Billy Munoz and other musicians say an instrument is a gift that'll keep giving 'til the cows come home.Photo by John Munoz, courtesy of Billy Munoz
If you’re still scrambling to find the perfect holiday gift for a loved one, some musician friends old and new recommend the instruments they’ve mastered as potential jaw-dropping, spirit-lifting presents. We began this article with the idea that these gifts would light the faces of kids unwrapping them but, as always, the artists we tabbed took things in a different direction by reminding us that there’s no cutoff age for receiving a musical instrument and all the joy one can bring.
We started with drummer Alisa Ramirez of The Aces. Ramirez isn’t a local but she’ll be an honorary Houstonian Friday, December 17, when her band plays Warehouse Live. We had her ear for a preview of that show and were enamored with the idea of female drummer, which we don’t see as often as we’d like. She told us why she recommends drums for novice musicians, female or male.
“Well, drums are maybe the most fun to play. I think that your kid would have an absolute blast learning to play the drums. You might need to have some patience as a parent because it is loud and I was lucky that my mom didn’t mind at all and the second I said that I wanted to play drums she found me some kit that her friend’s kid didn’t want anymore and set it up right in the living room and let me play all day. So, I was very lucky that way,” she said.
“I don’t blame a lot of parents for being like, ‘No way, that’s way too loud,’ but it’s really fun, it’s a great physical activity too, you know? You have to exert yourself a lot so they’re basically getting a workout, too if they’re playing. And, it’s really good for your brain actually — super good — because you’re using all four limbs of your body. I read this whole article on it where they basically did this study on different instrumentalists and drummers turned out to be the smartest,” she laughed.
“I think it was drummers and piano players who turned out to be the most intelligent, had the highest IQs in the band, because drumming is essentially just problem solving because you have to keep different times and rhythms with all different limbs of your body so you’re using all sides of your brain because it’s creative and it’s problem-solving. So, if you want your kid to be super smart and also just cool, because drumming is badass, I would get them the drums for Christmas.”
Tickets are running low for the show but still available as of this writing. Check out the band’s video for their hit single “Daydream,” which Ramirez wrote and directed.
Roby Deaton is part of the Deaton LeMay Project and teaches music at Tempo School of Music on Houston’s west side.
“What I’ve found in my experience and as a teacher is the keyboard is the basis of all the other instruments. If you can understand how a keyboard’s laid out, when you switch to a guitar or violin or saxophone, it’s the same layout, just in a different instrument form. The notes that you learn to play on piano, treble clef and bass clef, transfer to other instruments,” he said. “In other instruments you have one clef or the other, but the keyboard has both with middle C being the split point.”
Deaton’s speaking from experience. He started playing piano at age five and “I fell in love with it instantly. I was classically trained from five to 12.” He took up guitar at that point and is truly a lifetime musician having mastered both. The latest instrument in his repertoire is violin, one he took on as an adult.
“Music has always been a part of my life and now music is my life,” said Deaton, noting his wife passed away 20 months ago, “so music is what I do 24/7 now. It’s filled the gap with her being gone, all that grief I’m kind of soaking up with the music and the projects and everything.”
That focus has created some exciting opportunities for Deaton. His prog rock act has a new album, The Fifth Element, slated for release January 3. As with the last DLP album, Deaton and drummer Craig LeMay laid down the basic tracks and used remote recording technology to bring in players from as far as Russia for the album. The band’s got a live radio interview Friday, December 17 on houseofprog.com and selections from the new album will be featured on the station’s "Friday Night Progressive" show that night.
All of these noteworthy band moments come with a very personal highlight in a visit to the Electronic Music Education and Preservation Project museum in Philadelphia.
“About a week and a half ago I got a chance to play Keith Emerson’s keyboard rig over in Philadelphia,” he said. “I never imagined that I was gonna get a chance to do that. We shot a music video of me playing a piano tune off the new CD on Keith Emerson’s 1904 Steinway grand piano and they’re supposed to release that this week. I couldn’t believe it.”
