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What makes a person like a piece of music? What makes a person like a piece of music enough to practice it? Play it and various parts of it over and over until it’s right where you want it? As a teacher, I’m constantly aware of the artificiality of picking a piece and telling someone to practice it. To do that kind of work on something like this, you have to have a reason. You can’t do it for no reason. Imagine practicing something you don’t even like. But what makes a person like a piece of music?

When I play music there must be some kind of chemical reaction going on, like when people say the smell of chocolate releases endorphins, or as I heard on the radio a while ago, the act of talking releases endorphins in the brains of women, but not men (?!) That’s why girls are generally further ahead with language than boys of the same age.

When I start playing its like I enter a different zone, I’m entirely happy with life and content in the moment, obsessed with the sound that’s being created here and now.

This seems wholly biological, to do with chemicals in my brain that are entirely out of my control. So how can you influence someone else to feel this?

Maybe you need that obsessive thing in your personality. I don’t think you can learn an instrument without it. There are people you meet in life who say, “I tried to learn once, but it just wasn’t in me“, “I didn’t seem to have any talent for it”, “I didn’t have the co-ordination for it”. Bollocks to co-ordination. I possess very little of it. Maybe they were all just not obsessive enough. Maybe talent equals obsession.  I’ve yet to hear “I tried to learn the piano but I just didn’t have enough obsessive tendencies in me for it”. It would make a nice change.

Anyway, when I hear these things I generally blame the teacher. Assume that they went at it from the wrong angle, and didn’t instil any pleasure in the act of playing, any reason to practice. So how do you instil this?

I like to make people aware of the harmony within whatever they’re playing, so they know how the chords relate to each other, how they fit together and why. And so they understand how music is composed (i.e. finding relations between notes, chords and rhythm, combinations that the composer happens to like the sound of) and realise that this something they can do straight away.

The life of a melody needs to be cared for and this can only be done by understanding its meaning, like emphasising the right thing when saying a sentence out loud.

A lot of fun can be had with rhythm games away from the piano, playing with this innate sense of rhythm which all humans have. It seems to create adrenaline.

I like people to be aware of the richness and variety of sound that comes out of a piano, which I remember being mesmerised by as a child.

But I don’t think any of these things actually deal with instilling the initial pleasure someone feels when hearing or playing music. I think it has to come from within.

I’ve been musing over all this to myself over the last few days. Yesterday I took the grade 3 book to a pupil, played through the pieces for her and she made her choice. There  was one which stood out as really ‘her sort of thing’. She was excited to learn it and as she was picking out the first few notes (which she doesn’t find that easy) she exclaimed, “Oh I’m going to love this!”

As I cycled away from her lesson I recalled as a child how excited I was when I started playing the first few notes of my first grade 1 piece, and the feeling as it unravelled itself (extremely slowly)for me.  I remember calling my mum over each time I’d put another note on because each step was so unbelievably beautiful. I recall after about three times she suggested I learn a bit more – maybe a whole line before I call her again.

I’ve always remembered this piece and it still has the same effect on me, especially those first few bars.

I suppose all you can do is guide them towards having this kind of experience, pointing out stuff, suggesting stuff, playing stuff.

Some people are eager and find beauty in most of the music they are invited to learn.  Others somehow expect the pleasure to come from outside and be put into the piece. They don’t make any emotional connections with the music as they play it, are emotionally disconnected from it and it remains in their mind a series of symbols. That’s when its not working. There are lots of places in-between these two points.

But then I suppose music must be like perception of colour – you can’t know how another person hears the same music, we must all have different internal responses, so how valid is it then to try and impose my emotional reaction to a piece of music on someone else anyway? 

And while as a teacher you’re always trying to inspire and holding yourself accountable if inspiration isn’t there, you do have to remember that some people are always going to enjoy making music more than others.  And also when you teach you lay down seeds which may not germinate immediately.

Music is a force which is mysterious and unquantifiable. We’re dealing with magic here, it’ll never be black and white.

So just keep exploring…..

Written 13 September 2007

Wherever it is, I can’t tell you. I can, however, after 15 years of searching, resolutely say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the key to the universe is not in any man’s trousers.

stiff3.jpg

The lucky stiff, lost in Taranaki (with the red doc martins).

