Why I Make Music

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.

Uplifting Energies

I have always used my hands to feel different energies, ever since I started playing with magnets and realised I could feel their pull on my hands. I have since learned to feel stone circle energies, or different tree energies. It has all been learning by doing; it is not something I have come across in my readings so my learning is quite slow, developing at the speed at which my sensitivity increases. (I share it now in case it inspires someone else to get there quicker!)

As I mentioned in my recent Dragon post, I was in Wales on holiday in April. There I had two different energy experiences that were totally unexpected and both quite magical.

The first was that of mountains, on one of Cadair Idris’s nine tops. A fairly pointy one. I struggled that day – it was hot, and my lungs were in a bad mood. I felt as proud of myself for having got to the top as a child might, so went right up to the highest point, to stand on top of an uneven bit of rock. And suddenly there was a rush of positive energy coming through me, making me feel euphoric. I could tell it was also affecting everyone around me to a greater or lesser degree. Then on to the highest top, pushing me to my limit, and possibly a bit past it. M, the youngest person on the mountain, had a long wait for me at the top! Yet when I got there, there was that uplifting energy again, magnified.

I wondered if it was just my feelings, or whether positive energy really does shoot off into the sky from the top of a pointed mountain. This is not something I have felt from a rounded hill, and it was not an energy I felt anywhere else on the mountain, just at the top of the ‘pointy-uppy’ bits. Spirit reaching upwards, while the lakes below drew downwards in stillness. The recent fire in Notre Dame Cathedral brought great discussions of how unique was its construction with very early flying buttresses to enable the building to reach as high into the sky as possible; many religions have temples that reach for the skies. It occurred to me that hill forts and castles being placed at the top of small hills may not be just strategic, but also command respect for the ‘high’ chief who rules there, and additionally give a positive boost of energies to all who live in that location.

A few days later, I had a chance to test this theory, on the top of Bird Rock near Llanfihangel. That time I managed the climb easily – it was neither as steep nor as long – so could discount any of my own euphoric feelings. There it was again, just in a very small area at the very top. Step away and I could no longer feel it, step back and there it was again, lifting upwards.

Some mountains are themselves regarded as sacred, with climbing even forbidden on occasion. I now regard any mountain as the same, Mother Earth and Father Sky joining together at the point.

Dolgoch stream, just above where I was feeling it.


My other energy experience was around water, and a mountain stream not far from Cadair Idris. I put my hands in several during the course of the week, as the days just got hotter. They varied in size and steepness, and temperature, but I didn’t think too much about it – until suddenly on the last day I realised I had put my hand in something really special. Fully of light, purity, happiness. Not a virgin stream, one that had been underground flowing through rocks and also above the ground dancing through waterfalls, yet kept pure and unpolluted. I did not know I was capable of learning all that just through my hands, despite using my hands to purify water at times.

Then I listened.

Last year I started singing or toning with different natural beings such as rocks, earth, water, trees etc. Here I did not even have to sing to hear its tune, it was complex and beautiful, harmonic, bell-like. I could hear how the great composers like Bach and Mozart were inspired; this had the same source.

I thought this would be the end of it, but I have now found myself singing through rituals, rather than reciting the words, and it is giving me a really deep connection to the elements when calling the quarters. I cannot possibly sing the same tune for fire as for air, or water as for fire, or earth as for water!

Lessons in Trust

I have wanted to do some form of both dancing and music for two or three years, but couldn’t find anything suitable in terms of my abilities (limited when it comes to dancing!) and time available – until late last year when I saw a ladies morris group out dancing. It was just one of those times when I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do, and by January circumstances meant I was able to join the group and have my first evening out by myself since having M. Amazing, and utterly perfect for me! As a result I have been very busy over the past few months practising polka steps, learning the dances, and sewing the required costume – leaving less time for all the other things I would love to do, and even need to do, like housework and gardening. It has once again proved to me that I can manage whatever I want to provided I focus all my energies in that direction – but only just! Hence a few late blog posts recently, besides other things.

The difficulties I faced were frequently unexpected. To begin with, all went smoothly. Realising I was serious about joining the group, and that the only ‘spare’ skirt wouldn’t fit me (kit normally being returned when dancers leave), extra fabric was purchased and I was handed a bag and a roll of fabric, a greaseproof paper pattern for the skirt in size 20ish, and the spare skirt to copy. Purchasing ribbon to match was my responsibility – and at that point my problems started. Three shops later, I found a colour that was close although not exact and either too narrow or too wide. They were able to order some for me, for collection the following week. Sorting the pattern was another major challenge, since the skirt has 8 flared gussets to be fitted and a flat waist. I can’t even guarantee my waist will be the same size in three months time with all this dancing, so I have to find a way of making it adjustable…

So I get the skirt made – although not without having to take the sides apart and re-sew them smaller since it was already too generous. Next I try and buy plain cotton poplin for my shirt, so visit my favourite fabric shop. They don’t have enough. Something they normally keep in stock, so I try again. And again. And again! It turns out the owner is ill and hasn’t put the order in yet, and won’t let the three or four other people who work there do it either, so by this time fabric stocks are seriously run down – I buy elsewhere but it isn’t exactly what I wanted. Still, I shall probably need a second shirt by the summer…

Meanwhile I ask multiple times about a waistcoat pattern. A month later I am given a bag of coloured fabric scraps for the patchwork front, but still no waistcoat. I finally manage to borrow one from another dancer, but I only have it for three days as she is dancing out early in the season. (I knew I wouldn’t be ready for April dates!) So I make my own pattern from hers, guessing at size alterations needed, and then try and buy the extra bits I need. Calico lining takes two shops to find, different colour ribbons take three, and buttons take four shops before I find anything suitable. I am at this point going into Derby almost once a week with M, taking up valuable sewing time!

