On music – a personal journey

Summary

My fraught relationship with (classical) music

I can’t remember the precise point at which I started learning a musical instrument. I must have been about six. During the mid-1980s I remember many teachers in my neighbourhood being unmarried and close to retirement. A number had been teaching for decades – to the extent that the head teacher at the time could be found as a young teacher in photographs dating from the Second World War!

I remember absolutely despising and fearing her. A distant and aloof woman who, with hindsight was a product of her time. Yet she was a musician – & an integral part of the various performances that were put on at the time. Ironically, I found her successor to be similarly cold and aloof – but from a different perspective. He was more the ‘administrator’ than the teacher. Looking back, I felt he was brought in to do a hatchet job on everything the school had stood for – reflected both by a huge (but with hindsight much needed) building programme and a high turnover of staff. In the middle of this there was music.

Again, the product of her time, my first music teacher was retired & unmarried. Her living room was straight out of the 1940s – not just frozen in time but also physically cold and emotionally so too.

I make the point about unmarried women from a historical perspective. Only in recent times has the plight of two generations of women facing a generation without men been raised. It’s now being studied from historical, sociological and psychological perspectives. Twenty-five years ago, it was as if women simply had to deal with it in silence.

Coming back to the music room that was frozen in time, you can imagine the cloud of depression that hung like a curse over that same room. Yet at the same time it was where generations of children from my local school started one-to-one tuition while parents passed time in the little library next door – one which I still use to this day. It’s strange to think how times have changed from the frozen music room of the 1940s to the suite of internet-linked computer terminals with the young children of today using social media as of instinct.

On playing musical instruments, I could play the piano one hand at a time – just not both. It was probably this realisation that led to my teacher and parents calling it a day. My hands cannot act independently of each other. My brain cannot cope tapping out two separate rhythms at the same time. I guess that’s why they invented the ‘can you rub your tummy while patting the top of your head?’ test.

Class tensions

What was to follow was a reflection of what I now see as some of he class tensions that for me poisoned what was otherwise quite a nice area to grow up in. Children from working class families played football and got things from the sweet shop regularly. Children from middle class families learnt musical instruments, went to church and went to cubs and brownies. I was in the latter group. Despite wanting to play and be good at football & despite getting jealous of what other kids seemed to be getting, church and music lessons took precedence over football. At that age I had a footballing brain that far exceeded the body attached to it. But hey, the best players don’t always make the best managers.

In one sense I was lucky that my late grandparents bought me a brand new violin. (I still have it – though it needs a polish and re-stringing). My new teacher, a lady called Linda, was actually a very good teacher. In the late 1980s, what felt like me going nowhere with the council’s group music teacher (another unmarried lady close to retirement – out of all of the teachers I was taught by at primary school, only two were married at the time). Yet what felt like out of nowhere I was thrown into a string quartet – I think on the grounds that I was reaching the heady heights of…grade 1. It seemed quite bizarre. One moment in  1988/89 there was a large group of us playing the violin very badly, and the next minute there was just me – being pushed into a string quartet. “What happened to everyone else?” I wondered.

At the same time, a local secondary school teacher decided to start a new orchestra for my primary school – where her two daughters went. Not surprisingly I came to enjoy the string quartet and the orchestra pieces – and despise the exam pieces I was doing in private lessons.

World Cup ’90 and my school’s 90th birthday.

The latter created a huge demand for musical performances from…well…anyone who could play a musical instrument to a reasonable standard (for primary school children). These were both at the school and at Homerton College, Cambridge which happened to have founded the school. You can still see it on the foundation stone from 1899. Ever since then, trainee teachers have found their way running short classes and workshops for us blissfully unaware little ones. The far better sports facilities meant that every so often we’d make the short walk up to the College for fun and games.

Despite World Cup fever – and it was a fever bearing in mind that England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland had all qualified at a time when few foreign players were in the domestic leagues – music took precedence. The only time football and music aligned was when our quartet played the Match of the Day theme.

At the same time I was also playing the recorder – and not enjoying it at all. I stuck with it because my final teacher at primary school – the brilliant Maggie Heywood (who has been part of and now helps run Cambridge University’s Music Society) wouldn’t let me drop it. I hated the descant recorder with a passion & wanted to switch to tenor, so was gutted when my fingers weren’t judged to be long enough to join the new cohort of tenor players. It was only after the first term of my final year there that I managed to persuade Maggie that I really wanted to shift – after which she managed to patch up an old tenor with a broken bottom C key (that I managed to reach) that I never looked back. My final “swan song” was a musical concert where I was bouncing about between three difference places. Once place singing with classmates, another with the orchestra as one of two first violins and another with the tenor recorders. (Along with a solo Vivaldi number that every parent dreams of & that every child finds excruciating – I still do).

But then something went wrong – badly wrong.

Secondary school turned a reasonably cheerful outgoing and multi-talented kid into a narrow-minded selfish exam-factory.

In my first three years of secondary school there was a rapid turnover of all teachers – in particular music teachers. When a child goes from attaining an “A” grade in a subject to an “E” grade in two years in any subject, the problem is not with the child. (In my case it was with the school). Combined with Sundays facing what can only be described as the worst choir in the world at church, any love for classical music was all but destroyed. By the age of 13 my parents’ patience had run out. It wasn’t just her facing rebellious offspring who no longer wanted to play music. Vast swathes of us were dropping like hot stones – with only a few going the other way taking up the guitar on the back of the indie/Britpop trend.

