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You’re Bigger Than the Music

April 18, 2010

My cousin jokingly asked me to write emails to her with advice on playing music passionately.  She is a talented pianist who thinks she plays mechanically.  I started a series of essays to grant her request.  (I don’t need to be asked twice to write something.)  I’ll copy them here under a working title of Measured Passion.  This is from the first email:

You’re Bigger Than the Music

I played baseball for six or seven years of my early life.  In my childhood sense of time, it seemed like I had played for all eternity.

At the first sign of spring, my dad would want me to play catch with him in the front yard.  He was possessed by a futile optimism that some metamorphosis could occur over the winter transforming my sad ineptitude into competitive drive and coordinated talent.  My father’s annual hopes were inevitably dashed when I was panic-stricken by the first approaching projectile and crouched feebly under my unloved mitt.

Dad would march over to me in irritation, perhaps embarrassed that his neighbors could see his sissy son diving for cover from a baseball.  “Look,” he said, picking up the ball and holding it in front of me.  “Do you see how much bigger you are than the ball?  It’s nothing to be afraid of.”  (Had I known the physical definition of “momentum” at the time, I could have argued that there was plenty to be afraid of.)

For me, bringing emotion to music starts with a paraphrase of dad: you are bigger than the music you play.  Without you, what we term as “music” is nothing of the kind.  It is busy notation on a page.  The piano is just a box holding strings in tension.  Without you, they are as dumb and silent as a baseball and a bat.

You make the music.  You interpret the curious symbols.  You command the instrument.  Not because you will yourself to believe you are bigger.  It is intrinsic to being a musician—just like I was always bigger than the baseball.  You make the music.  And the music that you create, regardless of its technical merit, is—and always will be—uniquely yours.  Your music is an expression of all the experiences you bring to it.   Your memories affect what you hear the printed music saying.  And vice-versa—the music you create may say something new to you that becomes part of your experience.

It’s much to my dad’s credit that he would spend time playing catch with me.  He could easily have given up and focused on my sports-oriented brother.  Years of toil and frustration paid off finally, though, when the light bulb came on for me in my very last season of playing in little league.  I finally understood that I was bigger than the ball.  Previously, I was fearful of baseballs, coaches, teammates and humiliation.  In that one final summer, I was a kid having fun playing a game.

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