Front page | Essays index


Music Lessons


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, wasn't I?

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 title.

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 printmaking.

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.