If you identify as a musician you may (or may someday) remember that profound moment when you realized you were no longer playing one note after another in perfect time with perfect intonation. That moment – the gestalt – when you realized you were playing music.
There is something that happens that transcends my ability to put it in scientific language. I can’t decide whether it is something that passes into you or originates from within.
You see the bass clef, you see the “e” two lines above the highest of the five. You hear what it sounds like on the inside. You’re thumb graces the back of the cello neck and slides into position at its base – your arm, your elbow in a familiar place you’ve practiced so many times before. Your index finger meets the a-string, you apply a little pressure with your bow hand. You move, and your instrument begins to sing. The pressure trails off in your bow hand as you complete the down stroke. Your index finger begins to vibrate to add dimension and character and personality into the note. You can hear and feel the overtones resonate in the instrument through the soundpost and pass into your body through all points of contact – between your knees, against your heart, and through both of your hands. You remember when this shift was scary. You remember trying to figure out the sweet spot and learning how to unlock the upper register of the cello. You remember being afraid of the note and in turn it sounding airy, the lack of confidence obvious. But today you make her sing to you. All of these motor-neural pathways and memories get stronger as you hear that “e”, as you feel it.
You go through that experience with every note and soon every music phrase. Your hands and limbs and body start to feel different – more meaningful, more purposed. You may not be sitting with a cello but your body can act out playing a piece you’ve played, you can hear it in your mind – and it feels like dreaming.
When you hear someone play something new you’ve never heard, there’s a part of it that feels familiar. If you’re listening on your iPod, walking to the bus stop for example – you start to become more in tune. You feel a cool chill along the outsides of your arms and between you knees as your body remembers the experience of playing those notes. As the music continues, you feel warm between the ears – the anatomy in charge of passing along auditory information to the brain understands it’s more than just sound. You become fluid. Your muscles relax. You can be surrounded by busy sounds of the city but all you hear is music. You feel suspended in time.
It can sometimes make you feel like crying. Like bursting into tears. Everyday you live you take in new sensory information. You learn how to design, to do math, to change the world. The constant influx of new information does not affect the part of you that will always miss playing the cello. You feel an extreme sense of longing. The sum of all the things you miss suddenly get compounded and it hits you all at once as you continue to listen. All it takes is one note for you to recognize the sound and for your entire composure to crumble.
What non-musicians fail to understand is the emotional, mental, and physical investment that it is to learn music. It can be difficult to isolate the sorrow, the joy or avoid the submersion as you listen to the cello play.
You feel alive. You feel what it means to be a conscious being. You feel connected to all the musicians that have ever lived. Your breathing mimics the musical phrases. You peer at others on the subway as you sway in your trance and wonder if anyone knows what you’re going through.
Your life can be chaotic, but music will always restore a feeling of calmness. You could be abandoned by those that love you, and music will always bring back warmth. Music breathes meaning into our lives and it is what makes us feel whole – beyond possessions, good looks, and money, and success. Once you learn to play music, nothing will sound the same again.