When I was growing up in Montreal, British rock music introduced me to London from a distance. The Who sang about Soho, the Rolling Stones about Knightsbridge, the Kinks about Muswell Hill. Now that my family has moved to the city, music is helping us get in tune with London on a firsthand — though less rock 'n' roll — basis, and we've come to know that a hobby like music can be a brilliant way for expat families to connect with the local community, and each other.
My wife, Beth, my 10-year-old son Nicholas, and I moved to a borough in southwest London from just outside New York City about 17 months ago. We knew no one in the area. The key to connecting with both the people and the place was, for us, to "keep it local." I scoured magazines and websites and signed up for as many email newsletters as I could find to get in touch with local activities, especially for my son. We had to sell our car before we moved, so we chose a home near plenty of public transport. We would have to rely on buses, trains, the Tube and walking until we bought a car.
We explored and found out that a lot of businesses we needed on a day-to-day basis were within walking distance: One block alone provided a post office, pharmacy, dry cleaner, barber and news agent.
Nestled between these shops, like a musical fill between chords, was a black storefront with gold lettering spelling out Ritz Music. One day, I stepped through the doorway between the arched windows displaying guitars and picked up a Ritz handbill. My wife and I had talked for years about wanting our son to learn an instrument and, now that he was 10, we thought it might be a good time for him to pick up a guitar, largely because he was now big enough to hold one comfortably. Ritz offered beginner guitar lessons for kids, so we signed him up and rented an acoustic guitar.
We told him he could quit anytime he felt like it, but he stuck with it. It didn't hurt that everyone was unfailingly friendly and helpful every time we walked into Ritz. We returned the rental guitar and bought him his own natural-wood-colored model. At home, he looked up song tabs on the Internet or in his Beatles songbook and thrashed away at his guitar strings.
My son learned about music, but he also met local children his age. Ritz offered a jam session where children played guitar, keyboards, drums and bass under the tutelage of an adult musician/teacher/bandleader, and our son tried that, too. When we picked him up after the first session, he asked, "When's the next jam?"
A pleasant repercussion of his new hobby was the chance for us to bond through music, not just with the locals but with each other. When London native David Bowie died, I revisited his music by buying a few of his CDs and, much to my surprise, my son, the alien from abroad, took to "the man who fell to Earth." Nicholas learned "Starman" at the jam session and taught himself a bunch of other Bowie songs.
About six months after my son started playing, the bandleader for the kids' jams debuted an adult jam session, so I signed up as a drummer. I was pretty rusty, but the music also offered me a chance to meet some locals. As it turned out, a couple of my bandmates were parents of a few of my son's bandmates. The impact of music reverberated further when my wife courageously came to hear my band in concert at a local pub. Long ago, it hosted the likes of U2 and Elvis Costello, but my wife had to settle for listening to me, introduced as the guy "on drums, all the way from across the pond." Since the gig was on a Sunday afternoon, it became a family affair where my son saw children from his jam session.
The pub was only one player in our area's rich musical heritage. We ate dinner one night at a restaurant on the former site of another local club where the Beatles once came to watch Mick Jagger and co. perform. We visited a nearby island in the River Thames where musicians including the Who and Bowie played early in their careers before becoming world-famous. We took a "Swinging '60s" tour on a classic, bright-red Routemaster double-decker bus, on which a guide recited musical tales accompanied by a soundtrack of bands that once played in the neighborhood.
Our family is blessed with a city accompanied by a lively music scene and history. But this pastime can work anywhere the universal language is played, and it can bring you more in harmony with the community, wherever you are.
My son and I recently took the Tube to fabled Denmark Street in London—where many musicians sold and recorded their early songs—to visit the row of guitar shops. Nicholas by now was able to distinguish a Fender from a Gibson guitar and asked afterward if he could return to Denmark Street to choose his next instrument. Music had helped rewrite two-dimensional lyrics about a faraway city into a more familiar place.
Christopher Harder is a freelance writer and editor. He is based in London, where he moved with his family in 2014, after many years in the U.S.
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