Tomorrow is the 5th of September. This marks exactly one year after I walked out of the house that Saturday morning with about 400 cedis saved over the previous months to meet my colleague from the university, Jonathan, in the middle of Accra.
I had gone to get myself a violin.
This came just over a week after I was first made to handle the instrument at the Music Department (not School) at the School of Performing Arts (I think), at the University of Ghana. It was to satisfy my curiosity and serve as a mitigating reality check - a test of the waters, if you will - to help me decide if this was the path to take. As you may have realised from my previous post on this, my past musical failures were present on my mind, and in this climate of doubt and past regret, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t beginning another wild chase after a dream I was going to half-arse and then abandon.
I messed around with the violin for about an hour, and regretted it the next day. Probably a week after, I had another experience with one at the same Music Department (at around the same time of day too, it seems) where I was quickly schooled on what to look out for in a violin before buying one. The next weekend, sometime after 2pm, I was back at home from Zongo Lane with a black hard case in a large black rubber bag, cheap student’s outfit and music stand inside.
That afternoon, after reviewing a few YouTube videos, I put together and tuned the instrument, and made my first scratching sound. I did a tremolo, or something like it, because at that level, that was the only decent sound I could produce. Previously I had fantasized playing a scale. This time I tried it. It turned out badly. I played the first few notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It didn’t sound awful.
Right now I am sitting at the same place I sat when I assembled, tuned and first bowed the strings of my new instrument. My back is bent forward in a frightening hunch. My lower right back, below my shoulder blade, is hot with ointment. My dad is splayed on the seat in front of me, minding his phone. He has just returned from giving me my second massage of the day.
The violin is in its open case in the loveseat beside me, like a corpse lying in state, soon to be fondly remembered and, perhaps permanently out of sight? My neck isn’t as tense and hurting as it was last night, which is as good as it is probably going to get. This afternoon, I learned to hold the violin. Set the back against your neck, and if there is space between the back of the instrument and your collarbone, you probably need some padding. Lean it slightly forward, and rest your jaw on the inappropriately named chin rest, and let it sort of just hang there, NOT supported by your left hand. Now let your thumb, while pointing outward so as not to strangle the neck, lie about an inch away from the nut, and let the third joint of your first finger lie against that, so you can hit F-natural anytime.
Thankfully, the last time I touched the instrument (a few hours ago) I didn’t sound like I was skinning a cat. That is as good as it is. Right now, my overarching worry is the disappointment tomorrow evening when my band meets and has to make sure I get my intonation right before we can record our session. I’m looking forward to it though, because I learned a new trick late this evening: finger A-flat with the pinky.
Tomorrow marks exactly twelve months since I acted on my decision to learn to play the violin - my first instrument. That morning when I woke up, I was at the height of my can-do spirit. I was very much the master of my fate. It is a spirit I catch after a prolonged rut has outlived its morbid pleasantness and I feel I must be more than my circumstances dictate. At the time I decided to learn and master this little instrument, I was in a prolonged stint in a deep dark place that had been brewing for more than a year before.
It was like a storm that was gathering above my head while I idled, ignoring all the signs. And when it broke - and it was devastating - it did not end as suddenly. No, the turmoil lasted nearly a year. And although there were some ups, there were as many downs, if not more.
I did not realise it then, but taking up the reigns where I had left them some ten years prior, dragging them out of the filth, then on my back, and plodding out of the mire was a therapeutic action I am now thankful for. I remember rising up from my wallowing and leaning on what life had surrounded me with - incompetent friends who were latent resources, the unconcerned and the condescending - and using them to my advantage.
My vague dream of learning to play the violin crystallized the moment I realised I really wanted to try this thing out - and I had all I needed to do it. I had a friend at the Music Department who doubtless would lead me to a violinist friend of his (my assumption was right) who will prime me on the instrument, act as a mentor and possibly, a teacher. For free.
I got the priming as I had imagined. Mentorship was not to be, because this kind fellow was not in the mood for taking students. He didn’t even like the violin as much as I did. And after day one, he stopped replying my WhatsApp messages.
But he led me to another, more enthusiastic violinist, who was less enthusiastic about me the minute he found out I was not a girl, and proved to be so condescending towards me I frankly am glad we’re not friends, as I had hoped we will be.
