Minor Triumph in a Major Key

MandolinUniversity of Washington, Seattle campus (back when Seattle was the only campus); January, 1980 – I am in the dorm room of the man who would soon become my roomie and life-long friend, Brian Culver. His roomie at the time was named J. Not short for anything, just J.

It’s the weekend before first week of the quarter. Everybody is back from Christmas break and wandering around to one another’s rooms, talking, eating, drinking, being sociable. It was a fun time. My roommate at the time, Brian Mayer, and I were walking around from room to room, meeting people and eating their snacks. We lived on the third floor; J and Brian lived on the first floor. Their room appeared to be some kind of a hub — it had more people and bustle than most of the rooms. A radio was playing, loud enough to hear what was on, but not too loud to talk over.

Brian and J were a contrast in opposites. Brian was solid and hirsute; J was slightish and not terribly hairy. Brian was a devout Roman Catholic; J was a devout atheist. At the time I was what a less sophisticated writer might call “a seeker.” My roomie Brian was a devout Methodist. We were in the Navy ROTC together.

J had a mandolin. It was being passed around, and people were plunking notes on it. I had never played a mandolin before. Shoot, I had never even held a mandolin before. I asked if I could fiddle with it. He said sure and handed it over.

I had been plunking on it for a minute or two when Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae” came on the radio. For those of you who don’t know it, this song has a killer mandolin solo near the end. Cool coincidence.

I should say that I have a good ear for music. I can’t read music any faster than I can read Greek, which is to say I can look at the letters and go, “um, that’s a gamma, and that’s an eta, and that’s another gamma” and so forth and ultimately put together a pronunciation, probably wrong. And of course still not know what it means. I can look at a page of music and with a little time I can say, “Hmm, that’s a D. But it’s in some key where D is sharped, so it’s a D#. Okay that next note is an F,” and so forth. Sight read? Hehe. Don’t be silly.

All of the singing I have done in church choirs has been entirely by ear. Play something for me, let me sing it one or two times, and let me go. I have learned a ton of Orthodox hymnody this way. Oh, sure, I can look at the notes and see whether I’m going up or going down from one note to the next, but by the time I could work out what the two notes were, and what the interval between them was, the song would have moved on two bars. And I can name intervals better than I can pick them out when named. I sing by ear.

Thankfully, as I have said, I have a pretty good ear. Memorizing popular music is one of the few natural talents I have. Sadly there’s not much of a job market in song memorization, or I’d be a rich man.

So here comes “Maggie Mae” on the radio. I’m standing in a dorm room full of college students with a mandolin in my hands. In about three minutes there is going to be a killer mandolin solo, a solo I know note for note. With an evil grin, I walk over to the far corner of the room and start quietly plunking.

Yep, you guessed it.

When the mandolin solo on the record came, I stepped into the middle of the room with a flourish, and played along with it note for note. I may have made one or two small flubs but they went unnoticed. For one shining minute (or thirty seconds or however long the mandolin solo on “Maggie Mae” lasts), I was the rock solid center of attention of a small knot of college students, playing an instrument I had just touched for the first time five minutes before, note for note along with a famous song playing on the radio.

I’d say I live for moments like that, but I haven’t had but one of them. I can’t say I was in my element because playing the mandolin was never, and has not since become, my element (although I have since played guitar in a coffee house or two, which was a wonderful experience). This was truly a one-off. But oh my soul, did I love it.

The song ended and I got a round of applause, took a bow, and handed the mandolin back to J. Aside from some chatter about how nobody could believe I’d never played the mandolin before, the moment was gone. But (obviously) I carry that moment with me to this day. Whenever I really and totally screw something up, which, sadly, is an all-too-regular occurrence, I can bring this memory back to mind. I hope everybody has a memory like this to use for just that purpose.

And if you know of a career path for people whose only skill in life is to memorize pop songs, drop me an email. Thanks.

Copyright © 2010-2015 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

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