To ‘know something by heart’ means more than simply to have memorised it. It implies that it has become such a part of you that you hardly need to think before recalling it. On the other hand, the things you hold in your heart are the important things and you will think of them often. I want to talk today about something close to my heart because it truly affects the way I play my music. So bear with me as I share some of my heart journey.                                                                                                                                                              

I didn’t really feel a connection with the purpose of music until I realised I could express my feelings, my innermost emotions, through playing music. I think it began when I started learning about chords and chord patterns, and how I could create my own combinations of these to produce something that I liked. There was a lot of experimenting in those times. Combinations of harmony, melody and rhythm were developed through listening to various styles, copying them and then trying other ideas with them.

As a teenager, there were times when the family piano got a bit of a workout when I was struggling with life/growing/teenage issues. I found I could express my emotions on the keys sometimes quite strongly. I’m so grateful that that expression was allowed and possible in a pre-headphone era!

Along with this I discovered that if I really enjoyed a piece of written music that I’d learned, it could also be a venue for expressing my feelings. It gave me music outside of my own experimentation to explore and learn more about. I could play something beautiful with the skills I was learning in the area of musical expression and that was valid too – all part of growing as a musician.

Then I started playing for Sunday school and later in church. I was using a combination of reading and playing by ear skills for this. It was daunting at times as I was still developing the skills needed, so there wasn’t a sense of playing from my heart. Rather I was getting a job done as a service to those I was accompanying. I suppose that was valid for its time.

Other instruments became vehicles for my feelings. The double bass was my instrument for playing with others and enjoying the sound of music making that can only come with combinations of instruments in an orchestra. This stirred and encouraged the social enjoyment of music with a range of folk from all walks of life. Later the cello became a voice for more personal expressions.

From childhood my faith has shaped me more than anything and I have found the experience of expressing gratitude to my Heavenly Father through music to be profound. Music can be a tool in worship, and when it comes from the true expression of the heart something very precious is the result. In recent years I have found this through playing the cello, moreso than on other instruments, thanks to the blessing of participating in a weekly communion and worship service called ‘After His Heart’. I would be there when I could and simply played from my heart, creating harmonies to accompany Julie, who was at the piano, without reference to written music.

I have no doubt that when Handel wrote The Messiah in 24 days there was something very special going on in his heart. His skills as a composer and musician were tools that he used brilliantly to create a work of profound musical achievement. But there is an undefinable quality in that work that I believe came from a deep expression of worship and desire to bring glory to God. That quality, I believe, came from the Spirit of God pouring over Handel’s creativity. Today hundreds of years after it was written it still has an impact.

The music can have its own beauty of sound when skillfully played, but when those who perform it do it from their heart with a true declaration of the words (in the case of choral music) or out of a longing to express a deep emotion through the instrumental sound,  something special happens. Because it is comes from the heart, it touches the heart of both listener and performer.

Why else are there 50 million views for this video on You Tube?

Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus – Must See!

May you and your family have a truly blessed Christmas. I plan to have a break (and give you a bit of a rest from my musings) over Christmas, but I have lots to share with you in the New Year.

Do you think children should be encouraged to do a task willingly that is not fun?

As a child, my big after-school task was to prepare the vegetables for the evening meal. My most unfavourite part was going out to the garden on a cold winter afternoon to pick the silver beet (Swiss chard) from the garden. My mother was busy teaching music at this time of day, so this was my contribution to the evening meal. I would much rather have spent the time playing with friends or reading a book. As a compensation, listening to the radio while I washed, peeled and chopped made the task bearable, even enjoyable, though still not ‘fun’. And whether I knew it or not I was learning to serve and bless others which is ultimately more satisfying than meeting a selfish need for fun.

It seems to me that many of today’s children have the feeling that something needs to be fun to be worth doing. Don’t get me wrong. I know that fun helps in the learning process and we can often learn more when something is fun. But there are times when there is a bit of work involved to push through for a certain skill, and the work itself may be less than fun. The process may feel tedious at times, but there is satisfaction with the outcome – ‘no pain no gain’ springs to mind.

An example of this in my job is in the area of helping beginners learn music note reading. It used to take a lot less time for children in general to learn their notes. Yet these days many children struggle to progress in this area, perhaps unwilling to put in the effort in what seems like an un-fun activity. There are some games and other activities that can make note learning fun, nevertheless it does still take some effort.

Note reading is best learned when the note is seen in a variety of contexts and worked on daily.

  • If it is only associated with finger numbers the learner may only get to know the note if the finger numbers are given.
  • If it is only with note flash card games they may not be able to quickly recognize and play notes in a line of music.
  • If it is only in relation to a piece of music they know better by ear, they may only know the note by following the up and down movement from one note to the next on the stave. Or they may not even be reading the music at all.
  • If they only actively learn the note names once or twice a week it will take much longer to establish long term recognition of the note.

We need all of these helps along with the regularity of moving on to new pieces to see and know the notes in different contexts. 

Some of these note reading activities may be considered less fun than others. Looking for fun ways to learn is a valuable and necessary part of the teacher’s job. However, with the pressure to keep the learning experience fun, some activities can be more focused on fun than actually moving on with learning the skill. The outcome can be that the process takes a lot longer than it did when there was an expectation to simply follow a learning process that was not necessarily a game.

As an adult, I have learned that for something to be fun I may have to work at it first. By giving our children a bit of work to do in learning their new music, giving support as they learn, we help them learn to value the pain of the effort. Encouraging them to perform their ‘work’, by blessing a grandparent or family friend with an impromptu mini concert, could help them learn the valuable life lesson of serving someone else, while learning a good skill in the process.

My mother told me that I would thank her one day for her insistence on my keeping up my piano practice, whether I was in the mood or not. She was right, I do thank her. I don’t remember the difficult parts much now, because, in teaching me that skill, I know her heart was to offer me something of herself.

Washing, peeling and chopping vegetables never did me any harm. And I still like silver beet!