This past week we (in New Zealand and Australia) commemorated ANZAC day, remembering the many who lost their lives during the first world war, especially those at Gallipoli. 

I was asked to play the piano for our local community commemorative service, and one of the songs I chose to play as folks were gathering was Londonderry Air.  A famous, well loved Irish melody, it has been used in all sorts of settings with a variety of different lyrics too.

The tune may have its origins in the early 1600s from a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan, but many versions have arisen between then and now.  Apparently Victorians avoided using the tune’s common name because it sounded too much like ‘London Derrière’ – probably not too PC to the Victorian ear! Instead, they preferred the name ‘Air from County Derry’.

The first time I heard the melody was with the lyrics “I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship, should set His love upon the sons of men…” These lyrics were penned by Irishman William Young Fullerton some time before 1932. But it is most famously known as ‘Danny Boy’ from the lyrics written by English lawyer Frederic Edward Weatherly. 

Whatever words you are familiar with, the tune is striking and uplifting. It evokes a poignant mixture of sadness with beauty, and maybe that is why it is often used at funerals and war memorial services. But it also has a triumphant quality which builds from the beginning to the octave leap in the melody in the second to last line. It also has that sense of going away somewhere, but, like all good tunes, very successfully comes back home so you can head off on the journey all over again.

The harmony will vary with every version you hear. But there are so many possibilities that work so well, I found it hard to decide which I liked the most when recording my version of it recently. I’m sure I would do it differently another time.  But whatever harmony is chosen, the melody is sure to be around for a long time to come.

 

A recent Ed Sheeran tour here in NZ was extremely well attended. I didn’t get to go, but I heard some really positive comments from others who attended. Apparently he was on his own on stage; there was no band, but by using a loop pedal to record and play back the live sounds he had just played, he gave the impression of a full band sound. Everything was live in the concert and not pre-recorded. It says a lot about him as a performer that he can do all this as a lone musician. Even so, he also knows how to perform with other musicians.

So much of music is about performing with others. When someone starts out learning a musical instrument they are usually terrified at the thought of other people hearing their early attempts. Yet playing with others is a valuable goal to have in mind.

One of my greatest delights as a music teacher is working with a number of very young musicians and bringing them into their very first experience of playing in an orchestra. In their audition they show that they can play something they have learned. I also get them to play some simple music at sight to show they can read previously unseen music at their level. Bearing in mind the overall group of musicians I have, I then write and arrange a simple piece that will suit the level of each instrument. This way I know that the music is not going to be the biggest thing to learn when they come together. Rather, their prime challenge will be learning to play as a group.

Earlier this year some were so nervous at their first rehearsal that they just sat and watched the others until they were ready to join in. It wasn’t long before watching everyone else having fun was no fun at all, and they joined in.

By the end of each year I will have seen massive improvements in each orchestra member’s understanding of music and the instrument they play. There will have been a growing awareness of the importance of timing and listening to their fellow member’s input, and a sense of corporate solidarity. For many, if not all, one of the greatest highlights of their year will have been this weekly experience.

 

Here are some of the social plusses of playing with others:

Meeting people from other walks of life

It is a healthy way to mix and mingle with people who might look at life differently. The music brings the point of unity.

Learning the value of teamwork

Everyone has a different part to play, but no one part is more important than any other and together all parts makes the whole work. The children I work with can feel the impact on the music when someone doesn’t show up to do their part. The same can happen when working on a musical or other drama. So many parts have to come together for the whole thing to work. It’s a great way to learn how to work as a team.

Developing a focus for practice

On many occasions I have seen pupils get their parts right purely because others are going to hear it and they will let the side down if they don’t get it sorted. The result is that they see direct value in the practice they have put in. The cycle then repeats itself and they continue to improve.

Learning accountability

Leading on from the last point about letting the side down, being accountable to a group is healthy for musicians who tend to work on their own.

Being sociable without having to talk

Working towards a common musical goal does involve some talking, obviously, but when your focus is on the music it relieves that awkwardness that some find in a social setting.

Playing your part in the conversation

In a musical piece with others there is a time to “speak” and a time to be silent. I always feel sorry for the triangle player in a rehearsal who counts 20 bars before his moment comes and the conductor stops to rehearse the string section when they get to bar 19!  But he will learn that his moment will come and it is like taking a turn in a conversation. There are times to listen.

Learning about other instruments

My current little orchestra is no doubt learning a lot about other instruments. For example, they are seeing how difficult the oboe is to learn, because if the reed is not in right or there is a split in it, there is simply no sound to be made. They may also see and hear another instrument and become interested in learning to play it too.

Learning about how the music hangs together

When the leader breaks down the music into parts to practice, those who have to sit and listen will now be more aware of these other parts when everyone is playing together.

 

If you don’t have the opportunity to play with others, perhaps because you are living in an isolated area, you will just have to make sure other members of the family learn an instrument too! As the youngest in my family I have only vague recollections of family concerts when we got together, but I know they happened. Maybe my older siblings can remember them better.

However you do it, don’t be alone ‘on your stage’ of learning music. Find a way to get musically sociable. We probably won’t all be as brilliant as Ed Sheeran – making up his entire backing team by playing it all himself with the help of a loop pedal! And good as it is, a loop pedal will never offer the full dynamics and benefit (to both musicians and audience) of a live group.

 

Another instrument! Are you kidding? For those who have found learning just one instrument challenging, it may seem counter-intuitive to pick up a second, let alone a third. But there are benefits to doing just that. Today’s blog looks at some of these benefits, illustrated by a bit of my personal journey in music.

