Here is a question M asked me recently that has given me much pause for thought: why do I like playing music? The simple answer is that I like being part of it, bringing it to life, playing it differently every time as the mood takes me. Having new pieces to play is as exciting as a new book to read. Music has always brought more than just enjoyment to me; it goes through me, is part of me, is as essential to me for my mental health on a daily basis as going for a walk is for my physical health. Yet at the same time I notice how the more complete answer I would give to M’s question has changed considerably over my lifetime.
I joined a string orchestra when I was a teenager, so that I could go on their trip to Holland. The trip was great, and well worth joining for. The second year I went because I had friends there; only in the third year did I go for the music.
Circumstances made it possible for me to start learning the French Horn in my teens, which brought a whole new level of excitement. Most of what you play on a brass instrument is heard, and is played solo, unlike being one of many in the violin section. To sit in the middle of a symphony orchestra, being part of the music and surrounded by it, is such a complete immersion experience – especially for something like Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mahler symphonies, or Richard Strauss tone poems, which all have great horn parts!
I challenged myself constantly to be the best I could be, and wanted the music as a whole to sound as good as it could. Looking back, this was not a good path to stay on, but probably one that had to be traveled. I went to music college, it was unavoidable, but I was never a performer. I just knew I had to study music, to be part of music, and I wanted to be better than I was. I became a teacher, trying to inspire others with their music and give them some of the opportunities of playing in a group that I had had.
My first real change came when I listened to a flute solo being played absolutely beautifully by a friend a few seats along from me, and thought, ‘I wish I could play like that!’ A moment later I realised, ‘I don’t have to play like that, she is playing like that!’ I sat back and enjoyed it, front row seat. From there, I quickly learned how to really enjoy playing whatever I was doing because it was part of the whole, even when it was something hard work and previously unsatisfying like oom-pahs. Then I had the unexpected experience of actually being able to play low notes properly when I was pregnant, in a way I had never managed for the twenty years previous. Finally I could succeed at my own part without being constantly frustrated at my own shortcomings.
With M around, my horn now spends most of its time in its case. Possibly the lessons it had to teach me having been learned at last, I don’t need it. Instead, I now play two instruments regularly that I didn’t ‘learn’, being mostly self-taught on both: the piano I play occasionally for M but mostly for myself, for my own well-being and enjoyment and emotional balance; and the recorder for Morris dancing or occasionally solo in woodland. I ask myself, is this a way of me avoiding judgement about my abilities? If so, it fails. I still get very nervous when playing for dancing especially if I am on my own, and have to use the dots as a fix to make sure I keep a steady tempo.
I see that sometimes pianos in National Trust houses now have a notice inviting people to play them. I want to know what they sound like, so I really want to have a go. I try, but I find nerves mean I can’t play well. I also find I don’t know when to stop, the first time I play too much, the second too little. I wonder why playing something I love should be so difficult?
Eventually I think I have the answer. As a child I played because I was bullied at school. Music was my space, something I could do, something even the bullies respected. As I got older, I still wanted to be good at it – but I wasn’t that great; no one has ever told me they have enjoyed my playing and I stopped trying to play for other people a long time ago. Even worse, I was occasionally presumptuous enough as a teenager to think I was entertaining others in a positive way, only to have my audience drift away as politely and quickly as they could. Therefore I have no confidence when it comes to playing for others and I feel I am probably disturbing their peace, so I would rather retreat back into the shadows of my own world where, unjudged by others, I am happy with what I do.
I finally had a clue to the way forward for me, on realising I had played ‘too little’. I take pleasure in listening to others play, so why not the other way around? Maybe I can actually give others pleasure in my music? Something that never occurred to me before! This is now altering the way I approach the piano at home, as I anticipate that the type and quality of music that will please others may be different to what pleases me. I even had my first opportunity to try this out a few days later, when some songs were called for as part of a children’s activity – and for the first time ever I managed to sing solo without being nervous because they were enjoying it.
I asked the trees this week if they liked me to sing my own improvisations, or to sing or play pieces I know. Their answer was that for creating harmony (see previous post here), improvisation was best, but for celebrations such as sabbats, then known songs were good as I connected with the energies of previous performances. And now I shall consider that if there are other people present in the woods, I should allow them to enjoy my playing or singing as well.