Annotations on music, feelings, and choice

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo

There is no authority in the universe that truly has the ability to impose upon us what we must feel about anything or anyone. Despite this fact, we grow up with rules and traditions designed to help us navigate through life in ways that have worked for others; sometimes a few others, or sometimes thousands, millions or billions of people. Well-intentioned as they may be, these rules can become stifling restrictions, turning what should bring us joy and pleasure into a source of frustration and displeasure, as piano quickly became for me when my desire to lead with my heart began to overrule the desire to follow my head.

The many years of formal music education I received focused entirely on faithful recitation of original works. We were taught the right way to play and were required to do away with personal whims and fancy.

Those in charge did exactly what was expected of them: they taught hundreds of students the proper tried and tested techniques and pieces for the purposes of either passing the Royal Conservatory’s examinations or performing at concerts. Music, we were told, is the highest form of art. Talented pianists were supposed to perform flawlessly, meticulously recite the work, and strive to evoke strong reactions from the audience. 

Within the walls of the school, being a great teacher meant creating and maintaining an environment that kept personal interpretations and creative outbursts in check. The works of classical composers were treated as museum-like objects: admired, but not touched. For students, the formula for success was simple: all you had to do was exactly what everyone else was doing.

Teachers placed heavy emphasis on communicating the “feeling” behind the music… but only within the confines of the composer’s annotations. It didn’t matter if the piece spoke to the player of delight, love or affection – if the markings declared it a cry of war, then the player’s fingers had best be marching along. And while many students had no issue adapting and thriving within this structure, some of us had trouble reconciling the dissonance we felt as we progressed through the years. There was no harmony between what we felt and how we were told to feel it. 

Privately, I practiced the pieces taught in class in the way that I chose to interpret and feel the work. I discarded the annotations that didn’t fit in with what I perceived the story to be. I changed the tempo to suit my particular mood. “Swan Lake”? Not always. Sometimes, it was full of hippos, thunder and speed. On occasion, my rendition of the “Moonlight Sonata” was accompanied by a hail of meteorites, sharp heavy punches on the piano (much to the horror of my parents). But back in class, I had to revert back to exactly what was written before me on the music sheets lest I face a barrage of criticism from well-intentioned but myopic and staid teachers.

With time, the need to play what I wanted to play in my own personal style became far more important to me than receiving positive feedback from the instructors or participating in any concert. My parents and teachers began to wonder if I would ever be the performer they hoped I would be. They rationalized it away, like it was some mildly unhealthy habit: I was a stubborn teen; I got bored with the instrument; I kept bad company; I was influenced by ridiculous modern music. 

They could attempt to reason it away all they liked, the reality was that there was no way to please everyone. And no reason to do so. 

I belonged to a group of outsiders who chose to act on impulse and create genuine experiences for themselves above anyone else. We performed with our hearts. We sought to retell the stories written by composers long dead and gone as seen through our own eyes and painted by our fingertips. We didn’t care if there was an audience of one listener, fifty, or two hundred. We had to let the music out of our heads, through our fingertips and into the auditorium that echoed back our strokes, reaffirming what we felt, how we felt it, and how real and legitimate it was. 

On the other side of the spectrum were our colleagues, the traditionalist piano students, who performed with their heads. They had the makings of the type of technical virtuosos revered and admired by many, both within and beyond the walls of the music school. By following the instructions, annotations, and traditions of performing according to a set of arbitrary but established and agreed-upon standards, they followed the guaranteed path to “success.” And I can’t be sure if they’ve ever stopped practicing long enough to hear if what they played was an extension of their character, or a mere parroting of their teachers’ values and expectations. 

What the microcosm that is music school really taught us was the need to make a seemingly simple but deceivingly important choice that had implications far beyond examination rooms and concert halls. Choose your head, or choose your heart. And know that you have a choice to make. Even though sometimes the choice may feel like it’s already been made for you, or it’s impossible, or not worth the struggle or the shame that comes from breaking time-honoured traditions – know that you can, and should, actively choose. And know that it’s okay to change your mind once you’ve done so, too.

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