“If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare wrote for the opening line of the play ‘Twelfth Night’. It’s a classic line and one which I have spent many hours of my life trying to fulfill. In many ways I have often felt as Duke Orsino must have felt – pining for the unobtainable and falling fowl of my own choices!
I was 5 years old when I first started to produce music, playing the recorder at school. I learnt to read music at the same time as I learnt to read words! At 9, I started piano lessons. What a joy to sit at this amazing instrument with its array of keys, strings stretched and hidden behind beautiful wood panels, and the two strange pedals (what were they for, I wondered, as my feet stretched to touch them? Imagine my joy, and a little confusion, when I found some pianos have three!). I still love to sit and press a key or a succession of keys, hear and feel the music enter the room and bounce around the walls; freed from the box; released from the tension of taut and tightly pegged strings.
What continues to fascinate me is that no matter how infrequently I now get to press the keys, music waits in anticipation. It seems to always be there. Like a racehorse at the starting line ready to run, all energy being restrained by its jockey; or a dam wall with a full dam of water behind it ready to burst; a never ending stream of sounds lie waiting to leap, to pounce, to break their bonds of slavery and let loose on the world. Sounds of love; sounds of anger; sounds of playfulness; sounds of pain; any and all emotions can spring into being, freed from their coil, just by pressing a few levers of wood (albeit some covered with ivory!). What an awesome experience!
In my early days, the more I played, the more expansive the sound grew and, of course, the more I practiced, the better the sound became… plus, I have to say it, the more difficult I grew for my teachers!
As I learnt to understand and feel the music, to feel with my soul what this wondrous instrument could do, I would often disagree with the way I was told to do it – the interpretation placed upon me by those trying to teach me. After all, I argued, most of the classical music I played then had been written many, many years before. It had been printed and reprinted; edited and re-edited until, surely, the composer’s original intent couldn’t be so easily interpreted? Even the instrument was different – most of this music having been written on a fortepiano!
Was the fortissimo (ff) indicated placed there by the composer or an editor? Was the rallentando meant to be in this place, or later, or not at all?
I vexed my teachers, testing their resolve and their patience and my own acceptance of discipline as the intensity and focus required bled itself into my young personality.
As I look back now, who was I, a young and inexperienced teenager, to question these indicators of feeling, sound, of music? On the other hand – who was I not? After all, I was responsible for the sound being produced wasn’t I? My brain interpreted the written notes and directed my fingers to press on the correct keys; in the correct order; at the correct speed; using, together with wrists and arms, the correct weight – the ‘discipline’ mentioned above. The only question remaining was the interpretation of ‘correct’!
Like life, my interpretation (my perspective if you will) and, therefore, my performance created the results: the sounds produced and the effect on the listener.
With the piano, no matter who told me to do what; who influenced my interpretation; who wanted it their way; it was my fingers playing the keys and my soul touching the listener. In spite of all the input, teaching and coaching, the choice of how to play was, in the end, mine. The sounds coming from the instrument were coaxed out of their restrained resting place by my touch. The strings vibrated and the air resonated according to how I placed my fingers and feet. There was no-one else to shoulder the responsibility; just me.
Again, like life, the choices I made led to the results. A ‘good’ piece; a ‘well-played piece’; a ‘technically correct’ piece; or a piece that moved emotions, feelings and souls; all depended on my preparation, my practice, my interpretation and my choices.
Fingers may fly across keys to make heaven on Earth and feed the love-starved (as Shakespeare would have us believe maybe) or stumble around on blocks of wood creating disharmony, disrupting peace, destroying sound, taking the ‘food of love’ from hungry mouths and the hope of love from those who seek it’s solace. I would like to think that in both life and music, I chose, and choose, the former and produced the ‘food of love’. In reality, I know this has not always been so and, although influenced by mentors and those around me, I have to take the responsibility for my choices and the results.
A tragedy? A comedy? – I often ask myself. Well, when it’s over maybe I’ll be able to tell you. For now, I only wish music could ensure healthy life choices as well as love-laden lunches – would it were that easy!