My Musical Journey: The Message

The Message

When I was nine, my sister Ria had piano lessons. Being the little brother, I thought I should be able to have piano lessons, too. To me it looked like fun, and I wanted a turn. So mom signed me up.

A lady in our neighborhood, who was also in our ward, taught many kids piano lessons, and for only $3 a week, it was a pretty good way to go, though I didn’t find out until later what a generous teacher I had to charge such a small fee for those valuable lessons.

The lessons were fun, and I learned all the basic musical terms and skills, and obtained a very basic piano proficiency. By the time I had been taking lessons for a year, however, I was tired of practicing, and after a few weeks of dragging my feet, I stopped going to piano lessons.

Years went by, and I didn’t touch my piano books. They were a thing of the past, and any time I considered playing, I remembered how boring practice was, so from the time I stopped the lessons, I stopped playing the piano entirely.

As a young man of fourteen, I loved listening to music while drifting off to sleep. I would stick in a favorite cassette and let it play through to the end. However long it took me to fall asleep, I would always get completely wrapped up in the music. As I made a habit of this, I soon found that the mere act of turning on music and closing my eyes did something to me. It was as if the sounds were wrapping around me, filling me. I don’t know how to describe it, but that simple, quiet music had an overwhelming effect on my whole system.

It was at that time that I came to a realization of the power of music – just a few simple notes, played at just the right… well, everything! The tempo was perfect, the notes were perfect, played at the perfect volume at just the right moments. What was it about this mix of sounds that drew a person in so completely? Was it the flawless skill of the artist, or was it something independent of the musician? Did the music itself somehow convey the sense of completeness and power that I felt?

Much of the music I listened to was religious music, and the powerful feelings I felt while listening to that music were always accompanied by an intense spiritual high that made me want to be better, do more good, and reach out more to bless the lives of more people. But a lot of the music I listened to was simple New Age music, which at that time was sometimes called Easy Listening music.

One night, while listening to some of this gentle music, I felt something unique – or I heard something, but with my feelings rather than my ears. It was as if someone or something was sending a clear message through while my mind and heart were in such a susceptible state. The message was simply this: “You can give this gift to others.”

I lay motionless, still wrapped in the feelings and power of the music. The words had been clear. You can give this gift to others. What gift? Music? The ability to play music? The feelings that the music expressed? Though the message had been clear, I didn’t know for sure what it meant.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was time to go beyond simply listening to and enjoying music. I needed to make music.

But how? I didn’t play any musical instruments, and my voice was nasally and boisterous. I would have to learn to play an instrument. A flute? A brass instrument? I didn’t have any instruments, and I didn’t have access to any instruments – except…

Yes. The piano. The family had a piano. I would would get out my old lesson books and start learning to play first thing after school the next day.

Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 13

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Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 13

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Play only when you want to

Another interesting thing about the emotional aspect of playing by ear deals with your mood.  Whether you notice it or not, your mood plays a huge part in your ability to hear, and especially to feel, what you’re playing.  My basic rule of thumb is this:  Never play the piano when you’re not in the mood to do it.  There’s a funny link between your emotions and your motivation when it comes to playing and writing music by ear.  If you are not in the mood to play, don’t do it.  For me, when I force myself against my will to play the piano by ear, it sours my motivation to return to it.  Afterward, I can often go weeks without feeling like playing the piano again.
If you’re also a music reader, you know that you can practice reading music all you want against your will.  The increasing of skill involved in training your eye-hand coordination has little tie to your motivation to be working on it.  The technical aspects of playing by ear still works this way, but with writing music by heart, it’s different.
Perhaps this sounds strange, since piano teachers encourage a set time and duration of practice hours per day.  The fact is, we are not talking about piano lessons.  You are learning to not only hear, but to feel the music.  If your feelings are fighting your will-power in this, let your feelings have their way.  This may sound odd, but in my experience, it works best that way.  This does not mean that you should only play the piano when you have a burning desire to do so.  It only means that if you have a burning desire NOT to play, don’t.  If you’re not sure whether you want to play right now or not, give it a try.  If it gets better as you go along, great!  But if you start feeling even less desire to play, just leave it alone and come back another time.

The Call of the Piano

You may think by this that there will be times that you never play the piano.  While this may happen on occasion, you will likely find that as you begin to develop more skill, your motivation will increase also.  You will find that often it is as if the piano itself is calling you.  When you hear that call, or in other words, when you feel that longing to play, go with it!  Play away.
Play for as long as you have the desire to play.  When you begin to get bored of it, put it away and come back later.  I would highly suggest taking at least a little time every day to practice.  You should choose for yourself how often and much time to spend at it, but consistency is one of the great keys to obtaining skill.  If you do so, you will be amazed at the speed of your progress, and the wonderful enjoyment you find in it.  It really does become addictive.  Where possible, take advantage of every time you feel the desire to play.
In light of that, I should mention that it has been in those moments where the piano has ‘called’ to me, that I have created my best musical pieces, and experienced the most fulfillment in my ability to create something new and beautiful.  There is much to be said of the first time you find yourself creating music from nothing.  It may not be masterful yet, but it will surely feel that way at first, because of the excitement of the moment.  The motivation that is born of this experience may be enough to hold you for a lifetime of music writing.