This past weekend, I had two opportunities is make some great music as part of a group. First, on Saturday night, the NCSSM String Quartet (4 of my students) were scheduled to play for an alumni function at Hope Valley County Club. One of the violinists had a last minute schedule conflict and it was too late to prepare another student for the event. I agreed to play. We played for almost 2 hours and did primarily Mozart String Quartets. I played first violin and really enjoyed myself. It had been quite a while since I had played really good string quartet music with an ensemble that wasn't just playing the standard gig or wedding music. What a pleasure it was to play Mozart String Quartets that actually required preparation and practice to pull off in a musical and expressive manner. There was a real feeling of satisfaction as we finished up for the night. We had played a fine performance.
On Sunday, I put on my improv hat and headed out to a gig at the Piedmont Restaurant to play for Sunday Brunch. I work at Piedmont regularly with Willie Painter and Keith Guile. This week, Willie was out of town and Keith invited his friend and bassist, Robert Truesdale to sit in. We played a fair amount of music that was new to me and I had an opportunity to test my aural and improv chops for a couple of hours. Much like Saturday night, it was a blast. We had such a good time making music and I walked away from the gig with such a great feeling of satisfaction.
This brings me to my thought for today. What is it about music that keeps bring us back as both players and listeners. It certainly fills avoid in our lives and thoughts. Something quite satisfying happens when we listen to great music, when we play music. People are compelled to spend billions of dollars each year on recorded music, concert tickets, and musical instruments. We invest hundreds of hours each year in practicing, listening, and discussing music and performers. And, I am not talking about professionals. Let's take the pros out of the equation. Something is definitely going on in the brain when we play and listen to music. What is it that compels us to invest so much in the pursuit?
Certainly, music is different than most other activities. It requires study, practice, and preparation much like any other worthwhile pursuit. One thing that makes it unique is the fact that it is timed. If we are performing music, there is no time for pondering or considering our next move. The pulse will not wait. The closest activity to which I can compare this is timed sports. In football, the play begins and the player must hit every mark in order to be successful. In track and field, the gun goes off and the runner must perform every move perfectly in order to win or even complete the race. The athlete must prepare ahead of time in order to do these things at the tempo required for success. Just like the musician.
Here is another thought. I teach a course in piano and guitar. This course attracts students from all ends of the experience spectrum. Some of my students are quite experienced in the discipline of piano or guitar and take the course to build practice time into their busy schedules at NCSSM. But, a greater percentage of my students in that course are beginners. They are kids that just want to learn the skill of playing an instrument and they are starting from scratch. Some of them are brilliant kids that struggle to play little tunes such as Jingle Bells and Merrily We Roll Along. But, they invest the time in the pursuit. the are drawn to the complexity of the activity. They are drawn to the notion that they can't just "learn" it by reading the concepts in a book. they have to first comprehend the activity and then, they must perform it. And, not only perform it, but perform it in time, in rhythm. Most of them succeed. Certainly, they succeed in varying degrees, but succeed they do. Regardless, I am always amazed by theri degree of determination and drive. Very few give up. There must be something there that they need as humans. There is some extra bang for the academic buck that you get from music. Otherwise, why would so many be willing to invest ther time in it?
My son has the bug. He comes home from school every day and goes straight for the instruments. Some days it is his violin and others it is his bass. Still others, his brother's drums. but, he goes to music most days. I did it, too, as a kid. I would wear out the piano after school nearly every day. I would wear out my LP records nearly every night. I would go to sleep listening to WDVD in Pittsburgh every night and wake up to it in the morning.
I have an old frind that is a brilliant scholar. He made his career in music, however. He told me once that, "Music is the only thing that I ever really had to work at to be good." I think of that statement frequently and wonder if that is part of the appeal. I am certain that it isn't the whole story. Part of it, at least, is much deeper. It is emotion. It is connection to feelings. It is aesthetics. But, i am sure that part of it is what it does to our brains. There is so much there to process.
I read a book this summer entitled, This is Your Brain on Music. Let me encourage you to read it. It really sheds some insights into what is going on in our brain during the pursuit of music. It definitely gives some answers. but, for me, it also creates new questions. How cool is that?
Until next time....