A while back I went to Shabbat dinner at my friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s house. At a certain stage, he handed out booklets and we all sang together. I’m not Jewish so it was new to me, in a wonderful way, and I felt jealous that we did not all sing together in my house. I wondered why not? Why is singing together and making music not something we do everyday?
Part of it was the stereo. Why would you try to sing or play an instrument yourself if you can buy a CD where somebody else can do it so much better? I’ve picked up the guitar ten different times in my life but never been satisfied because I couldn’t play a song that even came close to resembling whoever I was trying to copy at the time.
But why does making music have to sound like someone else? Why is there some standard of perfection to adhere to? When I had dinner at Rabbi Steve’s, there was no perfection. That wasn’t what made it great. What made it great was the togetherness. We sang and gently tapped on the table to the beat and smiled at each other and pointed to the correct line in the books when we lost our place. It wasn't about perfection; it was about connection.
For a while there after that, I looked for a second-hand guitar (there’s no buying anything new on the project), but it didn’t work out and the idea kind of fell through. A few weeks ago, though, my friend Michelle Casillas, the lovely and beautiful musician who leads the New York band Ursa Minor, brought over a nylon string guitar for me to borrow.
She told me I could play just about any song I wanted with just about three chords: A, D and E. I knew the chords already from my previous sojourns into guitar playing. What I didn’t know how to do was accept my mediocrity.
This time on the guitar was different, though. I wasn’t trying to get something to sound as good as my iPod. I just wanted the experience of singing and playing together with my family and friends and Isabella, my little girl. This time, because there was no stereo to compete with—and because we missed music—I was willing to just accept the best I could do.
The obsession with perfection that comes with the consumer culture has made many of us ashamed of our creative efforts. Few of us sing—especially not in front of each other—because we know of so many who can do it better. Few of us show our paintings for the same reason. But why is the best always so important? Besides, why waste our time making admittedly mediocre music or art when we can just plop on the couch, watch TV and eat potato chips?
Well, as it happens, the best isn’t so important to my two-and-half-year-old daughter Isabella. Because the other night, when I sat beside her bed and very haltingly figured out how to play Puff the Magic Dragon using those A, D and E chords, she looked at me and said the one sentence I live my life to hear from her: “Daddy, I’m so happy.”
PS If you feel like unplugging your ears from the iPod and blowing the dust off your old guitar, the chord chart above is just for you (and it comes courtesy of the League of Guitarists).