When the Band Begins to Play

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.

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By far the coolest hats in school. photo credit: Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view Red Raider Marching Band Pulaski H.S. ~ Wisconsin via photopin (license)

After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.

But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.

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What I thought I looked like.

More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.

I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.

This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.

Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.

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What I actually looked like.

But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.

The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.

Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.

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A Little Big Night Out

In 1529, painter Gaudenzio Ferrari produced his Madonna of the Orange Trees, which includes the oldest known depiction of a violin. One of several stringed instruments to emerge from Northern Italy in the 16th century, this violone, played by an infant at the feet of the Madonna, was the first of many to appear in Ferrari’s works.

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I know string players tend to start young, but this just seems ridiculous to me. By Gaudenzio Ferrari – Church of St. Cristoforo, Vercelli, Italy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The instrument itself was representative of a family of stringed instruments termed the viola da braccio, all similar in appearance, but available in a variety of sizes, including the viola, the violin (or the cutie little viola), and the violoncello, which according to the most strenuously evaluated internet sources literally translates as the “little big viola.”

So it probably makes sense that the name of that last one would eventually be shortened to the cello. It must have been a very confused instrument.

Actually, I think it still might be, because earlier this week my husband and I enjoyed a night out at the Fabulous Fox Theater here in St. Louis attending a cello concert, and I’m still kind of reeling from one of the most wonderfully confusing performances I’ve ever witnessed.

The show featured 2Cellos, a pair of young classically trained cellists who have decided it might be fun to be rock stars instead of always just being the soft spoken nerdy guys that play in the symphony.

Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic met as teenagers while training at a master class in Croatia. Both are phenomenal musicians with all kinds of impressive credits to their names, and at one time could have been considered rival musicians. But then they made a YouTube video together in which they played a cello arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and the world went crazy for it. It was amazing. And fascinating. Also maybe a little bit confusing.

cellos
The plural of cello can also be celli, but I think we can all agree that “2Celli” would be a stupid name. photo credit: misterlevel IMG_0928 via photopin (license)

Of course you might know more about these things than I do, but as a person who is not a classically (or otherwise) trained cellist, I had no idea the instrument could be so versatile.

The concert began with a series of really beautiful arrangements of movie scores followed by the polite applause one might expect from a well mannered classical concert-going crowd out for a fine evening in a fancy venue. Then it shifted directions and became instead a rowdy rock n roll show featuring songs originally performed (but not as well) by the likes of ACDC. This part of the show saw one of the musicians sliding on his back across the stage while he riffed ON HIS CELLO! I think I even saw a pair of panties fly toward the stage.

It was surreal, but also incredibly impressive. Actually I’m finding it hard to figure out just the right words to describe it. In a way it might make sense to say that the concert was both little and big. So maybe those silly Italians knew what they were doing after all.

If you’re not familiar with 2Cellos, it’s worth checking them out on YouTube. Just be warned, you may need to set aside some time because it’s hard to stop. Here’s a good one to get you started:

A Bazillion Years Old Without a Single Tattoo

I haven’t been trying to notice, because I realize it probably says something unflattering about me that I do, but it seems to me like there are suddenly a lot of old people with tattoos.

I’m not against tattoos or anything. I don’t have any, nor do I have a desire to get one, but if you are a fan and have one or two or ten of your own, I promise I’m not judging you. It’s just that it’s recently occurred to me that quite a few people who are old enough to be my grandmother now have them. And it strikes me as odd because that used to be a pretty rare thing.

Of course, the people I’m referring to are not, in fact, old enough to be my grandmother. They are the age my grandmother was when I remember her most vividly, back when most of these tattooed folks were probably under forty.

oldtatts
Again, not judging, just observing a noticeable shift. This person looks nothing like my grandmother. photo credit: Neil. Moralee If you value your life; don’t touch the bike! via photopin (license)

But time moves on, doesn’t it? A few weeks ago, my husband and I got an opportunity to attend Pointfest, a concert festival put on by a local “alternative” radio station (105.7 the Point). The festival has been a staple in St. Louis since 1993 (when fewer old people had tattoos).

