Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Some worthwhile books about playing

I've read a few books that have rung true for me about some aspect of the musical experience. I thought I'd share a few of them here, with my impressions, in no particular order.

A Mixture of Frailties, by Robertson Davies. This is a novel, published in 1958, about a young Canadian woman who is given an unexpected chance to go to England and study singing. It's the third book of Davies's Salterton trilogy, centered around a cast of characters in a small town in Ontario. Relevant to a musician is the depiction of how, ideally, a singer might be educated, given unlimited time and funds. It also touches on some of the moral trade-offs that inevitably need to be made.

Hilary and Jackie (originally titled A Genius in the Family), by Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré, which is of course the memoir about their sister, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. The book, and especially the movie that was made from it, were controversial. It was not the usual fawning "everything was wonderful" memoir about a musical celebrity. I do think the writers' intention was honest, and that they really wanted to portray both the good and the bad. It shows so clearly that simply being a fabulous performer is not enough to make you happy. Whether you will agree with that or not, it's a fascinating description of the training of a famous and familiar musician.

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, by Blair Tindall, is the book that finally made my husband realize everything I had told him about being a musician was true. This is an excellent and riveting description of what it's really like to be a music student and freelance musician. Tindall is an oboeist who went to the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school and then to Manhattan School of Music, and she stayed on in New York for 20 more years, freelancing and earning pretty good money at it, but finding it all less and less satisfying as the years went on. Even though I was never quite in the author's position with regard to the more attention-grabbing stuff she describes (the sex with inappropriate people, the drinking/drugs), I certainly observed it. What I particularly value in this book, though, is how she shows so clearly that the pursuit of a career in music can yield a certain spiritual emptiness if not undertaken thoughtfully.

Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz, has some similarities to Tindall's book, but from a more studious perspective. The author majored in guitar at the New England Conservatory, and he worked very hard at it, but he never managed to get good enough to be the great guitarist he imagined he was. He had some lovely musical experiences as a student, but after he graduated he became disenchanted with it and quit almost overnight. This passage tells the crux of it, when he was riding home on the train with his girlfriend Christine after a concert he played at an art gallery in Graz with a friend:

After a while I began to talk about the concert, about the passages that had worked onstage but that now fell flat in memory. We'd done an adequate job, I said. But something was lacking. Marcus had seemed distracted, and I was dissatisfied with my solos.
"You sounded like a good musician who doesn't practice enough," Christine said, looking down.

It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you. Since I was twelve years old, I'd dreamed of living the life I heard, living an artist's life. But I'd misunderstood myself, my desires, my ambitions. I misunderstood what it meant to be an artist.

In fact, I was just beginning, just learning how to conduct myself as an artist in the world. But this wasn't the world I'd been working toward. And in that moment, I saw that the distance between where I was and where I wanted to be was impossibly long. It sank in that I wasn't ever going to arrive, and so it suddenly felt like I was nowhere. all the pent-up bitterness of a desire endlessly deferred broke loose. It devastated my dream world of music. My fingers hadn't failed me; my technique and talent were not to blame. I'd just imagined the artist's life naively, childishly, with too much longing, too much poetry and innocence and purity. And this image ruined music for me.

When I looked up at Christine to reply, I no longer knew why I was a musician. She was going to succeed. But I wasn't. I'd known it for years. All my work had come to nothing.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, leaning over next to me. 'I shouldn't have said that."

The story of my practicing came to an end. The guitar had been the instrument of my dreams. Now the dream was over.
Now that I've assembled these tiny snapshots, I realize that what I take away from these books -- and in some way find comforting about them, whatever that says about me! -- is the shared experience with the actors that music is compelling but that a life in it is hard, and that it is not enough in itself to nourish both body and soul.

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