© 2021 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
For many years, I've said, "There is nothing really important in life, but if there was something, it would be music!"
Although I am musical, I do not play any instrument, but if I were marooned on a dessert island with an instrument, I'm sure I'd eventually figure out how to get it to make some pleasurable sounds.
In this essay, I'll talk about music during my formative years, how I got my son into music, and the ways I experience music. But before I begin, off the top of your head, write down the names of 10 of your favorite singers/performers and/or musical pieces.
My Early Exposure
My earliest memories of music go back to 1961, when I was seven years old. We lived on a farm in rural South Australia (SA), 30 miles from the county seat, Loxton. In our kitchen, on top of the fridge, we had a battery-powered AM wireless (radio, that is) with a circular clear-plastic disk with a red arrow that we used to rotate to select a station. We were located 150 miles from the state capital, and the federal government was very much involved in radio (and later TV) broadcasting via the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), which relayed programs to antennae in rural areas like mine. [Like in the UK, one had to pay an annual wireless license for the privilege of receiving radio (and later, TV). This was discontinued in 1974.]
All AM radio stations in SA had a 3-character designation, 5xx. In my region, the commercial station was (and still is) 5RM, which my Mom (AU: Mum) disliked intensely "because it didn't play real music, just that terrible rock-and-roll!" It mostly broadcast music with some news and sports. Being commercial, it had advertising breaks. The ABC made available 5MV, which being government funded, had no commercials. It carried news and current-affairs programs, agricultural market reports, with little, if any, music. I listened to it after school for several kid's programs whose serialized stories had some music and sound effects.
Although we heard and knew a lot of songs by American singers, by then, Australia had a strong and growing music industry of its own, in both pop and country (among other) genres. However, it wasn't until many years later I learned that lots of the hit records made by Aussies back then were in fact covers of songs that were previously made popular by American (or British) singers. [BTW, I didn't come across the word "cover" used in this context until I moved to the US in 1979.]
Our first record player was a battery powered model made by Kriesler that sat on top of a cabinet in the lounge room. It played at speeds of 33⅓, 45, and 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). It even had a stacker, which allowed multiple records to be loaded. At that time, the more up-scale households were buying radiograms, which were as much furniture pieces as music machines.
Mom played organ, mouth organ, accordion, and acoustic guitar (sometimes with steel strings). However, I don't think she ever had any formal lessons. As she played the organ in our church, she practiced that each week at home. However, she only played the other instruments on rare occasions, and then only at parties. When we lived in Loxton, Mom sang in the church choir. [To this day, I like a lot of choral music, and I have fond memories of hearing youth choirs sing a capella outside Notre Dame in Paris, and attending an evening concert in a cathedral in Budapest, Hungary, where a woman gave a moving rendition of Ave Maria. I also like listening to Welsh men's choirs.]
In winter, my rural community participated in sports matches against neighboring towns, and about once a month, the home team would host a community dance and supper (a light snack late at night). The dance band consisted of a piano, double bass, and drums.
Some small exposure to music appreciation was provided to rural students by the ABC, which distributed records containing episodes of a program called "Let's Join in!"
When we lived 30 miles from town, two of my siblings boarded in town from Monday through Friday, and each had private piano lessons for a term or two, although I think they viewed that as a form of punishment! In any event, neither continued. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to have such lessons.
At 15, I bought a stereo record player with twin speakers. When I left home and started work at 16, I took it with me, but it was a few years before I could afford to actually buy many records, and then only singles. [Some trivia: As I discovered in the US, 45-rpm records had a center hole about 1" (2.5 cm) across. In Australia, the hole was the same size as for a 33⅓. My first record player came with a plastic insert that I never knew what to do with. As I discovered years later, it was to put inside the large hole of a US-distributed 45 record, so it could be played on an Aussie player!]
I clearly remember when cassette tape was introduced in Australia in the early 1970s. This allowed portable recording units and recording from records. Unlike the US, in Australia the 8-track tape format was not popular.
Australia's second attempt to introduce FM radio came in 1975, but broadcasting licenses were strictly controlled. The only (ABC) station I had access to mostly played classical music, much of which was not my cup of tea!
My home state's capital, Adelaide, where I lived for 10 years, is a progressive city, and very arts oriented, hosting an annual international Festival of Arts. In 1976, it converted a major downtown street to a pedestrian mall, which gave rise to buskers (street musicians and performers, that is). [I am a great fan of street musicians, and I usually stop to listen, chat, and put some coins in their collection box.]
