Growing Up With Music

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad was a composer and music teacher and my mother a singer. My dad would rise around 5:00 a.m. every morning to sit at the piano for two to three hours working on his latest composition—a choral piece, a bit of chamber music, a trumpet or violin solo for student musicians, a symphony or opera. My mother would frequently go over the solo she was preparing to sing the next Sunday at church. One of my sisters played the cello and the other the violin. The sounds of people practicing, impromptu gatherings of family friends for an evening of chamber music, music listened to on the radio or phonograph, and my father’s unwavering morning compositional ritual were the most constant and familiar experiences of my early life. Looking back, it all seems rather idyllic. How lucky to grow up in such a rich and stimulating musical environment. How fortunate to have such a sound introduction to one of the truly great traditions of artistic expression.

Unfortunately at the time I did not look at it that way. In my early years music was more torment than treasure—something to be endured rather than truly enjoyed. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t appreciate it more. Although I loved it that my father conducted the local town and high school band—it meant I could see him march in parades and stay out extra late on the summer nights when there was a band concert— it was not the music I enjoyed, it was the freedom and the fact that I could stay up past my bedtime. Often in an attempt to teach me to read music my father would invite me to sit in his lap and follow the score of a symphony or opera he was listening to on the radio. I enjoyed these rare moments of close contact with my dad but, in part because I was dyslexic and in part because I also wanted to be outside playing with my friends, I was unable to appreciate or benefit from these early attempts to expose me to music. To this day I detest opera, mostly because of the harshly enforced rule that there were to be no loud noises—fighting, running, shrieking, shouting, or door slamming—on Saturday afternoon during the time my father was listening to the Metropolitan Opera.

My dad attempted to introduce me to the piano when I was six or seven years of age. When it became clear to both my parents that I could not read music and was struggling with the piano (but had a very good ear for pitch), they decided to introduce me to be violin. I was about 9 at the time and in the fourth grade. My hands were big enough and arms long enough for a full sized violin, so my dad gave me an old instrument that had once belonged to my grandfather. It was not a very good violin but served me well enough to start out. It had a large crack on the back, gut strings that were quite old and had to be replaced, and ornate perpling front and back. Like most beginners in the violin, I had a terrible time at first twisting my hands and fingers in those unnatural and awkward positions violin players must assume to play scales and draw the bow across the strings. But I had a strong and quite pleasant tone almost from the first. I quickly learned to use my good ear to listen carefully and play in tune. Because I showed some promise, my grandfather’s violin was quickly replaced with another violin that became available when my parents purchased a new violin for my older sister. This shift to a new violin also resulted in improvement in my playing. I actually began to enjoy the sounds I could make and would practice longer before protesting that I wanted to go outside to be with my friends. I played by ear and could memorize and belt out most of the melodies I was taught at school. This precocity impressed others and allowed me to hide the fact that I continued to be almost totally unable to read music. This theme of visibility and hiding, pride and perceived defectiveness, became a central one in the development of my identity and my relationship to music over time.

As I grew older, I began to enjoy music more for its own sake. After a couple of years of giving me violin lessons and getting in constant fights with me, my dad wisely decided to let someone else teach me privately while continuing to be my instructor at school where he conduced the orchestra. As I got better, I slowly began to enjoy the violin and appreciate what I could do when playing it. At the same time, practicing was boring; performing was terrifying; and attending orchestra rehearsals meant being singled out as the conductor’s kid—a marked man as I saw it. Besides, playing the violin could be physically dangerous. It was Pittsburg, Kansas in the 1950s, and boys were supposed to play baseball or football, not the violin. I got into a few fights with other boys who mocked my playing, and though I often as not came off well in these skirmishes, I secretly shared my opponents’ conviction that a fellow who played the violin must not be worth much. I was so ashamed, in fact, that my parents finally bought me a second violin so that I could keep one at home and one at school, and avoid being caught in public with the offending instrument. I asked my dad to make me the principle second violin, rather than concertmaster, so I could more easily hide in the middle of the orchestra and not as easily be seen by my peers during concerts and school assemblies. I did well in regional and state music contests but found the nervousness prior to performance so unbearable that it completely offset any feelings of pride in my accomplishments or over the gold medals I won.

It is easy to see why I might argue that my relationship with the violin and music is both meaningful and messy. Music was my father’s passion and his profession; inevitably, it became the site of bitter conflict between us as I went through the normal rebellion of adolescence. Now, as I look back over my life, I feel sad that I didn’t value both more. It angers me that my peers robbed me of many potentially gratifying experiences with the violin. It also frustrates me that when my peers weren’t around, my own shame robbed me of the same enjoyment. I often wonder how far I would have gone, had I not felt such shame and internalized such absurd messages about music. At the same time, I realize I can’t go back and change the past. The parameters of my ability are partly determined by what I learned and refused to learn 50 years ago. To pick up the violin is, for me, to take up the complexities of my past.

