Peterson: Learning to play instrument no snap of the fingers

I lack rhythm, and I blame it on my inability to snap my fingers, which is so easy to do that the phrase is a cliché.

As in, I can do that by snapping my fingers; or when I snap my fingers, you will wake up, a favorite of hypnotists; or the job will be done in the snap of my fingers. Snapping your fingers means it will be done quickly and easily.

Hence, everyone should be able to snap their fingers. Not me.

I knew about snapping fingers when I was a very young child, but I wasn’t put on the spot until third or fourth grade when Mrs. Allrich, our music teacher, had everyone in class snapping their fingers to the beat of the music.

Except me and a few others. How hard could it be? It’s just a snap of the fingers, after all.

She offered a suggestion to those of us who couldn’t snap, and that was to make a clicking sound with our tongues, kind of like lip-synching with your fingers. And if you really wanted to identify the rhythmically disabled, clicking your tongue when everyone else was grooving to the music was the way to go. I could barely clap to the beat.

Maybe that’s why I could never make sense of sheet music, which was a foreign language to me. All of it was explained thoroughly, but none of it sunk in. I’m looking this information up in “Yamaha Recorder Student” by Sandy Feldstein, which claims boldly on the cover: “A fun, musical way to learn to play the recorder and read music!” Her exclamation mark, not mine.

There is the five-lined staff that music is written on, and each line and space is very important. There are whole, half and quarter notes, each with its own symbol, telling you how many beats it gets. There are rests, again, whole, half and quarter beats. There is the handsome treble clef, which establishes the G note on the second line of the staff.

Then there are the notes on the staff: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E and F. Yes. E and F repeat on different lines or spaces on the staff. Then there is an introduction to rhythm of measures: bar lines, double bars and the signature.

And you snap your fingers to the rhythm of the music that is right in front of you. Unless, of course, you can’t snap your fingers and you can’t read the music.

I still can’t snap my fingers, but when another cleaning sweep of the basement was done recently, the recorder and clarinet that our children learned to play were found, along with the booklets that teach the student how to play, first starting with reading music and making the instruments play the notes to “Merrily We Roll Along,” and I still can’t get the tune in my head to that classic.

I love the sound of the clarinet, and one of my favorite pieces of music is Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622” performed by Sabine Meyer. I know. Catchy title.

And I want to play the clarinet in the worst way.

But my young stepdaughter who gave up the recorder and the clarinet at too early an age, as did our other children, recommends I start with the recorder and work my way up to the clarinet, which is a complicated-looking instrument with holes and levers. In the right hands, they can make beautiful music. I’d settle for learning how to read music and play it just OK. “Oh! That’s ‘Hot Cross Buns’! Magnifico!”

I’ve always wanted to learn to play an instrument, to make music, but I didn’t want to learn when I was a child. If I couldn’t read music, I certainly couldn’t play an instrument. With singing, you can kind of catch on after a few times around, and sing without knowing what the music in front of you meant.

And I can bang out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. It’s not a really fast, upbeat version, but the listener knows what he or she is hearing. “Ah, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ Beautiful!” No such luck.

But the clarinet and recorder have been cleared out of the basement – it’s amazing what you find down there still after all these years of emptying it – and are now in the kitchen next to the refrigerator, waiting for the next move: out the door or into my hands.

If fourth-graders can be successfully introduced to the recorder and play concerts in front of a gym full of parents, certainly I can master “Au Clare de la Lune” by the end of the summer. Or the fall.

I ought to learn in the snap of my fingers. Which is an ominous sign, come to think of it.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, a freelance writer and former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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