At the same time I must get a pair of clogs. This is not something I can make, nor buy off the shelf in my size, so I find a clogmaker online who will custom fit. I expected them to be ready early April, but I only get a message to say they are ready for fitting at the end of the month. So my first free day for nearly a month (thanks to pre-schoolers having school holidays) sees me driving nearly two hours, an hour fitting clogs, an hour having a walk and my sandwiches while the clogs are finished, and then driving for over two hours back again. I do have a contingency plan, but mainly I’m just trusting I will get back in time. Thanks to a roadworks traffic jam delaying me by twenty minutes when nearly back, I am able to collect M with 1 minute to spare and no stops en route. The dance is in three days but I’m too worn out to sew that evening.

I spend my free half days that week glueing the photocopies of music I have been given onto card, and then covering them with plastic so that I can use them outside. There are over twenty in total. The dances in the list for the weekend get practised on my recorder, the rest do not.

I finally finished sewing everything the morning of the day before my first dance, continuing to trust that if it was meant to be, then somehow it would work out. I still have to add some decoration on the back of my waistcoat, and sew some bell elastics for my shoes since the ‘spare’ pair of those were rather tight. Luckily my next dance is not until June as everyone else is having a long weekend away, so hopefully I can relax a bit now!

Hello 2015

I would say Happy New Year, as so many people have said to me in the last few days, but I celebrated the year turning at Samhain, and again at the winter solstice. So instead I will say welcome to 2015, in the belief that this year promises even more good things than the last one.

I prefer to look forward rather than back, and I spend more time making future plans than reminiscing or worrying about what has gone. If it is true that we get what we focus on, then this seems a good way to be to me! However this is not because I am trying to cut out or ignore the negatives in my life, but part of how I overcame illness. My road back to health that started five years ago included setting myself a target for each day, however small, that I could achieve and feel like I had done something. Some targets were physical, such as going for a walk every day and slowly increasing from half a mile to managing three miles in under an hour. Some were creative, where at the end of it I had something in front of me I could see I had managed to do. It made me feel more worthwhile – and still does, for if I have nothing I am trying to achieve I feel lost.

After various thoughts about new projects to tackle, I made some promises to myself at the solstice. I share them here in the continued expectation that what is written down is more likely to happen than what is kept to myself!

Sewing – I have started making a quilt of the map where Winnie the Pooh lives, to hang on the wall where the poster of the same picture keeps falling off. (The radiator underneath melts the white-tack sticking it to the wall.) M is being her most helpful ever and loves seeing all the green background pieces being cut out and laid out in position, which is just as well since lack of space means I have to put them on the floor!

Stained Glass – I have drawn out one stained glass design for some door panels for an internal door, and have a front door and window panels to draw in the coming weeks. It would be great to get them all made this year…

Bodhran playing – when I wanted a drum for journeying, I bought a bodhran because I loved the sound and it felt right at the time. Now (nearly three years on) I want to learn to play it properly, so that I can use it for both and be more relaxed when I play it.

Working with elementals in the garden – I have no idea how to proceed with this one yet; drumming might be involved at least in the first instance. It feels important to me to try, however long it takes.

Climbing the ‘Wainwrights’ – the Munros always intrigued me in Scotland, and I have climbed about ten, but mostly they are too big, too demanding, and too far away. Also the list changes from time to time. I was in the Lake District for Yule, an area which I love and have walked and canoed there over many years, both solo and with family. This was the first time I had come across the concept of completing all the ‘Wainwrights’, which are all the fells AR Wainwright detailed in his books in the 1950s. They have the advantages of being a fixed list of 214 fells, some are small, and given it was his personal choice to include them, they all have some feature of interest. I would love to start from scratch and see if I can do them all in, say, thirty years. However I plan to start with the hundred and sixty-odd I haven’t yet climbed and see how I go. If nothing else, it is the best excuse I’ve come up with so far to ensure I get to Cumbria at some point each year!

Section of the Soca gorge, taken from footbridge. (German paddler.)

Section of the Soca gorge, taken from footbridge. (German paddler.)

Swimming in Dunnerdale – because it looks amazing. Paddling the Soca gorge took me eight years from seeing a photo to being there – and was every bit as wonderful as I hoped it would be (see the photo!) Swimming under Birks Bridge might take me as long before M is ready and the weather is right, but I’m hoping that is an outside time limit!

Given that dreams posted here have a habit of coming true, feel free to add yours in a comment below!