Notes on recovering the freedom to be bad
by Clea Simon
No way around it, some things just sound bad. There's "I value you as a
friend." There's "we want to thank you so much for your interest." And then
there are actual lousy sounds. Dissonance. Cacophony. Really bad noise. I know
about these things. I have recently decided to relearn how to play the string
The decision wasn't an easy one. No sudden whimsy grabbed me and insisted,
"Pick up a large orchestral instrument that you haven't handled in more than a
decade." No, the idea of acquiring a wooden fiddle the size of my desk had to
grow on me like an artistic fungus for almost a year before, last month, I
acted on it.
I write about music, and I have often justified my criticisms with the
argument that I, after all, am not just a writer, but also a musician. I played
string bass all through school, even bowing along with a local amateur
orchestra for a season (although I did drop out during interminable rehearsals
for a staged Traviata). For a good few years after that, I applied
myself enough to the electric version of the instrument to anchor a few bands
consisting primarily of friends.
But my last band broke up years ago, and since then, I realized, I had become
just another sour fan, trashing other people's honest work. Although I thought
of myself as a musician, I no longer really knew what I was talking about.
After that realization, I guess I could simply have quit being a music critic.
More than a few people would have been grateful. But my epiphany awakened the
opposite reaction in me: instead of giving up writing about music, I wanted to
start playing it again. I wanted to know once more the joy of the golden, bowed
tone. And then one night, I saw it. There it was, at the house of a real
(i.e., working) musician -- a string bass, propped up in the corner. "Oh
yeah, I'm using it for some studio work," my host explained. "Good sound."
"Mmmm," I responded wittily, and stared for the rest of the evening at the
tall, dark body across the room, with its little brass-framed head. I was
hooked. One afternoon with the Yellow Pages later, I had in my home a
lighter-toned version of the same. Plywood, sure, and student quality, but a
six-foot, golden, handsome stranger nonetheless.
But what a stranger. I plucked his strings, and he murmured to me. But when I
rosined up the bow and reached to draw it across the strings, I was hit by a
moment of awkwardness. Where did I stand? What should I do with my knees? After
a few minutes, these things came back to me and I breathed easily again. But
then the bow hit the strings, and I was appalled. The bass is distinguished by
its rich, rumbling tone. Its soothing purr of resounding earthiness. Its
Richter-level tremor of delight. The sound I produced was more like a whiny
whisper: half air and half squeal. I pressed harder. The air gave way to more
squeal and, with a little more rosin and a good deal more pressure, an
unearthly groan. This was the instrument I used to play and play well, I
reassured myself. But it had been more than 10 years, and my comeback would
I got a book. I even read it. I twisted my hand into a close approximation of
the curved grip in the illustrations, and I tried again. Scales, simple open
strings. A week passed, and the notes began to make sense. It began to take a
little longer for my hand to freeze in a convulsed claw shape. Within weeks I
had even begun to make recognizable sounds. And then a new and horrible
realization hit me: I was playing bass, all right, and I was playing it loudly.
What had I expected? The body of the string bass, which gives the instrument
its resonance, is the size of a small launch. And until one masters such
subtleties as finding the right note or placing the bow on a string without
looking, there is not much one can do about dynamics. I had a choice: squeak,
or saw away with all my might. Which, after you've been at it for an
ear-wrenching half-hour or so, is no choice at all. I came, I sawed, I'd like
to think I began to conquer. The going was rough. I played regularly and the
notes started to find their own places, but there were more of them now, and
they were still very, very loud.
When I was a girl making these noises in a house in the suburbs, the only
people I could bother were my parents. But now, living in a Cambridge
apartment, I had a dilemma. Yes, I wanted to practice. Well, I wanted to get
better, anyway, and that meant applying myself assiduously. But did the writer
upstairs really need to be subjected to the wheeze of missed strings? Did the
nurse next door have to listen to my quavering whole notes? Did I want anyone
to hear me doing anything so badly?
That question was at the core of my unease. I, like so many of us, define
myself as a professional; whether it is my writing or my cooking or any of a
thousand other little jobs, I like to feel proud of my accomplishments. It has
been years, in fact, since I have ventured forth with a coy disclaimer -- a
smiling "oh, this isn't very good" -- and expected anything less than a full
and enthusiastic rebuttal. But at bass I am not very good. And so now I am
working not only on my arpeggios, but also on my ego. I am telling myself that
perhaps being bad is okay. More than okay, perhaps. Because I am finding that
being bad at something -- being bad loudly -- is rather freeing. And I like to
think that anyone within earshot envies me, at least a bit, for my willingness
to let go of the polished ideal. To get down and dirty in the muck of pure
novicehood, and, armed only with glee and enthusiasm, start something new.
So I am learning, little by little. I am trying to learn, along with the
A-major scale, a sense of pride -- pride in my bravery, if not in my inherent
musical skill; in having the courage to pick up the bow once again and saw
energetically, if not expertly, onward.
Clea Simon is the author of Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of
Mentaly Ill Siblings (Penguin).