But I got from them what I wanted, because as the torch-bearer in my cave it was I who used, and was not used. It was I who decided what passed and what didn’t. And where I didn’t see usefulness, I discarded, only after exploiting as much as I could.
This in-chargeness that seized me and caused me to do something as ridiculous as buying and teaching myself to play has been eroded to almost nothing by that little devil of an instrument. Tonight, as I sit there typing this, I feel more powerless than I have in a long time.
Let me be honest; I have made no impressive progress. Sure, I can play the melody of Handel’s Tamburino from Alcina. I can play a good deal of Pachelbel’s Canon as a relaxed tempo. I’ve stopped learning hymns because they were too easy. My repertoire is humble, but quite handsome for someone who took five years to learn the fundamentals of 4-part harmony. But the mediocrity of my musicianship is evident the moment I decide to “perform”, even if it is for a recording during practice.
My first rehearsal with the band was abysmal. My second, much much better. And though the band leader was excited about my progress, I was suffocating because I had displayed the ceiling of my talent as a performer, and there was little breathing room at the top.
What’s more, the effects are now showing up on my body. Remember, my dad is now giving me massages. And after only a few minutes of practice, my back begins to ache, just below the right shoulder blade. My bad habit of coiling my left pinky makes a few passages that don’t require it extremely painful to play.
I might need to see a doctor to assess the damage I am doing to my spine, and, though I hate to admit it at this point: I might need a teacher afterall.
Perhaps, this endeavour has been a failure. It certainly looks like it right now. When I started, I couldn’t sit still at work because I was dying to get home and practice: play out some tune, try some technique I saw on YouTube, or just hold it against my neck and say Yes, I am achieving something new.
These days, I see only a cloud of confusion when I think about the violin. Beyond that cloud, in a sort of Elysium for those who have passed through the trials, stand the nameless great musicians who bow and pluck and emote the many great violin parts we know and love. Within the cloud is the great confusion of mystery, the many questions, doubts, the sweat and the pain, the distance that must be covered. And just before the cloud stand me, instrument tucked beneath my arm at my side, like a pretender with a wooden sword facing the fog of a raging battle.
It is too overwhelming to contemplate. These days I see excuses: reasons to not continue this path. I have many reasons to put an end to this misery. My favourite is this: I am not a performer. It is my favourite because, in there lies a truth I have long admitted to myself, under somewhat different circumstances.
My earliest active musical memories come from one afternoon in Class 2, 1998. Or it may have been Class 1, 1997. I had devised a convenient way of notating music, one I could easily understand, which freed me from learning standard notation because that was too complex for me at the time. This was based on the solfege, with superscripts for time and a subscript for something else I thought important to indicate.
It allowed me to write down simple melodic ideas (why else would I do this) and remember them. Of course all evidence of that is missing, and when I revisited music again in 2005, I again used some bastardized version of the solfege to write down my musical ideas. In 2005, I was teaching myself to hit keys on the keyboard. Although for those brief moments, I was happy to play out tunes I had heard from Achimota School (you Methodists are lucky bastards, you all!) I was more interested in writing down my own ideas. Hymns, anthems and would you believe it, a Christmas cantata!
Since the earliest, my response to music has never been “how can I play that?” It’s been “how can I create something like that?”
I have never been a performer. I was always a composer. It is why I am less of a reader and more of a writer. It is why I have a weakness for performance poetry. I wasn’t made for the stage. I was made for the sheet of paper. I do not excel when I am in conversation with a present audience. I shine when I am in conversation with myself.
My path as a composer began in 2005. It was when I entered Achimota School and came to know music, after previous experiences listening to Mozart from my dad’s collection, and then delving into my sister’s then large collection of so-called classical music.
When I was in Achimota, I confused learning to compose with training to perform. I auditioned for a place in the Aggrey Memorial Chapel Choir. Before, during and after that time, I was a chapel worker, so I spent a lot of time with the choir and musicians, and was as close to music as I had ever been.
The night of my audition is one I have gladly forgotten. Despite knowing myself, and what a full stomach does to my voice, I indulged in the moment. Then came the moment with the rest of the choir sitting in front of us, and we lesser boys and girls arrayed in the pews below them.
