Heart Strings

Chapter Three

Tuesday dawned and Liam was awake early; he took inventory of himself in the full length mirror and was quite pleased with the view.

He showered, dressed, then met his father in the kitchen.

"Mmm, oatmeal," Liam chirped.

"I thought you might enjoy it, be sure and take a jacket, lad, the weather is meant to change for the colder this afternoon."

"Thanks Da," Liam said as he hugged Connor and kissed his cheek.

"Do you fancy a ride to school today, lad?"

"That would be grand Da; I can take a couple more guitars in. I’m going to have to show off in class today, according to Mr. Levi."

"Well, I’m sure they’ll be impressed, Son."

"I hope so, my music is important to me."

Liam had been playing guitar since he could hold one. His grandmother played and taught him the basic chords on a nameless guitar purchased at Goodwin’s Music off the High Street. Liam cherished it and taught himself flat-picking. He would watch videos of Mark Knopfler, Ronnie Wood and Richard Thompson and try to replicate the things they were doing. When his Father had come to take him home, he asked his Grandmother to save the guitar for other kids to play and perhaps teach them as she did for him. He was terribly torn between staying with her and living with his Da, but Da won out and Liam has never looked back. Frequent trips to Ireland have allowed him to keep his relationship with his Shan or Grandmother. She is always happy to see him and listen to his playing.

The Simca glided up to the curb noiselessly, Liam kissed his Da and hugged his neck, and Connor reciprocated. Liam pulled the heaviest case, which was the old National, it was a steel-bodied guitar with resonators built in and it had a unique sound popular with blues slide guitar players. He stashed it in the office and returned for the other two and a bundle of folding guitar stands.

"Good morning Miss Grace, would you mind if I stow these here for a few moments while I carry the first two to the music room?"

"Be my guest Liam, but I thought you brought your instruments in yesterday."

"I did Miss, but these are specialized."

"Okay, no problem. I’ll see that no one bothers them."

"Thank you, Miss Grace."

Liam’s phone chirped with a message from Daniel.

"Are you at school yet?"

"In the office, join me please."

Daniel appeared at the door immediately and the boys shared a one armed bro hug. It was a good thing because both boys were desperate to touch the other.

"Dang man, how many guitars do you have anyway?" Daniel asked with excitement.

"Um, quite a few, I don’t have an exact count. I’ll explain later, but would you mind helping me lug these to Mr. Levi’s room? If you grab those two I’ll carry this one and the stands."

"Oh, hey, Miss Grace, how are you?" Cheri called cheerfully. "Hey guys, more guitars Liam? Are you obsessed?"

"You might say that. And if you know of any kids that want to start playing guitar, I have quite a few that I’ve repaired to give away to beginners."

"How cool is that, you need to track that so you can get credit for community service. Most people wait until they’re seniors to do anything."

"She’s right Liam, it counts toward your graduate requirements," Miss Grace joined in.

"I’ve never kept track though, I just keep a couple with me when we go busking. If a kid says they’d like to learn and that they can’t afford an instrument, I give them one, no paperwork or anything. Sometimes I’ll teach them a few chords if I can."

"Does anybody see you doing this?" Miss Grace asked.

"Sure, the people I busk with and the kid’s parents, maybe some others."

"Well, if you can have them write out a statement for you, I’m sure it would suffice."

"Um okay, we should get going if I’m going to catch Mr. Levi before class."

On the walk to the music room, Cheri took one of the guitars, "Hey Liam, what do you mean by busking."

"I just do it because I like to play and people seem to like to listen to good music. A lot of people have never heard decent live music in their lives,” Liam explained almost apologetically. “I especially like watchin’ the little ones dance to a good beat."

"Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like ‘How dare you go busking?’ I meant what is busking? But I figure from your explanation that you play in public with other people."

"Oh, I forgot they don’t really use that term here. I guess buskers are street musicians."

"I’ve heard the term before; I was never brave enough to try just playing in a park," Daniel said.

"I heard a great song that addresses that, so just get out there and do your best."

"Well hell, I’m a busker and didn’t even know it. I used to sing outside a mall with some other girls. All acapella, we sang madrigals and folk songs and harmony, and if you tell anybody, I will rip your nuts off."

"I’m sorry, I wasn’t listenin’ did yas say somethin’ Cheri?"

