profoundly satisfying to be a student again, after all these years, and I learned a lot. He even got me playing a little jazz, another previously unfulfilled ambition of mine. So far, so good.
Well, the honeymoon’s over: I have an end-of-year recital coming up. It’s been roughly 38 years since my last recital, but I’ve surprised myself by effortlessly rediscovering my ability to conjure up a lowering cloud of dread. I’ve done enough public speaking to have gotten used to the attention of audiences, and this recital, especially, would seem to be no big deal at all: a half-dozen students playing a couple tunes each for a small, forgiving crowd. But there’s something about getting up in front of people with an instrument in my hand that recalls me with a nasty jolt to my 11-year-old self, shrinking from the horror of an approaching performance and wondering exactly how much it would hurt to slam my fingers in a drawer hard enough to convincingly injure myself.
Of course, I could just choose to skip the recital. I’m a grown-up — much older than my teacher, in fact. He can’t make me do it. It’s a safe bet that at this point I can beat up my parents, who are in their eighties, so they can’t make me do it either. The only person who can make me do it is me. So I’m talking myself into going through with it. Here’s what I tell myself.
First, you’re not truly making music until you make it for and with others. It’s sort of like getting married. “ ’Til death to us part” may be an intimate vow, but it takes on its full meaning when you make it in front of family, friends, and whatever legal or divine authorities you recognize. In the same way, you can sit by yourself and play “Misery and Gin” over and over until you’ve got it down cold, but you haven’t really played it until you’ve played it with or for someone else, screw-ups and all.
Second, these days it’s easy to forget, bombarded as we are with invitations to sit back and watch the world go by on a screen, that active embodied experiences make us happy. Human beings like to do things with their bodies that also engage their minds and emotions. That’s why I encourage my kids to navigate the physical world rather than its electronic shadow. That’s why I take a hundred times more pleasure in playing basketball pretty badly than in watching professionals play superlatively well. Similarly, while I love to listen to great musicians, it’s a different and in many ways a deeper pleasure to make even marginally competent music.
I tell myself, finally, that making music is like learning to swim. The world around us is composed in large part of water, and of music. It’s never been easier to sink frictionlessly, bonelessly to the bottom of a near-infinite ocean of songs on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube. But hey, try to dog-paddle a little, even if it means risking your precious dignity.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’