At first it was simply an irritating intrusion.
Please no, not here - not now! Not in my favourite park ... I come
here for the peace and quiet, not for a serenade! But the young
trumpet player was obviously settling down to a long practice
session, sitting over there in the tall grass under the shade of an
overhanging tree, so there was nothing for it but to pack up my
notebook, and head off in search of quieter fields ...
Not that I'd written anything. As usual, here on
this hillside, I'd let myself get distracted by nothing much at all,
and the page was still completely blank, but there's always the
chance, isn't there? And the sun was so warm, and the grass so soft,
that I really didn't have the energy to get up, get on my bicycle,
and head off. I'd stay where I was, and try and ignore him.
Actually, I shouldn't have harboured any bad
feelings towards the guy. It was only about 25 years ago that I was
doing the same thing ... exactly the same thing. In my case, it
hadn't been a trumpet, but rather a flute that I sometimes took
outside to practice under the trees. I'm sure it never occured to me
that I was bothering anyone. After all, I was making beautiful music,
So after a while, I relaxed a bit, and even
started to listen to what he was playing. It seemed that he was
probably a member of a high school band who had brought his book of
trumpet parts out here to practice. And the more I listened to him
play, the more the feeling grew on me that I'd heard all this
somewhere before ...
When we use the word 'musician', everybody pretty
much agrees on the meaning - a person making music, either with the
assistance of an instrument of some kind, or simply with his own
voice. But it seems to me that there are musicians ... and there are
musicians. One the one hand are 'real' musicians, those who make
music, and on the other are those who 'play at' making music. I'm not
talking about the difference between professionals who make a living
from music, and amateurs who do it simply for fun. I'm also not
referring to specific skills, whether or not one has a 'good ear' or
some such thing. What I'm talking about is the kind of inner creative
drive that is present in some of those people we call 'musicians',
and yet which is completely absent in other people claiming the same
Let me give an example, from back in the days when
I lived and breathed music, when I could think of nothing else but
playing music all day long ... Among a lot of other musical
activities, I was for a time a member of a college jazz orchestra. I
wasn't a student of that particular school, but as they were
short-handed and had nobody available to play baritone sax, I filled
in at that position. Right next to me, playing 'lead' tenor sax, was
a musician - a musician of that first type. Now music just poured out of this guy like some kind of
Niagara. I don't mean that he played fast, or that he played a lot of
notes. It's just that the stuff just seemed to come welling up from
inside him, to spill over and flood the room with melody. Every note
the guy played was musical.
Sitting next to this incredible fountain was an
astonishing, eye-opening education for me. Because you see, without
knowing it, I was a musician of the second type; I was one of those
who 'played at' music. Up to that point, I had never even suspected
the existence of these two types I have been describing. All
musicians were pretty much the same to me. Of course, some of them
were better at it than others, and some had been doing it longer and
had acquired more skills, but these were only differences of degree,
not of type. The world of music was like a long ladder that we were
all climbing. I was still in the middle somewhere, but had no doubts
about my ability to climb to a level near the top. It just needed
time ... and practice.
Why then was I so surprised by this man's playing? What
had I been doing all along up to that point? As I said, I had been
playing at music. It was a kind of intellectual exercise. There was a
piece of paper, covered in a number of black dots coded with certain
meanings. Here was a length of pipe, pierced with holes in a certain
fashion. Fingers went in this place and that place. Read the music,
decode the meaning, blow some air in the end, make the appropriate
finger movements, and ... presto! Out came music!
I had even learned to make my performances
somewhat expressive, all on the basis of these intellectual rules.
See this phrase in the Mozart concerto - repeated three times, each
one a tone higher? No problem. Straight through the first iteration.
A little louder for the second. And then for the third, a slight
hesitation, and then a good push on the first note of the phrase ...
Ah that Mozart ... so expressive!
And all the time that I thought I was making
music, it was just a game. I might as well have been a programmed
robot. To me, that's just what music was! It never occured to me that
there was anything else underneath it. Yes, I knew that some players
could play without printed music sheets, jazz improvisers for
example. But to my mind these were simply people living in a
different room of the vast music 'mansion', who had just learned a
slightly different set of codes and rules. They weren't really any
different from me. We were all ... musicians.
But then this tenor sax player came along. Whether he was playing
from printed music, or just playing whatever came into his head, it
made no difference. It was music. There was no hiding from the truth
any longer. This ... was music! What made it even worse, was that he
praised my playing. Yes, I may have been a better 'decoder' than he,
but all of a sudden, those skills didn't seem quite so satisfying any
more. And then, some time shortly after this experience, when I was
beaten in an audition for the local symphony orchestra by a flutist
who was a better 'decoder' than I ... Well, music didn't seem to be
quite as much fun anymore.
I didn't simply give up outright. I tried to break
away from the 'tyrannical' classical training, to get away from
reading music. I took up the jazz tenor sax. But what did I do with
it? Got out my pencil and transcribed into written notation an entire
jazz album by a famous saxophonist! I took up the bass guitar, and
organized a rock band. But what did I do with it? Got out my pencil
and made written arrangements of dozens of songs! Finally, the
message sunk in, and I turned to other activities, first the business
world, then computer programming, and then eventually, to woodblock
I should perhaps make it clear that I am not
suggesting that all those who are not 'real' musicians should hang up
their instruments and quit music. If it gives them pleasure, then of
course they should continue. That young trumpet player in the park
was quite definitely 'playing at' music, but I would be the last
person to suggest he quit. But for me, once I had come to feel that I
was a phony, somebody pretending to be something he was not, then it
was impossible for me to continue.
Maybe one day, when more years have passed by,
perhaps I will take up music again. I am not ready for it yet, but if
I do, it will be as a dilettante, as a person just happy to tootle
away on his instrument, decoding that stream of black marks on the
page. There will be no illusions about being a 'musician'.
I think it might be fun.