life

Twenty Five.

Birthdays make me nostalgic.

Unsurprising, then, that on the eve of my 25th birthday I sit here with a self-compiled playlist of 25 songs – a symbolic and sentimental snapshot of my years on earth so far:

What can we learn from this collection? Mostly that I have a penchant for the upbeat, harbour a streak of ancestral nationalism, view life through a rather romantic lens, and have a weakness for retro classics. These are the tunes that were on heavy rotation throughout my childhood, adolescence and indeed, have followed me into my twenties.

These are the songs I sang to myself to clear my head and encourage my heart; the songs others sang to me, to remind me that I am loved; the tracks that have me on the dance floor in a flash, or running to my instruments to attempt my own version of their genius. This is the music that lets me time travel to the one-year-old bouncing to Bananarama, the two-year-old flailing to Gypsy Kings, the seven-year-old enthralled by Roy Orbison.

Here’s to the hits of the next twenty five years.

Why Mozart didn’t really win 2016.

As 2016 wrapped up, the world was reeling from the news that a 17th century classical composer had outsold the likes of Beyonce, Drake and Adele.

For those of you whose Christmas-addled brains missed the news, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold the most CDs in 2016, thanks to Universal Music’s 200 CD box set release of his complete works. Cue classical music nerds fist-pumping and saying things like “Classical music will never die!”.

Well, this just in: young people weren’t the ones buying the CDs. Thanks to Apple Music and Spotify, streaming has captured the hearts (and bank accounts) of twentysomethings everywhere, including yours truly. So really, the fact that Universal filled the stockings of our parents and grandparents is nothing much to whoop and cheer about.

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“Adele who?”

Excuse my pessimism, but if you’re under 30 and not working in the classical music industry, I am willing to bet Mozart is not in your daily playlists. He might pop up on your ‘music for sleeping’ or ‘music for studying’ compilations, but who really has the time to sit down and listen to anything longer than 3’10”?

Don’t be offended: I’m including myself in this sweeping generalisation of millennials’ music habits.

My cynicism is well-founded. Since the age of 6, I was trained in classical piano until the completion of my AMus diploma some years ago. For the best part of my life, I was playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic music almost every single day (note the almost: I had my rebellious moments). But as soon as that diploma was on my wall, I ceased to listen to or play classical music (meant here in the broad sense, encompassing music from Bach to Beethoven-ish) on a regular basis…eventually, my interest in it just faded out completely.

And yet. My most formative musical moments dogged me, even as I buried myself in musical theatre, pop and jazz. My father introducing me to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My obsession with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My early fascination with Chopin’s polonaises, nocturnes and mazurkas.

As a teenager, I used my finely honed technical skills to accompany singers, play in theatrical ensembles and teach a multitude of students aged 3-90. Occasionally, I played a little Beethoven, a Chopin waltz or two – just to remind myself that I could. But for the most part, I shunned my classical days as lonely, finnicky training that had never enabled me to ‘join in’ with other musicians. Clearly, popular music was the way forward.

Strangely, my students thought otherwise. And damn it, they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “They always pick Bach,” my own vastly experienced piano teacher told me on numerous occasions. Having known the pain of learning to play five (simultaneous) voices with ten fingers, I privately thought my students would not be so moronic. In years to come, they proved me wrong (or right? I eventually recognised that appreciating Bach was anything but moronic), choosing J.S. and Mozart time and time again. They seemed to enjoy their choices, too – and on the occasions students chose popular songs to play, they almost all lost interest (which, I might add, had been BLAZING interest initially) within a week or two.

My heart began to sink every time a student requested a ‘radio’ song, and jump for joy each time they chose a star of the Western Canon. Popular music might be fun to sing along to, to share with friends, but those students who were most curious about music, most eager to learn the innermost secrets of its makeup, kept choosing Bach et. al.

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The author, not playing Bach.

Gradually, I lost my resentment for this music that made me a ‘lonely’ musician, and instead began to relish the joy and intellect it brought to my lessons with students. Classical music, in its finest forms, is a celebration of aural architecture on a grand scale. It plays with expectation, pushes at the boundaries of creativity, and connects us with both our innermost selves and something far, far bigger than our human existence.

So here’s my challenge to you: listen to some classical music. Now. Today. If you don’t like it the first time, listen to it again. This is music to be savoured, to be explored, to be absorbed. Be patient. Be open-minded. Be awestruck. And if there are children in your household, let them listen too.

“Won’t music so complex blow children’s minds?” I hear you ask. I say, let it. And once they’ve picked their jaws off the floor, let them ask questions, work on the techniques, learn the theory and have their minds blown all over again.

Then maybe, just maybe, Mozart will fly up the charts once more – this time on the Spotify Top 100.

Living In 2017: A millennial commentary on Skyhooks

When Twenty One Pilots released Stressed Out, it was as though the millennial population found an outlet it hadn’t even realised it needed. Its words reached out and touched the tender bruise of anxiety in so many of us, acknowledging our weary battles on the frontlines of adulthood, so frequently glossed over by radio hits.

But like much millennial commentary on modern life, Stressed Out is permeated with a desolation that provides little comfort beyond empathy. After all, Twenty One Pilots are of our generation: they’re as lost and world-weary as the rest of us, and Stressed Out is as much a quest for answers as it is a comment on the lack thereof.

I listened to a lot of FM radio over 2016, so this New Year’s Day I did what I do every time modern music gets me down: raid my parents’ musical archives.