This was a special event for several reasons. First, even though our nephew had tickets for us, we weren’t sure we were going to get to go because we couldn’t find childcare (ouch) and because the show was on a school/work night (double ouch). Second, this wasn’t even really Pointfest. The radio station had dubbed this event Way Back Pointfest.

Fortunately, I have an awesome sister-in-law who stepped up at the last minute so we could display poor judgment and stay out late on a school night. The lineup looked pretty much like it did when I was in college, with bands from the way back that were alternative then (meaning I was pretty sure that the fact I listened to them meant I was just a little bit cooler than you), and have now become the older alternative to the alternative. And because I still listen to them, that means I’m probably older than you.

Goldfinger
I’m young enough to take most of my pictures with my smart phone, but old enough that I do it poorly.

Given that the world wide average life expectancy is around 71 years (for women, sorry fellas, yours is a couple years shorter), there’s a decent chance that I am. Because this week I will turn 40.

In some ways this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to wake up on the 40th anniversary of my birth and suddenly find that my hair has gone gray, my back hurts, and I have to hold books at arm’s length to be able to make out all those tiny letters.

To some extent, all of that has already happened. Or at least it’s been happening, little by little. I don’t mind so much. I know a few more gray hairs make me look wiser than I probably am. Strong backs and sharp eyes grow weaker over time, but I feel like I’ve made good use of my strength and I will continue to do so as long as I’m able. Barring the unexpected, that’s still quite a while yet.

But there are little parts of turning 40 that do kind of bug me, like when the average age of tattoo-bearing people increases noticeably, or my favorite bands are relegated to the way back, or I make a reference to something that happened twenty years ago and my college freshmen students look at me like I’ve just made a reference to an event that happed a bazillion years ago as if it happened yesterday. Of course I get it. Even though it feels like yesterday to me, for them it happened when they were babes, if they were even born at all.

To them (though they probably wouldn’t say it to my face because they’re nice people) their teacher might as well be a bazillion years old, too. And they’re not really wrong. The number 40 has all kinds of symbolic meaning across cultures and through several major world religions, the most common one being simply figurative. Forty is often used to represent a vaguely large number.

Like a bazillion.

forty cupcake
But once you get to bazillion, you can stop counting, right?

So, you might soon notice a slight change on this blog. For five and a half years, my Gravatar bio has identified me as a “thirty-something wife, mother, and writer…” Since my husband tells me there’s no such number as thirty-ten, I suppose I will have to change it.

But not for a few more days.

By the time I return to this space next Thursday to write about a topic that feels a little less personally insulting, I may have a few more gray hairs and my back will probably hurt and I might even be sitting a little farther from the computer screen so I can see all those tiny letters. I will be a bazillion-year-old wife, mother, and writer. But I still won’t have a tattoo.

To help me celebrate this momentous occasion, please enjoy this way, way back song from a ridiculously famous singer I’d never heard of because that was a bazillion years ago:

 

 

 

A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

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Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

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Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

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This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

The Rich Bird-Like Timbre of the Fourth Grade

This has been a big week in the life of my fourth grade son. Something he’s been looking forward to for a long time finally happened. Because in our school district, about half way through the school year, our fourth graders embark on a brand new adventure in musical education. They receive recorders.

henry-viii
This man could have rocked Harry Champion’s “I’m Henery the Eight, I am” on the recorder. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been blessed with children who love music. My oldest began piano lessons in Kindergarten and the last few years has shifted to playing the guitar in hopes of one day becoming his own one-man band. Meanwhile my youngest has a brilliant sense of pitch and rhythm, and when he’s in the mood, the voice of an angel. But a little more on the shy side than his brother, Son #2 hasn’t really taken a shine to musical performance. Other than a few months of piano lessons and a blessedly short-lived obsession with the bagpipe, he has more or less avoided playing an instrument.

So I was a little surprised he was super excited to receive his recorder. And even more surprised (and admittedly a little less delighted) that he was also super excited to practice playing it. In the living room. Pretty much all the time.

