If music be the food of love

The photos in this post come from two recent walks, one in the wild mountains of Ponga Natural Park and the other to the beautiful Cascada del Cioyo.

When we last lived in Wales, our neighbour Alwenna walked the lanes every day in all weathers and, regardless of whether she was striding out purposefully or gently meandering along, we always knew where she was because as she walked, she sang. Not some quiet, self-conscious humming to herself, but a full-blown belting out of tunes at the top of her (very tuneful) voice which never failed to make me smile. It was a wonderful outpouring of happiness and the sheer joy of being alive and it has floated back into my memory this week as I have been rediscovering the delights of playing a recorder.

Now I promise I am not going to become a recorder bore; far from it, I need to put time and effort into practising rather than writing about it. However, I wanted to dedicate a post to it because I think what I’m doing sits so well with my approach to and belief in a simple life. I think it’s vitally important ~ as well as massively rewarding ~ to pursue new interests and learn fresh skills and knowledge throughout life; it’s a positive, optimistic and meaningful thing and in this day and age, when we are all too aware of the necessity of keeping our brains busy, stimulated and healthy then anything that forces us to build new neural pathways is surely a worthwhile activity.

When it comes to taking up new interests or trying different things, these days we are blessed with an almost overwhelming choice but I would like to fly the flag here for the benefits of revisiting an old pastime rather than always feeling the need to jump in at the deep end of something bright and shiny. It’s a well-known fact that in our modern western society, countless attics, sheds and garages heave with the evidence of abandoned hobbies, of kit and equipment bought in the first flush of excitement and quickly dumped as the novelty wears off, or the activity becomes too costly in terms of money, time or effort. One of the great plus points of blowing the dust off an old interest is that you know, to some degree at least, what to expect.

Like many children of my generation, my first foray into the world of making music was being taught the rudiments of recorder playing by school staff generous enough to spend their lunch break with a group of excruciating little squeakers! From there my love of music grew through singing and a (mercifully) short flirtation with the violin before settling on the guitar as my ‘thing.’ I was lucky enough to have a few terms of lessons but I’ve never really developed my skills much beyond a basic level so that is something I’m determined to put right. I have a very beautiful steel-stringed acoustic guitar which I am guilty of neglecting but my plan is to right that wrong . . . by learning to play the recorder again (obviously 🙂 ).

So why not just go straight to my guitar? Well, part of the problem is I have spent so many years using guitar tab and the same old strumming and picking patterns that I have forgotten about the complexities of reading music from a manuscript and all the associated symbolism and language that goes with it; I feel the need to sharpen those skills first by really getting back to basics in the sure knowledge that it will then inspire me to work on improving my guitar playing, too. To that end, I am approaching the recorder with total humility like a complete beginner, paying much attention to things like posture, breath and articulation ~ the sorts of niceties I was happy to ignore as a child. I’m taking time to work carefully through the excellent and very human video tutorials by the hugely talented Sarah Jeffery of Team Recorder and making sure that I practise at least once a day, over and over until I feel I’ve really cracked it.

That said, there are many benefits to being an adult ‘re-learner.’ For a start, I can read notation on a stave without any trouble so I don’t have to learn that from scratch. Of the 27 notes possible on my recorder (according to the fingering chart) I can already play 21 so I am choosing pieces of music which will allow me to add one new note at a time ~ although I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to hit the highest ones. At least I don’t have to drive myself or anyone else mad with constant repeats of ‘Three Blind Mice!’ Having spent several decades listening to and enjoying a wide variety of music and having been lucky enough to experience a wealth of live performances in many styles, I have a secure understanding that music is based on a number of elements and is not just a smattering of notes tooted out at the same speed and volume.

As an adult, I also now have far more discipline to apply myself to getting things right. Something I realise very clearly is that at least 95% of the music I’ve ever made has been by ear; let me hear someone sing or play a phrase and I can copy it fairly accurately but give me a piece to sight read and I’m in deep doo-doo because in all honesty, I’ve been winging it forever. I’m not sure whether I was too fidgety, distracted or idle (possibly all three?) but I have never, ever had a proper understanding of note value, finding far more gratification in the names of things like minim or demisemiquaver than in actually doing the maths in each bar of music. Well, that has to stop and sorting it all out in my head feels like some pretty effective brain gym, that’s for sure! What is wonderful is that there are many online sites where I can download free tunes but also play along with an accompaniment and listen to someone else play, so I can have a crack at it on my own first then check against the correct model. Progress is slow . . . but at least it is progress.