She grinned at him, "Clever boy."

"I like your voice though, Cheri, you should sing more, it’s really good." Daniel suggested. "She sounds like Bonnie Raitt, Liam, I think you’d like her voice."

"Fine, I’ll sing if you’ll play for me. I can’t sing and play at the same time."

"Oh, Mason William’s syndrome, the guy who did "Classical Gas?" he could play Banjo, guitar, mandolin and ukulele, but he never learned to sing while doing it. But, he was so fantastic; me Shan loved him. She got me started playing you know."

"That’s so cool. Shan is that your Granny?" asked Cheri.

"Yeah, that’s right, it’s a shortened version of the Irish word Seanmhǻthair."

Liam put the bundle of stands down and tried the door. It opened and he held it for his friends.

"Oh, good morning people, what’s all this?"

"Apparently, Sir, I have an entourage."

"Well, I’m all out of green M&M’s for your dressing room. Seriously though, what do you have with you today?"

"Well, since you said I was supposed to show off a bit, I brought an old National resonator from the thirties, a twelve string and a backup classroom instrument. If I break a string, I don’t want to miss an exercise changing up with the constant retuning until it’s properly stretched."

"Well okay Liam, it’s sort of your day; I’d like the other students to see what can happen if they have talent and drive and the grit to take chances."

"Um, thank you, Sir. Do you think we could warm up a little in a practice room?"

"We?"

"Yeah, it’s a bit of a dare, Sir, but it’ll be good."

"Hey wait, I didn’t mean… oh, you rat. Oh, what the hell, sure," Cheri said, in surrender.

Daniel looked a bit nervous.

"It’ll be cool Daniel, trust me man, you’re ready."

Daniel smiled at Liam and the worry seemed to leave him completely.

In the practice room, Liam pulled out his tablet and woke it up. He went straight to YouTube and pulled up a performance with Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson. He offered Cheri his headphones but she had her own. When she had listened through she pulled off her headphones, "I know that song, she’s the person I modeled my singing after. I can sing this easy, but what about the other voice?"

"Well I know it by heart and R.T. is one of my heroes. So if you don’t object, I’ll sing with you."

"Well the deal was Daniel plays with me."

"He will, it’s an easy song to learn and he’s got the chops. You’ve heard him play, he’s damn good. Let me play it through for him and the two of us will play and you and I will sing, fair enough?"

"Works for me," Cheri said smiling.

Daniel and Liam ran through the tune together and Liam showed him the chords and a couple of cheats. Then they ran through it with Cheri. Liam was impressed with Cheri, and Cheri and Daniel were impressed with Liam’s smooth voice that was considerably lower and huskier than you would expect from a boy his age. After forty minutes, they were ready.

"So, do you want to open or do you want me to call yas up after I play a couple of things, I was going to keep it classical for a bit."

"I like the idea of coming up later, how about you Daniel?"

"I’m easy, it sounds fine, just give us a signal."

"You mean like a bird call? We’re not raiding a POW camp. How about I just call your name and ask yas to join me on the riser," Liam joked, trying to keep Danny calm.

"Oh say, as members of my entourage, would you be willing to hit the caff for some hot cocoa for me and of course, whatever you want as well?"

"Sure, but why don’t you come with us?" Cheri asked.

"I need to set up my guitars and find the right mark on the stage."

"Okay, we’ll go then."

Liam held out a twenty and said, "Would you mind asking Mr. Levi what he’d like as well?"

"Sure Liam, we’ll be right back."

"Wow Liam, that’s impressive. It looks like you plan a comprehensive demo. How would you like to be introduced?"

"I’m easy, I’ll just take a seat with the rest and you can say whatever you like and then call me up to the riser."

"Okay, I’ll try not to overdo it."

"Um Sir, is there a reason you still use the chair ranking system?"

"Huh, I’ve actually been giving that a great deal of thought."

"Mr. Graff dumped it years ago, everybody rotates through the parts for each instrument and he said you get more rounded and expert musicians who can play any chair they’re asked. Kids tend to think of the chair system as almost a pejorative caste system. Like third trombone is less important than first. But without each one playing their part, the music won’t be as the composer wanted it to sound."

