Today I had one of those moments that reaffirmed my totally irrational love of trying to teach kids to play the violin. It only lasted a few minutes, but it didn’t matter. It happened after the last several days of my thinking about how I could expand the sound repertoire of my students’ musical environment, to expand their awareness of how sound can be big and expressive, or subtle and atmospheric. I was thinking about how much the piano had contributed to my overall knowledge of sound and musical style, since I was playing 20th century composers before the age of 10 (like a piece called “Pink” – as in, the color), and had experienced many different moods, tempos, textures, rhythms, and structures in my piano music at an early age. On violin, most of the early work is technical, because it requires both left and right hands to produce any given sound. Violin music is mainly melody, until the point where you reach enough technical mastery to actually express something more complex emotionally. (I was 9 years old and in a master class with Josef Gingold playing Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Mr. Gingold asked me if I knew what the word melancolico meant, which was marked by the composer at the opening of the piece. I said, “Sad?” He said, “I hope you don’t really know how to play that way at your age.”) Violinists often rely on other instruments to provide texture, harmony, and depth. Many years and hours are spent perfecting the production of a focused pitch and tone. Only then can you begin to embark on the journey of layering tones and textures through fancy bowstrokes and acrobatic left hand maneuvers.
From the age of three, I always studied both piano and violin in parallel, taking for granted that so much of my childhood universe was spent in a state of deep listening to sound and music. Several weeks ago I began a year-long immersion course in the use of sound, voice, and music in healing. I can’t begin to describe it fully in words, but it has opened me up to the direct experience of sound through listening. I realize that so much of what we call “listening” is not that at all. It’s deciphering and decoding, labeling or waiting to talk, enduring, or filtering, or manipulating.
But listening is actually a process of going inward, to the deep place of silence within each of us. When we have truly listened, we have internalized something from what we have heard. If we have truly listened, then we will have felt the effect of sound throughout our entire being.
When we go to a concert, we are not “listening” any more than we “listen” to a movie at the theater. Concerts are a display of human competence, and if we’re lucky, we might walk out feeling some emotional effect other than the ringing in our ears. But that effect depends on so much beyond the sound. We’re bombarded with images, lighting, rituals that are specific to the concert venue, and then the language of the musical style presented. Classical music is becoming so distant from our cultural mainstream that most people feel they need to learn how to listen to it. There’s some truth to this, which has led to a much-needed trend of classical performers’ addressing audiences using words, before or after their concerts. Not only does this lend a humanity to the people “doing” the music, but it provides the listeners with a bridge toward understanding what they are hearing.
As my experience of listening and sound evolves over the year, I will undoubtedly have more to share about what I learn.
But now back to that moment from teaching today. Sharing it will explain something quirky about what makes me happy, which may be more help to me than any of you reading this. I saw the human mind and body at work today. I saw memory developing right before my eyes today. I saw the power of concentration and deep listening in the development of true understanding of the self. I get to SEE that as part of my job!! I get to help it along. I won’t say that I “make it happen”, because I don’t. I facilitate it by cultivating the rituals and mindset that create the conditions for it to happen. But I can’t make it happen. Believe me, I’ve tried. And failed. I’ve seen parents try to make it happen too. Some think they have succeeded, by the external measures they’ve defined for themselves to measure success. But the only results I really care about are the ones earned the “old-fashioned way”…by putting your mind to it!
And today I saw that unfold right in my studio. I was teaching 7-year-old Audrey, whose journey has been defined by slow, quiet progress, always a few steps behind her twin brother who started studying six months before her. I knew she (and her parents) had the “right stuff” when she struggled and persisted through several months of practice before being able to clap the first rhythm, “Mississippi Hot Dog”. It took every ounce of her concentration – and her own sense of humor about making mistakes – to experience that first moment of triumph almost three years ago. And everything she has learned has pretty much been that same path of struggle coupled with good humor and steady determination, with nothing coming “naturally” to her.
I’m absolutely fascinated with students like Audrey, and I don’t know why. The only memory I can draw upon is my very consistent tendency, which started in childhood and continues to this day, to cry – literally bawl – whenever I watch the IronMan Triathlon on television. Not when the winners would cross the finish line, but when the last few guys – the ones wearing green glowsticks around their necks, barely hobbling on one leg, or pushing a son with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, or crawling across on hands and knees at age eighty-five – would cross just before the midnight deadline. To them, it was obviously not about winning. It was about having the courage to START, and then the determination to FINISH. Their dignity was not in how they looked crossing the finish line – and some of them did NOT look pretty with various bodily fluids running down their legs – but that they had the resolve to finish. It was their own race, and no one else’s.
Audrey had one of those crossings of the finish line in her lesson today. The girl for whom every little thing was earned through effort from the start managed to play a two-line run of scale patterns in a Bach piece with command and confidence that took me by surprise. After doing several drills with her on one measure where she was struggling to hold her third finger down while she moved her second finger from the A to E string, I saw that she had a solid connection between her mind and her fingers. I said, “Do you think you have it memorized?” She said, “No I don’t think so.” I said, “Try it. Look at your fingers, not the music, and see if you can do it.” I knew from the way her fingers moved that she would be able to do it, and I just wanted her to see for herself. When she did it, that little smile that cracked her lips open just enough to see all of her front teeth, and the little sideways glance of her eyes to look at her dad, mirrored everything I was also experiencing in that moment: “I’m so happy! And, did you see that, Dad?” No bigger celebration than that was necessary.
Sometimes that is all we need. Just a little moment of joy, of pride, of knowing what we can accomplish with our own two hands and our mind. And then a witness who’s there to share it with us.
It was a simple, beautiful moment. Almost too simple to describe to another. But it was a good reminder of how simple happiness can really be.