My Top-10 Songs/Singers Right Now!
Here are some favorites I thought of just this minute:
- "Georgia on my Mind" by Ray Charles
- "Crazy" by Patsy Cline
- Anything from Susan Boyle's album "I Dreamed a Dream"
- Something by Willy Nelson
- "Hotel California" by the Eagles
- Carol King's album "Tapestry"
- "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen and any other song from his album "Live in London"
- A Welsh men's choir
- Roy Orbison and "Oh, Pretty Woman"
- Etta James and "At Last"
Of course, if you ask me again tomorrow, I'll have a completely different list!
Playing Music Through My Son
With regards to parenting, there were two things to which I vowed to expose my children, and one of those was music. (The other was foreign languages.) I had one child, a son, Scott. He got a steady dose of music from radio, TV, recordings, and live performances from Day 1. As mentioned in my September 2010 post, "Making Allowances," from an early age, he had a cassette player to play prerecorded tapes of books, music, and games, to entertain himself while traveling. He was also an uninhibited performer!
By age six, he was tall enough to be able to sit at a piano, and he started piano lessons with Mrs. S for 30 minutes each week. I bought him a 5-octave electric keyboard to practice at home. He was an enthusiastic learner and willingly practiced.
After a year or so of lessons, we spent Christmas on the Netherlands Antilles island of Saba. One day, as we were walking past a small church, we heard organ music, so we went inside and sat quietly in a pew. An older man was getting to know the new electronic organ that had recently been installed, and once he noticed us, he stopped to chat. Being gregarious, Scott very quickly announced that he too played keyboards and his had an organ mode. So, the man invited Scott to sit with him on the seat to watch him use the keyboard, stops, and foot pedals. Scott then offered to give the man a lesson, to which the man readily agreed. Scott played a short piece, the man tried it a few times, and Scott announced that the man did quite a good job, and suggested he practice a few times each week. (Scott sounded exactly like his own teacher when she was speaking to him!) Scott's student was very gracious, and when we parted company, we invited the man to come to lunch a few days later. He accepted. When he joined us again, he gave Scott a nice music theory book, and it was then that we discovered he was a retired music teacher!
When Scott was eight, we traveled to Russia, stopping in Finland on the way. As was often the case when we traveled, he'd come across an "unattended" piano, which, of course, was just begging to played! On this day, he found one in a public room at a small hotel at which we were staying, and he sat down and started to play from memory. After playing a few pieces, when he stopped, people clapped, and he turned around to find he was in the hotel dining room and a group of tourists had arrived for lunch while he was engrossed in his playing. After his initial embarrassment, he enjoyed the attention and learned the valuable lesson of music as a means of international communication. (His elderly Finnish audience didn't speak English!)
When Scott was in 6th grade, he joined his school's chorus. That year, the county formed an All-County chorus made up of 600 voices, and his was one of them. For some weeks, they practiced in small and then larger groups, and on the day before the public performance, they rehearsed as one group for the first time with a professional pianist and conductor. The end product was exceptional!
After some years of lessons with Mrs. S, it was time for a change in teaching approach, and Scott moved on to Mrs. M, who was a concert pianist. She had a baby grand piano in her house, and that's what she used for teaching lessons. Each year, she hosted a concert for the families of her students, and each student performed a solo piece, and some performed duets with her. By then, I'd gotten Scott a new keyboard, so he had more octaves.
By the middle of high school (to which he had a 40-minute commute, each way), he had so much homework that he discontinued music lessons. However, he kept on playing, and I especially enjoyed occasional private concerts with him playing various tunes by Enya, Billy Joel, and Eton John, among others.
Scott now has a 6-year-old daughter, and he's passing his love of music on to her.
My Mainstream Musical Tastes
I like a wide range of musical styles, but the one I prefer today depends on my mood today! And it also depends on whether the music will be in the background and won't disrupt my foreground task, or whether I'm actually listening to the music.
I can be quite at home listening to rock and roll, some country, certain kinds of jazz, some blues, easy listening, folk, light classical, baroque, and even very light opera, especially of the comic kind produced by Gilbert and Sullivan. [Regarding G&S, I'm happy to admit that 45 years after the fact, I can still sing the words to a TV commercial for a used-car yard in Adelaide, that were set to the music of HMS Pinafore. They included the following, "He fiddled with the steering so very hard that he soon became the owner of a used car yard."]