Yes, I’ve read the studies; I’m surprised to find students that are aware that it is less effective as a teaching tool than it once was. You aren’t the only one that has brought the issue up with me. Perhaps with your help I can make a change to a more egalitarian distribution of choice parts. One where everybody gets a chance to play first trombone, or whichever."

"I’m willing," Liam said quietly.

"So Liam, are you independently wealthy? I mean, how did you come to have so many really fine instruments."

“Well, the Baroque was a gift from me Da and me Shan. Since she raised me until I was six and Jasper Willows worked in Dublin, she did the deal; and then flew over for me birthday. You see, she taught me how to play from a very early age, maybe three. Then there’s the Guild twelve string; I won an amateur competition and the prize was a brand new, top of the line Martin 1919 authentic. Martin made a reproduction of their own model 30, but I didn’t like it. I knew a guy who lusted after it and who had a Guild twelve string so we traded. Financially he got the better deal but I got the better instrument.

"Shrewd, and the others?"

"Pawnshops, thrift stores, a couple of Ebay finds and a yard sale or two. Oh, and estate sales, they are fantastic."

"To answer your question, no we’re not wealthy. My Da is building a good business and he puts a lot away. We have a nice home and plenty to eat; we live pretty simply. My weakness is old guitars, his is old cars. Did you ever hear of a Simca Vedette?

Mr. Levi replied, "No."

See, not just old but obscure."

"Here yas go, boyo," Daniel called out as he and Cheri hauled in the drinks and a few sweet rolls and muffins."

"Not bad Daniel, we’ll make a proper Irishman of you yet. Once you get the patter down, we’ll teach yas ta drink and fight."

"Oh yeah," Cheri said, "What’s this I hear about you taking down Brian Holcomb?"

"Just a misunderstanding, we shook hands and he left."

"A reliable source tells me he ran and wasn’t even dry when he put his clothes on."

"We just had a chat that’s all, I explained that I thought what he did was rude and I would appreciate it if he didn’t do it again."

Liam turned to look at Daniel, who made a gesture that indicated it didn’t come from him.

"Okay look, I’ve been going to school with older kids since I was four. My neighbor, who came from France, told me that I had to be ready to do what they wouldn’t if I wanted to be left alone. You know, like a head-butt to the face that bloodies their nose, something like that; it’s sometimes called a Dublin kiss. He also taught me tactics and misdirection. If you tell a fella a few times, he’ll be spittin’ teeth when it’s over; the moment you move he’ll guard his face and expose his crotch or solar plexus and he’s your meat then. If you’re smaller than everybody else and they all think they can piss on you, you have to become an electric fence or get pissed on."

"Yeah that figures." Cheri said, I’ve been through some of that too. It sucks, but you have to get tough or get eaten by the big fish."

"We actually prefer that bullying is reported to the staff. But realistically I know it doesn’t do much sometimes," Mr. Levi said.

The door opened and three boys walked in, went to the locker wall, and began to retrieve instruments.

"Gentlemen, you won’t need those for a while so take your seats and Ronald would you please take a chair outside and advise the others as they arrive?"

"Sure, Mr. Levi."

Soon the entire class was assembled and Liam took a seat in the back of the lecture area next to Cheri and Daniel.

Mr. Levi rose to address the class.

"Good morning everyone, I trust your weekends were pleasant and that you got some time in with your instruments. I have a couple of announcements to make, first of which concerns the long standing ‘Chair’ ranking system. I have considered the issue for some time and I’ve decided to eliminate the practice of basing who plays what chair based on the musician’s supposed technical ability. This will remove personality from ‘Chair’ assignments and allow everyone to become a more rounded musician. Today of course is Guitar instruction but it will extend to Orchestra as well."

The teacher looked at the faces of the students as they processed the latest information. He looked specifically at the first chair group and among them only Gregg Lampson seemed distressed. Mr. Levi would take a moment to speak with Gregg personally during the break between classes.

"So during our first session today we have a new student joining us. Some of you may know that there has been a restructuring at Hart and many of their students have transferred here or other schools to maintain instruction at the level they had been accustomed to. I won’t offer my personal opinions on the soundness of the decision to convert Hart into a Magnet School after the term has started but that is what we have to deal with and we did get a cookie out of the deal, so it’s not all bad."

"Liam, would you please stand so that your classmates can see you?"