Billy Munoz is another Houston multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. He’s a Houston music veteran attached to lots of bands, like Always Guilty, The Skatastrophics, Shame on Me and The Riptide Phantoms, a band so new it plays its first show ever on Saturday, December 18 at Shoeshine Charley’s Big Top Lounge. We asked him to talk up the merits of getting your kid a saxophone as a holiday gift even though he plays bass in his new band.
Munoz has been writing ska music for 15 years and said, “In between writing all that ska, I’ll just write a little rock and roll song, a power pop type song, but I never got to do anything with them, you know? I just record them and keep them on my phone.
“Whenever the whole COVID thing happened, I ended up getting severe stenosis so I had to get back surgery,” he said. “So, I was bedridden for three or four months and I got an acoustic bass and I started listening to those old recordings while I was bored.”
Those songs set the foundation for the new band, which Munoz describes as “a mix of early punk, power pop, Brian Wilson-type ballads.” Although he plays bass in his new band, he honks it out on baritone sax for Shame on Me and uses the instrument in his ska-tinged projects. Like Deaton, he said playing an instrument has enriched his adult life. Young or old, Munoz recommends knowing what instrument your gift receiver might truly enjoy. Kid or adult, they’ll be more successful if they feel some ownership in the choice, he said.
“Initially, when I was in sixth grade when I first wanted to be in band, I wanted to play saxophone,” he said. The band teacher pushed trombone and tuba instead “and, you know, after I while, I stopped. Time passes on and I started these bands, I started playing ska and one of the main instruments is sax. I’ve only been playing sax three or four years now. Imagine if I did get to play the sax when I was younger, what my heart wanted to play.
“I found my way back to the saxophone again,” he said.
“Honestly, I haven’t been playing too long,” said Arta Salehi, guitarist for Quinn the Brain. “I wanted to play in high school. Things were different, I feel like, some years ago. It seemed like people were way more into music so when I was coming up it was a thing. I just remember, I would watch female-fronted bands because they seemed to be more pronounced – or maybe I just noticed them more, who knows? I remember seeing girls like Brody Dalle from the Distillers or Agent M from Tsunami Bomb. Even though she didn’t play guitar, she was still in a band. I was just like, ‘Oh, if they can do it maybe one day I can do it, too.’”
She said she sort of “missed the boat” as a kid because “at least in my family we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so getting a guitar was not an option.” She wound up with a pawn shop bass but it wasn’t her instrument of choice. Like Munoz, she stopped pursuing music altogether until later in life when she could resume her devotion to guitar as an adult.
“I chose guitar because that’s what called out to me. I didn’t want to be a singer mainly because I was like, ‘I can’t sing. I don’t sound like Christina Aguilera so therefore, I cannot sing.’ That was my train of thought back then," she said. “I realized later that anyone can sing.”
She also believes anyone can play guitar if they give themselves the chance and have a burning interest in the instrument.
“I think getting a guitar as a gift is a great idea in the sense that when you’re that young it’s so good for creative thinking and developing,” Salehi said. “Playing music means you’re also listening to a lot of music. You have to listen to music to play the music and usually when you’re beginning you’re picking easy songs like The Beatles or something. Those are usually more on the happier side and those little achievements, just getting a few chords, really helps. It makes you happy and it feels like you’re doing something right. Even if the rest of your life isn’t going so well, that little tiny achievement will make your day.”
Seeing is believing and we’re here to tell you Salehi is confident, in her element, a total badass when playing live. Quinn the Brain will be working on new music in 2022 but Salehi and her bandmates closed 2021 with a cross-country tour.
She and all the musicians we spoke with reminded us that learning an instrument is about a lot more than reading or playing music.
“It gives you something to do. It gives you a purpose,” Salehi said. “When you’re in school versus when you’re older, it’s not like anxiety or frustrations go away, we just deal with them differently. That’s something I realized too. I had a lot of personal issues and I worked it all out through music.”
Sounds like the best kind of gift any person could get or give. Happy holidays, everyone.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.