Soul Music

We all have parts of our characters – beyond our work-face – that we feel are important to us. Be it that we like poetry, going for walks or collecting teaspoons, we feel this hobby or habit in part defines us. How much so, what the balance is between personal and professional, is likely to shift during life, not least because there may be periods when the personal gets squeezed out by other aspects of work-life balance. Children or elder-care for instance may mean any ‘me time’ vanishes from the week for far too long at a time. But, whether one is actively engaged or not, I think these characteristics remain deeply embedded and don’t lose their importance because they are not being currently exercised.

For me, the part of my character I would so identify would be (classical) music. As a teenager, this not only gave me immense satisfaction as I sang or played (viola) my way through classical music large and small, with groups better or worse, but it provided me with a community beyond the immediate circle of contemporaries with whom I sat through lessons. It was my creative outlet (whilst art and poetry meant not a great deal). It was my stimulus and my absorbing out-of-hours activity. It wasn’t that I was particularly good, but as a viola player I was much in demand and got to play with people far better than I could ever aspire to be.

Music has remained important to me, although my days of active participation ceased with the birth of my children. Life simply became too crammed full for regular attendance at any choir or orchestra and, by the time my children were off my hands, my hands – or more strictly my wrist – were not strong enough to take up the reins of practice. A bout of RSI exacerbated the problems with my wrist I had suffered as a teenager (my hand was really not large enough to cope with playing scales in octaves on a viola, as demanded by the higher Grade exams, and I repeatedly was dislocating my wrist in my attempt to do so); it meant there was no way back for me when time might have permitted me to try again. My voice likewise had crumbled from lack of exercise and, apart from once-a-year College carol-singing, I don’t feel it is wise to attempt anything in public.

But music continues to define me in a certain way and I remain attached to listening to Radio 3 whilst dealing with email or writing a blogpost. I was delighted to be asked to participate both in Desert Island Discs * and subsequently the more classically-serious Private Passions and Essential Classics (no longer available). My write-up of my experience of the last of these indicates why I feel for a scientist to do such activities has immense value in reaching out to the (unsuspecting) public: science is not usually associated with such programmes unlike, say, In Our Time let alone The Life Scientific, so it provides a means to speak directly to those who might not choose to listen to a scientist otherwise.

However, in my private life I do continue to find music a solace when low and a good background to my work at home. So I was interested to read recently that listening to music is not necessarily conducive to better concentration and perhaps should, at certain times and for certain types of task, be avoided. Reading this article made me realise I am careful in what (almost invariably classical) music I choose for my background listening: not opera or Lieder and, if Radio 3 switches to a discussion or an interval talk I immediately turn it off. In other words lyrics and the spoken word definitely do not work for me, because I find myself listening to the sentences line by line, not just swimming in the warm bath of sound that a rousing symphony or melodious string quartet might provide. (It is equally true I would not choose to listen to 12 tone music or something in a modern idiom that jars on my ears.)

Perhaps this means I am committing the cardinal sin – as my slightly-professionally-trained mother would have had it – of treating music as wallpaper. Not listening at all, but simply wanting background distraction. I don’t agree. If I am concentrating hard – perhaps on some fiendish spreadsheet – it is true I simply won’t ‘hear’ the music and can be surprised when the applause bursts in at the end of a symphony when the last thing I’d noticed was the applause for the conductor at the start. But in general I believe I can switch in and out and, while pausing to concoct a particularly nuanced sentence in an email or finding some choice phrase of irritation when addressing a fellow committee member, the musical sonority soothes the savage beast of my composition and enables a fluency in my writing sitting in tense silence cannot always achieve.

Everyone has to find their own medium. My choice in music will be no one else’s. What brings tears to my eyes when feeling low is perhaps more universal (the familiar duet from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers I suspect is a common tear-jerker; Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans set by Vaughan Williams in his Dona Nobis Pacem probably less so) but I undoubtedly make different choices for different tasks and according to my state of mind. Certain selections are down to music I performed in my youth and which have their own accompanying memories (such as the irregular rhythms of Holst’s Perfect Fool); others I came to much more recently including Granados’ piano music and the whole idiom of Tango, which probably was sparked as much by the early days of Strictly Come Dancing as anything else.

Music has been part of my past and I hope my future. In my earliest years I would listen to my grandmother playing Chopin Mazurkas on a piano given, I believe, to her as a wedding present by my grandfather one hundred years ago this year. My mother learned on this piano, as did I (in as far as I learned piano at all). It came to Cambridge when I bought a house here and my daughter learned on it too. It gives me immense pleasure to think that it has now moved to my daughter’s house where I hope in time my granddaughter will also learn on it: five generations of women making the most of this wonderful instrument.

But now that active music-making is long since past, the passive pleasure I derive remains. The college’s music life enables me to get to regular concerts of an impressive standar; the radio, CD and iPlayer provide me with whatever I want essentially whenever I want it. For writing blogposts, emails or committee papers, music helps me get on.

*The website still unfortunately claims my luxury is a bat – a sadly misleading typo for my actual choice of a bath.

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