Musical Musings

The busyness of living had taken over the days, and I felt a little soulful pondering and meandering was in order. I listened to an uplifting album of Anoushka Shankar as I went about the chores in the home after a long week of deadlines, and never-ending demands on my time physically and emotionally.

The children gave me indulgent looks, and nodded approvingly. They had been telling me to get my head out into the clouds for some time now.

I peeked out the window and saw a breeze flutter though the pine tree outside, and resisted no more. I picked up the beautiful children’s book, A Violin for Elva by Mary Lyn Ray, Illustrated by Tricia Tusa.

Fresh from reading Musicophilia – Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, I found myself analyzing the music in our lives. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes about musicians who don’t read music, but get to listen to the music in their heads as they read the sheets. I imagined the neurons in their brains reacting like those little piano keys – bobbing up and down.

Who remembers Tom & Jerry Piano Concerto? Here it is for those of you requiring a refresher.

The music teachers at our school had been blessed by the muses themselves. I remember many a morning assembly being mesmerized by our piano teacher’s musical notes wafting from her swift hands flying across the piano. The band master and the Indian music teachers were just as talented and gifted. 

How could one man teach the saxophone and the bugle, just as marvelously as the drums?

How could one person teach the harmonium, sitar and the tabla? 

I have always wanted to learn to play a musical instrument. It is probably why I never tire of seeing Anoushka Shankar’s hand leap up and down the sitar producing marvelous music. The harp player must be harnessing a power of the gods, and no wonder the goddess of learning in Hindu mythology holds the Veena.

I sat by the rose bushes reading. A gentle breeze accompanied the birdsong outside. I watched mesmerized as the breeze rippled through the luscious pines generating green soothing waves. Well, I may not know how to play a musical instrument, but I am lucky indeed to be able to enjoy the music.

I opened the book, A Violin for Elva, and was soon so happy with the choice of book. The book talks of Elva listening to music wherever she went. She imagines herself playing the violin, and asks her parents for one, but she doesn’t get one. She goes about imagining her toothbrush, tennis racket and anything else to be her violin. The whimsical illustrations are a joy to behold.

Life passes her by, and in her working years, the faint whiff of her love of music is there, but she is too busy in the busyness of living. 

Finally, after her years of working, she gets herself a violin to teach herself, but finds it very hard. She then goes for music lessons and when she gives her first concert, the sense of accomplishment, the much-delayed gratification she receives is amazing. It is also a reminder to those of us waiting to do what we love that though it is never too late to take up what we love. It is also pointless to let life pass us by. 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” 

Annie Dillard

Elva’s story reminded me of Mary Oliver’s essay on the three distinct selves within each of us:

  • The Child Self
  • The Social Self &
  • The Eternal Self.

Though in the essay, Mary Oliver, refers to the Eternal Self as the artistic self, I like to interpret it as the Creative self. 

  • The Child Self is in us always, it never really leaves us. 
  • The second self is the social self. This is the do-er, the list maker, the planner, the executer. 
  • Then, there is the third self: the creative self, the dreamer, the wanderer. This is the self that needs nurturing.

The essay ended on this note:

“The most regretful people on Earth are those who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither time nor power.”

Mary Oliver

It was a chastening thought to enjoy those things that sustain us, and in doing so make our lives meaningful and joyful.

What would you like to nurture?

The Music of Rose-Scented Winds

Roses are blooming everywhere. The white, saffron, yellow, pink, corals and red roses are a real treat to behold. Watching the breeze gently take the rose essences and waft off into the neighborhood reminded me of an old Tamil song. “Rojavai thalaattum thendral…” a few weeks ago, and I hummed it as I went about my day. Loosely translated, it means a breeze that caressed the roses. 

“Dei! One more time, you sing that song……” said the husband. 

His tone of voice reminded me of my elementary school friend all those decades ago, when I sang something continuously, wrongly and unknowingly at times. 

Particularly prone to these brain-itches or ear-worms, I am not particularly fond of them either. I thought life was full of them, till I noticed my friends seemed to be able to enjoy a song, hum it a bit and then move on with their lives, without the annoying thing being stuck in their heads for weeks at a time. 

The curious case of not being very good at picking the lyrics out in a song also means that I am singing garbled nonsense, and often just snippets of them as I go about the house. 

I don’t know how folks live with me, for I want to box my ears every time  ‘rojavai thaalattum thendral ‘loops on in the old brain. Apparently, the song itself has a good enough lyrical quality, but I would not know anything about it for I have never been great at catching the words in a song. I sing

Rojavai thalaatum thendral, poon thendral, yen mandral (No meaning). 

Un nenjil porattangal hohoho (Santa Claus>!), rojavai thalaatum thendral…”

I am sick of the song, but luckily not of the roses. 

For one prone to brain-itches such as these, the modern world can be quite the problem. There are catchy songs on television, in cars, radio stations, not to mention gas stations, almost everywhere. It is only recently that I found listening to instrumental music helps since it allows me to listen to music without having garbled phrases stuck in my head on an endless loop.

“Many people are set off by the theme music of a film or television show or an advertisement, This is not unusual for they are catchy tunes” says Dr Oliver Sacks, in his book, Musicophilia (Read the essay titled “Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes”)

He writes of his friend,Nick, who had fixated on the song, “Love and Marriage”and was ‘trapped inside the tempo of the song’. 

I nodded along fervently as he wrote of his affliction:

“With incessant repetition, it soon lost its charm, its lilt, its musicality and its meaning. It interfered with his schoolwork, his thinking, his peace of mind, his sleep.”

Originating from the literal translation of the German term Ohrwurm, an earworm can go on for weeks, or in some cases months.

When I read about this phenomenon in Oliver Sacks’, Musicophilia, I hummed the broken piece. I wish I could’ve written to the wise doctor and asked him whether he had come across any cases where the patient was stuck in a song with lousy garbled words in the correct tune, and how their marriage with a man who could not hold a tune but could ace the words would function. (Read: The Noetic Touch to the Poetic Muse

Alas! Dr Oliver Sacks is no longer alive to share his insights with us.

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