Live Musical Performances
I attended only a couple of live concerts in my youth, one of which was the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Once I lived in the US, I'd occasionally pass through Las Vegas on a business or personal trip. Over the years, I saw the following acts there: The Righteous Brothers, Barbara Mandrel, the Pointer Sisters, Mac Davis, and Jubilee! (a spectacular production, complete with a very large Titanic sinking on stage).
A few years ago, I discovered some small/intimate performing places with no more than 200 seats. They sure beat trying to see the stage way off in the distance at a concert with 50,000 others!
I love live theater and musicals, the vast majority of which I've seen in London, England, as I've passed through on business and personal travel. A quick look at the past 20 years' worth of my travel diaries shows I took in the following musicals while there: Cats (also in New York City), Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls, Everybody's talking about Jamie, 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, Let it Be, Singin' in the Rain (50th anniversary, complete with heavy rain on stage), The Lion King, and Monty Python's Spamalot.
Once when visiting Adelaide, friends John and Kathy improved my "Kulcha Quotient" by taking me to a performance of Handel's Messiah. [On a previous trip there, I took in Cabaret.]
Turning the International Dial
From time to time, a recording sung in a foreign language becomes a big hit in the English-speaking world. Examples I remember and still enjoy, include the following:
- "Dominique" by the Singing Nun (French)
- Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" (Spanish)
- Santana's, "Oye Como Ba" (Spanish)
- Nana Mouskouri; according to Wikipedia, "Over the span of her career, she has released over 200 albums in at least twelve different languages, including Greek, French, English, German, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Welsh, Mandarin Chinese and Corsican."
- Charles Aznavour (French)
- Julio Iglesias (Spanish; he also sang in French, Portuguese, and German)
- Demis Roussos (Greek, German, and other languages)
- "La Bamba" with Ritchie Valens (Spanish)
- Andrea Bocelli (Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese)
- Gloria Estefan (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese)
- Linda Ronstadt (Spanish)
- ABBA (Swedish, French, and German)
- Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" (Japanese)
- Enya (who has sung in 10 languages)
As a traveler and host, I've been introduced to a number of international artists, for example:
- While with an adventure tour group crossing the Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, the bus driver constantly played tapes of Mexican singer Ana Gabriel. Later in the trip, I bought several of her albums.
- I hosted a Brazilian woman who gave me a great CD by Tom Jobin, who sings in various languages.
- On a day trip to the famous Italian hilltop town of San Gimignano, I came upon a woman dressed in traditional Florentine clothes playing harp. She was recording artist Antonella Natangelo, and I bought one of her albums.
- While traveling through Mexico and various Central American countries, I got to like mariachi music, especially performed live in parks in the evening by strolling musicians.
When I play these albums today, in my mind I am transported back to the events that caused me to get them.
Things don't always work as one might like. I'd been in Japan for a week and each day as I went to my local train station, I saw many vendors selling cheap cassette tapes at stalls. However, not being able to speak the language or read the writing, I couldn't figure out what the tapes contained. However, I did like some traditional Japanese music. On the final day, I randomly chose a tape. Unfortunately, when I listened to it back home, it was of European classical music; don't you just hate that when that happens!
For some years now, I've had iTunes installed on my computers. However, I've never bought any music for it. Instead, I use it to play CDs I've ripped to disk, and to access the hundreds of on-line radio stations. For the first couple of years, I listened a lot to one from Bavaria, Germany, but that disappeared. Since then, I've alternated between old-time country, 70s and 80s popular music, and sometimes favorites from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Occasionally, I'll try various Arabic, French, Italian (among other language) channels, just for some variety. Now, it's mostly a German channel with hits that span 40-odd years. And if I just want to relax, I'll switch to a traditional Hawaiian channel.
My Top-10 Songs/Singers, Several Days Later!
I just couldn't resist:
- Something from Jim Reeves
- The 2-CD set "The Essential Tony Bennet"
- Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon"
- Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable"
- k.d. lang's "Constant Craving"
- Enya's "Orinoco Flow"
- Elvis and "Love Me Tender"
- Queens' "Bohemian Rhapsody"
- Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra
- The Beatles and "Yesterday"
Once Scott married and had some discretionary income, he purchased a new keyboard, and I inherited the previous one, even though I don't play. My thought was that if it was in full view in my house that, one day, I might get inspired to learn to play it. However, after many years, that still has not yet happened. (I think I'm stuck on the idea of having to practice and that it would be too much work to get to the level of proficiency I would want.)
