Sunday morning dawns musical, always. Even in the coldest weather, the birds sing clearly in the early quiet hours of a Sunday morning. I can hear them in the trees: their quavering voices penetrate the ice-cold windowpanes, and birdsong fills the rooms of this tree-house of an apartment.
Sunday morning is my time for tuning up musical instruments.
I always begin with the acoustic guitar, the one with the domed maple top and cutaway that lets you get easily to those sweetest, highest notes. It is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased for myself, and that was back in the 1990s, when there were all manner of expensive things were more easy to acquire.
This guitar is never much out of tune, ever. Perhaps a string or two here or there. I think this is the result of my tuning and playing it often. The tolerances hold, if you tend to them. Also, it’s a very finely made instrument.
I remember something that some Esquimaux people said on a documentary show that I once saw: that wood stays alive long after it is cut and shaped into whatever thing that has been decided for it to be next. That’s why the wood will creak and groan and send out delicious smells one hundred years after it has been shaped into the baseboards and doors of your house, or your guitar, or whatever — because it is still alive and responding to changes in the environment, and still wants to talk to you.
Also, many musicians will tell you that you have to play your instruments often, because if you don’t, they will get resentful, lose their tone, and start to die, maybe even commit suicide. All those bits of wood and enamel and pearl inlay and keyboard keys — they are always wanting to move and feel alive.
Can you blame them?
I respect this idea and believe it out of experience. I know that my instruments sound good when I take the time to tend to them and play them.
The electric guitar is next. I haven’t changed the strings in over five years, and that is on purpose: they are stretched so tight that you could never pull them out of tune even if you tried. I like the sound of it: strong and brash and unwavering. I dust off all the parts and make sure everything is clean. Sometimes I plug this guitar into my Swollen Pickle pedal so I can get the Total Fuzz sound and pretend that I am Syd Barrett. I like to dream, you know.
The electric piano is next. There’s nothing you can do to tune it, but because it is an analog instrument with tubes and capacitators, dust and neglect are the worst enemies. You absolutely have to play and clean an electric piano or organ often to keep the keys in good operating shape. If dust gets in there and is allowed to build up, the contact of the keys is compromised. Once that happens, your sound gets spotty or cuts out altogether.
I can get lost for a long time playing this electric piano. It has two piano tones, and two harpsichord ones, and you can also blend them and add decay. Whenever I play the harpsichord tones, which sound like tight and bouncy springs or strings being plucked and chimed, my cats always jump up behind me on the bed and watch until I’m forced to look around to see two sets of animal eyes focused on me, listening and staring with big-eyed wonder. Apparently they really like this particular sound, which to me sounds like the soundtrack of a 1970s Addams Family show. But I love it too, so we’re all on the same page. (Or maybe the same blanket of the bed.)
Sometimes, on these mornings, I recall other Sunday mornings a long time ago, when I had a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker set up in my living room. I used to wake at dawn, drift downstairs, and put a pot of coffee on. You had to push two switches over at the same time and hold them so for several seconds to get the organ and Leslie speaker to fire up, but after that, you were good to go. Sometimes I would make a bowl of waffle batter, and invite friends over for brunch. I spent many of those mornings on the organ working out “Oh What A Fellowship,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Green Onions,” “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and anything else I could remember off the KLBB radio playlist or from early days at Catholic school.
At some point late in the morning, my boyfriend would tumble downstairs in his bathrobe requesting his favorite hymn, “Oh What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” because, as he explained, “I really like the idea of Jesus being a friendly guy who wears sandals.” Which to me implied that you could probably also manage to play Frisbee and Hackysack and do bong-hits with Jesus, if you could only bring up the idea to Him in just the right way.
We jokingly called these mornings “Church,” and they were an amalgam of spirituals, jazz, and 1960s top 40 hits, all sounding very good when played on a Hammond organ with Leslie speaker (usually on the slow speed, but faster for certain moments). We made up insane stoner lyrics to every song, although we never actually smoked any weed.
(Which reminds me, remember when you could simply get high on life?)
My accordion requires no tuning either, but you have to play it to keep the bellows from drying up and cracking, and also to blast out any accumulating dust. Next I check the autoharp and zither, which hardly ever change their pitch, but like to be touched and played all the same.
The violin is last. Tuning a violin is like a solving quantum physics problem — everything is relative. You might even have to factor in that your fingers are a little bit more swollen or shrunken than they were last Sunday. A violin is so small, if your fingernails are even a bit longer, it will manage to sound different.
I can get lost on the violin for a long time, too. With Christmas carols, Bach partitas, the Vivaldi “Winter” thing that I am always trying to master but can never quite get…
Lately a friend and I have been playing old school English and Irish music that drones or reels or dances merrily along, and then sometimes we play a Velvet Underground tune and add a space jam at the end. I like being able to do that. Violin is the only instrument besides my voice that I’ve ever felt I’ve been able to make sing.
Yes, Sunday morning dawns musical. I hear the birds singing in this crazy tree-house of an apartment, and there is no place I would rather be, except maybe back in my old house with the Hammond B3 organ… just keep that sucker clean and play it, no tuning required.