Happy New Year

It seems somewhat obligatory to do some kind of self-assessment at this time of year. Mine was influenced by this website, but I didn’t follow all the steps or do it “properly.” As is normal for me, I evaluated it and used it to inform my own interpretation of the process, paring the product of the process down to the essentials.


1 New Year’s Resolution (Apply to all years of life):

Learn from previous years of life and act on what has been learnt, with the goal of making this year happier and healthier than it would be otherwise.

I am aware that this falls down when measured against S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. It is not Specific or Measureable. On the other hand it is Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited, and I think A and R are the most important parts, so I will not be adjusting it to make it SMARTer.

So what have I learnt, in my 34.5 years so far?  Whoops, that question was far too broad. Let’s try again.

What have I learnt so far that is relevant to the goal of being happier and healthier? I think the most valuable relevant lesson is that my brain and my body have an unwritten user manual that is very different from “Everyman’s” manual. And not only because I am not a man!

I have learnt many different things that help me understand my secret user manual. There are chapters labelled Introvert, Menstruating Female, Detail Focus, Complex Feeding Requirements and Sleeping. There are other chapters where I’m starting to see the text, but don’t have a handy heading to put on it yet. The lesson here is that instead of quoting Everyman’s manual, and stating for example that as I put 8 hours sleep in I have achieved the requisite number, I need to look at my own manual and read the cross-references and scribbled notes in the margin to see that my sleep need will change based on physical exertion, mental state, menstrual cycle, etc., etc., etc. I also have to accept that the manual will change as I go through life. I don’t have all the answers, but thinking about my user manual being unique to me is a very powerful tool that I can use to my advantage. Once I understand that my needs are different from other people’s I can act on them, communicate them and advocate for myself to ensure life is a little healthier and a little happier for me.

The biggest new chapter I revealed this year is to do with sensory sensitivities. I discovered that there is a new shop in town with florescent lighting that makes me feel physically sick because it is so bright and harsh. I feel like I will throw up if I stay in that shop for even the shortest amount of time. Seeing other people able to happily shop in it helped me to see that this is an area where my manual differs from theirs, and so to ask where else in the sensory ranges I differ from them? Thinking about sounds encouraged me to try some Active Noise Cancelling headphones, which are fantastic for cutting low frequency background noise. I am now wearing them around the house (sadly they would not be considered office-appropriate) and my down-time is so much more positive for it.

So I head into this new year armed with a single resolution – to make good use of my imaginary secret user manual and other things I have learned to make 2016 happier and healthier than it would otherwise be.




On musical expression and life experience

It’s not a secret that life experience enriches a performer’s musical expression. It’s rare to find a child that can play complex emotional pieces with a depth and gravity of understanding that you would expect from an adult, even if they are equally technically adept. In groups of teenage musicians the rumour is whispered that when you lose your virginity your music teachers will be able to tell because they’ll be able to hear it in your playing. (Personally I doubt the veracity of that rumour – perhaps your teacher will be able to tell when you’re first in love, whether that goes well or badly and when you’ve suffered your first break up or rejection, but I think that’s as far as it goes.) So perhaps now I’m in my 30s I should have expected to be able to play with greater insight and to “get” what the composer was intending in a wider variety of music. Still these things take me by surprise.

As a young musician I was always praised for my expression. My technique has always been a bit shoddy and my sight-reading has never met the standards expected of me but as expression and feeling cannot be easily practiced and technique and sight-reading can, teachers were happy for me to have those strengths and weaknesses. Having come across numerous musicians who can get their fingers and eyes around anything, however fiendish, yet make a soulless and awful noise doing so, I have to agree with my teachers that this is the preferrable option.

Like anyone I was drawn to playing the music I understood best. To me, the most satisfying music was the dark and melancholic, the introspective and the seriously thoughtful. When I needed a change, perhaps something angry and rebellious would balance the mood. Like so many teenage musicians I was drawn to Shostakovich, both chamber and orchestral, and to Russian music in general. The Glazunov Elegy for viola and piano may be one of my all time favourite pieces and is one of the first pieces I think of when I think of the viola.

But there were some pieces I just didn’t get. By my mid/late teens I’d loved the solo Bach works for some time – I’d not yet dared to go near the solo violin works but I was acquainted with a good number of the cello suites on the viola. (Purists, I apologise – I do now own a cello and hack away at some of the simpler ones on the instrument for which they were intended, but you have to understand a viola player needs something pre-20th century to practice). When my violin teacher (who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have much respect for) turned up with a piece of solo Bach for me to try, I should have been in my element, but I just didn’t get it. Oh the technique was an interesting challenge and I’m very fond of a spot of bariolage but I just couldn’t find any spirit in the music at all. I though Bach was having an off day when he wrote it and I couldn’t see why on earth my teacher would like the piece. The piece in question was the Preludio of the 3rd solo violin Partita.

