THE GIFT OF A GUI­TAR

The per­fect in­stru­ment sounds the right note

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JEAN CHAVOT

The right gui­tar may not be the most ex­pen­sive on the shelf.

My son was about to turn ten. He still took my hand from time to time when we were out to­gether, but he let it go when we met other chil­dren, es­pe­cially girls. On that late af­ter­noon in win­ter we had strolled through the Parisian streets il­lu­mi­nated bright as day with Christ­mas lights. Dirty snow be­neath our feet, we came to a halt in front of the mu­sic shop win­dow, his small hand tucked cosily in mine.

We looked at the gui­tars gleam­ing on their stands. Their long necks decked with tin­sel made them look like os­triches tied up with rib­bon (some peo­ple have no re­spect for mu­si­cal in­stru­ments or for an­i­mals). These pa­thetic-look­ing in­stru­ments were ruled out straight­away; my son dreamed of a wild gui­tar to tame. We went into the shop.

Years ear­lier, when he wasn’t even one year old, we used to sing a few notes to him each morn­ing to see whether he was awake. I say ‘we’ but it was es­pe­cially his mother, with her beau­ti­ful singer’s voice. He re­sponded with the same lit­tle melody. It be­came a game to vary it, make it more in­tri­cate, and to hear him re­pro­duce it right away be­fore break­ing into his de­light­ful rip­pling laugh. It was his way of say­ing, “Again! Again!”

When he was older, we asked him from time to time if he wanted to learn to play an in­stru­ment. As

mu­si­cians our­selves, noth­ing seemed more nat­u­ral, es­pe­cially given – and I say this as ob­jec­tively as pos­si­ble for a par­ent – his ob­vi­ous tal­ent. He con­sis­tently re­sponded with a clear and def­i­nite no. When I asked why, he told me that he didn’t want “to end up be­ing forced to play in front of 300 peo­ple.”

He had been to many of his mother’s and my per­for­mances. I won­dered whether he had been upset by the shows where we were es­pe­cially bad, whether stage fright was con­ta­gious, or whether his hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity meant he’d been put off by see­ing us go through it? Or could it be that scales, singing ex­er­cises and re­hearsals were, in his mind, just a typ­i­cal adult oc­cu­pa­tion – a way of earn­ing a liv­ing? Or did he have an­other good rea­son that it would be use­less to try to ex­plain to some­one with the lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of a grown-up ?

For­tu­nately, he had a lit­tle class­mate at school who was tak­ing pi­ano lessons and played The Pink Pan­ther di­vinely. My son im­me­di­ately learned it by heart, hav­ing taken no­tice for the first time of our home pi­ano. For many weeks he played the tune in ev­ery pitch and ev­ery key, with his head down, eyes closed ...

One day, to our great re­lief, per­haps be­cause he had ex­hausted all pos­si­ble vari­a­tions, he de­clared bluntly, “I want to learn to play an in­stru­ment.”

“Good,” we said, just as straight­for­wardly, afraid he would change his mind. “You want to learn pi­ano?” “No, gui­tar.” “Just like Dad?” “No,” he replied, a touch of dis­dain in his voice. “Why gui­tar then and not pi­ano?”

“Be­cause I like the phys­i­cal con­nec­tion with the in­stru­ment.”

His mother and I looked at each other. We weren’t used to hear­ing that level of lan­guage from him. He didn’t say any more about it that day but we hoped we’d un­der­stood. I bought him a gui­tar and at his re­quest we en­rolled him at mu­sic school.

While he ap­pre­ci­ated clas­si­cal guitarists Fer­nando Sor and Heitor Villa-Lo­bos, it was only nat­u­ral that very soon he wanted to play mu­sic closer to his own taste, on a gui­tar that he’d cho­sen him­self. It was in pur­suit of this ideal in­stru­ment that we went into the mu­sic shop.

A sales­man greeted us as though he were con­de­scend­ing to at­tend to us be­tween a Rolling Stones tour and a ses­sion with Char­lie Parker. He ad­dressed his re­marks to me alone, as the debit card­holder. With a nod, I re­ferred him to my son. He was the cus­tomer.

With a nod, I re­ferred the sales­man to my son. He was the cus­tomer

The sales­man took that to mean that I knew noth­ing at all about gui­tars and that, ob­vi­ously, the boy didn’t either.

He brought out a gui­tar that was “su­per for so­los”, as he put it, then an­other en­crusted with mother-of-pearl, then all the rub­bishy ex­pen­sive gui­tars that he hadn’t suc­ceeded in flog­ging. My son couldn’t see one he wanted. He was too timid to play in front of strangers. He asked, “Can I look on my own?” Dis­gusted that suck­ers like these were mak­ing such a fuss, the sales­man let him head into the depths of the shop.

As I waited, I thought back to my very first gui­tar. I’d have liked my fa­ther to come to the mu­sic shop with me, but he had de­cided that I should go and choose it with our neigh­bours’ son. Michel was his name. His par­ents were dev­as­tated that he wanted to give up study­ing medicine to be­come a gui­tar player, and he felt so con­flicted that he didn’t know what to do any more.

My fa­ther had helped Michel fol­low his pas­sion and also in­ter­vened to re­as­sure his fam­ily. It was a big thing for him to do. Ad­mirable. But I knew one thing for sure: my fa­ther would never have let me give up my stud­ies to fol­low my heart. I hated Michel with a fierce and dark envy.

I ar­rived a quar­ter of an hour late to meet up with him to buy the in­stru­ment. He had al­ready left, or more likely, he had never turned up. No way was I go­ing home empty-handed! I chose my gui­tar all by my­self. When I got home there was a ter­ri­ble scene. Who did I think I was? It was a cheap lit­tle be­gin­ner’s gui­tar. I loved it from the first note. It sounded ter­rific.

My son re­turned from the back of the shop, car­ry­ing a folk gui­tar. It was def­i­nitely the right one. The sales­man tried to talk him into a more ex­pen­sive model by giv­ing him a flashy demon­stra­tion. We had to hold back our laugh­ter when he mas­sa­cred the in­tro to Stair­way to Heaven. Then my son said, “Let’s go, Dad!”

The sales­man brought the gui­tar to the till. My son picked out a few notes, one ear pressed to the body of the in­stru­ment. He made a face. “That’s not mine.” “Yes, it is. It’s the same model,” the sales­man as­sured him. “It’s not his,” I said. The sales­man headed back to the stock­room. He re­turned with the folk gui­tar. My son picked out a few notes. He smiled at me.

ON CHRIST­MAS DAY, he took his gui­tar from be­neath the tree, un­wrapped it and handed it im­me­di­ately to my fa­ther – ea­ger for his ver­dict. With the solemn in­ten­sity of an ex­pert, his grand­fa­ther played some slow chords and long arpeg­gios. “This lit­tle gui­tar sounds ter­rific.”

“It’s me who chose it all by my­self!” my son pointed out.

“Well done, my lad, I’m proud of you,” said my fa­ther.

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