Several years ago, at a private party, I met a man and I asked him, "What do you do for fun?" He replied that he ran a Beatles singing group. Several months later, I joined his group for its monthly Saturday night singalong, and I've enjoyed it ever since (until the COVID pandemic hit). We meet for 2½ hours and sing pretty much nonstop, going through all the songs on a given album before going around the room having attendees select their favorite piece from the Beatles' catalog as a group and as individual performers.
For some years, I've hosted amateur folk-dancers from Denmark, who bring their own musicians. I have very much enjoyed seeing their performances, and I've been to stay with several of the group members and "seen them in action" in their own country.
I've been known to tap my toes to music in Irish pubs, which was especially enjoyable once smoking was banned there! Jams by players of Celtic music has been, and still is, popular in my area here in Virginia.
By the way, to my initial statement, "There is nothing really important in life, but if there was something, it would be music," I have added food. Not just the eating of, but also the shopping for, and the preparation as well, especially when doing it with friends.
If you are passing through Prague, Czech Republic, and are looking for a musical performance, every night of the week there are 4–6 available, all at reasonable prices. In my experience, there is no language barrier: the musicians enter, they sit down, and they play non-stop for an hour or so, and there is little or no talk. The one show I attended that had singing involved Broadway Hits in English.
When I visited my ancestral homeland in Western Poland, the cultural highlight was a visit to a small village that had a very old wooden church, and that very night, it was packed for a concert of "Musica Sacra and Musica Profan," Music, Sacred, and Profane. By the time I arrived, the 150-seat church was almost full and 200+ more people were seated outdoors where they could watch the indoor event via closed circuit TV projected on a large screen. We squeezed into the back row of the church and settled into a musical treat as comfortably as one can on hard wooden benches. The first act consisted of six nationally known singers who sang a capella, and from time to time, made sounds with their mouths like a variety of musical instruments.
First, we had some classics, including wonderful renditions of parts of the spring suite from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Ravel's Bolero, neither of which ordinarily has lyrics. Then came Polish-accented pieces in English written by the Bee Gees, Paul Simon, Phil Collins, Ben E. King, Freddy Mercury (of Queen), and Gene Pitney. There was a particularly good rendition of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" and "Hello Dolly." At the end, the singers got a very long-standing ovation, after which they sang an en-core. Then after another ovation, they gave a second en-core. It was a most enjoyable experience.
In August of 2010, I spent a few days in Cleveland, Ohio. The highlight there was the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." I walked around the main exhibit floor for several hours looking at guitars, cars, clothes, and other memorabilia from numerous well-known artists including Elvis. And I listened to many song snippets at various audio stations as I learned about the artists who had influenced the more well-known stars. Then I moved to a theater with a very large screen to watch several hours of a 4-hour concert filmed earlier that year. It featured many of the hall's inductees all performing at the same place. I came in near the end when Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel played. After a few minutes break, the video re-started, and I watched a lot more. The seats were comfortable, I got a stage-side view, the price was right, and the volume was LOUD! I really enjoyed it. I looked at more exhibits on other floors before sitting in another theater watching a 60-minute video that covered the highlights of all the hall's inductions, which started in 1986 well before the hall was completed. While I was familiar with most inductees, there were a few I'd never heard of. The Hall closed at 5:30 pm and I spent a bit of time in the gift shop. After six solid hours of high-volume Rock and Roll, my ears were ringing a little.
While I was reading Brian Greene's "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe," a book I highly recommend, I came across the following quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "Without music, life would be a mistake." Amen to that!
According to Greek philosopher Plato, "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything."
Finally, here's a challenge for you: As you come to the very end of your earthly life and you are lying waiting for the Grim Reaper to take you to the next stage, whatever that be, what music would you like to have played? As for me, I'm thinking Pachelbel's Canon in D major, the theme from the movie "Ordinary People." And if I wasn't dead by the end of that, Vivaldi's Four Seasons could follow, as well as any Baroque music with brass, and then maybe some Spanish guitar. By the way, my mother probably thought that in Hell they'd play 5RM radio non-stop; after all, it was the Devil's music!