The Mother Magazine, Editorial
Issue 40, May/Jun 2010
The Space Between the Notes, by Veronika Sophia Robinson
As a child, my father would walk the length of our home, back and forward, happily playing his piano accordion. He didn’t know how to read music, yet his ability to play by ear was outstanding.
My mother’s father played violin. And although I never met him, I discover a fragment of his soul each time my daughter plays her violin.
At night, my mother would sit on the side of my bed and play the harmonica or mandolin. To this day, I can’t hear a mandolin without a tear welling in my eye, so precious are those bedtime memories. She also played clarinet and harmonium.
My first instrument, at five, was a ukulele. All these years later, I can still see it hanging on my bedroom wall. I then had lessons for the button accordion and piano. I loved my piano teacher, Mrs Bloomfield, a very elderly lady. She charged $2.00 (Australian) a lesson ~ inexpensive, even back then ~ and in my school lunch break, I’d cycle to her house and play. There were always about six to eight children there at any one time ~ all doing theory and then taking turns to play. In hindsight, I see this was brilliant for children as they also learnt to perform, rather than just play. After all, if you’ve got musical talent, then surely it’s worth sharing that. I also had a pan flute.
There was always music playing in our home: anything from Mozart to Johnny Cash, Al Martino to Kamahl, Bach to Schubert. My not-so-pleasant musical memories from childhood include songs from school dances (unrequited love ~ ouch, it still hurts!) and the dreaded weekly school singing session: ridiculous songs that were demoralising.
Mostly, though, music moves me in a way that I often can’t describe. The cello, in particular, touches a place deep inside of me ~ a haunted place, perhaps.
Fifteen years ago, I wrote a wish list of 50 things in my ideal partner: somewhere up the top near ‘vegetarian’ and ‘good sense of humour’, I wanted a man who’d sing to me. The Angels must have had a good ol’ laugh at that one when they sent me a professional singer! One of the greatest instruments must surely be the human voice. The first song my husband ever sang to me was Garth Brooks’ country ballad If Tomorrow Never Comes (would she know how much I loved her? Did I try in every way, to show her every day, that she’s my only one?) Clearly, I can’t hear that song without crying!
In our early courtship, Paul and I would meditate to gentle instrumental music. These days, any meditation is more likely to be outside in the garden to the soundtrack of birdsong and the hum of a bumblebee.
My pregnancy with Bethany was filled with Pavarotti, New Age instrumentals, an assortment of classical music, and Paul’s guitar playing, and singing. Each night as I relaxed in the bathtub, massaging my blossoming belly, I played her a selection of beautifully arranged lullabies. She was born in water, by candlelight, to Mozart’s fine music. As babies and toddlers, my girls would bathe to baroque music, before being massaged with lavender and almond oil at bedtime.
Bethany was barely on two feet the first time she came across a piano. She was captivated, and the joy on her face was priceless. Who’d have guessed that 13 years later she’d be studying grade six piano? She appears to have inherited a musical ear from both sides of my family. Often, she’ll be playing something on her violin and I’ll think to myself “I don’t remember buying the sheet music for that” ~ and then the penny drops: she’s learnt it by ear. Or other times I’ll say “That’s really nice. What’s that piece called?” ~ and it turns out she’s composed it. Bethany’s also learning guitar and flute.
Eliza’s instruments include pan flute, mandolin, ukulele, saxophone and piano. She tends to play the saxophone and piano each day; the sax because she’s having lessons, and the piano because she loves to sing as she plays. One of the joys of unschooling is that they can play as much as they want, without having to cram it in at the end of a long day.
You can imagine that with all those instruments there’s a lot of music filling these rooms. And yet, we still play CDs, too. Generally, when we eat a meal there’ll be something like Putumayo’s Italian Café, which takes us to the romantic eating places of Venice, Milan and Rome. We dine to classical and contemporary Italian songs. Other nights it will be caprices for violin, solo cello, classical guitar or mandolin. By day, we’ll play music that soothes the soul, or music to get me in the mood for housework or to write. Music’s like that ~ there’s something for every mood and occasion. It’s also deeply personal. I’ll often walk into a shop only to walk straight back out because the music is jarring to me. And although I enjoy a wide range of music, I’m never in the mood for listening to a recorder or bagpipes, rap or heavy metal.
My girls are introducing us to new music just about every day ~ sometimes taking me way beyond my comfort zone in terms of taste! Though just because ABBA’s made a come-back with the movie Mamma Mia!, I’d be crazy to think that their teenage years would only be filled with my teen favourites.