Liam stood and waved to the class as they turned to look. Most smiled and waved and a few just nodded.

"Liam, please come down and introduce yourself and then demonstrate your abilities."

Liam walked to the riser and mounted it to face the class.

"Morning, first let me warn you that I talk a bit funny by your standards, I was raised in Dublin, Ireland until I was six. I was actually born here in Claremont, but for reasons I won’t go into now, I ended up with me Shan, um Grandmother, for a bit. It was her that taught me to play guitar from about age three until I came back here. My grandmother had a pretty good career in music as a studio musician with several bands, but she got married and raised her kids and played whenever she could. So that’s where I got me start."

"Mr. Levi has asked that I give you a demonstration of my abilities by way of an audition, I guess. Since this is primarily a classical course of instruction, I’ll start with a little Mozart. How many of you are familiar with the Rondo Alla Turca and its intricacies?

A few hands went up, one of which was Gregg, the reigning head of the first chairs.

Saying nothing more, Liam began playing and the entire class listened as he gave a stellar performance.

When he finished he stole a glance at Gregg to see his reaction. It appeared that he was impressed as he seemed to have let go of his self-interest and enjoyed the music. It told Liam that he could be won over with a little work.

He had faced an entrenched king of the music room before and he hadn’t been well received, in fact Steve, who was a year older, tried to ambush Liam in the boy’s room and got a badly fattened lip and a sore nose for his efforts. Steve eventually quit the guitar class opting for private instruction.

The applause for the Rondo had died away, and Liam launched into Pachelbel’s Canon in D without further explanation. This was also well received and the applause was even more vigorous.

"Thanks," Liam told his classmates.

A couple of hands went up and Liam asked what they wanted to know. The first boy wanted to know how he got so good. Liam explained that it was mostly practice but conceded it had something to do with talent as well. The next question was about the Canon; the boy asked what arrangement he was using because he had been trying to play the piece for some time on his own and the music he had was asking the impossible.

"I use my own arrangement, I can only guess that you are using Anderson’s version which isn’t that great. He’s a pianist and thinks that it’s just a matter of transposition but there are other factors. I would be happy to share my arrangement with you."

"So that’s an example of classical, and now I’m going to enlist the help of a couple of people from class that have been very helpful these past couple of days, So Cheri, Daniel if you’d come join me."

Several of the boys eyed Cheri as she mounted the riser; she was after all, a nice looking girl, and the slight air of "punk chic" that she demonstrated, made her stand out.

"I discovered yesterday that Daniel plays pretty well and today I found out that Cheri has a great set of pipes, so we got together and rehearsed a song. It will show you what you can do if you take a chance and put yourself out there. This is a Richard Thompson song and it’s called Dimming of the Day. I think you’ll be surprised… and pleasantly.

Daniel played flawlessly and Cheri’s voice was strong and confident, and she tried a couple of things that she hadn’t thought of in the rehearsal. Liam was enjoying her voice so much he was almost late for the chorus the second time, but he could feel the harmonies resonate in his chest as they sang to each other and Cheri seemed to block out everything but her two friends.

When they finished, Cheri was in tears from happiness as the class and teacher applauded and even cheered. A couple of voices were heard saying, "Way to go Cheri."

Cheri stepped down and Daniel started to follow her and Cheri turned and said "Hey, would you two play that little song from yesterday?"

"You mean Shuffle Rag,” Liam asked. "Sure, and great job, we have to get out and busk together, the three of us."

"I think I’d kinda like that," Cheri responded and smiled sweetly.

"Have a seat, Daniel; let’s do as the lady asked."

"I tried that thing you suggested and I think I got the bass notes straightened out." Daniel said. He had looked a little nervous, but playing together with Cheri had burned some of that off.

"I knew you would, it just takes a little time," Liam said.

Liam didn’t explain the "rag," he just started playing and trading off with Daniel who had really nailed the weird bass note timing.

Once finished, Daniel and Liam had a quick bro hug and Daniel went back and sat with Cheri.

"So since we’ve strayed so far from Classical, I thought I’d show you a few of the other styles I’ve encountered while busking or playing with other street musicians.  Busking has really been useful in improving my technique and I suggest all of you get out and play in public. I play at Memorial Park most Sundays and the people I play with are very friendly and always welcome a newcomer."