I have been writing this article with the strains of Beethoven’s string quartets playing in the background. Right now I am listening to a favorite of mine, Opus 95 in F Minor, called the “Serioso.” This quartet, perhaps more than any others in his “middle” period presages the intense struggle Beethoven had with musical forms of the late—classical period—a struggle that we see even more starkly and powerfully manifest in his later quartets. It has often been characterized as a “hinge” quartet in his change of style, a true turning point in his ongoing struggle with the classical period. Fiercely self-absorbed and uncompromising, throughout the quartet one senses Beethoven’s impatience with all the forms, conventions and cadential passages of the classical style.

I have listened to this and his other quartets countless times. I find them inexhaustible and always fresh, continually revealing new secrets. To play one of his quartets (badly, I am afraid) is an utterly transcendent experience for me—as close to a spiritual awakening as I can have. I feel privileged to be able to participate in something I consider to be among the most profound expressions of the human creativity in existence. Each time I play or listen to his quartets, I feel blessed to partake in something that gives me hope for humanity. For all the pain, suffering, foolishness and brutality that characterizes our race, at least, I say to myself, there is Beethoven’s art.

In his late quartets, Beethoven carried his experimentation with the fugue—Bach’s form, the form of the Well-Tempered Clavier—to an extraordinary level. In Op. 133, the Grosse Fuge, for example, we see Beethoven taking the fugue to entirely new levels of complexity and power. To this day, Op. 133 remains an enigma. The effect is not just of formal mastery. Rather, as Milan Kundera has noted, the interlocked patterns of statement, repetition, and inversion at the heart of the Grosse Fuge are expressive of the eternal tension between order and chaos, of the necessity to confront and embrace Fate, a longing for stillness while remaining constantly—sometimes frantically—in motion. Here, in an extreme form, we find a statement found repeatedly in Beethoven’s late works, namely, the tension between struggle and resignation, and a relentless sense of the passage of time.

It is a curious fact, in connection with the Beethoven quartets, that they remained virtually un-played for many years after he died. They were widely viewed as the perverse scribblings of a madman. In some ways this reaction is understandable. In testing the limits of the quartet, Beethoven also tested the limits of musical coherence. Although the quartets as a whole were highly organized, the elements in the music seem quite autonomous, even disjointed. Each instrument’s voice moves independently, almost as if unaware of the presence of the others. The number of styles used (the fugue was only one of many) and rapid shifting of mood in the quartets can be unsettling. One can understand how listeners in Beethoven’s time, like those of many other composers in other times, found it difficult to decide whether they were listening pure music or utter noise appropriately dismissed with a riot.

But how is it that Beethoven’s first listeners did not recognize even the formal integrity, much less the meaningfulness, of these works? The notes on the page haven’t changed. Yet somehow the music has changed. Or, more likely, the audience—as if we had “grown up” as audiences, the adult embracing what the fourteen-year-old rejected as meaningless.

It seems to me that this maturing of music is not unique to Beethoven’s quartets, but occurs as a central aspect of musical experience. Music is composed as a system of notes on paper, but that is only the beginning. (Imagine reading a score in order to enjoy the music!) Like Ariel freed from the witch’s tree, music comes to life and takes on new dimensions when it is released from the page: when it is heard and interpreted, practiced and performed. My appreciation of a piece of music changes as my perspectives change. My understanding of it depends on whether I am listening to it “live” or on CD, or whether I am hearing it for the first time or the thousandth, on whether I have played it myself.

I recently revisited Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, Op. 24, a piece I first learned 50 years ago when still in high school. It was interesting to take it up again after all these years because it gave me a sense of this “maturing” of musical experience with continued exposure. Though I had lost much of my “finger memory” as I practiced on the piece and struggled with many of the passages that came more easily to me earlier, I still could hear the way the music is supposed to sound as I struggled to get it right. What I lacked in technical facility I felt I made up for in interpretive “depth” and in an appreciation of the composition that can only come with exposure and greater maturity. I wondered how much I “understood” Beethoven and appreciated his genius when I was first introduced to the “Spring” sonata. I hadn’t played anything else Beethoven had written at the time. I knew little about his life, his culture, or his personal struggles; he was just the next assignment my violin teacher had given me. What was my experience of playing this sonata? I remember little about it now. I know I was still somewhat ashamed of the violin and resented its incursions into my time and social life? How did the experience then compare to my experience now after having played so much of his music, having read so many books about him, and learned so much about his life? How has my identification with Beethoven changed now that his struggle with deafness becomes increasingly real to me as I begin to struggle with my own hearing loss. Now, as I grow older, I can see, feel, and identify with the drama, the tension between struggle and surrender in his music, and his sense of the relentless press of time, in a way I could not fully appreciate in my youth. The notes I played then and now are the same but the experience of playing them entirely different.

Part of the change in my relationship to music is a growing knowledge of the physicality of musical expression. The awakening of my senses and a growing awareness of my mortality has definitely deepened my appreciation of music even as it has heightened my sensitivity to the aches and pains felt when I practice—aches and pains I could more easily ignore when I was younger.