I was stunned to learn that only three percent of the world’s population play an instrument, and that only two percent perform on their instrument/s. How could this be, I wondered? Surely, more people must love music? Is it that, as children, they weren’t offered opportunities to learn? Or, as adults, they’ve assumed they’re too old? I’m in my early forties now, and am determined that I’ll learn cello in this lifetime (probably when the girls leave home). I look forward both to the effect on my sense of self, equilibrium, and also the daily discipline of committing to the practice: a living meditation.
Although there’s no doubt that a great teacher can make all the difference in one’s ability to progress through music, it’s also possible to teach oneself if the desire is strong. Instruments can be acquired without breaking the bank. So why, I ask again, are so few people filling their lives, and the lives of others, with music? It breaks all language barriers, and is used in ceremonies for all stages of life. It brings pleasure to the human existence.
One of the most soul destroying things I ever heard said was by a mother who insisted her son learn to play the piano rather than the guitar, as was his heart’s desire. Why? She believed a guitar wasn’t a real instrument! I wonder if she’d have felt the same if she’d joined us at a live concert from Richard Durrant ~ an amazing guitarist, who left us speechless. He played about six different guitars, three banjos and a ukulele.
Our whole lives are based on major and minor scales. We have grand concertos where life feels triumphant: we’ve moved into a new home of our own or our child’s headed off on a tour of the world after saving for three years. There are dark nights of the soul: the loss of a newborn babe, ongoing ill-health, or a husband dying unexpectedly. We would expect to hear minor keys at this time. The mistake we make is in thinking that only major keys and chords are beautiful. Life is composed, quite literally, of many notes. Even minor keys are harmonious.
In Zen, it’s said that music is the sound between the notes.
Sometimes it can feel as if we only hear discordant notes: the neighbour’s cigarette smoke barrelling into our home every fifteen minutes, causing panic attacks and us feeling like we can’t breathe; the tone of a sarcastic spouse who really doesn’t want to be in a marriage; regret at not having communicated fully to a friend. Discordant notes show us where life is off-key. It shows us, in no uncertain terms, that we need to find our way to harmony if we want to enjoy the life we’re living. The music of life is all around us: I see it in the red squirrel I chance upon during my morning walk to the woods, and the joy that fills my heart as our eyes meet; and the hope that tingles in my cells when I spy the incy-wincy tiny red spider near my herb garden ~ an omen of upcoming abundance? Notes of anticipation dance on our pillows as my husband and I hear the owl hooting beneath the full Moon ~ telling us that change is on its way.
Music plays to me in the peach blossoms unfurling outside my front window, and this year’s new willow leaves radiant with the green only springtime can offer. I hear music in my fruit bowl, knowing that all the life force of the Sun and this glorious Earth have combined their powerful energies and created foods for a Goddess. How would a composer describe a puddle of sunshine? Or birds flying south for the Winter? What instruments would describe the apricot skies of a Winter sunset?
Paul and Eliza are down in the Lake District today, busking. Some people think of buskers as beggars, and quite happily take in the sound of their music, but offer nothing in return ~ not even a cursory glance. I think of buskers as gifts from the Universe: part of the two percent of the population willing to share their talents and make this world a more beautiful place. Their tunes bring life to city centres, sleepy villages, seaside resorts and riverside cafés.
Our neighbour busks on his guitar, and is well-known locally for his brilliance. In private, he soothes my cares away as I laze in the bath during his saxophone practice ~ those sexy, soulful notes finding their way through the two feet thick stone walls which separate our homes. All this, for free!
Beethoven ~ without question one of the greatest composers ever ~ gifted us with music even after he was deaf. Do we ever catch our breath in gratitude for such beauty, love, dedication and brilliance?
Children make music all the time. When we live in the present moment and are attuned to them, we can hear it: it’s in their laughter; tears; “I need a hug”; whining; dancing; running, covering themselves from head to toe in mud; a nappy which needs changing; a teenager who needs one-on-one parent time; sullen moods; constant chatter; solitude; neediness… To be in attunement, is to ‘make harmonious’. As a parent, we can listen out for discordant notes and see that as our cue to parent from the heart, and with wisdom. It’s about stepping out of our self-absorption, and listening: to the space between the notes. A parent acts as a resonator: a reflection of the child’s sound; ideally, a synchronous vibration.
There is literal music beside me as I write: Bethany’s played a sonata from the 1700s, followed by a delightful German arrangement called Lieb’ Schwesterlein (Dear Little Sister); Debussy’s Clair De Lune, and is now onto musicals: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina; I Dreamed A Dream… My dream is for everyone to wake up and hear the music ~ especially that gifted to us by our children, whether they perform on a musical instrument; sing a song; or play with dolls made from grass; or telescopes made by holding a stick to the sky. They play, we listen. That’s always been the music of conscious, connected and loving parenting.