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Naomi Rose : Learning and Playing by Heart

Learning and Playing by Heart

When What You Love Is Worth Doing Slowly

By Naomi Rose

   The following feature is mostly about music. But like all things creative, music stems from the same source as deep writing. If you stay with what follows, you will sense the relevance to your own creative life, in writing and other modes as well.

Piano keys

   I'm sitting at the piano, my hands on the keys, feeling the music pour out from this relationship. No matter how disconnected or dulled I may feel before I sit down on the wooden piano bench, as soon as my hands touch the keys ~ even before I press down and hear sound coming back ~ something in me relaxes. I am home.

It is not always like this with writing, for me. But with piano, the very tactility of the touch ~ the smooth white keys under the pads of my fingertips ~ releases some kind of endorphin response. My body relaxes, my heart recognizes that, "Ah, now I will be able to express in my own true mode," and I feel befriended by the piano itself, and the realization of what will take place between us, even if I have no preconceived idea of what I will play. It is the touch that brings the music forth.

I feel myself to be an instrument at this instrument. Something will come forth from me ~ rhythmic, often melodic, chorded or otherwise accompanied, harmonious. Longer stretches of sustained-note time will get to be punctuated by more quickened, leaping pulses of sound. In speaking words, there are no equivalents of that lengthy, sustained rubato one gets to play or sing, where the reverberation of the sound stretches out long and haunting, remaining in the air for a time even once my hands have lifted off the keys, even once my voice is silent.

I love music.

   When I was about ten years old, my mother gave me piano lessons. They lasted only about six months. My teacher's focus was more on how to "do it right" than on how to be with the music, letting it speak to you as you entered into its magical world. At that time, I found the process of reading the simple notes, the treble and bass clefs, difficult. What I could do easily, however, was sound a piece out by ear. Fumbling at first to match what I heard in my head to the actual notes of the piano keys, at some point I became able to cobble together not only the right-hand melody line but some rudimentary kind of left-hand accompaniment as well. Once Beethoven's "Für Elise" struck my fancy, and I ensconced myself over the keys until I was able to play what I recalled of that well-known piece with my right hand, and also come up with some accompaniment (if not necessarily what the composer had written down) that worked with my left. "DA-da DA-da DA-da-da-da-DA," I played, awkwardly perhaps but with utter dedication. I felt almost let into that world.

It was when my mother told my piano teacher, who came to the house once a week, that I had been smart enough/talented enough to figure out "Für Elise" all by myself that things started to go awry. "Play it for him," my mother urged me. And, torn between pride and embarrassment, I did. My teacher listened silently, throughout; and then, when I had finished, he said, "That's not the way it goes. It goes like this." And he literally shoved me over (we were sitting on the piano bench together) and proceeded to play the piece perfectly, in the correct key with all the correct right-hand notes and left-hand fingering ~ as an adult who had studied music well enough to teach it professionally could play it. But he never said a word about my having figured out the piece on my own, even if wrongly. And he never said a word about my caring enough to want to learn it, or being able to play it by heart.

I stopped taking lessons after that.

   My secret affair with music did not stop there, only halted its aboveground life. Underground, it went on, like some memory of beauty and purity that had ceased to have a place in my life as I knew it. I made up songs when my heart hurt, or in joyous moments. I sang the Christmas song, "Angels We Have Heard on High" in grade-school pageants as if the singing itself were proof of angels (though my family was not religious, and angels had never been mentioned in any context). I fell under the spell of singers. I listened to classical radio. In my twenties, I married a musician, my first marriage. And all the while, music existed inside me as a secret, a river that was so part and parcel of my soul that I could not come out with it in public, feeling that to be seen in this irreducible soul-essence was to put myself forth with no protection whatsoever. So my music stayed a secret from others. Not from myself; but I did not get to hone it, to evoke it, to let it teach me how to be with it for quite some time.

When my marriage to the musician came to an end, one way I sought to find a new life was to join a choir. That I was not Catholic did not seem to matter; and I got to learn the most beautiful of hymns, songs that were meant to open up faith, buttress against despair, and even give a way to walk bravely and divinely supported into and beyond death. I sang through tears sometimes, rehearsing with my choir-mates. It was all right. The sheer mass of voices masked my individual contribution. And yet I sensed that I was making one.

At first, I learned the hymns by ear. They were not as ornate and challenging as other songs I would later sing in later choruses I would be part of. They were relatively simple, usually in a major key, and easy to memorize. The scores, which along with the others in the choir I held in front of me, gave me the words. I connected the words to the melody by repeating them; and then it didn't matter that I couldn't sight read or really read music very well.

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