Simon Reynell ‘Thoughts on Not Being a Musician’

There’s a note on the stairs:  “Things are not very good.  He refuses to eat because of diarrhoea – so juice, coffee, tea (in red canister).”  My mother’s gone to a rehearsal for an Easter performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and I’ve come back to the house where I grew up in Bradford to look after my father for the hours while she’s away.  He’s 93 and has been subject to debilitating infections for much of the past year.  He’s had trouble swallowing for some time, and from his bedroom upstairs I hear an ugly, phlegmy cough every minute or so as he tries to clear his windpipe.  His balance is poor, and several falls have left his skin marked with countless dark bruises which refuse to heal.  Intellectually he’s still pretty much there, and he listens every day to the news in French and German as well as English, but the constant ailments make him miserable and he’s ready to die.

In my late teenage years I hated him and we had furious futile arguments about politics.  But by the time I started to have children, we’d learned to step round our ideological differences.  He retired from his job as a cardiologist and mellowed, and I managed to control my Oedipal rages.  So for my children as they grew up he was a lovely granddad:  kind, supportive, non-judgmental and quietly loving.

[I’ve just been up to check on him, and he’s asleep now, curled up with only his wrinkled face and unruly grey hair poking out of the covers, looking wizened and horribly vulnerable]

My mother is still active, playing viola in several amateur orchestras and chamber groups.  For her 80th birthday a few weeks back 16 of her musical friends came and spent the day playing chamber music in various formations in four rooms round the house.  When I was young she was ‘just’ a housewife, but my father’s sister – who was an inspirational music teacher – encouraged her to take up music again, and it became first a passionate hobby, then a means of earning an independent income as she started teaching violin and piano at a local school.

Culture and academic achievement were the two most highly valued things in my parents’ house, and classical music was the constant soundtrack as we grew up – Radio 3 in the kitchen, and records on the gramophone in the living room.  And there was always a piano in the corner – first an upright, then later a rather beautiful baby grand.  Yet neither I nor my two brothers ever learned to play.  My father’s belief was that if we really wanted to do something, we’d do it anyway.  I’m sure that if we’d asked for lessons, he’d have happily paid for them, but none of us ever did, even though as teenagers we spent most of our pocket money on LPs and listened to music hard and seriously.  I often say that not learning to play the piano is the biggest regret of my life, but I still struggle to understand why I didn’t.

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When my father had a stroke about 10 years ago, he knew exactly what was happening as he fell to the floor and started vomiting, but he didn’t know if he’d recover, be paralysed or die.  In fact he regained virtually all his mobility remarkably quickly.  My mother rang me and my brothers to inform us ten days later, when he was out of hospital and it was clear he was going to be alright.  For ten days she hadn’t rung because she didn’t want to worry us and make a song and dance about something that might turn out to be nothing.

She’s a musician, but she doesn’t like to “make a song and dance”.  I don’t know if it’s just our family, or typical of a subsection of the middle class of my parents’ generation, or a feature of social life in a northern industrial city where Methodist attitudes linger even amongst non-believers, but you don’t want to make a fuss or risk looking stupid by over-dramatising things.  You get on with life, which usually involves serving other people’s needs whether as doctor, teacher or musician.  And you instinctively distrust people who are ‘showy’ or have pretensions.

My mother plays music every day, but she hasn’t ever composed anything.  She’s content to play other people’s compositions, organise concerts and write programme notes about the works of great composers.  Creativity is for other people – a privileged few who you revere, but without being foolish enough to imagine that you might ever become one of them.  They exist somewhere else – London perhaps, Paris or Berlin or Vienna, but not Bradford.  And they live another kind of existence: riskier, more precarious, and more prone to tragedy.  It’s a post-Romantic vision that I can critique intellectually, but is actually quite hard to shake off.  I am after all my parents’ child; I run a CD label, recording and producing discs of “improvised and cutting edge contemporary music”, but I leave the creativity to others, not wanting to make a song and dance – or a fool of – myself.

Singing and dancing:  I pretty much stopped singing at the age of 12 when I decided I was an atheist.  Thereafter I stood through the hymns at school assembly with my mouth firmly and defiantly shut.  After my voice broke, I found that I could no longer hit the right note, so I stopped singing altogether for fear of sounding stupid.  And dancing….well, I sometimes wonder if part of the reason I embraced avant garde music so fervently in my late teens was so that I wouldn’t have to go to discos and either be a wallflower hanging round the edges, or else embarrass myself with my ungainly arrhythmic stumbling on the dance floor.

For decades I’ve told myself that I’ve left starting too late.  How can I envisage playing the piano without having already done years of practice?  My hands will never be supple enough.  In my Methodist-infused consciousness, music – like everything else worthwhile – should be the product of hard work and studied application.  And the fact that I like atonal music shouldn’t exempt me from many hours of practising scales.

But with some of the music I love, instrumental virtuosity is no longer important, let alone essential.  Anyone can make interesting sounds with digital electronics.  Then it becomes even more terrifying, because there’s no longer an excuse to hide behind.  What’s to stop me composing a great piece of electronic music except my own mediocrity?  I fear that I’ll be found out and just confirm that I’m not creative at all, for all my secret hopes and pretensions.  Self-consciousness and timidity are mixed with sharp self-criticism; I was a high achiever academically, so I can quickly pick holes in and dismiss any creative project that I tentatively try my hand at.

[He’s woken and has stumbled to the toilet.  Incontinence would be the ultimate humiliation for a man who’s always been proudly independent, and would, I’m sure, prompt him to take the pills that would end it while my mother’s away playing music.  That’s why she wants me here, so I can refill his glass of grapefruit juice, and keep him listening to the radio and the ticking of his bedside clock until she’s back to continue the vigil]

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So am I stuck?  Condemned to endlessly serve other people’s creativity instead of exploring my own?  It’s all too easy to blame my parents for the way they brought me up.  And it’s also too easy to chastise myself in a pattern of self-criticism that does nothing to break the circle.

My father’s dying is inevitably a time for self-reflection, and perhaps that’s the jolt I need to start doing as well as serving.  I’m already 55 and the clock keeps ticking.  I’m sure that at first my voice will warble embarrassingly, and my early steps will be gauche and clumsy, but perhaps it’s time at last to risk making a song and dance.


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