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notes on serenading myself

When my back tells me to take a break from gardening and general property maintenance, my favorite thing to do has been to practice some quiet acoustic music. But these days, I have very mixed feelings about music in general.

I won't bore anyone with too much minutia of growing up around musically overbearing adults. Suffice to say that when I was a teenager, my interest in music as more than a very casual hobby was dismissed with the discouraging idea of the stereo-typical hippy commune where no actual work got done because everyone just sat around singing and playing their guitars. The college music department was the last place my mom wanted me husband hunting.

But I was deeply hooked at a very early age. And often frustrated. It started with the living room piano that refused to reveal its logic no matter how many different combinations of notes I tried. But I was only three. My mom's older sister gave me some piano lessons when I was four, taught me the major scales in all twelve keys, bopped me on the head whenever I made mistakes because she did not know I needed glasses, and then she was fired. My mom would play the piano and sing, but she was so loud she scared me and I would run out of the room with my hands over my ears, crying STOP STOP. So, after severely traumatizing my mother and dashing all her hopes of ever having a singing career, my record player dug ruts through a handful of records set at a comfortable volume, and by the time I was old enough to find total escape in after school tv re-runs, I could not stop pumping Hollywood studio soundtracks into my veins. At a comfortable volume.

My parents thought I was just a junky for stupid old tv shows. They seemed not to believe me when I told them I was primarily listening to the music. (After decades as a classroom teacher/zookeeper, I found it quite common for adults to be clueless about how intelligent and sensitive children really are).

My folks were right about the addiction part. I had discovered that show soundtrack composer works, such as those of Johnny Williams for Lost in Space, and those of Leroy Shield for Laurel and Hardy, and The Little Rascals, were totally transporting, could replace any babyish emotion I brought to them with something more senescent. The sad music transported my isolated sadness into one great global hug of consolation and however sad, I no longer felt alone in it. The happy music shrunk my over-sized feet. And then there was the music that words like sad or happy could not describe. That music gave my life a story and meaning too sacred to put into words. That was my sugar-coated brain on music, and according to current scientific theory, on lots and lots of endogenous bliss molecules.

Upon leaving home for good, I plunged myself into all things music, short of music school or classes because it was too late for me to make anything professional or student-loan-default out of it. Every day after work as an English teacher/prison guard, a perennial social misfit transplanting myself across state lines and marital boundaries every few years (an Aspergers story for another time), usually completely on my own and agonizingly slowly, wincing at the sound of my own singing voice, I taught myself some basic composition theory on keyboard and synthesizer, electric bass, penny whistle, piano and button accordion, ukulele, and finally harmonica, across the first four decades of my adult life, a few years here and there playing in little groups and blowing a fair amount of money on non-pro quality instruments, never truly enjoying the way I sounded to myself.

But I was always on the verge of something bigger. I ascended the hills of harmony, tension, cadence, and resolve in my theoretical journey, racing through practice sessions down the other side of each hill, always looking forward to the view from the next hilltop. I kept telling myself that some day, at the end of this journey, my brain would leave off and my hands would take over.

Along the way, I met lots of other musical people who either secretly or not so secretly wished that their music would earn them a decent living. Some were a good bit better performers than I was, but they were always more delusional than I was about the value of what they had to offer society. And when I finally mustered the courage to celebrate my own musical mediocrity by going public with my heart out front, the technique police lined up for my firing squad. The most used feature of my Youtube channel control panel became how to disable public comments.

So, these days, I feel there is something inherently decadent about music, and I can even understand why some religions forbid it. This feeling does not stop me from my daily private noodling with folk instruments and digital players and recorders, but I distrust it all because I know it can totally monopolize my time to the point of no constructive output and a low blood sugar migraine.

And more and more in my culture, so-called music tends to mask environmental sounds that otherwise indicate the relative safety and wholesomeness of an area, the sounds of a well-balanced ecosystem, or of just my own breath.

Music in my culture tends also to drown out any face to face communication or even personal thought. And it can and IS used as a weapon to disable or completely displace an enemy. How would the Gyuto monks like it if they knew what the ATF was doing with their chants?

