musings

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.

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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

The CD-lover’s guide to surviving the digital revolution: swim, don’t sink

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I bought an iPod last month.

“Did you want an iTunes voucher with that?” chirped the sales girl breezily.

“Uhh…no thanks, I’m right…”

“Are you sure? We’ve got 20% off at the moment!” enquired Breezy Sales Girl, with that careful mix of concern and encouragement that conjures up FOMO faster than logging out of Facebook. It was at this point that I decided to gesture awkwardly to the pile of CDs I was holding – and fully intending to purchase – in their tangible, plastic-cased, liner-notes-filled glory.

“Erm, no thanks…I…I prefer to buy the actual…CDs…”

For a second there, my helpful neighbourhood shop assistant failed to comprehend my motives. For a second there, I have to admit, so did I. After all, she had just helped me select a digital music device; and now, with an opportunity to buy 20% more music, spend 20% less money…I was still firmly clutching my environmentally-unfriendly, bookshelf-filling, dust-collecting, old-fashioned stack of compact discs.

Ex-Breezy Sales Girl recovered herself admirably, though the concern thing she’d had going suddenly became a little more genuine. “Oh! Oh…yep…you’re right…sure!” Leaving my perplexed companion, I made my way to the sales desk, quietly pondering my  progressive/stick-in-the-mud music consumption habits.

I fell in love with MP3 players at an early age. At an engagement party for a school friend of my mother’s, I met no less than 5 fellow thirteen-year-olds in possession of these magical pocket-sized jukeboxes. When I eventually obtained my very own predecessor of the iPod, I couldn’t have been prouder. With its impressive capacity of 128MB, I could finally take the entirety of the ABBA GOLD collection everywhere I went. Occasionally, I swapped it for my 1980’s compilation of U2 hits. This, I thought, was technology at its finest.

This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

The good old days. This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

By the time my musical taste required me to have the entire Beatles catalogue close by at all times, I had upgraded to a snazzy little 512MB number, which was followed in later years by my becoming a patron of the omnipresent iPod. See? I can move with the times! With each increase in storage capacity and sound quality, my excitement bubbled over – today, holding the latest generation of iPod nano in my hand, I feel that same thrill of having all my music on tap, in such a marvellous little device.

But quite paradoxically, if the albums in my iTunes library aren’t also on my bookshelf, I feel strangely deflated. In a day and age when a music nerd such as myself should be jumping up and down praising the availability of my favourite art form, I find myself disappointed with every digital purchase or streaming opportunity.

Perhaps it’s because as a working musician, I have always felt music to be an experience, rather than a commodity. Attending live music is much more than the notes that reach our ears, playing music is much more than reading those notes off a sheet; owning music is not just the songs, it’s the feel of the packaging, the look of the artwork, displaying it in alphabetical order alongside the rest of an ever-growing collection (is that just me? It’s not just me).

Perhaps it’s because I associate the purchase of CDs with my tender university years, lingering in music shops and making the delicious choice of which album I’d bring home with me that week. Either way, my primary source of music has always been real, actual, CDs…that I then rip to my iTunes library. I’m a musician, not a logician, okay?!

But despite this love of album-collecting, I have signed up for an Apple Music trial. I’ll admit: I was slightly terrified.

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SO MUCH CHOICE. HELP ME.

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Digital music offers such a gratuitous overload of choice, it feels much like going into a bookstore and being told I don’t have to buy whole books anymore, I can just buy my favourite pages. WHICH PAGE, WHERE DO I START. And do they even mean anything when ripped from their original context, shuffled into a ‘genius’ order and spat out again?

Well, I’m not gonna lie: I feel like a kid in a candy store.

For the first time in my life, I don’t have to consult my budget before deciding to listen to all the latest albums in full. I can explore the unchartered waters of bands I’m curious about, but not convinced enough to buy into. I don’t have to actually own any of the music that I reluctantly admit to enjoying *coughsTaylorSwiftcoughs*.

So now I’m faced with the startling question: could this be my music consumption future? Even with my starry-eyed love affair with pretty packaging and outdated technology? I think it could. Maybe.

As I seriously consider allowing Apple to take my money every month in return for this glut of music, I realise that if I choose the digital path, that means ceasing to buy albums in their hard copy form. Which means dealing with a distinct sense of loss. Not just of lingering in the aisles and revelling in liner notes, but also of the delayed gratification involved in deciding which album to commit to.

But given my insatiable appetite for new sounds, perhaps moving with the times won’t hurt quite so much.