I don’t remember what song we were meant to sing, but I remember messing it up just once, and not even giving myself a second chance. All the preparation and enthusiasm I had, all those books on music appreciation, all the times I sang in the bathhouse to the annoyance of everyone else, was wasted on a full stomach and a bad moment. I left, livid and disgraced, especially after seeing one other guy from my house make it, squealing, piggish voice and all.
I still regret not joining such an illustrious choir. But I made up for it (sort of) when I finally got into Pax Choir KNUST, after my sister had left her mark on that ensemble. At that time, in 2009, my intentions were much clearer to me than they were before. I joined the choir knowing I didn’t want to perform with them; that my interest lay in being close enough to music to “get it” and so, be better able to compose.
This was the reason why I was much more present for rehearsals than I was for our choir ministrations. My choirmaster even noticed this. It was one of the the reasons I wasn’t compelled to learn the local language songs (language barrier being one) because the actual music mattered more than what the people were saying.
I may have lost sight of my intentions after a year with the choir, but subconsciously, things were ticking, and plans were falling in place. I learned to read solfege and staff notation on my own by being around it so often.
It wasn’t until my third year, after hearing a composition by one of our choristers (my part leader) that I remembered why I was sitting there in the first place. That night (or the night after) I put my first notes on Finale Notepad.
Fives years later, and this happened about two weeks ago, I completed my third Latin mass. Titled the New Latin Mass, this work marked the moment when I finally “got” 4-part harmony, and could efficiently translate inspiration into sheet music for people to read, listen and appreciate. It will also be the last short Latin Mass I write in a while, because I mean to move on to more ambitious work now that Chorale style music is quite comfortably under my belt.
My inclination for composition cannot be underestimated. It is just one manifestation of a deeper longing to create permanence: that fundamental drive in almost everything I have dabbled in. Performance doesn’t do it for me. It is comparable to giving a decent speech. You only get to do it once. Then you have to give another one, and then another, and several more.
I would rather write an essay.
My response to music, the urge to create new music, or to understand and critique, is far greater than my response to partake in the active process of making music for a present audience: for performance. It is a valid excuse for not doing well at the violin today: I was never a performer.
You and I know this is nonsense.
The man I directly quote is my hero Hans Zimmer. He is a composer, we all know that. He insists he is not a performer too. But have you seen him in a studio, playing out his music on various instruments? You see, when he says “performer”, he means Vengerov, and Hahn and Perlman. They are the performers. They are the ones people pay to see play. They are the virtuosos. Hans is not a performer. He is a composer. He is the one Hahn and Perlman and Vengerov will play, and not the other way round.
Of course, I’ve never asked Hans about this, but this interpretation makes sense. And it is rather useful because it allows me to calibrate my ambitions and put several weighty matters in their right perspective.
I am a composer and a critic first, then I am a performer. I have a vision of what music should be like (right now it is limited to the music of the Catholic Church in Ghana, but this suffices) and by achieving it with my sacred works, I am a composer. I have strong, educated opinions about music, and by voicing them, I am a critic. At the tail end, I should be able to bang out a decent tune on an instrument, primarily to aid my composition, and to please my friends. That is when I am a performer.
If this looks like me shifting the goalposts to accommodate my mediocre musicianship, let me point out that it is not. Because I am hardly the performer I should be to be able to bang out a decent tune on an instrument and please my friends. Give me three more years and we’ll revisit this subject.
At this point I cannot play for fun. Playing is work, and that must be overcome. I cannot improvise comfortably on my violin, nor can I do same on a keyboard. Worse, I cannot comfortably compose on any instrument, which is a shame for someone who has a vision to achieve for music in his lifetime. You see, rather than reduce my goals to accommodate my present level, I am recalibrating them to put them in their right perspective.
To achieve something, I must know when I have achieved it. That is the importance of clarifying my musical goals to myself, after being honest about where I am and where I want to go.
Which brings me to a salient point, one of a few I hope to have put across. It’s been said more memorably, but I am sure this is by far more relatable: know thyself.