Making the instrument one’s own

When I went from playing the violin to learning the double bass, it was a significant moment in my musical journey.  The violin was always my sister Helen’s instrument, and she was winning prizes and playing in the National Youth Orchestra at 16, while I was barely beginning to play my first pieces at the piano 10 years behind her. With that age difference I was in awe of her and it seemed I could never be that good, and I certainly didn’t sound good when I started playing. I really wanted to play in an orchestra and knew my violin playing was more scratch than being up to it.  So, in my early teens I looked around the house (there were instruments everywhere – my parents hired them out) to see what I might learn with a view to playing in an orchestra soon. Two instruments caught my attention: the trombone and the double bass. Figuring that a bass player was going to get more playing time in an orchestra, I chose that.

New motivations

Now my goal of playing in an orchestra seemed a little more reachable as I discovered that double bass players are in relatively short supply. I found new motivation to practice much more diligently than I had on the violin. My practice had a purpose and a goal to aim for.  New challenges were not seen as huge mountains, but as a means to an end and I simply took them on.

Transferable skills – from the first instrument to the new one

Almost immediately I felt that I had come home. Having already learned how to play the violin, there were some useful skills that I could transfer to my new toy.  Holding the bow was similar and the idea of pressing strings to change notes was all familiar. I could read the bass line from having learned to play the piano, so with both piano and violin skills I jumped ahead much more quickly than starting with the bass as my first instrument.

There are so many different sorts of transferable skills when you learn another instrument. Here are a couple of examples that come to mind. I’m sure you can think of others.

  • Learning chords on a guitar can help you learn more about the use of chords at the piano (and vice versa).
  • Learning about phrasing on a wind instrument helps you realise music needs to have natural breathing places that those who don’t play a wind instrument are less aware of.

Transferable skills – from the newer instrument back to the first

New skills learned on the new instrument can breathe new life into your experience of other previously learned instruments. An example of this for me was when I took up the ‘cello.  I now found that, even when playing the bass, I was more aware of how to play the melodic lines better.

Another example was learning to play string vibrato.  I just couldn’t do it effectively on the violin. The angle of it seemed so difficult, but I knew this would improve the sound. So, when I was getting confident on the bass, I learned how to do vibrato much earlier in my learning. The result was that I enjoyed the variation in sound and tone colour so much more.  Then, when I went back to the violin, it was not nearly as difficult and I am much happier on the violin than I used to be. (Even so, you won’t catch me playing it when my big sister is around!)

What is difficult in one instrument may be easier on another

The last example (string vibrato) also exemplifies this point.

As another example: if you have already learned to read music as a pianist, taking up a melody instrument (and therefore reading a single stave) is a delight. You can take the time to focus on the technical aspects and really get good at the sound you are making, rather than having to learn the process of reading music as well.

Experiencing music in social groups

Being able to play another instrument opened up for me a range of other musical experiences that just playing the piano didn’t provide. Pianists can experience this in a measure by playing for choirs, chamber groups or playing in church music groups, but there is something special about coming together with 60 other musicians playing a whole range of instruments, all having a particular part to play that combined makes up one big sound.

Playing the bass has the advantage of often playing the relatively easy, but very important parts while enjoying and admiring the music coming from the hard work of others! I was at an orchestra rehearsal this week doing just that, thinking what a privilege. But mind you, the hard working flute players were also enjoying it and likely glad they don’t have to lug a double bass around!

 

This by no means exhausts the subject of why it is good to take up another instrument, but I hope some of my personal experiences show that doing it enhances your whole experience of music and so much is gained from it. If you ever feel there is lacklustre in your or your child’s one instrument experience, maybe think about whether it is the right time to take on another one.

In order to win a bet that he could write a book using fewer words than the 236 of The Cat in the Hat, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) wrote Green Eggs and Ham, using just 50 words! Sometimes less is more.

In a similar vein, I wrote a piece of music this week to focus on a particular group of notes. And in the process limited myself to just the notes in question. It struck me that the limiting process heightened my creativity instead of squashing it. I took on the challenge of the task with more focus because I wanted to still come up with something good despite the limitation. I was pleased with the outcome, probably better than if I had no limitations on how to go about the task.

So it got me thinking about how we work with limitations.

Sometimes the limitations are not self-imposed, but rather such things as physical handicaps or other hardships that life may bring. Some people rise above these, people such as Stevie Wonder, who can’t physically see, or Ludwig van Beethoven, who went deaf early in life. Both denied their limits to become master musicians, exceeding the expectations of what some might have thought possible with such limitations.

I think there are times we can get bogged down with the struggle of feeling limited and make it an excuse. Maybe we need to think about what doesn’t limit us and work with that to be the very best we can be.

The successful among those who have what others might see as a limitation actually work so much harder to make up for it – perhaps more so than those who on the surface have all the opportunity in the world. Paralympians do so – people like our NZ swimming star Sophie Pascoe with nine Paralympic gold medals – who face their limitations and work hard to excel in their sports.

Another thing I’ve observed: In the process of the struggle, people who know their limitations are likely to become better in character too.  They are more likely to develop humility and a gracious spirit. We all long to be people like that, don’t we? We just don’t like the pain of the character building it takes to get there!

Do you see limits in your own life, or that of your child? If so, can I encourage you, (as I think about this myself) to not focus on the limitation, but limit your focus to work with it to do the things you can do well

If you are struggling with your music learning in some way, or you think your child is not making progress fast enough, limit your focus to being pleased about what is going well now and work with that, not with the big picture of how much you wanted achieved by yesterday. The other stuff will get sorted along the way.

You may be pleasantly surprised, like I was with my musical creation that turned out better than expected, despite its particularly limited selection of notes.