Sunday, May 16, 2010

The song that's sung


I've played the piano for most of my life. (Usually without a cupcake-shaped lip gloss straddling middle C and the B before it.)

I've outgrown my childhood aversion to playing, probably due in large part to the fact that it was always referred to as "practising" back then, and it was always about reaching perfection to score that elusive distinction in my next exam. The keyboard is my friend now. It helps me to express things that words are too clumsy to describe. On internally stormy days, it helps me play softly glowing peace into an otherwise dark and thorny soul.

At least, it would if I had access to a keyboard all the time. At present, I don't, but I do have a guitar. Still, as much as I try, my stumbling efforts at the guitar don't come close to the effect the piano has. The simple conclusion is that everything I'm able to do with a piano is the result of my having spent hours upon hours playing pieces, chords, drills and exercises, and I don't have the same history with the guitar. Musically speaking, piano is my first language and even if I get the chance to learn other instruments to the same level of proficiency, piano will probably remain the language that I "speak" the most comfortably.

This was the line of thought that came to me while I picked my hesitant way through a simple old song.

Quite typically for me, that thought then skipped about 90 degrees southwest with a brief stop at the time I spent co-facilitating an anger management group, and I thought, no wonder some people are so aggressive.

I know. "Huh?" How did I get from guitar to aggression? I wonder how I got there myself, but I've since filled in the expanse between those two points, so here you go.

See, I "speak" piano. I may not know what the name of a chord is (sorry Ms Piano Teacher... it isn't your fault, I'm just not down with the theory side of things), but if I hear it played, I can either play it back to you or name/sing the notes that form it. If you sang me a melody, I could accompany you key for key. I speak piano fluently, and much of that is because I had a dedicated teacher who helped me to hear the music behind the music, and parents who wouldn't let me forget that they were paying her good money so I'd better cough up the results.

But put a guitar in my hands and you'll hear me stutter, if you hear me at all. My fingers, which I've tamed countless times into playing the most outrageous piano sonatas, will take on all the dexterity of a bundle of lup cheong hanging from a hook in a Chinese provision shop. The confidence with which they race over the black and white keys? It shrivels to a pea-sized lump that usually then buzzes from one left fingertip to another, the only parts of me that have any conviction at all when playing the guitar.

Why? Because the thought of having to speak an unfamiliar language often leaves us speechless and scared. The language that we've used for most of our lives is the one we'll use to express ourselves, to make ourselves understood, to understand ourselves in the first place.

So, I thought, no wonder some people only seem to "speak" violence and aggression. Or insults, or racial slurs, or fear, or intimidation. We speak what we've been taught and directed to speak for most of our lives. We speak what we've practised. We speak what has earned us results in the past. The more and the harder we've practised, the stronger our message. For some people, the "song" they've been groomed to sing is one of attack and anger. And, like me with the instruments, they've learnt that one language so well, their attempts to speak in others are so halting, that it seems almost pointless to try any other way.

It made me think about the language I'm speaking with my life. I'm not looking for an easy excuse for bad behaviour, in the sense that I'm only repeating the "songs" that my family has played for generations. I am so thankful that I have the chance to choose my own song, to do the gruelling work of learning a new language if for any reason the old one proves unavailable or unhelpful.

Does any of this make sense to you? I get this way sometimes. I'll think something really profound and then I imagine myself trying to explain it to someone else and ending with, "Right?"

And then, in my imagination, the answer comes with glazed eyes. "Uh... I guess. [Pause] Hey, do you still have any of that pumpkin casserole?"

So, if you have any thoughts, please let me know. And no, I've finished the casserole. But I can always make another.

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