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How We Musick?

ART TIMES Oct 2008

The true self is always in motion, like music: changing, moving,
failing, suffering, learning, shining.  -- Brenda Ueland

Music has always been central to how I get through the day — humming tunes softly to myself, or singing audibly, if no one else is around.  From my earliest years onward, I have had a natural proclivity for musical activity, easily learning to play instruments (piano, pipe organ, flute, piccolo, guitar), and adding in harmony while singing with my mother as we did our household chores.  Also, Mom taught ballroom dance, and my brother and I were recruited to fill in whenever extra partners were needed for her students.  Later, my brother and I both became instructors ourselves.

However, for several years in my 40s, during a period of painful and debilitating illness, all these activities were unavailable, and I didn't know if I would ever be able to perform music or dance again.  Naturally, I felt a great loss, as my identity was so wrapped up with musical activity.  Being a church organist, a vocal soloist, and an avid social dancer were all key ways that I was known to others, and to myself.

Yet, even during this time of challenge and uncertainty, I could still enjoy listening to music, and I immersed myself in this aspect of musical experience.  In the early stages of my illness, I listened to two CDs with regularity, while drifting in and out of sleep: Renaissance choral music by the Tallis Scholars, and Joanne Shenandoah's “Native Americans Songs of Life.” The ethereal harmonies of the Tallis Scholars lifted me to higher realms, while the drums and throaty women's voices on Joanne Shenandoah's CD grounded me to the Earth.  Later, I found the music of American folk singer/songwriter David Roth to be particularly reassuring, uplifting, and motivating. 

Interestingly enough, those years of “just listening” have proven to have been very valuable for me as a musician.  As my health improved, and I was again able to play the piano, I noticed that I had gained new skills.  I could hear the harmonies better as I listened to a recording, and reproduce them myself, without having written music for the piece.  I would first locate the melody line and the bass line, and then, the rest of my fingers would just fall in place to fill out the chords I heard on the recording.   Also, my improvisational skills had improved.  My “inner ear” would sometimes hear a different sort of accompaniment to a piece than the songwriter had himself performed, and I would choose to write my own arrangement. 

What a surprise to find that my years of convalescence had the unexpected bonus of having also been a very long "ear training" session!

In his book Musicking (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), music educator Christopher Small expands the idea of "music-making," preferring the concept "musicking," which means to take part in a musical performance in any capacity, such as, performing, composing, rehearsing, promoting a musical event, ushering or cleaning the performance hall, dancing, or listening.  In my early life, I was almost exclusively focused on the performance end of things.  Now I am gaining greater appreciation for other aspects, especially listening.

Although my health is now much improved, I still struggle with health challenges.  Last summer, due to flare-ups of symptoms, I again found myself unable to play the piano for a few months, and, more recently, due to vocal fatigue and strain, I have had to refrain from singing.  At the outset of each of these setbacks, I became fearful that I might lose some musical ability forever.  But I now realize that my musicking cannot be lost entirely.  It will always “morph” into something new.

Music is not a "what" (an outcome, a product); it’s a "how” (a process of expressing, or becoming).  As long as we are living, we are always reinventing ourselves and our craft. 

(Lisa Wersal is a writer and musician from St. Paul, MN).