A bit of mumbling and then a few "I’ll try it if you wills" were heard in the class.

"Have any of you messed about with open tunings?"

A few hands went up.

He pointed to one boy and asked what he wanted to accomplish.

"I want to learn to play slide or bottleneck, I like the blues style."

"Cool, how about you?" he said, pointing out another.

"I always wanted to learn slack key, like from Hawaii, I think it’s really cool."

"It is, and I’ve wanted to learn it myself. I’m a big fan of the Pahanui brothers, especially Cyril."

"Oh yeah, they are totally cool," The boy agreed.

"This weird looking guitar is a National; it was made in the thirties and was very popular with slide guitar players."

Liam slid a tube of polished glass over his left ring finger.

"This one is currently tuned to open C which is popular for delta blues; anytime you’re watching a movie and you see a scene in a bayou you’ll hear this tuning or possibly open D.

Liam launched into a couple of blues tunes too old for anyone to remember the name.

"Are you surprised by the volume? Electrics back then were terribly unreliable and had poor sound quality and the amplifiers were huge and very sensitive to travel. On top of that, they were bloody expensive. Even the singers rarely had amplifiers so you had to play over the noise to be heard. That’s why they came up with this design. The resonator here in the middle and the unusual sound holes do the work."

After a bit of Blues he switched to his twelve string.

"There was a guy named Steve Goodman, and he wrote some great songs like City of New Orleans that people still cover. He was a consummate guitarist and a great songwriter. He played and collaborated with another one of my heroes, John Prine, and John is still making albums. Steve died of Leukemia in 1984 but his recordings are still out there and on the web. He was also a diehard Cub’s fan and he wrote a song about them. And since there’s a Cubbies hat on Mr. Levi’s desk, I would like to play this song." Liam played and sang, A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.

Mr. Levi listened with great interest and even got a little misty at some of the verses. When Liam finished, Mr. Levi thanked him and donned his Cub’s cap.

"One thing that really attracted me to Steve was his absolute mastery of the twelve string guitar. He played a song from the thirties called, It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie, and he had one of the best intros I’ve ever heard, so I’d like to share it with you,"

Again, he launched into the song with vigor and the pure joy of playing. The guitar rang with lush chords and all the flourishes that Liam could coax from it. His audience may not have cared for the music genre on any other day but they exploded with applause.

When the class was quiet again, Gregg raised his hand and asked about the little blond instrument at the end.

"That’s a baroque guitar," explained Liam, "you’ve probably noticed it has ten strings. That’s because the guitar as we know it now hadn’t become finalized as a six string instrument. If you’re familiar with Boccherini and Notturna delle Strade di Madrid or Night Music, he specified the Baroque guitar when writing the part with a lute playing the counterpoint, and even though he wasn’t strictly speaking a Baroque composer, a lot of his music has that flavor. Would you like to join me up here and play the Passacalle? I have the sheet music and you can use one of my instruments."

Liam was sort of taking a chance with Gregg, but he hoped it would diffuse any resentment Gregg might bear him if he got him involved.

With Gregg using Liam’s Burton, he told Gregg to count them in since his part plays first. Liam joined him and then in the second verse where the allegro begins, and they swapped roles at the fourth for the restatement.

While the class applauded, Gregg rose and put the Burton back in its stand and Liam did the same with the Baroque. Gregg offered Liam his hand and Liam shook it as Gregg leaned in whispered, "Shit man, I wasn’t sure I could keep up but it was great, thanks."

"It was fun, we should get some string players in here and do it right, the whole piece."

"That would be cool."

 

"Well I’ve introduced meself, do you mind if I join yer class?" Liam inquired, addressing the whole room. The entire class started applauding and cheering,

"I’ll take that as a yes then," Liam said, feeling like he could fly at that moment. He stepped off the riser to handshakes and pats on the back. Finally, he made his way to Daniel and Cheri; they both hugged him and were just a bit emotional.

"So did you enjoy being on stage?"

Daniel nodded with tears in his eyes; he was still shaking off the adrenalin that goes with stage fright.

Cheri kissed him right on the lips.

"That was great Liam, I loved it and I’m going to do it again soon."

"I know a great place you can start. The gang would love to meet you both."