The other day, I went, somewhat unwillingly to a concert at my child’s school. Now, the school, it needs to be said, is extremely well equipped musically. The school is, as a matter of fact, one of the reasons why we live were we do. When we moved to Cairp Tahn, a friend of mine who was already living here suggested – no, instructed – that we find a house in this area, because “this is where the schools are”.
In general, I have not regretted it. I find the school, and more particularly, the parents in the school, sometimes a little hard to stomach – but then I find most of the people who live in Cape Town a little hard to stomach. For a government school though, I wanna tell you – this place is extraordinarily well musically equipped.
So, I went to the concert. There was a good audience of proud (and wannabe proud) parents. The kids were enthusiastic, but not exceedingly talented – excepting a red-haired pianist called Daniel. But the availability of talent was never the issue. The fact is, there were children of all possible descriptions, playing one instrument or another. That was exhilarating.
The long suffering teachers provided accompaniment, or backing, or the technically demanding stuff. And the kids played along happily and willingly. The sound they made was sometimes excruciating – but it was tending towards musical. I was witnessing the start of what could be an unmatched journey, for each of the children – for the ones beating the marimbas; for the children on the recorders; for the singer on the stage behind the microphone and for the violinists. Each one of them could turn out into something really amazing. And for certain, each one of them will be listening to music in a different way to those who have never been trained at all.
Because, if you can read music, if you can understand the nuances of rise and fall, of crotchet and minim, of pianissimo and sforzando – you have gained entry into a whole different universe.
I was pointed in the direction of this morning, is a talk by percussionist Evelyn Glennie, (the link to which I provide below). She makes a very different, but related point. That one needs to listen to music emotionally – that one needs to feel it, and not just listen to it. It is a powerful point she is making. But I want to make the other one as well. There is a sense in which you can feel it all you want, but your understanding will be limited if you do not have access to its inner workings.
It is like appreciating – loving – a beautiful motor car, but not knowing how to change the tyre, or where to put in the fuel. You can live without that knowledge, I suppose – others could do it for you. But when you do have personal access to it, it makes the experience of “loving” the car so much more accessible. I, personally, lack that kind of access to fine art. I know what things appeal - but I have no idea why or how. I wander around art galleries is a happily ignorant state. It is like watching the patterns on a kaleidoscope. Fairly meaningless, but pretty - usually.
On the musical side of my life, I have a beautiful upright Gunther piano. It was made 118 years ago. It is fairly rare, in that it is a transposing piano, which has a sliding keyboard mechanism, which makes the hammers go up and down the strings, depending on the required pitch, without having to change key. It was built, I suppose, for accompanying singers, or choirs and it enables the pianist to play without needing to do transpositions into any other key.
My late partner, Brian, found it rotting in a warehouse in Cape Town, being rained on, many years ago. Even though he knew nothing about music, he did know a thing of beauty – and so he bought it for a minimal amount and had it railed up to Pietermaritzburg, where we had it fixed. It has taken many attempts to get it back into restored and reasonable shape. It took years to find just the right brass for it, and just the right surround. Joshua “bin Laden”, our youngest child, snapped off several of the ivories when he was a baby. The piano has survived all this and now it has pride of place in our lounge today.
It is not in tune at the moment, so I do not play it at the moment. But now it needs to be discovered, by at least one of the children. The joy of knowing music has already started to enrich their lives. It is something they will never lose, and never regret.