Something I am really enjoying is brushing up on all those wonderful terms that add such important information to a piece of music: accelerando, rallentando, glissando, crescendo, fortissimo . . . rolling off my tongue in those delightfully dramatic Italian words. Being me, I’m having a lot of fun making connections with Spanish so andante obviously shares the same root as andar (to walk) and allegro is sister to one of my favourite Spanish words, alegrĂ­a (joy).

Meanwhile, back to the actual playing and as I enjoy a wide range of different types and styles of music, I’m having fun dipping in and out of all sorts of bits and pieces: English and Welsh folk, baroque, ragtime, blues, film themes . . . but without doubt, the pieces I’m enjoying the most at the moment are Irish jigs. They are fast and furious and I’m nowhere near up to speed and still croaking out the high notes like a strangled Clanger but there is something just so energetic and vibrant and downright joyful about traditional music that brings people together and makes them want to dance.

I’ve made a start on building a repertoire of Celtic tunes, not just with a lively toe-tapping ceilidh vibe but those more haunting and mournful melodies, too. For me, this is a style of music that is truly evocative of bleak windswept landscapes under open skies, the aching green of woodland glades, the rocky strongholds of eagle-haunted mountain tops or the booming timpani of waves along a wild coastline. Northern Spain has much in common with Brittany and the Celtic lands of the British Isles ~ and not just the fact that it rains a lot! There is a strong sense of shared history (Castro de Coaña, a Celtic settlement a short trip from home, is a fascinating place to visit) and common culture in terms of art work, traditions, folklore and of course, music. Indeed, I am practising a piece of traditional Asturian flute music called ‘Ancestros’ which could quite easily have hailed from any of those other countries, so similar is it in style and sweet, sad melody.

I love the idea of the spirit of landscape and nature being captured and reflected in music. Let’s face it, nature itself bursts with its own wild tunes and I like nothing better than to close my eyes and listen: sitting by the Cascada del Cioyo, my ears feasted on the pulsating rhythm and crashing of white water against rock, the deep moody notes of the plunge pool, the staccato of a wren underpinning the mellifluous legato of blackcap, and the breeze dripping notes like liquid silver through the leaves.

It was all there and I couldn’t hope to better it; not that I want to, but I do love the idea of taking my recorder into the woods and simply playing from the heart for pure pleasure. It might seem a complete contradiction to the disciplined study I’m making myself do, but I think life should be a balance. After all, music has been an oral tradition for most of its existence and sitting under the leafy sunlit canopies surrounded by the buzz of life, I think I should be allowed to dispense with sheet music and metronomes just for a while. I’ve learned how to mute my recorder, too, so I can sit and ‘feel’ what I’m playing without disturbing the peace of all those I share this precious space with.

This idea brings to mind the concept of awen, a very lovely Welsh word (Cornish and Breton, too, I believe) which has no precise English correspondence but roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration.’ It’s much invoked by those who practise modern Druidry but I believe it can be used by anyone and applied to anyone as a beautiful expression of the spark that ignites the energy and enthusiasm of a creative activity. Although traditionally referring to poetry, I think it’s completely appropriate to recognise that flow of inspiration in many other areas, tangible and abstract ~ music, art, dance, handicrafts of all kinds, cookery, gardening, architecture, scientific enquiry, mathematical reasoning, building relationships . . . in short, any activity that brings head, heart and hands together in a vibrant celebration of creativity.

It’s in everyone, and I think there is something very liberating and exhilarating at being allowed and encouraged to express it; it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at something (trust me, I am never going to be a talented musician) because that’s not what this is about. How often do we stop ourselves from trying something new or different or wacky because we lack confidence or have doubts or are worried . . . about what? That we’re going to fail or be judged or ridiculed? Well, who cares? In lives that can be so overstuffed with busyness and stress and in what are currently very strange and troubled times, I believe more than ever there’s a need to let our hair down, go for it and above all, have fun. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up in fits of laughter with my recorder over the last week. Regret about chances not taken and things not done must be one of the saddest of all human emotions so, go on ~ blow the cobwebs off that old musical instrument, paintbox, set of tools, tennis racquet or whatever, pick up a pen or a needle or a lump of clay, take a lesson in dancing salsa or metalwork or Japanese or anything that appeals to you. Do it. Smile, laugh, enjoy. What greater celebration of the gift of life can there be? 🙂