Making Music

This was a big music making weekend at our house. My daughter went to the state solo and ensemble festival where kids are graded by judges and nerves run high. She had a bad experience last year, but has grown as a player and a person in the intervening 12 months and this time she was prepared both musically and mentally and received a first division rating (the scale is 1-4) for both her clarinet solo and a lovely duet she played with a flutist. I skipped the social event of the season Saturday night (my town’s charity auction) because I wanted to take her out for a celebratory dinner and let her know how proud I was of her hard work and dedication. I am so glad that she loves to make music.

Yesterday it was my turn. My new church choir sang a 50 minute cantata for Palm Sunday, took a break for a beautiful breakfast spread and then went back for the second service and sang it all again. There were enough people on the second soprano part so my choir director asked me to sing first soprano which in certain sections was uncomfortably high. As I told a fellow choir member, I can manage about two high As per day and they both got used up in the first service. By the 11:00 I had moved smack into the screech owl zone. But we got through it and I had the great good fortune to sit next to Nancy, an extremely kind woman who is also an excellent musician and can actually hit all those As. I just tucked in behind her and drafted, like the last cyclist in a bike pack.

My youngest daughter calls herself an atheist which causes me to question the wisdom of paying a lawyer so much money ten years ago to assure that her church activities would continue post-divorce. She doesn’t see her dad anymore, but he is a completely unrecovered Catholic and religion hater and would, I believe, take great satisfaction in her lack of belief, which would in turn make her crazy to have affirmed one of his positions! Nonetheless, she agreed to come to the cantata because she didn’t want my new church to think she didn’t exist and because a school friend of hers also sings in the choir. I told Katie, a charming young woman with killer pipes who was singing one of the solos, that my atheist daughter was there and that her solo might be my best shot at bringing Alyssa into the fold! It didn’t work, but it did lead to a good discussion later about God and secular humanism and faith. Anything that makes a teenager want to talk is a victory.

After church I hustled out to the Steinway showroom which I had rented for my annual piano recital. I had far more students than normal playing this year and I asked for extra space and chairs to be sure each family could be fully accommodated. There was an actual stage and spotlights and a big fat green tape X right in the middle which served as the perfect spot for bow-taking, a skill we had practiced almost as much as our recital pieces. I think concert etiquette is worth learning so we acknowledge applause briefly and graciously and we dress as if attending a special event.

Like most piano teachers I have some funny recital stories and I tell them to the kids every year right before recital time. We start with a multiple choice question.

If something should go wrong while you are playing your piece you should:

  • Start crying uncontrollably
  • Make a scene and run off stage
  • Keep going no matter what

We agree on choice number 3 and then I demonstrate by playing a horrible version of one of our songs, chock full of wrong notes and then stand up, smiling broadly and take my bow like I was Beethoven.  I then share one student’s first recital story from when he was just six. He put his hands in the wrong place, I moved them, he was furious that I had interfered, put his head on the keys and sobbed. I gently tried to urge him to take his seat but he was immobilized and his mom finally had to carry him, still in the bent over posture, back to his seat. He is now an 8th grader and yesterday he played both a crazy complicated blues tune and a classical piece perfectly and by heart. I also tell The Ann Robertson story. At her piano recital in high school my sweet sister forgot her piece halfway through, stood up, walked to the front of the stage and said, “I’m sorry, I cannot go on”, then turned and made a dramatic exit stage right. The world is strewn with would-be musicians who gave it up after some recital trauma so I try very hard to keep the tone light and give kids plenty of less formal chances to play for people, like at senior centers where anybody under the age of 20 is an automatic rock star even if they just play Chopsticks. But yesterday went off without a hitch. Everybody showed, everybody brought enthusiastic cheering sections, the crowd had some good singers who embraced our sing-a-long numbers and the parents brought great treats—which, let’s face it, is what it’s all about for many of the kids.

There is something powerful about music making. It is not only good for the soul, but good for the world. My yoga teacher thanks us after every class for taking the time to come and practice and thus shine our lights and send positive energy into the world. I believe the same thing happens when people make music. It is a beautiful act that brings joy to the world and unites people. I tell the kids that it isn’t really about them or how they play, but rather it is a gift they are offering to the audience, a chance to share something of themselves that will make people happy. Nearly everyone appreciates music, but not everyone makes music. They should. They can. The Simply Music motto is “A world where everyone plays” because the founder, Neil Moore, believes that every human being is deeply, profoundly musical. As teachers it is our mission, our duty, our contribution to the world, to help people express their innate musicality.

I recently got a call from an older woman who wanted to begin lessons but was convinced she would not succeed at piano. Her husband bought her a very nice keyboard as an expression of his faith in her, but she would not let him take it out of the box. I convinced her to come over for just a sample lesson to see what might unfold. I started as I always do with her at the piano and me on my teaching stool and said “Tell me what you see” hoping for just a simple description of black and white keys, but she said “Terror”. We talked about that and I realized the truth behind the words of another adult student who had called his weekly lesson therapy. I would make a lousy therapist (My sessions would consist of me saying “Quit your whining. Buck up. Go make something happen in your life. That will be $150. See you next week”) but there are a few demons that come out at the piano bench and must be gently dealt with. One man started to tear up when he learned his first song. His entire family and his wife’s entire family were all musically talented and he had always felt like an outsider who could never be part of the fun. I think his wife actually cried when he played for her, knowing of his longing to make music.

My parents both had lovely singing voices. My dad couldn’t read a note, but he displayed his musical tastes by bullying the music director at every church he ever served into making sure his Top 10 favorite hymns got regular air time. My siblings and I can sing every verse of Holy Holy Holy in our sleep. When I was three my mom played a recording of Un bel di, Madame Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria and then explained what she was singing about. I think I was hooked right then and there. She reports that in kindergarten I would pop up at random moments and start belting out Silent Night. My sister has a beautiful voice and I wanted nothing more than to grow up and sound like her. When we sing duets there is a special harmonic thing that happens that never occurs when we sing with others. It is literally like we are on the same vibrational plane and it gives us chills although I don’t think listeners notice anything special. I didn’t major in music in college because I was afraid that having to learn all the theory, what I thought of as the boring, mechanical part of music, would suck the magic and joy out of music making. I feel so lucky to have found my way to a place where I can make music all day everyday although the route through banking and classroom teaching was a long and circuitous one.

At presentations I tell people that music is my best friend, my constant companion and my go-to when I am happy and sad. It has gotten me through many tough times and my kids know when I am in a good mood as I sing my heart out—-annoyingly repeating some favorite phrase from a song 100 times. I have traveled the world in choirs and had the thrill of sharing stages with opera legends. I have made wonderful friends throughout my life because of our common love of music-making, including Tom who almost never missed a Thursday night with his bandmates. Even when he was sick and undergoing chemo he would drive an hour to make music with his friends and nearly always came home happy and energized.

There is power in music making. Power to heal, power to comfort, power to share and connect. I tell all my Kindermusik moms that no matter what their spouse or second grade teacher said, their children LOVE their singing voice and truly are soothed and comforted and entertained by it. We practice singing out in class and feel the amazing vibrations we create in our bodies and the world. We sing to the babies about everything we do and they look at us with wonder and joy and learn by example how to find and use their own voices.

So go make some music. Hum while you clean the house. Teach yourself guitar chords. Pick up the dusty instrument you have in the attic. Belt out a hymn in church. Keep trying. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better and the better you get the more you want to play. The more you play, the better you feel and happier people make a kinder world.

That will be $150. (C’mon—isn’t it as valuable as real therapy?!) See you next week.

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