Yesterday, well over a decade later, I finally “got” this piece. It needs to be played with exuberant joy and humour and I can now see how to do that. I’ve known for a while that my playing is humourless, but I didn’t realise it was much of a problem. This piece was offered to me by a teacher who played happy music well and thought it would be fun for me to learn, but I failed to understand her and I failed to understand Bach. Now I think I can play with joy and humour the piece is still difficult under the fingers, but there’s a point to it. I have reasonable comic timing in life, now I can see how to put it into music. I suspect teachers have been telling me to have fun with pieces like this for year but I never really understood what they meant. If I had fun with it, it was because virtuosity is fun in itself, not because the music was fun; rather than a bubbling fountain of semiquavers rising to the sky I was scrubbing industriously at a dirty floor. I suspect that much music that I found inane will now make a great deal of sense viewed in this new way.

I used to dread playing for non-musicians because they’d ask me to play something, so I’d play something I loved and then when I’d finished they’d say, “Now play something happy,” and I’d stand awkwardly wondering if I knew anything happy to play them and drawing a blank. Perhaps in future I’ll be able to deal with that situation better.

So if musical expression comes directly from life experience, it might just be the case that I’ve got finally got the hang of happiness. It does seem rather fragile and unlikely to be sustainable. I’m rather overprotective of it, but it appears I must have some understanding of it now that I lacked in the past. Perhaps this is a sign that I don’t need to worry about it disappearing as mysteriously as it appeared.

A (wise) friend and colleague suggested recently that I sing happy songs in my head to cheer myself up on difficult days. Throughout my life on difficult days I’ve used the catharsis of desolate music to get me through (Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet anyone?) but perhaps now it’s time for a new approach. I said to someone recently “I’m just not a scherzo kind of girl,” and I think that will only change to a certain degree, but perhaps, just perhaps, I can now consider myself at least a Vivace kind of girl.


Disclaimer: I’m not saying I can play the Preludio, just that I get the spirit and it might be worth practicing it so that one day I can. Shoddy technique, remember? And at least 5 years since I last practiced anything much. So don’t go asking for anything happy just yet, OK?

New Year’s resolutions


This might seem a strange time of year for a post on New Year’s resolutions but sometimes I like to defy convention and fly in the face of the obvious.

I just completed a survey in which I was asked if I felt I’d achieved my New Year’s resolutions  for 2011.  Although I have to admit I can’t actually remember what resolutions I made, I answered firmly in the affirmative, marking the box “I have achieved all of my goals.” Whether this is actually true I cannot be sure, but it felt a lot more accurate than the next option “I have achieved some of my goals.” Had there been an option of “I’m pretty sure I almost certainly achieved my goals, unless I’ve forgotten more than I think,” then perhaps that would have been the one for me, but survey-designers tend to avoid vague language almost as much as those of us who hate the possibility that we might be incorrect embrace it.

So it looks like I’ve done well this year. Admittedly some of my goals, notably “Get married” would have been quite dramatic to have failed to achieve in this particular year, but it’s still quite exciting to have met the goals. [I believe Mr Sparrowgrass is also rather pleased that we both achieved that goal as planned. I was a little late, which may be held against me for all time, but I believe I made rather an impact walking down the aisle which went some way towards earning me forgiveness.]

So what other goals do I think I probably had? Well all the stuff that I’ve gone on about here a lot recently like happiness, relaxation and generally keeping stuff ticking over nicely with minimal stress. So we can tick all that off. While on the subject of things I go on about we may as well cover taking up horse riding, which I have definitely achieved.

I wonder what else I had on my list? I doubt there was much else because I don’t like to be too ambitious with my resolutions and the marriage one encapsulated a whole lot of subsidiary themes anyway (including have perfect nails on the day which I “nailed,” if I do say so myself).

I can’t rule out there being things I forgot to do, but perhaps a possible key to happiness would be to do the things you can achieve and literally forget any goals you didn’t manage!

Obviously there’s still plenty of room for resolutions for 2012. Fortunately I don’t think I’ve qualified for the Olympics so that’ll help keep them achievable and realistic. I think  I’ll probably just stick to progressing on the happy/relaxed/riding/work-life-balance planes and hope that at this time next year I feel as good about them as I do about the resolutions for 2011.

Image: nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net