Something that tends to surprise new people in my life is that I was an award-winning musician in my youth. I played and sang in just about every iteration of musical ensembles in my high school, performed and ranked at high-profile national and international festivals, and took theory so that I could arrange and eventually compose my own music. I can read and play music in any clef and key signature, tell the difference by ear between classical composers, and see all the different parts of any song in sheet music form scrolling through my head if I shut my eyes and listen closely.
While performing music has, regrettably, fallen to the wayside in my adult life, none of this would have transpired if as an adolescent I hadn’t been a diehard metalhead with two bossy older brothers and very few friends.
I was actually sort of voluntold to take up the bass, as my brothers were already shredding away on their Jacksons (a midnight-blue Warrior named Layla and a black Randy Rhoads V dubbed Freya) and I was informed that if I wanted to jam with them I had to learn something that wasn’t lead or rhythm guitar. Our days as the Patridge Family Gone Metal were short-lived and we only ever did rock the high school gym, but as far as first steps go I’m pretty happy with where this particular instance of being bossed brought me.
The first bass line I ever learned by heart was from “Bed of Razors” by Children of Bodom. Using Guitar Pro 2.0 on an ancient laptop and the top four strings of my oldest brother’s abandoned five-and-dime six-string, I holed myself up in my room for hours on end until I could play along in real time to the song itself.
When I finally bought my first bass – a black LTD B-50 that I named Henkka after my COB idol and would later customize with ever-changing homemade decals of skulls, runes, Celtic knots, and grim reapers – I moved from the woodwinds to the rhythm section in concert band and joined the jazz band as well. I was encouraged to try the upright bass, known to some of you as a double bass or contrabass, and fell in love all over again with my instrument of choice. I loved that antique upright with its rosy finish and real band of ebony (exposed by a horrific chip from the time the tuba player clipped it with the U-bend of his brass noisemaker), its age and craftsmanship explained by the “Made in Czechoslovakia” stamp just discernible through the sound holes. And by the time I graduated in 2008, I played on three basses, having acquired a black-and-white Fender Jazz as well for the purpose of having an electric bass whose sound was more suited to jazz band and jazz combo than my so-called “axe” of a B-50.
Metal was my first love on the bass and it always will be, but learning to read a new clef and being exposed to all kinds of music really expanded my knowledge and skills as a young musician and, if anything, made it easier for me to play metal well. Whenever my short-lived career in music comes up around the dinner table, my mother always says that my fingers flew all over my instrument and that I seemed to unconsciously dance to the music. Those fingers played for so many hours daily that until now there are no prints left on the tips of my picking digits, and I still unconsciously move to music I really enjoy, even when on the first listen.
But I’m writing about all of this to tell you more than just the story of how I was a musician, once upon a time.
My dedication to music in my adolescence was born of an anger at an adolescent environment that rejected me, and an endless craving and need to be recognized as good at something so I throw myself defiantly back at whoever said I wasn’t good, thin, pretty, cute, or cool enough to be accepted.
If I was better at playing music than they were at playing sports, then I could walk into school every day with my head a little higher than it would have been without music. If I could say, “I can read and write English, French, and music,” then I wouldn’t get hurt as much by the other smart people in class who always teased and made fun of me if I got even one point less than them on a Math or Science test. If I had the best strings, straps, and amps that I could afford on my own dime it didn’t matter that my parents couldn’t afford name-brand clothing for me to wear to school. And from early-morning jazz rehearsals to concert band and music theory on alternating school days to nonstop activity on heavy metal internet forums, every way in which I encountered music in my adolescence helped me build myself up as an individual while also building up a small handful of friendships with other musicians which have lasted to this day.
And to this day, there’s music for every single one of my moods and emotions, with the exception of 2015. Last year pretty much the only time I listened to music was at the gym, but every song I had on my workout playlist was chosen to keep me in an upbeat, hard-hitting, go-get-em attitude because that’s what I needed to do: stay upbeat, hit back hard when life punched me, and be proactive about getting what I wanted out of the time I’ve been given. I will still howl into a hairbrush along to Bon Jovi when I feel empowered. When I am frustrated and angry I will still plug into Children of Bodom to channel the raw emotions. When I miss my father more than usual the only thing that eases the pain is Brahms’ “Lullaby.” When a long Montreal winter gets me down, I will play Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Summer” until I’m upbeat again. Hallowe’en is never Hallowe’en unless I play St-Saens’ “Dance Macabre” at least five times and Christmas is never Christmas until I’ve gone through my favourites by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The theme from Pacific Rim will always pump me up for a workout, Iron Maiden will always put me in a mood to read and daydream, and some songs will always make me remember the good times I shared with people who gave those songs more meaning for me. And whenever I find myself in a mood without appropriate music, well – as you know from the last two posts, there’s always a judgey-ass music nerd of a friend to help me out with that.
The Andrew Solomon quote I’ve chosen for this post’s featured image speaks to me on so many levels, and mainly because forging meaning and building identity is exactly how I survived high school, too. Instead of trying to create talents I did not have to be able to do activities I loathed simply because those were the popular past-times, I found meaning in developing the talents I was given in ways I enjoyed. And then I built an identity for myself that didn’t conform and couldn’t be hurt, an identity that kept me practicing through hours that my peers passed without me and then put me up on a stage where I was untouchable.
I was not meant to be a musician forever and I was not meant to find either my entire life’s meaning or my whole identity in being one. But for the time that I was in peak musical form, being a young musician gave me reasons to think big and dream bigger, and ways to make something of myself in an environment in which I was supposed to remain a nobody. A performing and award-winning musician I may no longer be, but music still means as much to me now as it did back then and who I was will always be a part of who I have become.
Everyone at high school graduation can throw their cap and say they did it, but I don’t think that everyone can say they survived. Doing it is still hard because it still comes with challenges that require a measure of strength to overcome – I’m not denying that and I’m not belittling the achievement. I know everyone has their own moments of difficulty and their own hardships to bear, but let me tell you from experience – as a teenager it’s hard to see that when you’re the one who’s always excluded.
So doing it, while hard in its own right, is very different from surviving it. Surviving means that in order to overcome your challenges, every day you have to find something worth getting up for, and then find enough strength and true grit in yourself somewhere to fight through the day. It means every morning brings with it the additional challenge of mustering up the courage to even start the day – especially after a sleepless night when you’ve been kept up by wondering if anyone would miss you the next day if you weren’t there.
I speak from experience – and because of music, I survived.