Thursday, October 28, 2021

Robyn Sarah's music, late and soon

It is a luxury to read a memoir about music written by an excellent writer who happens to have spent the greater part of her life as a musician. There are musicians who can write well, but they often don't have the discipline (gained from experience) to write as clearly, cleanly, and lyrically as they would like to. That takes an additional lifetime of work, one that Robyn Sarah has managed to sandwich between her lives as a student musician and as an adult returning to serious study.

Robyn Sarah is a Canadian writer. She has won multiple awards for her poetry, has published collections of essays about poetry, published collections of short stories, and has served as a university professor and as an editor.

Sarah began her musical life in Montreal with piano lessons, and from the age of eleven to seventeen she had the great good fortune of studying with Philip Cohen, a teacher who intuitively understood Robyn's musical needs as well as her particuar method of thinking and learning. She briefly returned to lessons with Phil in early adulthood, but for logistical reasons didn't continue.

The memoir bounces back and forth in time, so I will freely do the same when writing about it (though with far less elegance).

Concurrent with her piano studies, Robyn begins playing clarinet in her school band. Energized by the musical life she finds playing with others, she becomes a good enough player to attend the Conservatory in Montreal, where she finds an excellent teacher, and plays well enough to be principal clarinetist in the orchestra. She falls deeply in love with music, but studies philosophy at the University. She also decides against a musical career path, and pursues a career as a writer.

Sarah only spends a few paragraphs in the memoir writing about her thirty-five-year life away from music. Her path back to music is unusually abrupt: she is asked to play clarinet at an event she is attending as a poet, and has very little time to get in any kind of playing shape. It is this event that gives her the idea to return to serious piano study, with the intention of preparing a recital for her sixtieth birthday, and writing about the proceess. A few years pass, and then she calls up her old teacher.

I love the first sentences of the memoir:
During one of her lessons as a returning student, Phil Cohen matter-of-factly makes a comment about synesthesia that resonates with Robyn. Another comment about learning backwards makes her realize that backwards learning has played a great part in her life as a writer as well as her life as a musician.

After reading her descriptions of sensory experiences, I can relate to the "kind" of synesthesia her teacher noticed. My multi-sensory experiences do not correspond to the "normal" definitions of synesthesia. I certainly appreciate colors, but I do not equate them with numbers, letters, or pitches. My pitch memory, like Robyn's, is poor and fleeting, but, since returning to string playing in my thirties, and practicing deliberately for thirty years, I have built up a true kinetic association with what I hear, and what I want to hear. I find that I can physically realize the motion involved in an upcoming phrase of music while I am playing material that comes a few notes (or even measures) earlier. It is like being in two places at once: experiencing where I am, and knowing exactly where I am going.

I have always taught my students that musicians develop eyes that hear and ears that see, but I believe sensory swapping is far more complicated that that. There is probably an inborn component to color and number, letter, or pitch synesthesia, but I have found that other kinds of sensory swapping can be developed. Mine involves the senses of touch (in the present and the future), an inner sense of smell and even one of taste or flavor. When writing musical phrases I experience a sort of physicality of the mind, and it is natural for me to "hear" what it feels like to play a phrase on a given instrument. I think that this is the kind of sense integration that Phil Cohen was talking about when he mentioned synesthesia. I also think that the reason he taught Robyn Sarah the way he did is that he knew that she could intellectually and physically understand what he was teaching her.

The center (the core, the heart) of the memoir is the teaching personality of the sometimes enigmatic and always imaginative Phil Cohen. There are other teachers mentioned in the memoir. Some of them are formal teachers (including former students of Phil), some are friends who offer wisdom, and some have excellent pianos that she plays on (her childhood upright piano is the only instrument she owns). It is what Phil has to say about music and musical life that really resonates with me as both a practicing musician and as a teacher.

The title of the memoir might actually be a reflection on a "refrain" that Phil always comes back to.
Try to play in such a way as to put the future always in your hands.

The future creates the present. The future causes the present. Know where you're going--know where the music is going. Music is movement.

Robyn Sarah's young adventures with music present a 1960s Montreal rich with the latest in youth culture, where she and her circle of intellectual and musical friends were interested in harpsichord kits (she helped build a harpsichord), classical guitar, listening to the latest new discoveries in old music, and enjoying the best in 1960s pop music. With her return to piano study, we also get to see a twenty-first-century Montreal, where Robyn finds restaurants and other venues (including an adult care facility) with nice pianos to practice on. She spends a lot of her time going from one piano venue to the next, and gaining performance experience in exchange for dinner.

I wonder how many of the restaurant diners she played for might have read her work, and had no idea who it was playing Chopin for them.

We also get to spend two weeks with Robyn at an intensive piano camp, where she gets a taste of just how difficult is to maintain a love of music while, even though it is supposed to be a non-competitive experience, competing with pianists young enough to be her grandchildren.

I love this book because I am a discerning reader, a practicing musician, and a teacher. I also love it because I approach the creative work of writing music much like the way Robyn Sarah approaches her creative work as a poet. I recommend this book to anyone who participates in the "dance" of music as a student (particularly as an adult student), as a teacher, as an listener, or as a practicioner, professional or otherwise, who no longer has the luxury of studying with a teacher. And I would also recommend it to anyone who appreciates excellent writing, and to anyone interested in the mystery of the creative process. It is available from Biblioasis, amazon, and other places you buy books.

UPDATE: The book is now available as an audiobook (read by Robyn Sarah), and is available through this link.

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