Not even our state and national parks are safe havens from the cacophony of commerce emanating from the pocket of every human visitor. And amphitheaters for peddling live loudness as if it were art keep popping up right next to long established peace and quiet. I dismay at how often I am forced to take refuge within a pair of ear-plugs--protection from cheap power tools, or ear buds--liberation from music not to my taste. I have to stuff my ears to both use and shop for what I buy at Home Depot.

After having read books such as Jonathan Goldman's Healing Sounds, and Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, I am still not at all sure the use of music to comfort, heal, entertain, or otherwise positively motivate can compensate for the damage it can do, both intentionally and unintentionally. And what about all the people who will never reach their aspired level of mastery no matter how much they try because they have a poor ear, poor memory, poor muscle tone, or poor bank account?

I feel this way now after five decades of yearning to master an instrument and regularly perform with people for people, ultimately failing for lack of enough muscle (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or some related connective tissue disorder) and money. And I have developed bouts of severe hyperacusis, as many highly musical people do, right around the same time I have begun suspecting music as a bad path to follow. But in spite of my suspicions, I still allow myself to indulge in random improvisation/getting lost and simple melody recognition on two potentially super quiet and inexpensive folk instruments, harmonica and kalimba. I've been addicted to daily listening and playing since even before I first left home, like a heroin addict chasing the progressively more elusive high.

One begrudgingly happy outcome is my increased appreciation for bird, insect, and amphibian song. I have become aware of the concept of BIOPHONY, and personally active in monitoring, documenting, and harmonizing with the ambient sounds of my neighborhood. I thus question the value and necessity of every humanly generated sound I hear around me, car doors slamming and horns beeping, intentionally loud vehicular exhaust systems, outdoor stereo systems, poorly muffled power tools of all types, frightened or lonely dogs barking and howling, boom cars, and beeping glucose meters.

I try to acknowledge all the wildlife generated sounds. Some of those sounds alert me to squirrels damaging my garden plants. Some of those sounds, like the woodpeckers pecking and laughing, or the owls calling, or the wrens and cardinals and chickadees and titmice all fussing at the hawks and crows, alert me to the degree of healthy biodiversity of my surroundings. But some people would not only censor these natural sounds, they would censor my talking in defense of them. These people are all too quick to cry freedom of speech if anyone asks them to tone down their own noisiness, all the way to the Florida State Supreme Court.

Maybe these people in their childhoods were shut up way too often by overbearing adults. You know, with the be-seen-and-not-heard rule. As a retired classroom teacher/serving wench, I found that reaching these noisy people means giving them adequate voice, and speaking both softly and encouragingly to them.

As I write this, I would prefer to be practicing harmonica, or even more, weeding my garden, but the mosquitoes are vicious and I let the dishes pile up in the sink because I seek partners in the cause for enough quiet that everyone can both hear and sing.

And, I wonder who else out there has figured out the ultimately unsatisfying nature of music as a hobby, of the non-stop show of parlor tricks on an instrument, the spell-bindingly mysterious riff by a professional that once scrubbed of magic merely leads to the next brain teaser and the next, and yet another instrument purchase. And I wonder who else has been warned by a relative that music and emotional problems going hand in hand seems to run in the family, music and dopamine.

Besides religiously collecting native plants, I also collect melodies to practice with complete disdain for tradition on harmonica in solitary confinement. Here is my generator for a random melody from my practice list, so I do not get dependent on any particular order (more asterisks denote more difficulty):

