The entire town had become agitated with the saturated snow-barren earth, and stifled by the oxygen-deprived sky. Every Alaskan craves a sunburn at this time of year. For weeks on end, the clouds held their ground, and the wind came from the north, raging like the proverbial lion of March. The gulls, terns and ducks awaited the grand opening of their still-frozen lake, gathering as spectators in the bordering trees, bickering over their territories. Songs of juncos and thrushes began to punctuate the silent air, yet the beligerant ice held. Where was spring?
All the while, the sun became more convincing, gaining momentum from the swing of the earth's axis, and suddenly it seemed to be peeking in at all odd hours, at 5:30 in the morning, and lingering until 9:00, then 9:30. Sleep deprivation set in, with only six hours of darkness to guide my slumber.
Then, in a matter of two days or less, something changed. A mist of green tinted the sides of the running trail, a hue you could only catch by looking out and across it, not down at it. The wind changed directions, and the forestry department uncovered their fire hazard indicator that stood on the side of the highway. We had our first bear mauling of the season. The first RV sighting marked the beginning of the annual migration of tourists. The grey-bearded hitchiker and his backpack returned at the end of town, cardboard sign in hand. Frost heaves suddenly bulged, as if by the workings of an underground gnome, making our comings and goings on the lane to our home the perfect depiction of a four-wheel-drive commercial. Amidst the mud and street-sweepers and the grand opening of the new hardware store (7,000 people in attendance), something changed.
There was no great sound when it happened. If you weren't looking, you could easily miss it. Gradually, the lake transformed from an opaque white to translucent streaked grey. Today, I checked with the anticipation one would have if expecting an important letter. Was it out yet? The lake was black, with only the thinnest shell of ice holding it in. Throughout the day, twice, three times I looked. But you never do see the exact moment it happens; it's never when anyone is looking. Perhaps some year I should take the day off and stay at the lake, watching as I would a pot of boiling water. But I missed it again. Before I could even remember I was waiting, I caught a glimmer out of the corner of my eye. The scale had dissolved, and the lake twinkled once more in a brilliant blue, winking through the trees as we drove by, like an old friend.
It's no wonder that spring is the time of year when people feel the most alive, when lonely bachelors start pestering the girl pulling the shots at the coffee shop. As I scratch at the new color on my arms, I notice my sinuses even feel decidedly more open and alive. Ahhh.
Get your fiddles out and play a jig, folks, it's spring.
What better inspiration for creating music is there than love? You've perhaps experienced the student who would bend over backwards for you because they have a secret crush on you, right? Or perhaps you hear a recording of a violin concerto that absolutely moves you like nothing else, and that passion feeds you for months or even years as you practice in your studio.
Music in itself can be the muse. It can take the form of a life-long goal piece, or just a brief fling with a fugue that you can't seem to stop playing. For my students, most of the time, inspiration takes the form of a song that they really like the sound of, and the desire to make the music is so strong that they can come back in a week and be a completely different musician because of it; they devote hours to learning the piece, when before, they wouldn't touch their instrument. I'm on a constant search for pieces that inspire. It's a pure-music-muse, I guess. My personal long-term goal piece that has served as my "muse" in this sense is Saint Saen's Intro and Rondo. But this is not a personified muse.
A personified muse, in a way, plays the same role as a musical inspiration. I try to be an inspiration myself for my students by being positive, fun, driven, and passionate about music. It rubs off. I get more out of them by inspiring them than by criticizing them into the ground. In this case, I'm trying to be their personal muse (in a purely platonic way).
So, we're focusing on the muse that is someone--familiar, ideal, or even fiction--that inspires. Think of it as a crush, a flame, or a life-long passion.
My personal muse is a real person--now idealised because of complete unfamiliarity and physical expanse--that once was my childhood figurative musical hero, and literally the boy down the street. He means absolutely nothing to me now... except that he has always been an underlying reason I strive to create music, and shows up randomly as a symbol in my music-related dreams. Therefore, he must be a muse. He is entwined in the subconscious part of my being, and can be fed or denied at will, but never dies.
How does the muse work? Often times, it's simply that I imagine I'm playing for him, I guess to please him. Honestly, I imagine this every time I practice, come to think of it. It helps me along to pretend that I have someone of importance to impress, a significant ideal to appease. It could never work with a concrete reality; it's the embodied ideal that appeals.
I was playing back in high school orchestra, with the same old crowd I used to know there. Typical high-school arrangements, typical high school jesting and so-so music making. Then, the class was over, and as everyone was packing up their instruments, our conductor started handing out his annual awards, haphazardly, over the chatter and bustle that usually follows the bell. Even though these awards were actually poorly Xeroxed copies worth a little less than nothing, I hung around so I could receive my usual "Best Musician" award. He went one by one through the list, and I began to worry. Of course, they would be saving the best for last, but what if...
The conductor leaned over to my stand partner, my so-called arch-enemy, and trying to be covert in a clumsy kind of way, whispered, "Best Concertmaster" and handed the award to her. What? She's not concertmaster, I am! But secretly, she had been leading the entire section against me, and I was oblivious.
So, what was my award? Well, it was definitely the niftiest looking one. I got a decorated Pringles can, mint green with candid photographs of myself all over it. It was the "Best-Looking-and-Most-Coolest-Acting-Violinist" award. Fabulous. Sure enough, those photos captured a popular looking, confident, friendly girl. It said nothing of my skills as a violinist, but if image was everything, I had it.
It's funny, because that definitely doesn't describe myself in high school. In reality, I was insecure and had no idea about style or charm. I don't know, maybe I would have wanted that award the most, after all.
My thoughts have been subconsciously returning to the concept of negative space and its importance in art and music. I become weary of hearing all the notes from lesson to lesson, and this is when it hits me that sometimes it is not the notes that need improvement, but the silence.
On the piano, I have a short Bartok study, a folk tune that creates an image of children at play. The piece continues merrily, conjuring up memories of hide-and-seek and chases up and down grassy hills. The right hand carries the melody, while the left hand is its playmate, busy filling the space with pounces, tip-toes, and playful dashes.
But an interesting thing happens when Bartok inserts a one-measure rest followed by two measures of a triple-soft chord (with fermata), followed by a second chord, even softer (another fermata), and one more empty measure, all Andante. This two-chord progression should take at least ten seconds to perform.
After the silence, the piece continues with a slightly different flavor. The silence interrupts two more times, and this is what really makes the piece what it is. It affects the mood of the audience. They hold their breath, and their ears strain to catch what will happen next.
If you plow through all the road signs, the fermatas and tempo changes, and the entire measures of rests that were intentionally placed there, you have just lost the meaning of the music. Silence and timing--the negative space in music--is equally as important as the music itself.
And how the students react when I ask them to linger there on those two chords! Being still is so uncomfortable for a musician. Over the course of the year I have witnessed a miserly trend toward whole notes and rests; we like to cheat them of their time. I count out loud to show them what has literally been written. Then we talk about the reason why they think it was written that way. What could it mean? Is it there to create that same feeling you get after you've found your hiding spot and you listen for the sound of the footsteps of the seeker? Is it the echo of Mother's call to dinner, the one that we always ignored because perhaps we didn't hear it after all? I don't know, and that's the great thing about music--it can mean what you want it to mean, but it should mean at least something, even if it's just a feeling, a color, or an impression.
In order to create the music, we must be at peace with the silence and then find the very best way to carve the sound into it.
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