Day 457, June 17, 2021

 Inhabit the Moment

Tonight's soundtrack: Khatia Buniatishvili, Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23 in B-flat Minor (OSR & C. Koncz)

My brother was always a better musician than me. He learned to read music at an early enough age that in a short amount of time he surpassed my painfully slow progress as I attempted to translate penciled in fingerings into squeaky tones on the violin, or timid hammers on the piano. I was a bad student and relied too long on tape guidelines on the fingerboard or keyboard aids, the kind of thing a student should only use as a beginner. I stubbornly refused, or, as I believed, was unable to memorize how to read music. I managed to transfer my mediocrity from violin, to piano, to viola. I was equally miserable at each.

My brother, who could read music and exhibited a kind of natural musicality, seemed to easily transfer that from violin, to piano, to trumpet (very loud), and then, much to my parent's chagrin, when he saw me pick up the guitar, also switched to guitar.

I have to give my father credit, he tolerated an incredible amount of racket and noisemaking from the two of us. He even bought me my first electric guitar, a heavy black thing made out of plywood, and a little Gorilla (I think) amplifier. With that heavy and thin sounding thing, and my uncle's old Yamaha acoustic guitar that he brought with him from Korea, I strummed my first chords with an earnestness and determination that I lacked in all my other instrumental endeavors.

Somewhere around 1981.
My father, who carried me on his back while he practiced for hours, with the hope that I would become a child prodigy, instead had to fend off the neighbors who wanted to call the police because my brother and I were having a feedback festival in the garage.

It is interesting to me that one can witness an aptitude for particular kinds of learning and knowing, even at such a young age. I saw that with my son, who even before he could crawl, listened to music with a profound attentiveness and felt all the emotion in a piece, at one time bursting into tears in a particularly sorrowful passage. Even in his bouncy chair, he was listening to classical music.

I still remember my last time playing classical music. I was in the middle school orchestra where I had switched to viola because the orchestra needed violists and had no need for bad violins. The viola section started with just three of us, and over the course of the semester, dropped to two, and then, there was only me. Truth be told, I was mainly just copying the fingering of my fellow violists (a skill I still emulate when playing with other musicians today), so without anyone to copy, I was left with the sheet music that I couldn't read, augmented with lightly penciled fingerings that I could not see. The conductor took pity on me and asked me to join him on the podium and offered to play viola alongside my pathetic bowing.

That was a humiliating moment. But, thank goodness it happened then. What if I had been allowed to continue playing in such a miserable fashion? It might have killed music for me entirely! 

I wish I remembered the first piece of music I heard, or the first concert I went to. But I think music from my childhood is more associated with smells, the upholstered seats at Symphony Hall, the fragrant grass and citronella at Tanglewood, the metal and oil smell of the heavy Advent tape recorder I was supposed to manage at my father's concert at a conservatory. There's probably a little Winston's cigarettes and coffee in there too.

The first time I saw and understood what an orchestra stamping its feet meant, was at a rehearsal when Leonard Bernstein was conducting. They had been working on a piece for quite some time, starting and stopping several times, and then after a final triumphant run through the piece, which smelled like the compacted dirt inside the Koussevitzky Shed, all the musicians started to stomp their feet into a polite stampede. The orchestra was expressing their approval, their joy of working together and creating something that felt special and unique. By that age, I knew that an orchestra stamping its feet was not a common occurrence. It was a reserved accolade and only bestowed for special moments from what was typically a grumpy and sometimes resistant orchestra.

It was marvelous and infectious to see and hear the joy and excitement ripple through the orchestra, all of these master level musicians expressing themselves through a stamping of feet. It really did feel like I had witnessed something special. Perhaps the orchestra members might feel something like that in concert, but one could never break decorum in that way in performance... but in rehearsal, one where the conductor smoked as he paged through the score, then stamped out his cigarettes on the rostrum, that was a different matter. By that time, Bernstein had acquired a Warhol like persona and was trailed by a whole entourage of people, including one person who seemed to have the job of ensuring all of his cigarettes were properly extinguished. I imagine that must have added to sensation, recognizing one is in the presence of a historic figure.

I feel lucky that, somehow, somewhere, a degree of musicality was passed down to me. Not to the degree of my bother or son, but I derive an innocent pleasure from playing music. Something akin to those first earnest flailing strums still elevates me into the moment like almost nothing else can, to fully inhabit the moment of living, of life.

Take care and be well,

Leo



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