melody, harmony and gratitude for musical brothers

by rebecca on November 18, 2012

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My brother, Steve Mullen, made music Rockstar Fabulous and approachable at the same time. He’s been interested in music as long as he’s been interested in baseball, which is to say all his life, and with equal, giddy fascination.

All my memories with him are tied up with music. 9 years my senior, I remember visiting him in Chicago while I was on my summer vacations from high school. He’d spend hours in the recording studio and I never tired of the engineer’s booth with a thousand sliding buttons, stale popcorn and burned coffee.

Watching Through the Glass

I know what it’s like to listen to a crowd of bandies imitate the exact pacing of Every Breath You Take in hopes of scoring the next big hit, and I heard how many people give my brother a hard time because he wouldn’t take a day off  from the practice room.

I remember the look on my mother’s face when she came home to find our piano missing. A guitarist takes his guitar with him to his gig. My brother felt no differently about his instrument. He came by the house with a pickup and a few burly friends, loaded up the piano and away they went.

His career has similarly known no bounds ever since.

He’s one of those rare birds that, at 56, has made his living, every last buck, from touching the keys of a piano. These days he’s got a pretty nice baby grand in his living room, a song on the charts, and a host of film scores to his name.

Instruments Unite Us

He teaches at The Art Institute of Chicago where he tells his students about the amazing power of a simple instrument like the banjo. The banjo was originally an African instrument, but slaves weren’t allowed to bring it over on the ships. It went through many iterations, changing hands through class and race from hillbillies to socialites. Most recently the banjo appeared in a GAP ad on television.

Instruments bring us together.

“I guess it is the desire to have a much more nuanced cultural discussion than we seem to be capable of that sends me to music.   The idea that there may be numerous points-of-view, all with beauty and validity, is not a foreign concept to the musician,” says my brother in one of his essays. Steve talks about how many melody lines can co-exist simultaneously in a musician’s palette.

We talk about this a lot. Especially during election season when so many voices are looking to cancel each other out rather than find true harmony.

 Music Lessons for an Expansive Life

My brother-in-law, Andrew Pettit, is also a musician. He began offering impromptu viola lessons to my daughter at a young age.

I have fond memories of a hot family reunion in Nebraska. To escape the heat Andrew, my daughter and several others retreated to the basement where they found an abandoned piano. The keys were like an old man who neglected to put his bridge in his mouth, with big gaps, the keys that were there were cracked and sharp. It was terribly out of tune.

But the neglected state of the instrument didn’t stop Andrew. Filled with passion and precision, he wanted to draw only the largest expression out of this stunned little girl, and the ancient, out of tune piano in a forgotten basement wasn’t about to hinder him.

His 6 foot 1 frame towered over her tiny body and pulled music from her fingers with his voice. He sang the lines of familiar songs she was playing with new phrasing as his arms windmilled though the mildewed air of that basement. She sat mesmerized and echoed him, each note out of tune and completely lovely.

Music, in the best moments, sweeps us away to some other place. The message I took away from the cracked and sour sounding keys on that rickety upright piano was that earnest music has little to do with the instrument. It is about a Voice much deeper than pitch perfect clarity. True music is about community, unity and the discovery of our own basement sounds.

Travel and Return

Andrew grew up playing the viola and was accepted to Peabody Music Institute where he spent a single semester before he realized the narrow path of concert musician was not for him.

He left the college to make wine.

As intoxicating as that dream was, music kept beckoning Andrew and he taught himself to play the sitar. He had the good fortune to then study with a master who invited him to India. Andrew fell in love with the culture as well as the music.

He applied for and was accepted at the ethnomusicology department of UCLA. That’s a fancy way of saying he studies how music affects cultures. Just after he began studying lullabies, he was awarded the Fulbright scholarship and traveled back to India to do further research for his doctoral dissertation.

I think about how lucky I am to be surrounded in such sound. My children have sat in Andrew’s living room listening to him play the sitar as well as asking “Where is this?” when they hear what my brother, Steve, has done with an Alan Lomax recording.

Music allows us to travel, to reach across a great divide and to give Voice to something greater than ourselves. All this we do with the ease of humming a melody. Thank you, brothers of mine, for making something so wondrous so accessible.

I hope you will join me for this month of soulful gratitude. Leave a comment and tell me what small thing is bringing you happiness. Come talk with me Tuesday, November 20 @ 10am PST/ 12 CST/ 1 pm EST  when we’ll be chatting about the power of melody, harmony and the wonders of recording gratitude.

To be a part of that call simply dial (805) 399-1200 then enter your *secret code* 208594#
*Long distance rates will apply, but otherwise the call is free.

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