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July 9, 2009

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Don’t you wish you had kept taking music lessons?

Janet hopes it’s never too late to learn to play a musical instrument. It comes in handy at birthday parties.

Nobody ever says, “Whew! I’m glad I don’t play a musical instrument; I’m sure happy my parents let me quit the minute I didn’t want to practice.” Instead, people often say (at least to themselves), “I wish I had stuck with it. I wish I could play the (fill in name of the musical instrument) now.”

I myself am a piano-quitter with regrets.

“So what in the world made you buy a ukulele?” asked my son, Andrew, last Monday.

“Well, your Grandpop used to stop at a junk shop in Germantown called ‘Bill Has It’ on his way home from work, and he came home with all kinds of things. One day he brought home a ukulele. He and I both learned to play a little, and we sang. It wasn’t really music, but it was a lot of fun. One day Johnny Bitman, the kid next door, tightened the ukulele strings, more from curiosity than malice, until the neck snapped, and we never replaced it.

“Besides, I want to learn to play ‘Happy Birthday’ for Sally at her party on Saturday.”

Our friend Sally, now in her 70s, used to be Dean of the now-defunct Combs College of Music here in Philadelphia. I thought it would be a nice surprise to learn a song that everyone could sing, and then play it at her birthday party.

I unwrapped my eBay-purchased ukulele with delight. Twenty inches of gleaming promise.

No pitch pipes/tuning forks for this strummer. No, siree. I googled “Tune Ukulele,” and there was each string’s note on the Internet, sound included. All tuned up, I googled “Play Ukulele,” and a nice gentleman on YouTube demonstrated chords online faster than a hula dancer’s hips on a sunny day. I couldn’t follow him. What I needed was a slow song with only two or three chords in it.

I found “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in an old songbook. Only three chords: C, F and G7. Perfect. I re-learned the chords quickly — had my own personal hootenanny — just strumming and singing until my family yelled upstairs that it was time to watch “Jeopardy.”

Returning to the task after “Jeopardy,” I found that the same three chords will also play “Old Folks at Home” and “Yankee Doodle.” I knew three songs!

“Andrew,” I said to my 22-year-old son at 10:15 p.m.“Come here!”

“What?”

“I just learned ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and I want you to sing it with me! This is going to be great!”

“Mo-o-om, it’s late! I don’t want to sing.”

Don’t want to sing??? How can that be?

He left my room and didn’t come back.

My husband was watching the Phillies game in the living room and stayed there until I stopped practicing.

“It’s very exciting when a member of our family gets interested in something new,” he said, coming upstairs. “Is it safe to come up here and read now?”

Which is all very well and good, but Sally is a classically trained musician, and dislikes music that doesn’t measure up. Mine doesn’t measure up. It might measure up by Saturday, at least to “Happy Birthday,” but on Tuesday I couldn’t go any higher than “Yankee Doodle.”

I gave up everything for music. Cooking, laundry, weeding, crossword puzzles and earning a living. I bought 12 yogurts, 12  bananas and cake at the market; that took care of my meals until Saturday’s birthday party. Other family members? Let them eat cake.  I bought a lot of cake. I have songs to learn.

I didn’t get to practice until late Tuesday evening. I ran through the songs I knew. They sounded OK. Then I tried “Happy Birthday.”

My favorite song in the world, the favorite song of everyone with any heart, the best song ever written, contains a B-flat chord, which uses all four fingers on the uke. I tried straight fingers, I tried curved fingers, I tried flipping the ukulele around to play with the other hand. It was almost impossible to finger/play that chord without sounding like a sore loser. And what about Sally? What will she think about this dissonance?

I practiced B-flat over and over. On Wednesday morning. My fingertips were numb, but it sounded better than yesterday. But not good.

A time-buying solution slammed me on Wednesday night.

“That’s not your usual post-snack cough,” said my husband. He felt my forehead.

“Uh-oh,” he said. He was right.

I spent Thursday in the Emergency Room at the hospital. I had Type-A flu. I was in quarantine for 10 days at home. I don’t remember what happened when we returned from the E.R. because I slept for the rest of the week.

The last thing I remember was my husband phoning people to postpone Sally’s birthday party and sterilizing my ukulele with antiseptic wipes.

I couldn’t wait to feel well enough to practice “Happy [Belated] Birthday” on my new ukulele to sing for Sally. Even with the clunker B-flat chord. I hope she likes it. It’s a gift I am more eager to give than Sally might be to receive. 

She is a sweetheart, though, and I think she’ll appreciate my effort. Good friends do that. And it’s a short song.



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