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Still the most unpleasant instrument in the world. photo credit: PeterThoeny Care for a scotch whiskey? via photopin (license)

I suppose it’s not the most unpleasant instrument in the world. It does have a long and glorious history, dating to at least as early as fourteenth century. Characterized as a flute with a whistle mouthpiece and seven holes in the front with one thumb hole in the back, the recorder emerged as a major musical force throughout the Renaissance. 

Valued for its narrow range and rich, bird-like timbre, it made an ideal instrument for ensembles, according to a lot of Renaissance composers who have never been in my living room when Son #1 decides to relive the glories of his fourth grade year and join in.

Even England’s King Henry VIII was a big fan, having in his possession at the time of his death a total of 78 recorders. Many of these were likely played by rotating musicians charged with providing a soundtrack for the monarch as he Supremely Headed the Church of England, warred with France, and divorced or beheaded his various wives. Rumor has it, Henry played a mean recorder, too, and just as Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, and others would later do, the king also composed for the funny little instrument.

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I think my biggest fear is that this new obsession with the recorder may rekindle his interest in the bagpipe.

Of course I have to assume that being so constantly surrounded by a chorus of recorders may have (along with the constant aches and pains of a long series of accidents and illnesses) contributed to Henry’s famous crankiness.

I know I haven’t particularly enjoyed the soundtrack at my house this past week. But at least on Saturday, when we had an almost 70 degree spring-like day (today it’s snowing, because it’s the Midwestern US), my brilliant husband suggested that my son take his practicing outside. I’m sure my neighbors enjoyed the rich, bird-like timbre.

A Hyena Caught in a Gin Trap

On November 6, 1745, Scotsman James Reid, who had been found guilty of treason and inciting a riot, was hanged in York. Reid had been a participant in the Jacobite Uprising that sought to restore the Stuart dynasty (and Catholicism) to the British throne, an uprising that finally failed at the Battle of Culloden in the Highlands of Scotland.

Nearly six hundred men were captured and taken back to England to face prosecution. But Reid’s case stands out because his defense was that he carried neither gun nor sword on the battle field.  He was guilty of nothing more, he claimed, than playing the bagpipes. The court debated, but in the end, it ruled that since Highlanders never marched without a piper to lead the charge, the bagpipe was a weapon of war.

It may look all innocent, but don't be fooled. This is a deadly weapon.  By Cyberhofi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It may look all innocent, but don’t be fooled. This is a deadly weapon. By Cyberhofi (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It may not seem that strange to view the instrument that way, as the reaction to bagpipes can often seem similar to the debate over the control of firearms.

Over the years there have been a number of attempts to restrict the playing of bagpipes, from Englishman Clive Hibberts’ ultimately unsuccessful 1999 “Campaign Against Bagpipes” to the city of Edinburgh’s 2008 threat to arrest anyone playing the pipes on the Royal Mile, a move that eventually led to street musicians being forced to sign acceptable behavior contracts with the city. In parts of Edinburgh, officials have gone so far as to prohibit the playing of even recorded bagpipe music through outdoor speakers of businesses.

And in New Zealand in 2011, bagpipes were added to the list of banned items (a list that includes flares and air horns) at the Rugby World Cup. Because even though bagpipes are part of a long noble tradition, beloved by perhaps dozens of people, a lot of us might agree with sportscaster Miles Davis who compared the sound of the bagpipes to “a hyena caught in a gin trap.”

I've never heard a trapped hyena scream, but I can't imagine it's a pleasant sound. photo credit: P8237087 via photopin (license)
I’ve never heard a trapped hyena scream, but I can’t imagine it’s a pleasant sound. photo credit: P8237087 via photopin (license)

While I don’t mind the occasional bagpipes in an outdoor ceremonial setting (that I can pretty quickly excuse myself from), I tend to fall into the hyena camp. So imagine my excitement when my eight-year-old informed me he would very much like to learn to play this most delightful of Scottish instruments.

It didn’t come as a total surprise. His iPod is filled with bagpipe music and it’s not uncommon to find him rocking out to “Scotland the Brave.” He’s even suggested before that he might want to learn. He’s just never sounded this serious. So I did what any loving, supportive parent would do.

