Henry’s extraordinary musical gift is filling the house again. It keeps stopping me in my tracks. His fingers move so easily — from the achingly beautiful deep sobbing of his cello composer to our ebony baby grand where he pounds the ivories with the bright indie rock sounds of Coldplay. Back and forth, cello to piano to cello. He hears something isn’t quite right, adjusts the peg of the “A” string, and gets back to coaxing raw, agonizing emotion from that hollow wooden box with his bow. For a few minutes, dulcet sobs float up the stairs and then cello yields to electric guitar, less nuanced, given it is his most recent endeavor.

Henry’s struggle with the guitar reminds me that it was by default that our first family jam session took place here in California. We were the only people that any of us knew: So, without their usual friends to fill in the gaps, Robert and I were invited by the children to sing back-up vocals for a song we had never heard, by a group we had never heard of.

Our older son had written a new arrangement with parts for guitar, cello, violin and piano and needed more than sibling participation to make it work. We played and sang for hours, until it sounded nearly as it had been envisioned. It was an evening of hope and hard work and healing, and the most fun I had had in a while.

Ours is a house of music. Born of my battered acoustic guitar from college, re-strung to soothe sleepless infants and accompany toddler tunes, our two-bedroom apartment in New York became a mini Carnegie Hall. “Old MacDonald” never sounded so good. Lead guitar, plus kazoos, tambourines, maracas, bells and belting like Ethel all came together for a barnyard symphony, with more animals than any farmer ever imagined.

It has only now occurred to me that we may have been a nuisance to our New York City neighbors — especially after Santa Claus surprised us all with an electric keyboard, not long after Robert returned from Edinburgh with miniature yet functioning bag pipes for the children. And then there were the drums, followed, of course, by marching. No one ever complained (at least to my face) or notified the co-op board (I was on the board at the time). Pre-war plaster walls, oriental carpets and oodles of fabric may have been our salvation.

Robert and I both received a rather hefty dose of musical DNA, though weighted more toward proficiency than professionalism, and grew up taking lessons on inherited pianos — his an upright from his grandmother, mine a signed rosewood Steinway grand from the turn of the century, courtesy of great-great-Aunt Frances. Of the two of us, Robert is the far better pianist. What a luxury it is to sit before the fire, half-filled wine glass in hand, and just listen to him play! What a surprise to find that all those lessons have found their place in his skill at seduction.

My own tiny bit of talent showed up in a versatile vocal range and a natural ear for harmony, both honed over many years in our church choir. My friend Marguerite and I could sing soprano or alto, whichever was needed. As corny as it sounds, we had loads of fun harmonizing with each other. Then before my 8th birthday, Aunt Nancy presented me with a hand-me-down guitar.

The folk songs my aunt Nancy taught me in my childhood would appear in my own children’s nursery over and over again: “Puff the Magic Dragon,” performed with a coating of green face paint and a dinosaur’s claw, shed its 1960’s scales and was reincarnated for the imagination of innocents. Our children instinctively became good musicians at early ages, far outpacing their parents in talent and experience.

For a while we had our own string quartet — Colbern on first violin, Everett on second violin, Hart on viola, Henry on cello. But given their age differences, by the time they all were proficient enough to play ambitious pieces together, they had taken divergent musical paths. Colbern devoted her talents to perfecting violin; Everett abandoned violin for piano and voice; Hart added guitar and vocals and composition, just as Henry was getting his musical footing with cello.

I like to think their success came from exposure to jazz and opera and rock and Mississippi blues as much as from genetics. We danced like crazy to country tunes and twisted to the Beatles and swayed to the crying of Roy Orbison.

With so many instruments and all that playing, it was natural that we included a music room when we renovated the house in Raleigh. It was an interactive place for all seasons, with huge, paned windows on three sides and three sets of French doors, one which opened outside to the stone porch and side yard, and the two others which opened to the living room and framed its fireplace.
I could hear the strains of human musical endeavor mingle with the sounds of the birds and trees as I worked in the garden. In the evenings, a pair of Anglo Indian bell jar lanterns lit the space. And in that room were the piano, a cello, a 19th-century duet stand with candles for illumination, a viola, several violins of varying sizes, an electric violin, two acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, an electric bass, at least two amplifiers, bongos and, for a while, a borrowed drum set.

The children’s friends gravitated to that area of the house, attracted at first by the piano, then by the promise of creativity. All those instruments wanted to be played. The room witnessed the early efforts of fledgling rock bands, proof of practice in classical concerts, old-fashioned Christmas caroling and even dogs howling to accompany the singing strings. It served beautifully as the wine and champagne bar when we hosted huge parties. From time to time we hired a professional pianist to entertain our guests. The gleaming hardwoods created just enough echo for acoustical depth and provided an excellent floor for feet that could not be stilled. My parents danced in that room on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

Not long ago, Colbern visited Raleigh and stopped by our old house, and the new owners generously invited her in to show her the changes they’d made. It broke my heart to hear that our music room, with its architectural beauty and poetic possibilities, is, for now, an office. But, what else could it be? The music moved with us to California, and it now fills this house every day.

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  • Rex Crippen August 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Another rather more personal piece reflecting a precise history of the role of music in the family, and it’s

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