This is the first entry of the traveling diary of a budding composer and musician. It will be, I hope, less an unreadably personal record of minutae, than a journal of my experiences put down in a way other thinking musicians and listeners might find edifying and, with any luck, fortifying.
Currently I am in two bands, both in the early stages of development, “No Love Songs” and “The Kissing Cousins Band”. Though I have been composing since I was a child, I did not begin to set the music to paper until I was seventeen years of age. Music has always been part of my life, and three years ago after clinical testing at the behest of an attentive and devoted friend, it was discovered that I am in fact quite deaf, a lifelong condition that has been obscured by my skills at reading lips, as well as people’s linguistic tendencies and their overall mannerisms. Hearing aids now assist me in observing the music of the universe around and within us all.
My musical education in elementary through high school was adequate for my general education and I have been fortunate to have learned more than the average American middle class student. I never learned to sight-read or read the bass clef with any proficiency, having studied the treble clef in choir and during childhood flute lessons. Now as a grown woman I continue my education mostly through reading books on music, on composers, and technique. I have had a handful of sessions with a few piano teachers, most recently Manling Kwok, a superior instructor from Hong Kong who holds a degree in Piano Pedagodgy from Oakland University. Learning any new language in one’s middle-thirties is a challenge and my slow progress is marked by frustration and hope equally.
In an early 19th Century book on piano study I found at a local book shop, I read words to the effect that performance is the bane of American musicianship. The author commented that many musicians are encouraged to perform before they are ready. While I see the point, I also wonder what America he was talking about, and how much experience he had had with cultures outside of the Western world even within the U.S. Border. In African-American or Latino households, for instance, cultures that explore rhythm extensively, early group performance is widely regarded as enhancing compositional abilities. In many European-American books on piano performance written in the 19th Century, I have found useful tidbits on how to increase technical skill and richness of tone, but increasingly come across warnings against novice performance. One book warns that no student of piano, however skilled, ought to perform until “he has make a careful study for at least eight years”. It is my personal preference not to perform or practice in public, but this may prove to be a weakness.
Keeping both approaches in mind, public improvisation and private study, I submit that knowing one’s self sufficient to maintaining a balance of breaking personal barriers and learning at one’s own pace is key. When drawing sketches abroad, for instance, or painting on a canvas in a tourist spot, I have felt pestered by the flock of no doubt well-meaning nosey parkers who inevitably wish to peek at what I am doing. After finding the courage to say “I am not comfortable showing my work at this stage,” I began to feel better about progressing at my own rate. This is to say that I think that my reaction to the crumbling 19th Century volume on piano study at Downtown Books in Rochester, Michigan, was a relief followed by skepticism.
As my 16-year-old godson, Nadim, also a composer of music, said to me recently, “I can get something out of every situation.” In his useful if precious book on the artistic life, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield encourages artists to view the forces that keep them back as creative folk as a type of evil force that exists to squelch works that might please the benevolent gods. He calls it “Resistance” and I found this to be a useful term and concept. I prefer to think of those forces as not evil (as I do not believe they are) but as teaching forces that exist to forge us and all beings into stronger versions of ourselves. In truth, I suspect that either way of thinking is mildly sollipsistic, but I am all for the pragmatic uses of such concepts if they dispell the clouds of apathy and stagnation that so plague us, thus sparking our gumption.
As a recovering Catholic, I reject the idea of heaven, hell and eternal hellfire, and original sin, finding in my experiences and those of my fellow earthlings as sufficient evidence that Heaven and Hell are here and now. We needn’t seek them out. The Hindu view of life as being ruled by gods in the form of Creator, Destroyer and Maintainer is helpful here. At the risk of sounding the blasphemer, we can see the creative force as The Creator, the Resistant force as The Destroyer. We ourselves, then, are the Maintainer or, if you prefer, beings capable of all three incarnations, aligning with the universal religious concept that God is Within.
Why do we exist? To me, it rings true to say that we exist to become “moreso” versions of ourselves, however defined, toward some unseen purpose or else simply for the amusement of forces unknown, but at the end of the day I do not pretend to know. Pressfield writes that fear is an indicator of what we must do and having read his thoughtful expansion on this theme brought to my mind C.S. Lewis’s maxim that “we read to know we are not alone”. The mastery of fear and viewing setbacks as indicators of a need for a change of perspective is important in personal and artistic development. That is to say, life is hard enough. Use what you can and pass it on.
The house is now buzzing with life, and I must take my tea with my family.
Cheers and chimes,