Written 06 September 2007 

I wrote a song tonight that I think encapsulates my particular brand of fatalism. I like the idea that a game of dice with death would be that if you won you would get to go with him, and if you lost, you’d have to wander about the planet for a little longer for no discernible reason.

It seems to me that the human mind is programmed to search for reasons for stuff and in life there just aren‘t any, but our brains are built to need order in the face of chaos so we go about inventing it. Inventing reasons can take up a lot of time, so you don’t have to think about reality. I’ve been accused of being morbid in the past but I don’t see anything I say as morbid at all, just truthful. I’m not that interested in death, I don’t read crime thrillers or watch hospital shows, I just look it in the bony face sometimes. And I think life is full of incredibly wonderful things, its just we die, too. How can you appreciate the complexity and colours of life if you don’t acknowledge the black vacuum of death? I only think its dark because that’s what I see when I close my eyes. Really its not light or dark, is it? Its just nothing.

A Buddhist told me that life-force is one mass that goes through all of us, and we’re all like light bulbs that light up for a time with the same life-force that goes through everything, and then it leaves us again. Why? For no reason. It makes much more sense than each living thing being an individual, unconnected soul.

My black vacuum cleaner showed signs of being close to death today, but the light bulbs are all still very much alive. Maybe that symbolises the truth of the two differing ways of seeing death. Or maybe its because Anny fitted the house out with energy saving light bulbs. That’s symbolic in itself. Good old Anny. Maybe its because my copious stray hair eventually strangulates all household cleaning devices. I don’t want to think of the symbolism in that.

Anyhoo, what I wanted to say was, the sentiments of this song remind me a little of a private joke I’ve had with myself for a while. I once saw a Far Side cartoon in which there’s two men working in a morgue, one of whom exclaims that the dead man they’re tending to has the winning lottery ticket in his pocket, and the other man looks over and says, ‘lucky stiff’. This still makes me laugh.

People throughout my life continually have insisted on telling me I’m lucky. Its not really relevant what for, its just that its this unquantifiable mysterious thing that people attribute to other people to make them feel – what? Guilty? Like cheats? Unfairly bestowed with something? A big magnet for the ‘lucky’ tag was my year’s travelling. I waded through peels of ‘you’re lucky’, ‘you’re lucky’, ‘you’re so lucky’ till they tinkled this way and that off my red I’m-regaining-my-teenagerhood-honest Doc Martins. And all I could think of every time I heard it was, ‘lucky stiff’.

It was wonderful and amazing and fantastic truly, but I was there because someone I loved more than myself had walked away and I’d dismantled every part of my professional life, left the town where I’d lived for ten years, stored all my belongings in my parent’s loft and spent all my money on a ticket to the-hell-out-of-here. So in this respect when people told me I was lucky I kind of felt like a dead man with the winning lottery ticket in his pocket. But only when people told me I was lucky. When they didn’t, I felt damn lucky. And I was. For the whole of it.

So my particular brand of fatalism? We’re all doomed, nothing can be helped, so let’s have a knees-up.

Lost

There was a time I knew reality
When everything was as it seemed to be
I never thought it might be all a dream
And that I’d wake up to be someone else entirely

Lost, what a lovely place to be
Lost, what a lovely time to be
Lost, what a lovely way to be.

I went down to the record office directly
Perhaps the beaurocrats could tell me my identity
But all I got was this apology
We’re sorry but it seems that yours is unaccountably

Lost, what a lovely place to be
Lost, what a lovely time to be
Lost, what a lovely way to be.

Did you hear the one about the pom when she drank too much tea?
They found her drowned in a pool of her own history
They sent her down to the antipodes
Where they asked her, how’s it feel to be so incredibly

Lost, what a lovely place to be
Lost, what a lovely time to be
Lost, what a lovely way to be.

And I saw death on a desert island by the sea
He had some dice, he said if you win you come with me
At least you’ll know where you’re supposed to be
Then he rolled a six, I threw a three and

Lost, what a lovely place to be
Lost, what a lovely time to be
Lost, what a lovely way to be.

My beautiful Danish friend helped me make this site ages ago. I’ve found some random musings on my computer. I guess they belong here.