E sharp

“Play an E sharp” he commanded. I pressed my finger against the string where I hoped an E sharp might be and thought I don’t belong here.

“No, an E sharp” he said again; and again, I guessed – my timid bow pulling a sound out of the string that, for all I knew, was a G flat, a D natural, an E sharp. He thinks he’s talking to a real musician, and I’m just a big faker.

“No,” he said. “an E sharp.” I had to be getting warmer.

I can’t read music. Not the way it's meant to be read. My teacher could demand an E sharp and rightfully expect that I would know which position and on which string I would need to place my finger on the fingerboard to get an E sharp. He could point to a note on the treble clef staff and rightfully expect that I could announce (based on position and key signature) that it was a B flat.

But he may as well have handed me a cook-book in German and asked, “what will this recipe make?” or “where does it say how many eggs to put in?”

Where most saw notes and keys, I saw shapes and patterns. I didn’t know the note I was playing was a D, but I did know that It was two notes apart and above the note I had just played (which, incidentally, I had no idea was a B). Musical patterns made sense in my head – it became almost instinct which note would come next. The closest thing to what I did was playing ‘by ear’ – but if you asked me to sight read something (giving me no inkling of how the pattern of the thing would go) I was liable to panic, curl into a ball, and start mumbling indecipherable things about little black splotches with sticks coming out of their backs all over the page.

And yet, I survived several teachers/conductors/orchestras ‘reading’ music this way. Musical theory was lost on me – but the music was absolutely not.

“E sharp,” he said, without so much as a hint.

My music teacher was a prodigal. The stuff of legends, if he hadn’t been from Small Town, Utah – and was content to be so. At the audition that won me my music scholarship, the conductor asked, “Who do you study with?”

“David Beck”, I answered.

“Ah,” said the conductor with a satisfied smile, and settled his large frame back into his folding chair. “Then we can expect great things from you.” He punctuated this statement by awarding me the scholarship.

David was thin, dark haired, and extremely tall. I wondered, sometimes, how he managed to achieve such accuracy with such lengthy limbs. He was precise, measured, appropriate. But he was generous with my bumbling jokes and ever patient with my endless errors.

He played a concert, once, on a Sunday afternoon in the chapel down the road. I remember the dress I wore. I remember what a treat it was, sitting in the audience. Anonymous. Able to wrap myself in the warm sounds he created with his violin – not having to worry about what he would ask of me, next. He played Bach, Beethoven, Bumblebee. Something that sounded very much like a train.

A look came over his face when he played an old war-time ballad. I knew that look. Love. He was in love! With this thing that he could do – this beauty he could create with the angle of his wrist and the placement of quick fingers. The bite of his bow. The almost imperceptible cloud of rosin dust lingering above the wooden bridge. The tears waiting in the eyelashes of his breathless audience. The violin itself; his lady.

When he played, something released within him. He never missed a note; but it wasn’t about that, anymore. His perfection was not about endless hours of devoted practicing (though certainly there was that); it was about his passion. When he played and his lady sang the tortured songs of his soul, he believed.

I recognized that release. That affection. That conviction. My fledgling heart had felt the same. I knew what it was like to let go and let the music course through me – just a conduit – and let it crack me open and spill me wide. I, too, was in love.

I didn’t know where E sharp was, but it didn’t matter. Not to me. Not to David. He didn’t give up on trying to teach me theory ("E sharp, Stephanie!") and he was endlessly patient with my trial-and-error approach to the beloved compositions he laid on the wire stand before me.

Because after I had learned a piece, and we played it together – me on melody, him on harmony, then switch – I think we would have made the composers proud. Because when we played, we couldn’t be bothered with the technicalities or mechanics of what we were doing. We were too busy making music! The thrill of the feel of it! – how the sound from our violins bounced and played off each other in sometimes predictable, sometimes illogical patterns. It was fun.

It was love.

And, forgive me, but I think that makes me more of a musician than reading any old F sharp ever could.


Grandpa Rusty said...

You are so right, Stepper, about "musician" being about passion more than technique, and certainly more than theory. Yes, technique must exist in harmony with passion or when one wants to play anger, or kindness, or the peace of a babbling brook; have all the passion you want but your body has to translate that into the mechanics of playing the instrument.

This gift of combined passion and technique you have, and as a result your music touches hearts. I've been to concerts where the players had technique and theory, but no passion. The musical notes were properly played, but the emotion was not there.

So what of theory? Well, it is pretty essential if you want to compose symphonies. Even helpful if you want to be able to answer those pesky questions like where is an F sharp. Or sight read music you've never heard before. But there are gifted musicians who play by ear, even composing their own music, who cannot read or write a note of music.

Ultimately, music is about sharing emotion, passion. I listen because I want to feel something. Deliver the feeling through the notes and an audience will never care if you know what that note is on the page or the name of that note you are playing.

By the way, I had a wonderful time playing strings with you last Sunday. I wish my technique was better, but what can you expect when you haven't played since dinosaurs roamed the planet? Thank you for your patience playing music with your old man.

And play on - with passion!

b. said...

A great writer AND a musician?

Thank you for sharing your gifts.