My Uncle John gave me music lessons when I was a child. Piano, clarinet, he was proficient in both (and more) and worked hard at his craft. He taught music in middle school (later in high school) and probably encountered a lot of lazy students, a group to which I contributed myself. I hated to practice, and past the simple rudiments of a piano keyboard, I absorbed very little, though presented with a lot. I remembered that experience throughout my own teaching career. Whenever a student confided in me that someone was a lousy teacher, I always thought (though seldom said aloud), "maybe you're a lousy learner...like me."
My Uncle John died in his fifties a half-century ago— a good man who deserved a longer term to reach all those would-be musicians who showed more purpose and desire than I had.
At the other end of the spectrum, Jerry Lee Lewis, the performer who died last week, lived to be 87. He wins no prize for longevity, though his history of drugs, alcohol, illness, and general dissipation contributes to my amazement that he lasted that long. And the only reason he belongs on the same page as my uncle is that, in a roundabout and seldom positive way, Jerry Lee Lewis taught me piano also. In particular, I learned that I could play without lessons and could "hear" music without notes in front of me.
Had I paid more attention to my Uncle John, I might never have been constricted in terms of technique and expertise; but had I never heard Jerry Lee Lewis play, I might never be where I am now—more than half a century later, still making music in my limited way, and still enjoying it.
I don't begrudge Mr. Lewis his 87 years, though some of his life choices did not exude a good deal of wisdom, and I still lament the fact that my Uncle John's tenure here was so limited. But we don't always know where our influences lie and how profound they will be.
Music has been a part of my life in more ways than I can count. As an adolescent with nothing much to offer, it gave me some identity. I was a musician and performer. As I grew older, music opened many doors, created numerous friendships, and provided unique experiences, many of them admittedly amateurish but some more accomplished, all memorable. And now that I have transcended the keyboard and guitar and moved on to the tambourine(!), I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment. (I may be overrating the tambourine experience.)
In our technological age, making music is a lot easier than it used to be. When every keyboard can, with the flick of a mouse, become a trumpet, organ, or an ethereal bell, much of today's music may seem artificial. I pay no attention to that. I don't care. We still have to know something to fake the rest, and if my Uncle John hadn't assiduously taught me the scales, and Jerry Lee Lewis hadn't snuck into bars as a teenager so that he could listen to the blues and boogie-woogie and then played it himself as rock 'n' roll, I'd have missed out on a lot of enjoyment.
I owe them both.
Disparate souls, indeed. Or maybe there are no disparate souls when music connects them.