And indeed, music is an extraordinarily physical art. Commonly, musicians spend more time doing exercises or working through sticky passages than they do performing or even playing whole pieces. As I discovered when I was fourteen, this process is neither aesthetically nor intellectually stimulating. It is generally just boring and repetitive. And yet practice is the means through which an artist grows in his or her ability to participate fully and find meaning in artistic expression. Playing the violin, I develop a relationship with my instrument—my hands, arms, neck, fingers become an extension of the instrument and the instrument a vehicle of expression intimately melded with my body. My shoulders, arms and hands “know” my instrument in an almost unconscious way. And this physical knowledge of the instrument, along with the physical basis in technique—acquired through years of scales, arpeggios, and bowing exercises—have a deeply subtle relationship to my knowledge of the music. Being able to play a difficult passage correctly, of course, is not the same thing as being able to interpret it. But the two are caught up with each other and grow on each other.

Though practicing is boring and repetitive, I learn a great deal about myself while doing it. Some time ago Susan, my teacher, noticed that my bow arm was stiff. I was tensing up while I played, she said. This awkwardness was extremely difficult to fix because it had been relegated to habit and was an automatic and largely unconscious response. But it proved extremely rewarding to work on it. As I practiced, I discovered there was a relationship between the tension in my bow arm, my breathing, and the way I shifted my weight from my left side to my right side while drawing the bow. I also learned there was a relationship between relaxation, pressure relayed through the bow arm, and the quality of sound I was able to produce. I had had no idea that my movements were so interconnected, or that this rich tone had been—as it were—inside me all the time, waiting to get out.

Susan is not the only person who has helped lead me to such realizations. My experience as a musician has been enhanced by many people, both present and past, dead and alive, composers, players, conductors, music teachers, and others who have in various ways touched me through some kind of shared involvement with and through music. Music, indeed, is a thoroughly social activity. It involves many complex conventions and expectations that are essential to make it meaningful and orderly. There are rules regarding stopping and starting. There are conventions about keeping time, and about the meaning of specific notations for tempo, dynamics, expression, and interpretation. Though apparently peripheral to music making, personal interactions and agreement about social conventions are central to the expressive quality of the music produced. Just as athletic teams at times “click” and individual members find themselves drawn into something greater than themselves, distinctly felt but hard to describe, similarly, members of musical groups at times feel deeply connected in the shared experience of making music. There is a strong sense of togetherness that enhances the playing. At other times, the opposite occurs. There is no felt connection between the people and it shows in the quality of the music making. Like the proverbial wedding rehearsal jitters, dress rehearsals are notoriously difficult social encounters. Such rehearsals are often very rough leaving participants doubtful regarding their ability to do well in performance. Usually the performance exceeds the expectations of all involved, a testimony to the power of intangible social factors that click in and draw out be best in the individuals and their social relationships.

In this sense, it is not just “practicing” music which makes it meaningful, but—broadly speaking—the “practice” of music: all of the different ways in which music is rehearsed, performed, studied, heard. If my involvement in music has taught me anything, it is that full enjoyment and meaningful participation requires that one learn to balance joy and sadness, boredom and excitement, hard work and play, social and solitary activities, order and risky abandon. The process is inexhaustible and the learning can last a lifetime.

What, then, can we conclude from this brief snapshot of my experience growing up with music? Music is one of those domains of experience that becomes increasingly rich, complex, and meaningful as one takes the time and makes the sacrifices necessary to learn about it. Often other areas of our life—relationships, leisure activities, other involvements—suffer because of the time we invest in something we find meaningful. We live it, breathe it, learn about it, and are deeply absorbed in exploring its many dimensions. This gives us great pleasure and enriches our life but it also contributes to its tendency to get messy and difficult. It takes time to train our bodies—the ears, eyes, hands, sense organs—to express ourselves in a meaningful way. Mind, body, and spirit are drawn together intimately when we are deeply absorbed in creative expression. This developing relationship with the body—its training, working with its limits–is an important part of the discipline through which meaning is embodied. It is also the relationship within which we “grow up” or mature in our understanding and enjoyment of a meaningful activity. It is through the body that we experience both the constraint, frustration, sadness, and limitation, as well as the joy, exultation, pride, and satisfaction of creative expression. Full participation in a meaningful domain invariably requires the awakening of the body, and a growing appreciation of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. The embodiment of meaning is done through “practice.” Practice always involves time, effort, discipline, and the comparison of oneself against some ideal or standard of excellence. The embodiment of a practice involves a process of learning to work with limits. Pushing against limits—limits of form, limits of endurance, limits of understanding, limits of expression—is at the heart of the learning process that creates meaning in a practice.

These general principles can be applied in considering how we “grow up” in relationship to any meaningful domain of involvement. In my own life I have found that they apply not only to music, but to my marriage, my involvement in yoga and meditation, my life as a writer, any my practice as a psychotherapist. They are also highly relevant as we think about the process of “growing up” in relation to the world within which we live. The earth is the “body” within which we live. It constrains us and provides us an almost infinite range of avenues for expression. As we live within the world and its constraints we become more and more aware of both its limits and possibilities. It is calling upon us to put in the time and practice the kind of awareness that is embodied in the arts—a growing sensitivity to the constraints of our instrument and a willingness to work within those constraints with sensitivity and awareness to create a meaningful world.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address: Rosselrob@aol.com.

Let us know your thoughts...