One year of teaching myself the violin has made this apparent. One must know oneself thoroughly. The above example of me clarifying my goals is a good case in point. More practically, coming to terms with an instrument so personal no one remote YouTube teacher will give you the best advice has hammered home this point more strongly than I previously imagined.
I have gone through stress trying to hold the instrument properly. It is only in recent weeks that I’ve “gotten” it, that I have a way of holding this specific violin against my very specific neck in the most comfortable way (never mind my breaking back, that’s just bad habit catching up) so I can play freely. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t come to terms with the fact that there’s no one perfect way of actually holding the violin: it largely depends on your anatomy and your instrument. And not knowing any one of them well will be a personal tragedy.
Another thing teaching myself such a classic instrument has taught me is this: nothing worthwhile is trivial. Anything that is trivial, might not be worthwhile. Of course, this is a generalization that must be taken with care, but I have found that in all the endeavours I’ve dabbled in, one thing remains true: there is a huge cesspool filled with the corpses of the mediocre that have gone on to be forgotten. Above that, on varying levels, are the statues of those who have gone beyond the ordinary.
I am not joking. The mightiest few stand at the zenith, sometimes right in the sun, hard to look at from the bottom. But at the bottom, there is where you’ll find the many mediocre. And there is a lot of company and camaraderie down there. All the many compliments I have heard come from there: from well meaning people, and even from myself. Especially from myself.
The easy stage. Level zero. Call it what you will: masses flock there, and spend time there, and if you have eyes for the extraordinary, you can find yourself mired in the throng anyway, because it is comfortable.
And continuing from there is hard. Very hard. It is wading through that cloud I talked about earlier - the one I now see before me anytime I pick up the violin these days. But you cannot get to Elysium without dying. To gain your life, you must lose it.
Difficulty is the real trade of the artist. Pain and hardship and dying. That stereotype of the Romantic, lonely dishevelled artist has a kernel of truth in it: has the actual kernel of truth in it, because the artist knows within himself that deep in the pit of his spirit is a lonely, quaking foetus enduring torment, whose only end is dying, whose only end is the glory they are desperately looking for.
I strongly believe this is the case, even in the most flamboyant people, even in those who have it all figured out. They don’t. Deep inside, they are Beethoven going deaf, and railing against a world that hurts them.
What keeps them at it though, must be the same thing that keeps our so-called great and famous men at it, through the pain that precedes achievement. In spite of that pain. I will share one last thing that has become clear to me very recently. To fail is to succumb.
The whole point of living: truly living, even in the microcosm of musical achievement, or any other worthwhile preoccupation, is refusing to succumb. It is striving in spite of. That spirit we all sometimes fall into: the one that tells us we are masters of our own fate and so act as such, is the point of humanity. To sit and accept what has become of you is to fail.
To dream above your circumstances, to rise up, and work towards them, even if the ultimate end is failing to achieve that dream, tells the story of humanity. It is amazing that such finite creatures can dream of infinite things. Why dream, if there is no hope of realising the dream?
One popular video online puts the beginners dissatisfaction in such a framework: that the artist, in beginning his journey, already has a more glorious end in mind which his present skill cannot achieve. And this gulf is what drives him mad and spurs him on to progress until what is in his mind is what is in his hands.
But even as I say this, a shadow at the corner of my mind whispers a silent admonition, that I am betraying a gnawing Luciferian fantasy, the zeitgeist of today’s godless years. What are we, if not Children of God, who are nothing unless he wishes us to be? What is overcoming, if not another attempt at sitting on the throne of God, that numinous power which we mostly fail to understand, which surely defines our fate, no matter what opinions we hold on the matter; in spite of us?
It worries me that I have come to such a conclusion again, because it stands strongly against another sentiment I am harbouring: one that admits human weakness and futility in a manner that will make Tolkien remove his pipe from his mouth. It is a hazy subject I am yet to explore fully, but this last point brings it to the fore, and perhaps, I will settle the matter one day.
I am out of lessons. A deja vu tells me that tonight has been a good exercise. I will share this as soon as I can, but I need some sleep. I am contemplating skipping practice tomorrow evening. I could call in sick, because I must protect my back from further damage. It is an easy excuse.
Didn’t I say this was going to be hard?