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.

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Conscious Participation

I have been exploring the idea of conscious participation over the past few weeks, inspired by a comment I read from Laurie Cabot (Salem, Massachusetts witch and writer) suggesting there is no such thing as a passive observer; you are always a participant.

This makes a lot of sense to me, as the human influence can be seen working at every level: in quantum physics where light can behave as particles or as waves depending on which you are looking for; in mind experiments controlling where a ball falls; in dowsing where clear results come for anyone openminded enough to believe in the possibility – and frequently not working at all for people convinced it won’t.

At a group M and I enjoy, the person who runs it thanks everyone for being there at the end of each session. Not for coming, for being there. I found this odd the first time, that she should be thanking us rather than the other way around, but now recognise that she is acknowledging how each person’s presence influences the group and is welcome. I notice how I learn different things and have different experiences depending on who is there and how they are being, and it is frequently precisely whatever I am needing at the time.

In canoeing there is an often repeated phrase for swimmers (ie those who are unintentionally parted from their boat in whitewater) that they are not a victim, they are an active participant in whatever rescue is needed. I have been on both sides of this, rescuer and swimmer, many times, and know there is nothing to be gained except a feeling of helplessness if I don’t take an active part when needed. Sometimes that job is to observe, especially in a group situation, as signals might need to be passed up or down river. But passive observation it is not! Alternatively, even at the distance of a few years since I was last in a boat, for any rescue I can remember (and there are a few!) I can still picture every person who was there, even if they were merely passing along the footpath. Sometimes I made use of complete strangers, having to use intuition for who I could trust to help.

Similarly, in any situation of performing in front of an audience: musicians, actors, dancers, speech givers, and in every situation from concert halls and theatres to office boardrooms to the street, every person present or passing by is a participant if only they knew it! The most uninterested or bored observers will have an effect on the performance just as much as those clapping or cheering.

This is also true in witchcraft. I would never invite anyone to ‘observe’ a spell or healing I was doing, but if I felt their energies were positive might ask them to participate – the intentions of each person present and assisting will influence the outcome. After all, we ask the stars and planets to aid us in our magic, just as I am discovering many do in biodynamic gardening, which is a pretty subtle influence – as are other correspondences such as crystals or herbs used. But they can all add up to a very powerful whole.

So as this weekend was Beltane, I have of course been celebrating. Some folk might talk of ‘observing’ a festival – but this is not the pagan way. For several years now I have actively created a ritual at each Sabbat so that I may learn something from it. These are generally solo and thus fairly simple meditations and activities that I have used to give my life greater depth and meaning, connecting to the Earth as the seasons progress. However this weekend I have finally understood why many pagans talk (or write) of helping to keep the wheel of the year turning. It is not that it would stop without our efforts, (actually it might if Earth enters a higher state of consciousness, but that is a different story!) it is more that by actively participating in the celebration of the seasons, I become part of it too. By showing my love to each sign of Spring I add my consciousness. I am not a mere ‘audience’, I add my appreciation and encourage the flowers, the birds, the sheep and other field animals, the bees, the ladybirds, to greater efforts. I have become a co-creator with nature: an active participant, part of the turning wheel. That to me is something worthwhile.