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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 1, 2003

If at first you don't succeed ...

By David Shapiro

My 6-year-old grandson Corwin had been singing "America" in school and wanted some help.

He dragged out his drum set, then collected every other musical instrument in the house and piled them on my lap — the electronic keyboard, the autoharp, the pennywhistle, the Italian accordion.

"Let's make a band," he said.

I went through the instruments one by one, but was unable to wring a tune from any of them. I fetched my harmonica, and after a half-hour of sweaty labor, was able to wheeze out the first eight bars of "America."

"Hey, Corwin," I said proudly, "listen to this."

But he had long since moved on to battling the forces of evil with his Pokeman figures. It wasn't the tune of "America" that was giving him trouble, anyway, but trying to divine meaning from the lyric, "My country 'tis of thee ... "

Corwin left me to reflect on my most disappointing failure of the year: I was ending 2002 as musically inept as I started.

I'm usually not one for New Year's resolutions, but I did vow to learn a musical instrument in 2002 and be able to competently perform three tunes by year's end.

I used to play guitar until a disability left me unable to finger chords with my left hand.

I was never good at it, to be truthful, though I've been known to boast of virtuosity now that I no longer have to prove it. The guitar's value in my life was as a stress buster. The day's frustrations peeled away when I became lost in folk syncopations and blues riffs.

I was inspired to find a way back into music when I once heard U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye play a moving and quite skillful left-handed piano rendition of "Danny Boy," which he learned at the rehabilitation facility where he was sent after losing his right arm in World War II combat.

Inouye said his therapists required each patient to learn a musical instrument and perform one song before being discharged. They believed that no disability should hold back anybody from participating in the joy of making music.

I started my musical rebirth by trying to play guitar with a slide. I picked strings with the right hand as usual, while trying to make left-handed notes with a metal slide instead of my fingers. But I lacked dexterity to stop the slide at exactly the right place on the fret board. As anybody who has attended a youth violin recital knows, close enough isn't nearly close enough.

I next tried the autoharp, figuring I could pick and strum with the right hand while needing only to push buttons to make chords with the left hand. It was discouraging that I wasn't nimble enough on the left side to even push buttons in rhythm.

That drove me to take a cue from Inouye and try my hand at the piano. But after so many years of playing stringed instruments, I had no feel for the theory of the piano. There's little written music for one-handed piano, and when I tried playing by ear, I didn't intuitively know where the notes were as I once had on guitar.

Progress is slow on the harmonica, but at least it's good breathing exercise even if no pleasing sounds spring from the reeds.

"Don't worry, Zeyde," Corwin said. "Old mens can still learn."

He's right. But I'm setting a more realistic goal for 2003, resolving to bring music back into my life by learning to play the stereo again.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.