My Tryst With Music

Kenneth Pereira sdb

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night begins with the immortal words: “If music be the food of love, play on!” Well, whatever music may mean to lovers, my tryst with music inclines me to regard it more as the food of discipline and soulfulness.

One of the things that I noticed early in my childhood is that some people have music in their blood while others simply don’t. And I would discover, by and by, that with music go a whole cluster of other virtues such as gracefulness, rhythm, feeling, expressivity, perseverance and discipline. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there is an intrinsic connection between these virtues and musicality. But I cannot help noticing that musically gifted people also evince these virtues in a remarkable measure.

During my primary school days, the ‘singing class’ was an inalienable part of our school timetable. It was here that I discovered—to my puzzlement—that there were companions in my class who were tonally insensitive. If our music teacher asked them to sing ‘higher’, the only outcome was a ‘louder’ version of the same melody, lustily rendered in falsetto. I guess they wouldn’t be able to appreciate the difference between C sharp and B flat beyond the one liner: “If there’s a banana peel on the road and you don’t C sharp you will soon B flat!”

My parents were never professionally into music. But yes, they did possess an innate musical sensibility. They combined beautifully whenever they sang duets at parties and get-togethers. Well, when I was about eight or nine years old, they must have realised that I was musically inclined, and so decided to give me the opportunity that they had missed in their childhood: to hone my musical talent by learning to play a musical instrument. So one day, when they asked me which instrument I would like to learn, my first choice was the piano! (Our ‘singing class’ teacher played it so well!) Alas, our home was too pokey to accommo­date a piano—electronic keyboards were unheard of in those days. So I settled for the violin. It was my second choice then, but has become my first love today. My younger siblings were more into sports, and so never pursued music with the same rigor as I did; nevertheless, they too proved to be naturally talented in music, and always carried away prizes at singing competitions.

Mastering the violin was one of the most formidable experiences of my life... and even now, I cannot say that I’ve really ‘mastered’ it. In my earlier years of violin study, I had to bear up with a lot of disparaging remarks from friends and family. Some of them told me that my violin sounded like a cat in agony. Others found the piercing notes of the violin downright irritating. But encouragement also came from a few quarters. They told me that the violin is the king of all musical instruments, and that if I could master it, then I too would be a king of sorts. But it was only when I was exposed to good violin music (on LPs and cassettes) that I realised what I was up to. The music of Paganini and Sarasate, outstanding in brilliance and pyrotechnics, beckoned me to invest my time and my energies in a ‘labour of love’ that I too might be able to achieve such artistry.

Looking back at all those years, I realise on hindsight that my romance with the violin has disciplined me more than any external authority could ever have done. Every musician knows how important it is to have precision in intonation, economy in one’s choice of notes, and accuracy in keeping timing. Cutting corners alla buona is simply unthinkable. No wonder so many musicians are accused of being (tyrannical) perfectionists!

While ‘cold blooded’ perfectionism seems to be a recurrent trait among many musicians, mercifully—and ironically—there is also the other side of the coin: soulfulness. Good music is more than a matter of technique; it is an art. It calls for a good measure of ‘emotional’ intelligence. While on the one hand my favourite violinists have ‘wowed’ me by their virtuosity, I also notice that these same musicians have been able to stir the depths of my soul by the emotions that they evoke through their rendition of other pieces. As a violinist myself, I can candidly say that music has helped me experience a wide gamut of emotions, for one cannot possibly put forth on the violin what one does not feel deep within his heart. Perhaps no other musical instrument can touch the human heart as profoundly as does the violin. I think I owe it to my training in music that I have become such an emotionally sensitive person!

There’s another side to music that I discovered when I became a Salesian: its tremendous potentiality to generate goodwill and friendship. Perhaps this is what Don Bosco had in mind when he said that a Salesian house without music is like a body without a soul! Have you noticed how a stiff and formal atmosphere loosens up when people begin to sing? And the moment a familiar ‘filmy’ tune is struck on an instrument, the youngsters there present go gaga over it, and are all eager to make friends with the player!

Speaking for myself, I can confidently say that music has been my lifeline among alien people. The first time I went to Gujarat in 1982, I did not know a word of Gujarati, but I had carried my violin along... and the moment I started playing it, I knew that I had won the hearts of the people who had gathered around, with curiosity and expectancy, to hear me. With the ice having broken already at that point, moving deeper into Gujarati culture was not as daunting as it first seemed. I had a similar experience the first time I went to Italy to do my theological studies as a cleric.

On a more organised level, music has a tremendous pedagogical value. Salesians who have put up musicals and operettas would surely vouch that they were able to galvanize both staff and students to a collaborative effort, involving multiple skills: dance, drama and music. But why think of operettas only? Even putting up a good choral piece in four voices can be just as exhilarating an experience!

In this regard, Don Bosco is seen to be a man of deep wisdom and insight. He encouraged the setting up of a musical band in every Salesian house. The idea was not simply to lighten the atmosphere with music—a gramophone player would have sufficed for that! Don Bosco realised that music educates! Firstly, it gives youngsters a medium in which to channelize their energies and their creativity in a healthy manner. Secondly it inculcates discipline. Playing in a band or in an orchestra demands teamwork, sensitivity to others, and focused attention on the conductor, even as one plays from his own score. At times it demands the ability to play a merely supportive role with ‘oompahs’ all through, while someone else shines, playing the lead melody.

How sad it is to find that in many of our houses the band has fallen silent, and band instruments have been either sold off or given away. Five-piece beat groups may be able to rival a band in sound output, but they can never achieve the pedagogical fruits of a full-fledged wind and percussion band. I yearn for the day when participatory music evinces a revival in our Salesian houses, when Salsians will be eager to invest their time, their talents and their energies in training youngsters to sing and make music. Would that we experienced at gut level the profound truth in this prayer-song sung by ‘ABBA’ in yesteryears:

Thank You for the music, the songs I’m singing. Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing! Who can live without it? I ask in honesty, what would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we? So I say, “Thank You for the music... for giving it to me!”

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