Musically Illiterate

Mariachis playing in Mariachi Plaza (image from

I have zero musical ability. Well, I suppose it depends on how you define ability. I have music -> visual Synesthesia. That means I see music as patterns, movement and colors. It’s very pretty. I’ve never known anything else so I don’t know how you people see your music. I guess you don’t. How boring for you.

I also have perfect pitch. I sing off-key. I can’t stand to hear myself singing. I went out to dinner with some friends on Sunday night to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in East Los Angeles not far from where I used to live. They make guacamole right there to order. The restaurant is not far from Mariachi plaza. Basically, it’s where a bunch of Mariachi musicians stand around in case they’re needed. If you want to hire a Mariachi band for a party, that’s the place to go.

Mariachis playing in Mariachi Plaza (image from
Mariachis playing in Mariachi Plaza (image from

The restaurant had a few Mariachi’s playing that probably came from Mariachi Plaza. They also had a singer who was terribly off-key. I sat there for the whole meal cringing at his voice. It ruined the evening for me. That’s how I feel when I hear myself singing. I have to turn the volume way up to drown out my caterwauling if I want to sing along to the radio.

I can tell bad music when I hear it. And I can see music instead of just hearing it. I’m not sure that equals musical talent.

When I was a kid, my mom wanted me to learn an instrument. My mom plays piano. We had one in our living room. I hate the piano. I took lessons, but I didn’t have an aptitude for it. You have to move both your hands and your feet independently of each other? No way! I was not destined to be a drummer or a pianist.

When I was in elementary school, they had band day. We were all encouraged to pick an instrument. Most of the girls chose flute or clarinet. Most of the boys chose trumpet or trombone. Being the shy kid that I was, I was hardly first in line, so by the time I got up there, all that was left were the instruments no one wanted. I chose French horn because you played it with one hand, the left, and I’m left-handed. Plus, I love the sound of the French Horn. It is one of my favorite instruments.

Somehow, I completely missed the part of class where we learned how to read music. To this day, I still have no idea how to read music. I played the French horn for a few years. I did recitals and took private lessons. I was pretty good at it, but I never learned how to read music. I faked it the whole time.

Whenever we started rehearsing a new piece of music, I would only pretend to play along. I would listen to the other instruments’ parts. I would visualize how it all fit together. I would figure out where my part went, and learn it by trial and error until I had it. When my mom put me in weekly private lessons, it helped. I’d take the sheet music to my teacher and he would record it on a tape. Easy peasy.

Some people seem to think my musical fakery is remarkable. It’s amazing that you were able to fake it like that! I never told anyone about it at the time. I was embarrassed and completely terrified that I’d be found out. Nobody ever caught on, not even my private music teacher. I survived with my terrible secret undiscovered.

On Christmas this year, I went to a party at my best friend’s house. Most of my friends are musically talented and it somehow turned into a play around with music type event. There was a violin, piano, two accordions, a guitar, a wood flute and drums. Someone handed me a cute little pink ukulele. The guitar player sitting next to me asked me if I knew I was holding it upside-down. “No, I didn’t, but I am left-handed so that’s not surprising. I do everything backwards or upside-down.” He said, “Ah, just like Jimi.”

Left-handed Jimi Hendrix playing a right-handed guitar upside-down.

As if. I have no idea how to play any string instrument, let alone ukulele, but my musical fakery kicked in again. I closed my eyes and looked at what they were doing and soon found the notes through trial and error. I was plucking along with the right sounds. I wasn’t ready for a solo, but I did manage to find the notes.

All this made me strangely yearn for musical fakery again. It made me wish that I really could play an instrument. I told Male, whose addition to the Christmas musicality was trying to play a jug, and he said that he wants a cornet. We joked about starting our own brass section. I even looked at French horns and cornets for sale online until I realized how expensive they are. Some small part of me wants to try to learn an instrument, not even horn necessarily, but maybe some other instrument. It would be nice to finally know how to play the right way.

Y’all should be thankful I didn’t decide to take up singing.