The culture of the time was that music – and exam results in general were subconsciously used as weapons by parents against each other – irrespective of the needs and wishes of their children. If anything, it’s got worse over the years with league tables and teaching to the test. It’s all a bit too much “Look at my Charlie – he got a distinction in his grade 1 flute! We’re so proud!” By which they mean “We’re so proud of ourselves – aren’t we great parents?!?!” I put this point to a group of family friends of my parents’ generation some years back, and they all conceded on this point. The ones who continued with music I observed, were the ones who had an outlet for group performances and who had parents who understood the love of music for music’s sake. Life on a piece of paper anyone?

One home I remember going into was when I was briefly reunited with an infant school sweetheart who I had not seen for over a decade. When re-introduced to her father (who I had not seen since the age of about six – I was some ten years older by then) he was playing the piano in a very warm music room with warm colours in the middle of winter.

Music as an adult

It wasn’t until the age of 21 that I was able to look classical music in the eye again. By that time my mental health was imploding. It was only after a proper diagnosis (which was also the start of medication) that I looked at music being part of the solution – and it is.

Getting back into music was helped in part by formal dancing lessons – ballroom, salsa, etc. The idea of moving rhythmically to music with some degree of control and a partner in tow was something that…”worked” with me. The hunt to find better and better tracks took me to places far off of the beaten track.

I then began an abortive attempt at singing – something I used to be good at but let slip. Unfortunately I never found a tutor that I connected with. The aim for this was just as much to break the prison that my lungs currently sit in: The joys of permanently tightened/spasmed intercostal muscles – again the result of this cursed condition.

Violas

In early 2006 I spotted a viola going cheap at a local music shop. I snapped it up with the intention of playing it. I wanted to get the feel for a low C string. The road to hell eh? Paved with good intentioned. It wasn’t until 2008 that I summoned the courage to play it though. This was at the Mary Ward Centre by Russell Square. Altough shaking like a leaf in the first lesson – bouncing the bow off strings like on a trampoline, the technique came back surprisingly quickly. Learning to read the alto clef on the other hand…!

The teachers were great – understanding & communicating the love of music interspersing the music we played with little histories behind it. No exams here! It’s a shame the place wasn’t ‘buzzing’ in the way that I wanted it to be.

Me as…a conductor?!?

Interestingly enough, I got to try my hand at conducting when our teacher got stuck in traffic. Faced with only the first violin part for Pachelbel’s Canon we found out the hard way why orchestras need conductors – especially if people are still learning. I split the first violins into two, with the remaining violinists repeating the first few bars (which are very straight forward) and scribbled all over the music sheets to ensure the cellists (who could only read bass clef at the time) could also join in.

And…

It worked. My viewpoint was that as we had no teacher, we could experiment. So we did. I didn’t need to be an expert in the field, I just needed to know enough to get by and communicate it in a manner that made people think I had at least something of a clue of what I was doing.

Yet I’ve not played since. I’ve also not played my five string viola (that looks like a vanilla ice cream dipped in dark chocolate) or my bass ukulele, both of which screamed “Buy Me!” when I saw them.

Again, road to hell paved with good intentions – at some stage they’ll get a good airing. For a large part the barriers are psychological. In this part of town there are too many negative associations with music that I feel I can’t do anything about. I feel that I can’t get back into it unless and until I move out – which seems unlikely in the next few years. And that’s not going to happen unless A) a well-paid job (that can manage my mental health issues) decides to arrive or B) the girl of my dreams sweeps me off my feet to somewhere new and nice. Both of which are as likely as each other in the current climate! (He says in half-jest).

Music has been too much of a solitary existence for me. One of the things I strangely hoped from university was to live with a few musicians in halls to inspire me to get back into it. It never happened.

So where is this inspiration going to come from. At the moment I don’t know. But I’ll keep looking…because it’s out there somewhere.  And one day, I’d like to be able to play this little number with a big band.

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2 Responses to On music – a personal journey

  1. Hi there, quick reply cos it’s late, but wanted to drop a note as this post “struck a chord” with me, hahaha. Ahum.

    I’ve similarly grown up with music, starting with the descant recorder, and then through clarinet and saxophone. Along the way I’ve picked up bits of guitar, know how a piano works, etc. The woodwind stuff is the only stuff I’ve graded in though.

    I played a lot of pieces and played in a few summer-holiday orchestras for many years. Doing all that, and learning music theory, is pretty useful. But just that – functional. It wasn’t until I got my sax, and a teacher passionate about jazz, that I guess I realised that playing an instrument is more than just following notes on a stave.

    Jazz brought with it _interpretation_ and _improvisation_. I’m not exactly good at improvising, *but* I can play a very simple blues scale – which is basically just a tool to hammer out something that doesn’t sound horrendous. It’s a bit like using just the black notes on a piano. You suddenly have a “tuneful cage” – a space in which you can experiment without going very wrong. A fun space.

    The other part, interpretation, is also key to a “limited flexibility”. In jazz, two quavers have a “swing” to them. One is longer than the other. There’s no formal definition for that, unlike two which “must” be of the same length – it’s up to you as you play. There’s a rough guide, but you’re free to interpret that as you feel.

    Interpretation and improvisation are, for me, two key points in learning an instrument – because they let you have fun. They’re about what you want the music to do, not the other way around.

    That stands in good stead for a lot of other things. No what “needs” to be done. But feel free to play around within that. Go with what you feel. Bend the stave.

  2. Robert says:

    I can understand your hate for the descant recorder. It makes Justin Bieber’s singing sound like a double bass.

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