So I have these musical instruments in my house. Quite nice ones.
They fall into two types: concertinas and ukuleles. But they both represent the same thing: a dream deferred.
Before I discovered improv, I was a pretty serious amateur musician. Not really good, but enthusiastic.
The concertina is an antiquated, accordion-like instrument. It was developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone in England in the Victorian Era. It started out as an instrument used for chamber music. But these days it’s largely used in folk music… especially for playing Irish traditional music.
I literally stumbled across the concertina in a drunken haze one night. I was at Opal Divine’s, a pub on 6th street, when I happened to see an Irish music session going on. There was a concertina player, and I was enchanted. Not too long thereafter, I purchased one for myself… the cheapest one I could find.
That led to me playing/learning for a while on the tops of parking garages at IBM. I lived in an apartment at the time and was paranoid that the noise would anger my neighbors. So it’d be the dead of night, and I’d be playing my little heart out, trying to figure out the basics of this arcane instrument.
But here’s the thing. The concertina has a perplexing layout of notes. And they’re different notes depending on if the bellows are going in or going out. It’s a hard instrument to play.
So I looked around and took a week-long workshop with Noel Hill, arguably the best concertina player in the world. He’s really incredible. I learned a lot, but still sucked.
I went on to take two more week long intensives with him, including one trip to Ireland where we lived in little thatched cottages and lived and breathed music.
I did better, slowly but surely. I also commissioned a concertina of my own from Wally Carroll. He’d just started making them, and I got #9. It was designed to recreate the magic of old Wheatstone concertinas. It is a thing of beauty, and my most prized possession.
After a while, I got frustrated with the concertina. It’s hard to play, and I’d kind of hit a wall with it. I don’t remember why, but I decided to learn the ukulele, since it’s supposed to be easy to play. I figured I’d play the uke whenever the concertina frustrated me too much.
I took to the uke right away, and made up a song within a week of owning it. It’s called “When You’re Dead”, and it’s still the 2nd best song I’ve written.
When You’re Dead – Roy Janik
I shopped around for someone to teach me, and set my sights almost immediately on local legend Pops Bayless. He was in the Asylum Street Spankers, he’s really good, and he lives in Austin.
I went and saw him play with his band Shorty Long, and afterwards asked if he taught lessons. He said “That’s what I do.”
Awesome. I started going to weekly lessons at his house, where he mentored me in the mysteries of the ukulele. He taught me technique, told me why stuff worked, and in general filtered life, the universe and everything through his cantankerous world-view. I brought whiskey. It was wonderful.
Then I got swept up into improv and it transformed my life. It started creeping into all my spare time, and then into my time that wasn’t spare. It gave me friends, it gave me a creative outlet, it gave me a girlfriend (now my wife), and so on and so forth.
So yeah, I slacked off on the uke… and slacked off even more on the concertina. Pops eventually cut me loose. He said it was because he wasn’t good at teaching the advanced stuff and that I’d made enough progress… and maybe he even felt that way. But really it was because I’d plateaued out. My passion had moved on, and I wasn’t putting in the amount of work needed to make progress.
So now I’ve got these instruments in my house. I’ve got a custom built concertina, and I’ve got a really nice koa wood ukulele.
And the thing is, I still love them.
I still yearn to play them. And now mixed up with all that is this sense of guilt and regret. How good could I be at both instruments if I’d just stuck with them for the past, ummm… 7 years? The answer is pretty good.
And now when my eyes fall on the concertina or uke, I get this weird sense of failure, or loss, or something like that. That sucks, because they’ve been such a source of joy in my life. There’s no need for that.
But on the other hand, I’ve built a life for myself with improv. I’ve found my life’s work, or at the very least, a very significant part of my life’s work. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been a part of something that has changed other peoples’ lives for the better.
So there’s no regrets. Or, there shouldn’t be, anyways. It’s been non-stop. It’s been all-hands-on-deck for a while now.
And what’s life but choices? For everything you do, there’s something you’re not doing. I attended a lecture by The Fatman (another legend, this time in video game sound design), and he said something like “There’s no one right thing to do. There’s a million right things.” That’s stuck with me.
But still… I often feel like I’ve let it go too long. That I missed my opportunity to do these other things.
But hey. I think that slowly I’m getting a grip on things. I’m getting more focused, more organized.
And I think that maybe I can start picking up the uke again… playing a few hornpipes on the concertina again.
There’s no time for regrets. You can’t let regret for the past destroy your future.
Just gotta move forward.