I’ve always had a somewhat special relationship with music – particularly classical music. My father almost exclusively played ABC Classic FM in the car, if we weren’t listening to 612ABC radio. My knowledge of popular music was almost non-existent until I was about 11, when I had to use a laptop of my own for school. Yes, I might have ‘lost’ or dedicated too many hours to practising, whether it be at home or in orchestras, but I gained unbelievable experiences and friends on the way. Most of my childhood, and indeed, teenage-hood, can be recounted through memories related to making music.
I remember the giant book that taught us how to sing Waltzing Matilda in primary school, complete with pictures of the swagman and the sheep. I learned to play Hot Cross Buns on the recorder, and I remember my music teacher (Mr. Metcalfe), teaching us that the proper way to blow into the wretched instrument without blowing out everyone’s eardrums was to pretend you were blowing on a candle, but you didn’t want it to actually go out. I sang a lot in primary school; Danny Boy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and I remember the audition song each year being Happy Birthday – courtesy of the octave jump in the middle which actually makes it quite difficult to sing in tune.
I remember drawing on our creamy white piano when I was bored (it’s now very much not white). I remember hating scales, and wondering how on Earth they managed to think up so many different ways of playing and practising them. I cheated when I had to practise thirds and octaves, which probably wasn’t the best idea, but I was so sick of them at the time. I also remember harbouring a severe dislike for Hanon, Czerny, Burgmuller, and anyone else who wrote books full of finger exercises and etudes. I learned to play music by Mozart, Bach, Lizst, Schumann, Beethoven, and much, much more. I learned to play Golliwog’s Cakewalk, and to tolerate twentieth century composers, even though it didn’t sit properly with me. I taught myself a number of Chopin nocturnes – if only to escape the monotony of playing the one I was actually learning at the time. Funnily enough, I can still play most of that nocturne from memory now, and as a result, Chopin’s music holds a special place in my heart. I remember telling my music teacher at school when I was 12 that I’d stopped taking piano lessons, and she spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince me not to give it up. But my mind was made up, and I think it was for the better. I loved the piano even more when I wasn’t forced to sit in front of it every day for an hour.
My first cello teacher, Alison, was a student who moved to Adelaide after only teaching me for a year – but I still remember that she would have a wooden box filled with stickers to reward me after each lesson, and I still have the Christmas card she made for me. I remember that I was scared out of my little mind, sitting in the waiting room of the old ratty AMEB headquarters, and she gave me the card and a gift bag of chocolate and told me I would be absolutely fine (and I was). Alison taught me the tiniest bit of fourth position, and that knowledge propelled me into an orchestra where I would often get lost, and have to pretend I knew what I was doing. I remember spending most of my first year in QYO3 in perpetual terror. I was 11, and I didn’t know anyone. But two years later, I would be section leader, and the year after that, I’d be sitting near the front of QYO2. I remember being distraught when I learned my 3/4 cello had a massive crack in its back, and then falling in love with the cello I still have now. I learned the plot of A Clockwork Orange, ate packets of sugar on dares, and got really good at playing hearts while at music camp. and playing the cello probably did wonders for my posture, as I just couldn’t play properly unless my back was completely straight.
Even though I absolutely adore classical music, deep down, I knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to do with my life. But I also feel like I would be a very different writer – I’d view the world in a different light – if music hadn’t been in my life in such a big way. I know all the theory behind cadences, intervals, key changes, majors and minors, which chords are ‘allowed’ to be used in which sequences, but none of that can truly explain why a piece of music can make someone feel a particular way. Music taught me to appreciate movements and nuances that I would otherwise have ignored. Nothing is really comparable to the way a pianist’s hands fly over the keys, delicate in one moment, punctuating in another, but always moving, rippling, full of meaning. There is a beauty in the movements up and down a fingerboard, and you would never know the skill involved unless you’d learned the instrument yourself at some point.
Music taught me – and still teaches me – about the complexity of emotion. I remember my cello teacher telling me that I wasn’t putting enough emotion into a particular piece, and at the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. I was playing everything as it was supposed to be played, and yet I was still doing it wrong? But now, being older and (somewhat) wiser, I now completely understand what she meant. Experiencing and living life makes one a better musician, just like it makes one a better writer. Music is the universal language of storytelling.
I think it’s why I place such an emphasis on “so-called” lyricism and rhythm in all of my writing. I have often told myself, or other people, that my sentences need to sound ‘right’. They need to flow properly, and this has gotten me into trouble on several occasions, because it means that sometimes I put more emphasis on the sound of the sentences as opposed to the quality of the material.
I joke that I’m an old person because I love listening to classical music. But honestly, I love listening to classical music because it allows me to completely let go. There are no words, so the music is whatever you interpret it to be – it’s a very special kind of freedom.
I remember Miss Milligan, my primary school orchestra conductor and cello teacher, telling us that the hardest passages and pieces to play were not the fast, loud ones, but the slow, quiet ones. It’s one of those innocuous statements that has stayed with me, because it taught me to appreciate the quieter moments in life. As an introvert, it also let me know that it was okay to be quiet, that being loud or outgoing wasn’t the be all and end all. Music, and all of the people that I met because of it, taught me that it was all right to be me, and for that, I am forever thankful.