I told him he would have to wear a skirt.

He wasn’t dissuaded.

I told him the skirt would have to be a purple plaid because according to his grandfather that is the family tartan.

He was still pretty adamant.

I told him he couldn’t wear underwear under his purple plaid skirt.

He grinned.

I even tried to convince him he'd rather be a drummer.  photo credit: Shotts Highland Games_1982 via photopin (license)
I even tried to convince him he’d rather be a drummer. photo credit: Shotts Highland Games_1982 via photopin (license)

I don’t dare tell him that his favorite instrument has been declared in a court of law to be a weapon of war, because this is a battle I fear I will lose. It turns out, he’s got a lot of people on his side. I’ve had offers to borrow a chanter so he can begin to learn before we invest in the full instrument. I’ve had friends send me links to college scholarship opportunities for bagpipe players. He’s even received multiple invitations from family and friends to practice at their homes, invitations he will be accepting. Often.

Because I’m a loving, supportive mom and I truly believe, or at least I sincerely hope, that if he tries it out he will lose interest. If he doesn’t, I guess I’ll get him a purple kilt, make him sign an acceptable behavior contract, and learn to love the sound of a hyena caught in a gin trap.

One Step Closer to Rock ‘n’ Roll

On the West Bank of the Nile at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, stands the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, one of only a handful of women who served as Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. Excavated by Howard Carter in 1903, the temple was designed by architect and all around important advisor Senenmut, who, according to historian locker room gossip, may have been Hatshepsut’s someone special.

The rumor is far from substantiated, but there’s a little evidence that Senenmut might have caused the Pharaoh’s heart to flutter, the most overlooked of which, I think, is that fact that near his own tomb, across the river, Senenmut honored his hired musician by having him buried nearby.

Hatshepsut, a woman worth hiring a rock star to impress. Postdlf from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hatshepsut, a woman worth hiring a rock star to impress. Posted from w [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The musician’s name was Har-Mose, and his coffin can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But that’s not the most impressive thing found in his tomb because buried with Har-Mose, about 3,500 years ago, was the oldest preserved guitar-like instrument that’s ever been found.

The instrument has only three strings, but it has an attached plectrum (or pick) as well as a carved cedar sound box and rawhide soundboard. In other words, it’s kind of a guitar. And like most rock stars, Har-Mose must have been pretty attached to his axe, since he was buried with it. Or, really, his employer Senenmut must have been attached, I’m guessing, because even in Ancient Egypt, a man with a guitar, had a good shot at getting the girl, even if she happened to be Pharaoh.

Okay, so that might be a stretch, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to impress the ladies that at the age of six, our oldest son informed us that he would like to start a rock band. He had it all figured out, he’d explained, providing us with a list of what he would need in order to accomplish his goal. He’d need an electric guitar, of course, as well as a bass guitar. He’d need amplifiers. BIG amplifiers. Naturally he’d also need a drum set, a keyboard, and a microphone.

We said, “How ‘bout let’s start with some piano lessons?”

He thought about it for a minute and agreed that could work. And though he’s been happily playing piano more or less ever since, he’s never really given up his dream of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s already decided he’d like to drum when it comes time to start in the school band, and he’s been dropping hints about that electric guitar.

Best birthday ever.
Best birthday ever.

I love music. I studied piano a little when I was young and played the alto sax for about nine years. I’m just not really a guitar person. By that I mean that while I certainly enjoy listening to the guitar, I don’t play it or know much about it.

But I love that my son loves music and I want to encourage his interests when I can, so when he turns ten this week, he is going to totally freak out over his new electric guitar and (not-so-big) amplifier. I have to say, of all the gifts we’ve ever given him, I’m the most stoked about this one.

I anticipate that as he grows and hopefully becomes a more accomplished musician, adding to his collection the rest of the pieces of his band, and probably a nicer guitar and a MUCH bigger amplifier, this gift will long remain meaningful.

And, yes, I realize he will likely use it someday to attract the attention of the ladies. But for now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I’m the main lady in his life and I can’t wait to hear the first butchered chords and failed attempts as he rocks out.