What’s worse than living in a tiny house with a fifth-grader who’s decided to take up the trumpet? Living in that house after his dad, who hasn’t trumpeted a single note since eighth grade, says, “Cool, I’ll try, too!”
So if the rest of my family looks frazzled for the next few months, well, there you go. My older son and I are budding musicians now.
I’ve never had much aptitude for making music, but every few years I set aside the fact that I can’t keep rhythm or hold a note and I pick up a new instrument with blind exuberance.
The first one I got excited about, the trumpet back in fifth grade, set the tone.
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There was a sign my folks knew how audiences might react if I kept at it, too. The trumpet was a hand-me-down from my Grandpa Pancho’s band, Mariachi San Luis, and the family story was that the countless dents it bore were souvenirs from years of cantina fights — just the instrument for a tone-deaf boy whose music was sure do to whatever the opposite of soothing the savage breast is.
Not long after a performance during Mass in which each of my notes warbled up and down the scale searching optimistically for its rightful sound, I set the trumpet aside — for good, I thought.
Years later, as a grown man, I bought a banjo under the assumption that it must be easier to master its five strings than a guitar’s six. Next was a small accordion, which I figured would be reasonably simple to learn since a piano teacher had once managed to help me bang out a rollicking rendition of “It’s a Small World.” My brother, always good for a practical joke and living out of earshot in another state, sent me a didgeridoo.
The path eventually led to the hills of North Carolina and an intensive weeklong course on playing a handsaw with a bow, culminating with the class’ public performance of “Amazing Grace” that sounded like yowling cats.
I got pretty good at the musical saw — not that anyone could tell. The rest of those instruments could have gone to the chimps at the zoo for all the art they brought into the world.
But my son isn’t necessarily doomed in the music department, genetically speaking. The time he devotes to learning his instrument might pay off the way it did for Grandpa Pancho.
That payoff came a few days after my grandpa closed his eyes for the last time in his own tiny house nine years ago.
His body was in a casket before a big, crowded room of mourners who had gathered to pray for his soul and give thanks for his life. Propped up front among the flowers was his guitarrón, the comically large but deeply resonant six-stringed backbone of Mariachi San Luis.
I kept looking at the instrument during the funeral service, remembering how I could sense Grandpa’s soul coursing through it when he plucked the strings. It turned out there was still just enough of his soul left in the strings and wood five days after he passed to do what he had always done in life — bring his loved ones together through music.
The magic stirred when one of my uncles opened the funeral home door for a late arrival, one of the younger musicians who’d taken over Grandpa’s mariachi.
“You didn’t bring your guitar?” my uncle asked the man. “I thought you were going to play.”
“I brought the mariachi,” he answered.
And the band members streamed in quietly but quickly, drawn to the guitarrón. Someone picked up Grandpa’s instrument and the musicians filled the funeral home with the songs he loved as most of us lifted our voices to join in.
My Spanish wasn’t good enough to catch all the words, but every one of us there caught the feeling as the songs moved from mournful to merry.
Maybe my son’s music will spin magic strong enough to wrap a room full of mourners in joy one day.
I know mine never will, but I’m picking up his trumpet this year anyway. I’ll ask him to teach me what he learns at band practice in the hope that my discordant blasts can manage magic enough to tighten the bonds between one boy and his dad.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.