Roll Over Beethoven….

Guest post by The Bard of Tysoe

I inherited my musicianship and my love of music from my mum. Many of her first musical memories are religious – as are mine. Hers include pumping the bellows for the organist at the Methodist church in Yorkshire where my grandad was a lay-preacher. Mine, sitting astonished in the congregation of Blackburn Cathedral – then still a building site – waiting for my audition for the choir: wondering if this amazing noise was also what filled heaven. (I was never religious, in any sense: but the compositions and architecture inspired by all faiths will never cease to amaze and inspire me.) I was four.

Forty years later, I also inherited my mum’s deafness – although mine has been accelerated, and deepened, by other medical issues. After a lifetime of singing, playing, composing, conducting, listening… in some ways the loss of music was worse than the main disability which accompanied it. I felt bereft, and grieved for a very long time. Even the ‘familiar’ works on my music server (which has over 20,000 tracks on it – ranging from plainchant to punk; serialism to soul) could not console me. For several years, music was something I accidentally bumped into; never actively sought out; and always came away from more disappointed than before.

When I obtained my first hearing aids (properly called hearing ‘instruments’), a very talented and patient audiologist spent an afternoon with me at home cycling through some of those many pieces, in many different genres, adjusting these little life-savers over and over again until one of their four programmes was specifically set up for listening to music. However, not all harmonies are born equal – there is a reason iPods come with so many equalizer settings, I discovered – and, eventually, I realized that I needed to know the music note for note (often helped by a score resting on my lap) for it to make ‘sense’ to me. It also helped if the composition was sparsely scored. (Thank goodness for chamber music – especially Bartók’s magnificent six string quartets – which I now have so many different recordings of, I have lost count!)

As my hearing rapidly worsened, the technology could not keep pace. Concerts were always painful – and listening to the piano (my own instrument) always sounded especially dissonant: the clash of harmonics confusing the processing of both my digital hearing aids and my analogue brain.

However, I kept reading about improvements to hearing technology; and, as my first set of ‘instruments’ were no longer powerful enough, late last year I was granted a new pair. Initial technical and customer care problems rendered them almost uselessalmost useless. However, thanks to another thoughtful audiologist, I am now progressing well on my return to the musical world, with a much wider and deeper soundscape. (It takes a while to get the fine-tuning right with these things: but I feel that I am more than halfway back to the best the sound can be for me. And what we have achieved is already a massive leap forward.)

It is so long since I played (the family Bechstein upright now resides with my son: another keen musician – those genes are obviously dominant); composed (my Mac, with all my part-finished digital manuscripts, is in storage – along with multiple backups, of course); and I am no longer fit enough (physically or aurally) to conduct: so I simply assumed that any future I had with music would be passive – although immensely enjoyable – as a ‘mere’ listener.

I had, though, started writing reviews of the plays I regularly attended at the RSC – aided enormously by the access provision there: including captioned performances. These were posted on my blog, which had initially been about life in my remote Warwickshire village, both scenic and politic; but which had expanded eclectically to cover more wider culture, as well as life from my slightly warped point of view. And, although I was writing mainly for myself, and happy just to be occupied in some sort of creative act, it really had not occurred to me at all that my previous experience as an amateur musician could similarly be applied.

However, ever since we moved to this area of the world, we have been on the mailing list of the inspirational Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), also based in Stratford-upon-Avon. And, encouraged by my partner, over the last few months, I have attended quite a few of their concerts. This was an extremely tentative – and somewhat daunting – exercise, at first: but, as I have grown accustomed to my new instruments (which, at first, were bass-heavy and treble-light: my hearing loss has a large neurological component, which is not easily adjusted for), I felt compelled to write about my experience, dubbing it “this journey (nay, this pilgrimage) back to live music that I am on”. This was something I needed to do, it seemed – especially as it brought together the things I loved. And it was helped by the fact that OOTS is a small ensemble – as is Eboracum Baroque, who I accidentally discovered on my trek – both of whose sound is tremendously transparent.

Of course, as with the plays’ scripts, re-reading, re-learning the scores, has helped tremendously – although I have not yet had the temerity to experiment with referring to them during a concert: despite never meeting with resistance to this as a student; nor, nearly four years ago, when I followed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – a work I know better than most; but at a time when my hearing had failed badly – on my iPad in the grand tier of Birmingham’s wondrous Symphony Hall.  (In fact, many other enthusiastic Elgarians told me that it gave them the courage to try something similar: so I probably will return to this practice in the future – although I worry that it may detract from my usual somewhat immediate, emotional response.) Such familiarity also helps; and I am fortunate that, once absorbed, the musical notation often floats through my head whilst listening: bringing me improved clarity.

As with the listening, though, so with the resultant writing. Much professional music – and drama – criticism leaves me cold; does not give me what I crave from not being there (basically, regret…); does not enlighten the mind nor accelerate the heart. But, as I was – I believed – writing for myself, I hesitantly attempted to rectify these faults by producing the sort of review, I would like to read myself – not yet aware that there were those in the wider world who had similar feelings (principal amongst them, of course, this blog’s generous host, Frances Wilson). I was therefore surprised by the reception: not just from other concert-goers – but from musicians (and others) who I admired. (Special mention must go here to David Curtis, artistic director of OOTS: who not only welcomed my different approach, but embraced it with his habitual enthusiasm; and who continues to encourage and help me re-immerse myself in this refreshed world of constant magic.)

After writing a very thorough (i.e. customarily lengthy, detailed and discursive) critique of one of David’s concerts with the (non-professional-but-most-awesome) Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – not a small ensemble, at all: not for Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto (and with my hero, Peter Donohoe), and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony… – I was still gobsmacked to find the number of hits on the review increasing almost before my eyes: rapidly gaining more viewings and feedback than any other post I had authored. It seemed that I had, unwittingly, serendipitously, hit some sort of target, some sort of nerve: fulfilling a similar need to my own, but, moreover, for many others.

This took a while to sink in – and, me being me, the only way I could deal with it was to write about it. I therefore penned an article on my motivations: what music criticism means to me; what I think it should be; but, principally, what drives me to write in the way I do – and why it is so different to what others (might) produce.

To be honest, I published it assuming I would be condemned (not that I truly minded) for my amateurishness; for treading on the toes of those more ‘qualified’ to produce such writings (although I do have a background in professional journalism – albeit covering technology…). But, again, the positive feedback opened my eyes: and I feel not only have I found some sort of vocation (and one that I enjoy); but that music – as it frequently does – has started to connect me with those who, with much more expertise and experience than me, too wish to promote it in their own inclusive, collegiate, enthusiastic way.

This is only the beginning, though. Not only do I believe that there is a wider audience to be reached by writing with my own, peculiar brand of passion – as do others – additionally, I hope that my experience can encourage and help others who may have also ‘lost the music’ in their lives (for whatever reason) to try and find a way back in for themselves. Without making light of it, my deafness now helps me appreciate music so much more. I therefore hope that I have also inherited my mum’s longevity

The Bard of Tysoe is a peculiar animal: often to be found limping around parts of Warwickshire at night – as well as in the daytime – he is said to be addicted to all things artistic; and can be found blogging about not quite all he encounters (it just feels that way) at http://tysoebard.blogspot.co.uk/.

What matters most to him are beauty, truth and fairness – in whatever myriad forms they occur. His favourite occupation is thinking.