In the case of my mother, this features both Sherbet and Skyhooks rather heavily – and while Howzat will always be an irreplaceable piece of Australian music gold, I found Skyhooks to be the anxious millennial’s best friend. Yes, I am talking about a 1970’s band, no, I am not a Baby Boomer, and once I was as resistant to this idea as you probably are now.

Skyhooks first proved their millennial relevance innocently enough – my parents made me listen to All My Friends Are Getting Married after 18-year-old me had complained once too often about the number of engagements announced in my Facebook feed. Oh, I initially rolled my eyes at the dated groove and crazy costumes, but the not-so-subtle scepticism of marital life soon had me feeling as free as a bird.

As I embark on 2017 – due for the proverbial quarter-life-crisis in about 7 months – it is Living In The 70’s (the album, as well as the title track) that I find myself holding close. The track itself has a restless, wide-eyed bewilderment that is all too familiar for those of us growing up in this fast-paced digital age. It acknowledges the feelings of alienation that modern progress brings (“I feel a little crazy, I feel a little strange”); the can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it trepidation about the ever-increasing lack of humanity (“eating fake food under plastic trees”); and most of all, the rising panic of having to deal with it all (“I need another pill to calm me down”).

Where Twenty One Pilots soar into helpless falsetto, Shirley Strachan lowers his voice to a feisty snarl: Skyhooks may have felt bamboozled by the plastic age, but there’s a fierce survivalist pride to their delivery that feels bloody good to imbibe by proxy.

They keep up the fight for the rest of the album, too, if you’re interested – and again, it’s strangely relevant. Horror Movie makes us feel better for hating the news, while Whatever Happened To The Revolution sounds eerily applicable to a world full of “clicktivism”, where Trump is president and marriage equality still battles to come into existence:

Everybody thought we could win with a vote
So the band went home without playing a note
…When you’re sick of your parties and sick of your sweets
Get off your arses I’ll see you out in the streets

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You’ll crack a smile though – it’s not all doom, gloom and politics. Anyone who’s ever had a dodgy Tinder date will have a hearty giggle at You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed and Balwyn Calling (“Oh she might have looked like a princess/ Why’d you have to give her your address?!”). Any self-respecting millennial has also surely had to put up with being asked Hey What’s The Matter With You? (“You can’t have your dope and smoke it too”) by Bernard Salt et. al., so why not clap along as you return the question with a healthy dose of sarcasm and electric guitars?

More than anything, Living In The 70’s provides ample distraction from the anxieties of today. Revel in the unbridled sexiness of Motorcycle Bitch and cringe at the pre-internet inconvenience of wanking in Smut (be warned also: it will ruin Twisties for you). Use this album as a time machine, or let it apply to now: the choice is yours, and the result is medicinal either way.

This music may be more than four decades old (indeed, nearly two decades older than most millennials), but in being older, Skyhooks can offer reassurance where our contemporary acts can not. We might feel a little crazy, we might feel a little strange, but we’re not the first to have done so – and we’re unlikely to be the last.

 

How Oliver Sacks turned me into a music teacher.

Music is part of being human. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

I guess I was searching for meaning.

Music had been in my life since before I was able to stand – and once I achieved the latter feat, my (barely) upright infant frame bobbed enthusiastically to Bananarama’s Venus, Gypsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. 

But now it was time to decide on a university degree, a career path, something that mattered enough to me to take pride of place in my working adult identity. I felt music’s importance very deeply, but still I struggled to qualify it as a worthwhile vocation. Journalism, for instance, seemed a much more sensible option: a job that clearly contributed to the world in quantifiable, tangible ways. Music? Well, that was a hobby.

It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

But it was a persistent hobby, a labour of love; a not-so-secret passion. When I had to write a book review for a Year 12 creative writing portfolio, I naturally chose a musical read. That book was Musicophilia, by noted neurologist and wonderful wordsmith, Oliver Sacks.

It is a beautiful thing when emotion and science intersect, supporting and complimenting one another in a myriad of multifaceted discoveries that shed light on the most mysterious aspects of existence. Musicophilia is a prime example of just such a happy marriage. Here, finally, was the facts-and-figures proof of music’s worth as a tool for healing, education and joy; the truth my heart had known all along, but that my head demanded to see in writing.

I devoured every story of overnight musical savants, paralysed bodies moving to beats, and minds crippled by dementia but still able to recognise the old wartime dance tunes. Most of all, I relished Sacks’ profound respect for music and his expert articulation of that medium which is essentially beyond words.

Written about like this, music seemed to me to be one of the most powerful, healing, educational, and emotionally beneficial tools available to man.

My 17-year-old self was hooked: I investigated music therapy, then music and education, and was soon recounting tales of music’s cognitive benefits with the zeal of a religious convert. “Did you know the elderly can remember tunes from their youth, even when they’ve forgotten their own name? And that the brains of professional musicians are noticeably larger than those of other kinds of artists?!” It all made so much sense; it validated my long-held hunch that music was so much more than entertainment.

Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they would recognise the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

In the intervening years – in which I chose a Bachelor of Music, became a music teacher and have witnessed countless examples of music’s extraordinary benefits – my thoughts have often returned to the stories of Musicophilia. On days when I return tired from the classroom, or sit, frustrated, at my own piano, wondering why I do this at all; on those days I remember that music matters. Not just in an ephemeral, entertaining context, but on a very real cellular level that benefits our minds and bodies, as well as our hearts.

To this day, that approach informs every lesson I teach. Standing at the front of my classroom, my heart is full in the knowledge that what I do matters. That the enjoyment of, participation in, and creation of music is an important link between our physical and emotional experiences of this world.

Vale Oliver Sacks. And thank you for giving this musician ample fuel for a lifelong belief in the power of music.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain