Super Heroes Don’t Sing
I’m sitting here watching my husband give our ten-year-old son a guitar lesson. Dwayne and I are both musicians and music lovers, so this might not seem so surprising. If you were ever in the audience watching Will on stage with me at three years old, wailing away on harmonica – his body bending back and forth at the midsection, doing his best Gary Green -- you would probably say this scenario was rather predictable. Yet here I sit holding my breath and rubbing my eyes in surprise as I watch my son play his first “G” chord on his father’s Fender Telecaster.
From the moment Will could walk and talk, instruments were his toys. This is no wonder, really, because our house was always filled with music. My band rehearsed regularly around the kitchen table, and from the time he was born, Will often sailed off to sleep at night lullabied by the sounds of our practice sessions.
When he was two-and-a-half, he asked the guys if he could join in, and being the sweethearts that they are, they let him. Will would lay a variety of instruments out in front of him at the table -- a few harmonicas; an old beaten up mandolin; a pint-sized guitar his grandmother had given him when he first started walking; and his favorite coffee can -- then he’d inquire as to which key we were playing in, count it out, and take off strumming, beating or blowing along.
I will never forget the look on his face the first time he sat in with the band. He had chosen a spot between world champion harmonica player Gary Green and guitar and mandolin guru Jim Taggart. We were working on an upbeat song about Elvis and the radio, and Will had chosen to play guitar for the tune. At the band’s request, he kicked it off, “One, two, three, four!” and we all joined in with Will leading the way.
He played intently for 10 seconds and then looked up and took it all in. I saw his tiny chest swell and the look of amazement on his face -- he was in the band! He couldn’t believe it. He was in the band! Then, as quickly as he had assessed the situation, his head shot down, his little body bent around his guitar, and with a very determined and serious face, he got right back down to business.
I wanted so badly to capture that moment and wished I had my video camera in hand. At the same time, I knew if I moved I would surely miss it. I looked beside me at our bass player Sonny, and he, too, was watching Will. We exchanged glances, both of us very aware of the sweetness of the moment, both remembering our first time sitting in with “the band.”
How lucky Will has been to be influenced by so many inspiring and caring musicians. These are guys who played along with him in spite of the fact that his instruments were seldom in tune -- or even in the right key -- and his chords were only make believe; guys who made sure he had the tools he needed to be in a band – a little encouragement, imagination, and a few decent instruments.
Will’s first drum sticks were a gift from drummer Eddie Hall. After watching Will play with brushes that Dwayne had made for him out of long plastic zip ties and duct tape, Eddie gave him his brushes. Will’s drum set consisted of a tambourine, a small pair of bongos, a snare drum and a coffee can, but his sticks were the real deal.
If Will wanted to look and sound like Jeff Saine, he would lay his little guitar down flat across an empty keyboard stand and, using Dwayne’s glass slide and a pick, play lap steel. Sometimes he would stand his guitar upright on the floor, and it became an acoustic bass. (Whenever he did this, he insisted we call him Sonny Layne.)
When Will was about three-and-a-half, Gary presented him a full set of harmonicas – professional harmonicas – and said to him, “I’m giving these to you because you are ready.” (I think Gary was also probably ready for Will to be playing along in keys that matched his own.)
Of course, as we grow older, our influences change. At four, Will discovered Super Heroes and, for a while, played and sang in a cape. Then, when he was five, he told me “Super Heroes don’t sing, Mama,” to which I replied, “Of course, they do!” I would still hear Will in his room at night singing himself to sleep, but during the day, the non-performing Super Hero began to take over. (Around the same time, while looking at a picture of Wonder Woman, he also told me, “Doesn’t she know you can’t catch bad guys dressed like that?” I promptly e-mailed all of my girlfriends to share his words of wisdom.)
At eight, he sat us down and announced, “Dad, Mom, I know you’re into music, but I’m into sports.” This was an interesting confession given that he wasn’t really playing sports at the time. Clearly, Will was figuring out that he was his own man; he could create his own identity in the world. He wasn’t sure which sport he wanted to take up, but he was pretty sure he no longer wanted to be just like his parents.
For the next year or so, Will went out of his way to separate himself from us. When our friends would pat him on the head and ask, “What instrument do you play?” (so sure that he did play or sing), he would look them in the eye and say, “I don’t like music.” It was a little painful and slightly embarrassing, but amusing nonetheless. And Dwayne and I went right along, knowing that it would be counter-productive to try to tell an Allard or an Evans what they should or shouldn’t do or be.
Now, here we are moving quickly from summer to fall, the start of school just around the corner. Will is heading into the 5th grade, one year shy of middle school. Over time, he has been coming around to figuring out who he is without having to work quite so hard. He is sweeter again, and he lets me hug him-- sometimes, when he forgets, even in public. There are moments when he still reminds me of the little boy in the band -- heart wide open, willing to take a chance; willing to ask his dad to teach him how to play guitar.
I know this will all probably change again before I blink, so I don’t move. I barely breathe. Instead I watch him closely as he plays his first real chords with his father. Magically, almost effortlessly, his fingers find their way along the strings, making and remembering the formations with such ease…it’s as if he has been playing forever. I suppose, in his own way, he has. And as I watch this guitar lesson, I am reminded of something Dwayne and I discovered about Will a few years back: He never played music for applause; it was always for the sheer joy of it.
So, with this in mind, I listen. I smile. And though I desperately want to shout out, “Sweetie, that is wonderful!” – I don’t say a word.