Here is the data array that helps generate my random selection from the button above:
[0]="**Sandy River Belle reel paddy draw 2";
[1]="**Garrett Barrys jig paddy draw 4";
[2]="*Hector the Hero waltz standard or paddy blow 4";
[3]="*Lilting Banshee jig paddy blow 2";
[4]="*Midnight on the Water waltz standard or paddy blow 5";
[5]="*Eliz Kellys Delight slip jig standard draw 5 or **paddy blow 3";
[6]="*Seamus Ennis Jig standard or paddy blow 5";
[7]="*Foggy Foggy dew barn dance paddy blow 5";
[8]="*South Wind waltz paddy blow 5";
[9]="**Road to Spencer reel standard or paddy draw 4";
[10]="*Rose in the Heather jig paddy blow 4";
[11]="*Soldiers Joy reel standard or paddy blow 7";
[12]="***Peacocks Feathers hornpipe chrom D4 blow 7";
[13]="**Blackberry Blossom reel paddy blow 4";
[14]="*Grimstock waltz standard or paddy blow 6";
[15]="**Off to California hornpipe standard or paddy blow 4";
[16]="**Christy Barrys set jigs paddy blow 4";
[17]="*Hardiman the fiddler slip jig paddy draw 4";
[18]="***(easiest on a zirkular) Hills of Coore hornpipe paddy draw 2";
[19]="**Inisheer waltz paddy draw 2 or *four-key blow 1";
[20]="**Lark on the Strand jig paddy draw 4";
[21]="*Little Field of Barley air paddy blow 4";
[22]="*Lord Inchiquin waltz standard blow 6 or paddy draw 2";
[23]="*My Darling Asleep jig standard or paddy blow 9";
[24]="*Osullivans March paddy draw 2";
[25]="*Planxty Hewlett waltz standard or paddy blow 6";
[26]="*Tar Road to Sligo jig standard or paddy blow 8";
[27]="*Atholl Highlanders jig standard or paddy blow 6";
[28]="*Lark in the Morning jig paddy blow 6";
[29]="**March of the King of Laois paddy draw 4";
[30]="*Leroy Shield In My Canoe waltz paddy blow 5";
[31]="Banish Misfortune jig bebop blow 6";
[32]="Banshees Wail over Mangle Pit jig bebop draw 3";
[33]="Tchaikovsky the Nutcracker Arabian Dance chrom D4 blow 5 ";
[34]="Ceili Bandit hornpipe bebop draw 4";
[35]="Da Full and New Rigged Ships jig/reel chrom D4 blow 7";
[36]="**Danny Abs Slide paddy blow 4";
[37]="Down the Back Lane jig bebop draw 6";
[38]="Fairy Tune air bebop blow 10";
[39]="fFirst of May hornpipe bebop draw 2";
[40]="Garden of Butterflies hornpipe bebop";
[41]="Garden of Daisies hornpipe bebop blow 7";
[42]="Nino Rota Godfather waltz chrom D4 draw 4";
[43]="*Billy Mahoneys polka paddy blow 6";
[44]="Humours of Ballyloughlan jig bebop blow 4";
[45]="Joe Scurfields hornpipe chrom D4 blow 7";
[46]="King of the Fairies long dance bebop blow 1";
[47]="Little Heathy Hill long dance bebop draw 3 or 7";
[48]="John Barry Midnight Cowboy waltz chrom Eb4 draw 6";
[49]="Month of January air, without bending: chrom D4 draw 6 or chrom Eb blow 6 to play in A mixolydian, with bending: bebop D4 bend draw 6";
[50]="Night Porter waltz chrom Eb4 draw 4";
[51]="Nordic mystery tune chrom draw 6";
[52]="Old Bush reel bebop blow 4";
[53]="Dave Brubeck Take Five 5/4 chrom";
[54]="The Conformist waltz F3 four-key blow 5";
[55]="**Thirty Year Jig standard or paddy blow 4";
[56]="Kitty Will You Come Down to Limerick jig bebop draw 2";
[57]="*Alan Silvestri Clan of the Cave Bear standard or paddy draw 5";
[58]="Riverside Aby waltz bebop draw 6";
[59]="Brian Eno and Harold Budd the Pearl F3 four-key draw 2";
[60]="Leroy Shield the Good Old Days bebop blow 2";
[61]="Brian Eno Signals F dorian zirkular";
[62]="Leroy Shield Teeter Totter hornpipe chrom D4 draw 9";
[63]="Carlos Nakai Song for Grandfather paddy A3 blow 3";
[64]="*Farther Along paddy blow 5";
[65]="*Waltzing Matilda paddy blow 5";
[66]="**Red River Valley standard or paddy blow 6";

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seydel harmonica collection