Saturday, June 22, 2013

NaBloPoMo: Playing Through Discord

My son has been musical from an early age: when he was a baby, I noticed that he would often pay better attention to me when I sang to him than when I talked to him, and as a toddler, one of the activities he liked best was the occasional family parade around the dining room table, when we would pick up random instruments and make noise together.

Now that he's older, few hours go by in our house without him breaking into improvised song.  (This is particularly hilarious when he enlists his sister to help him come up with lyrics: imagine the musical Mad Libs of a six-year-old, with a two-year-old supplier of random words.)  Last summer, he began to develop a more serious interest in the piano we'd brought from my mother's house, and his improvisations began to sound more and more like music. Finally, in October, we decided to bite the bullet and get him a professional teacher, a woman who is a concert pianist and happens to live up the street, and who is quite child-friendly.  He seems to enjoy the lessons: he practices most days without being asked to, and will often sit down at the piano several times a day just for fun, skipping ahead to read pieces he hasn't yet been assigned, and fooling around with scales and chords and testing harmonies and rhythms of his own.

Technically, I could have taught him myself.  I started taking piano lessons when I was six years old, too, and as I thumbed through my collection of sheet music one day before he started taking lessons, I discovered that I'd saved everything.

My piano teacher was not exactly someone you would call "child-friendly": a little old Mexican lady with a stern disposition and a thick accent, she would beat time like a human metronome on the top of her upright piano, which was almost taller than she was, looking at you with her half-glasses and beady eyes.  She had a long nose, like a bird: I remember having nightmares about her swooping down out of the sky with a cry that was a cross between a seagull and a crow.  Luckily for me, I was one of her better students.  I had some talent, and even when I didn't practice, my lesson would sound reasonably good.  The boy who had his lesson before me, though, was not so lucky.  "Child," she would roar in exasperation, "what are you doing?"

I decided, early on, that I never, ever wanted her to call me "Child" in that tone of voice.

My one downfall was Béla Bartók.  Bartók is an unusual character: born in Hungary, collector of folk music, a Catholic who became a Unitarian and follower of Nietzsche, an open anti-fascist in the era of fascist regimes, Bartók was a loner in many ways.  His later music especially is said to be his musical translation of his own sense of profound spiritual isolation: it is often dissonant, and always unpredictable.  I had a fairly good ear, and I just couldn't make heads or tails of it.  He wrote a series of graded pieces called Mikrokosmos, to teach his son Peter the piano, and my teacher assigned me one of those pieces every week as early as I could learn them.  I hated them: I called them "The Brown Book pieces," and refused to practice them well, so they never sounded as good as the rest of my lesson.

In retrospect, Bartók probably taught me to read music better, because I couldn't guess what was coming next.  I couldn't fake it.  The discord and unpredictable melodies made me pay better attention to the notes on the page, and ratted me out when I didn't practice.

It's an interesting thing about discord in general, isn't it?  That it's when things aren't going smoothly that we are forced to slow down, to pay attention, to become more mindful.  Which are, of course, useful skills to have when things are going well, too; it's just that we're less receptive to those reminders when we can fake it, or when we can play life by ear.  Sometimes we have to play through the discord, because we have no choice but to show up, and the experience of discord turns out to be more valuable than the easy stuff, the easy relationships, the easy career choices.

Have you ever had to play through discord?  What did you learn from the experience?
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  1. This is such a brilliant parallel. The discord in my life this hear has definitely made me slow down and pay attention and make more conscious decisions. And now that you mention it, yes, I want to learn to do this all the time and not just through discord. What a though provoking post.

  2. As a childhood pianist, I am so intrigued by this post. I know of Bartok and my teacher probably had me play one of his pieces, but I didn't pay much attention to the discord.

    I like what you say about how by not being predictable, you had to pay more attention when reading his music. To me that speaks to mindfulness.

    Now to research some more. What piece did I play? Hmmmm....


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