On Playing Music

May 17, 2008

In the fifth grade my class was taken on a field trip to a neighboring junior high school where we heard the band play.  After the arranged pieces were done, each instrument was introduced by the conductor, so we would start to know what they were and what they sounded like.  After that performance we were all asked if we wanted to play an instrument.  While hazy, my recollection is that all the boys wanted to play drums and the girls, flute.

Those who were interested, and whose parents could afford to rent or buy an instrument, started learning how to play.  My mother was able to borrow from one of her friends, Mrs. Lamb, a cornet, which I played for the remainder of fifth grade and all of sixth.  Midway through the sixth grade I started what would become four years of braces on my teeth and playing the cornet wasn't fun, as its mouthpiece was small enough that I didn't like the sensation of my lips pinched between the mouthpiece and my braces.

In seventh grade I switched to baritone, which had a significantly large mouthpiece.  Heck, the instrument in its case was nearly as big as I was.  Which led to its downfall.  Miss Mathesson, the band leader, was unhappy about the lack of practicing we were all putting in at home, so she sent home practice sheets to be signed by our parents.  Thirty minutes of practice each and every day was the requirement.  Riding the bus too and from school every day with the baritone case perched in my lap was uncomfortable, and I soon talked my parents in to letting me quit band and join the rest of the non-instrument playing students in music class. 

At some point in the next couple of years I talked my way into getting a guitar and lessons.  The instructor was probably only a few years older than I at the time, with long hair and not much patience for a bumbling beginner.  The hurdle that I could not overcome was tuning the guitar; this being long before electronic tuners were available, you had to tune the strings by ear to each other.  The instructor was never able to help me understand what "in tune" sounded like.  I was also not motivated to practice.  Something I now understand isn't an innate ability.  Good teachers not only cover the material, they cover how to learn it as well.

The peak of my guitar "playing" was being able to fumble my way through three or four songs I learned through sheer memorization - all with the same finger picking pattern.  I didn't even know the notes I was playing, beyond a vague mention of the chords.  In college one of my roommates, who had played piano for nearly a decade already, grew tired of my endless repetitions of the same few chords and volunteered to teach me music.  I had no idea what that meant, and when he presented me with the music theory I once again recoiled from the work involved.

I have always wanted to play an instrument, to be able to make music.  Watching Sibylle play is beautiful; seeing her hands gracefully coax such wonderful passages and sounds from the piano brings me great pleasure.  I want to be able to play, I want to be able to produce music.

Sibylle has been teaching me about music, almost from the beginning of our relationship.  Through her I have learned that practice isn't something I, or anyone else, should just know how to do.  Watching her teach, and having her answer my questions, has shown me how to go about learning this thing called music.

In the little that I know already I see parallels to the martial arts (posture, natural technique, breathing, tension and relaxing) and parallels to computer science (polymorphism, re-use, and functions).  I am intrigued intellectually as well as musically.  In my own way, with her loving assistance, I am starting to take my first steps into the world of playing music.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.