On That Note

I’ve never played in a symphony so my experience of the initial tuning up before a performance has always been from a seat in the audience. Whether it was watching my Maestro Tony Pagano switch over to play classical music or listening to our daughter’s high school orchestra, the sensation of matching notes swelling in the room to an almost bursting point and then settling into an anticipatory silence raised every numbered hair on my head.

Tony spoke to me about coming into a piece as the lone saxophone on a low C# as a combination of the softness of the first daffodil of spring braving a late snowfall and the ring of an elite officer’s sword unleashed from a jeweled scabbard. As a beginning student my concept of playing that note was limited to holding a weird key down with my pinkie and hoping I had enough air to reach the bottom of the bell. Clearly worlds apart in our approach and appreciation of a difficult fingering and articulation we were yet joined by virtue of the journey.

When I heard Tony perform the piece, he had snuck me into the concert hall by giving me an instrument case to carry in through the stage door, the opening note cut through the sound of the entire orchestra and yet somehow didn’t draw attention to itself but laced the mood and textures of sound together. It’s been forty years since I heard that concert. I can’t tell you what the piece was or any other facet of the performance but I can still hear that C# and picture the whole setting from my scavenger’s seat in the balcony.

My imagination confirms if you wet your finger and circle the lip rim of the Holy Grail with just enough finesse you’ll get something similar to Tony’s C#. I am certain the rungs on Jacob’s Ladder are tuned to musical scales. Obviously the celestial winds don’t only blow in western tunings, and I can probably thank George Harrison’s sitar work for demonstrating that while I was in high school, yet I take heart in stories of cross cultural connection being made by adapting keys. The banjo player Abigail Washburn recounts in an online conversation published in On Being that while traveling in China she met a traditional erhu player, a two stringed instrument likened to a violin, who lamented the dissonance between American and Chinese cultures.

Upon hearing the man play her band mates tuned up their instruments to play along and happy with their blend into a Tibetan melody incorporated the song into the evening’s performance. The townspeople, and the erhu player, rejoiced in the collaboration of unexpected harmonies of the heart. Abigail explains that songs become containers for empathy. Carrying a tune creates handles on the wheelbarrow of the world. We lessen each other’s loads by listening and by chiming in appropriately. Harmony is not reserved for the gifted but honed by those with an ear for adaptability.

Does what, or who we hear carry us, or is it the other way around? The power of pop tunes to completely fill our heads is the penultimate of Zen koans slapping a bear in the woods. The still small voice of my grandson playing a finger cymbal, in time, during his first grade recital is a genuine link to my soul’s ear that the world’s streaming will never know. I am so out of the loop of current culture I can recognize more names in the memoriam list than in the Grammy nominees. I strive to keep a treasure alive in my listening, and playing, that springs from a well we won’t miss until it runs dry.

Improvisational music improves our lives, when we kick out the jams, #@*%666, we open a channel of creativity too often delegated to the professionals. We can always get better at making music, connections, and friends. Perfect practice makes perfect sense, but being an amateur is just another way of spelling student of life. Music is too human, and too divine to assign away like a dream we try to shake with morning coffee. There is inherent value in row, row, rowing our boats gently down the stream.