It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…
You are born, as most people are, to two parents. A mother, an Israeli artist who once sang in the choirs of Tel Aviv, and a father, a charismatic but utterly tone-deaf New York jew.
As a child you are intelligent, creative, and sensitive, with an inner emotional geography you will spend years learning to navigate. You are technically curious, a predisposition which leads many to the sciences. You start reading very young.
Your mother, who never learned to read music, wants better for her children. You and your sisters take lessons from a young age, but it never quite clicks. You all do fine, but there is no innate grasp, no intuitive understanding. The deeper logic remains inscrutable to you, despite superficial progress. And yet, something in you wonders that if only you could speak this strange foreign tongue, you might have something to say.
You grow older. You have a few close friends, and you get along well, but mostly your peers don’t know what to do with you. Your interests are too random, your emotions too exuberant. You float, peripheral, not really a part of anything.
You stick with music. What you lack in specific talent you make up for with general ability, a trick you will repeat in the years to come. You are less a musician than a musical technician, memorizing sequences of notes, oblivious to any inner structure. You never know quite what’s happening, or why. But it’s something to do, and the people are nice.
You develop a crush on a girl in your ninth-grade english class. She’s pretty and makes you laugh. One day the sun catches her just right, lighting a fire in you which will burn red-hot for four years. She’s a talented musician. With a child’s dream-logic, you convince yourself that if you make it to the top group, you’ll be together.
Practice is every day. You play your part, but occasionally your deficiencies are revealed. The time your band director stops the rehearsal and demands, loudly, that you tune your instrument. The time your section-mate hears you singing in line at a Taco Bell and asks you to stop. Each time, your neck turns scarlet. You buy a tuning whistle, and you stop singing.
Still, every year you advance. Not everyone does.
On balance, there are worse ways to spend the teens. You’re exposed to arts and culture. You travel. You feel moments of camaraderie and occasionally, transcendence. Your senior year, you make it to the top group. At the end of the year, your section chair gives you the closest thing you get to a compliment. He tells you you were better than he thought you’d be.
You actually go out one night, with the girl. You walk along the beach drinking soda. You’re not sure if it’s a date. You’re not sure about anything. You’ve never kissed a girl before. You wonder if this is the night.
It’s not. You go off to college, and she fades away.
In college, you’re a hit. You’re as quirky as ever but tastes have changed. You’ve grown into your body, and your Aquarian charisma is magnetic. You have many friends, and for the first time, admirers. You’re not sure what to do with them. You never learned how to get close. Curiously, one of them sticks around.
For the first time, you discover other Jews. They seem so interesting and attractive. You want to be around them, but they sing songs that you’ve never heard before. You try, but eventually you realize that you’re not quite a part of it.
Still, something about this music resonates deeply. Many years later, a man in Brooklyn will tell you that God isn’t light, but sound.
Years pass. Your energy is prodigious. You achieve high levels of skill in technical subjects. You help start organizations, initiatives, projects. You move from place to place accumulating experiences, both mystical and mundane. You phase through groups of friends, communities, relationships. They all have their charm, but nothing sticks. You’re on a long, solo trip, to a destination unknown.
From time to time, you flirt with music, but something always comes up.
One week, while you’re living in Israel, a friend invites you to a jam session with his friends. You’ve never been to one. You’re flattered by the invite and come along. You start to play, and they quickly realize you don’t know what you’re doing. Your friend takes pity on you and tells you which chord to strum. Your neck gets hot again. This feels familiar.
Your friend walks you out. He just had a kid, he says. He has no time for himself. But you do. You think he has a point. You reach out to a voice teacher you know. You meet for a consultation. She’s heard worse, she says, and you have a nice voice. She takes you on.
You work with her for several months. You spend hours at home, picking out notes on a second-hand Casio, matching tones. It’s slow going and monotonous, but you’ve got nowhere to be. Slowly, your accuracy improves. Your ear develops. You learn your range, two octaves from C to C.
There’s a nice moment in Israel, at the end. An intersection of people, place, and time. The air has a certain sweetness, the light a certain sparkle. You are all singing, and this time you know the words. Together, you hit the highs. In the back of your mind you start to wonder, am I a part of this?
You stop the thought before it forms. You’d rather not know the answer.
You move back to California, to chase a dream. The pandemic sets in, and suddenly you have a lot of time and a lot of feelings. You flirt with drinking, but decide it’s too gauche. You pick up a keyboard and some books, and you start playing chords.
It’s slow going and monotonous, but you’ve got nowhere to be. You know what you want, this time around. Slowly, shapes break through the fog. Scales, progressions, tension, release. Melodic development. Basic principles. You learn one pop song, then another. You practice your improvisation. You’re bad, but at least you know it, and you’re enjoying the process. You like having something to share.
Almost two years pass before you’re back in Israel. Your friend invites you to another jam session. You figure it’s time to try again. You sit down at the keyboard. Your friend tells you to start, and they’ll join in. You’re thinking. They’re waiting, expectantly. Your mind goes blank. This is a lot of pressure. The ghosts are watching you. Your neck is getting hot again.
Please, you think, let me make new memory.
You take a breath. Just pick a key. Songs have keys. How about G? You’re learning a song in G. You play the root chord. It sounds nice. You play it again. This is a start.
What next? The ghost of Leonard Cohen whispers something in your ear. You think, why not. You play the fourth, the fifth. The simplest song in the world, but tonight it’s yours. You loop the sequence, keeping time as steady as you can. Your friends pick up what you’re putting down, adding lines of their own devising. You make small variations in rhythm, volume. Cautiously, you start improvising with the right hand. It sounds like music. Your friends tell you to play louder.
Your song ends, and someone kicks off another. They tell you the key and you take it from there. Each time you start with the basics, then try to make it interesting. Repetition, variation, rinse, repeat. Establish familiarity, depart, then return. Nothing too crazy, nothing too random. Up to add tension, down to release. It’s a little like sex, in that way. Once in a while you get flustered, lost. You take a breath and return to fundamentals.
No one ever needed you to be brilliant, you realize. Just consistent.
You go for over an hour. After the jam, the five of you kick back on the couch, swapping stories and smoking spliffs. You feel strangely open, and at ease. You’re trying to name the feeling. Intimacy, without fear of loss. You think there might be a word for it.
In the grand scheme of things, this is only a small moment. But you’re a part of it.