Music is terrible and it will ruin you

Like most of us, the second I wake up in the morning, I reorient to who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing here as my mind charges into a stream of problem-solving, anxiety-based strategizing, and hope-infused planning. Such is the human condition. But music, the wise ones say, offers a spiritual break from all that noise. The thinking goes that musical flow not only offers respite from the nagging narratives of daily consciousness, but a portal into the ineffable. In the words of jazz piano guru Kenny Werner, music has a spiritual purpose, and it is here on the planet to help “release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” Countless books proclaim that we can develop mastery over not only an instrument, but also life itself, through music. But while all of this sounds beautiful, music-making actually requires a lot of concentrated, and even chaotic, mental activity; if anything, it might cause more “monkey mind” than cure it. After much consideration, I have come to wonder if the gurus are lying. Maybe music is in fact terrible for our mental health.

After years of holding the expectation over my practice that it be continually epiphanic, or at least, always deeply meaningful, I have come to wonder if the notion that music be relaxing and transcendent may actually cause more harm than good. Or if nothing else it may add a mental layer rather than burning one away.

If music is supposed to be transcendent, then any musical activity that wades into the pedestrian territory of ego-driven competition or mistakes or anxious rumination becomes “lesser.” And now we are a lowly tool of our lizard brain, our musical fumbling mere evidence we are straying from our evolution as enlightened beings. Down that cold road, the idea of music as spiritual transcendence becomes only a tool of judgment. Our artistic practice only another reason to flog ourselves. And I don’t think that’s what musical practice or spiritual practice wants from us.

Is music really a type of meditation?

A quote from Kenny Werner, who does not believe that music is terrible.

So let’s look more closely at this idea that “music is meditation.”

Basically, the ancient gurus and the modern neuroscientists all agree that our brains work better if we train them on only one task at a time. Sans expert insight, though, this is really common sense. Any task you endeavor to do will be done better if you can manage to focus (and congrats to you, because that is no easy feat in the age of distraction and information overload). A less reactive, more receptive mind simply completes tasks more efficiently and with less aggravation. Whether those tasks are doing the dishes, driving cross-country, or doing a step workout in your living room.

Really, practicing scales, for example, is no more transcendent than mowing the lawn. It is simply a repetitive action done with concentration. It builds muscle memory and dexterity. It’s boring. That’s why no one wants to do scales.

But we like to elevate some boring activities in our lives by imbuing them with special qualities. So, to trick our mind into wanting to do scales, we tell ourselves that they are the ticket to enlightenment. The first step towards preparing ourselves for inspired states of musical “flow.” When really they just make us better at playing music, which sometimes flows, but often takes a lot of determined work.

Sure, music practice could be generalized to be a type of “meditative” practice – but no more than any activity. Music can be somewhat “meditative,” but it is not the same as meditation. Its essential “function” may be to “release” us from the tyranny of conscious thought, but no more than peeling an orange.

Is songwriting mystical, or compulsive?

Nick Cave talks about the enchantment of that moment when first catching the inspiration from a new song, when the song is in control. I, too, enjoy indulging in the romantic notion of the muses bequeathing us with an otherworldly, ego-smashing visit that humbles us to the mysteries of the Universe.

But I feel like the music always has control – whether I’ve intended to sit down and finish a song, or I’m just living my life. Sometimes, music is even kind of like the guy who crashed on the couch one night and doesn’t pick up on it that he’s worn out his welcome. But he knows that even if I try to create rules and structure around his visits, ultimately he gets a free pass, unlimited entry into my brain, at any hour of the day or night. He knows that my brain has no boundaries whatsoever, that the second my ears perk, all the stage lights go on, the curtains go up, and it’s showtime. In fact, when I’m lying in bed, mind reeling, sleep taunting but avoiding me, it is almost always because music is looping relentlessly in my mind. Sometimes the music is in the background, and the mundane worries and tedious storylines are in the foreground, but either way, the music is always there.

Just recently, in a familiar bout of insomnia, I had just finally gotten into a good, comfy nook in my ergonomic pillow that was supposed to change my life, I was starting to relax and about to fall back to sleep….and then BAM! The idea to cover a Kate Bush song popped into my head, and then my mind was in rehearsal mode; “I’ll do the verses an octave lower…or no, maybe I’ll change the key…how does the second verse go? I think I’ll just change the key and do the verses lower..” All of these sudden plans churned against the backdrop of endless scratching of out of order needle drops into whichever part of the song I was thinking about.

My psychiatrist doesn’t have a term for this condition. Pop culture says “earworms” happen when you’re trying to learn a song, so I suppose my worms are always working.

In any case, if “meditation” is about cultivating a quiet, inner spaciousness, I don’t quite buy it that music is the ticket.

The bro with the beer in his hand

Really, all music wants is for us to play it. It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty, self-conscious, you came in late on the bridge, or any of that. Music is a bro with a beer in its hand, a simple individual with simple goals. It just wants to be played. Also, it doesn’t care if your mind is focused or not. It will determinedly wind its way through torrents of distraction, nipping you in the ear with an unrelenting hook from a pop song you don’t even like, looping you into mental rehearsals of parts you are memorizing for an upcoming rehearsal, even when you’re trying to take a break. And especially if you’re trying to sleep.

My rest, my mental health – all of it is sacrificed for this music to have itself heard. (Turning finished into completed songs and recordings, however, is of course another tangled matter.) It’s not the pillow, it’s not the light from the full moon or the street lamp, it’s my damn brain, and the music in it. That’s where all the trouble comes from.

Lest I seem ungrateful for all the inspiration, let me assure you I am not. Often enough, it is those midnight sessions – when I am yanked from sleep, fumbling for the phone to make a voice memo or groping at the light switch and some paper to write something down – that yield most of my songs. And I’m always happy to offer gifts to the Goddess of music when she appears, even if I might have too much of a sleep hangover the subsequent days to function in daily life. I suppose I’ve just gotten less sentimental about all of it. It doesn’t often feel like a gift from the gods, but a job requirement.

And, yes, if you noticed that I just rejected the idea of music as transcendent while also positioning it as its own mystical being, almost a deity, then yes, I also see the contradiction. And I’m not going to resolve it for any of us. (Get it? Har.) Perhaps the question, really, is how to engage with what we do in a way that is light to the touch but deeply present. Sometimes we can bring that to music, but I disagree that it is necessarily music that brings that to us. Music just wants to play. You can view it as music playing through us if you want it to sound more mystical, I suppose. But just remember, music is somewhere between an ineffable cosmic force and a bro with a beer in its hand. More of a trickster deity than anything else.

Music just wants to play.

The Life of a Court Jester in Medieval Europe demonstrating that music has always been terrible. Getty Images.

In my own ridiculous life, I don’t know which came first, an unquiet mind or music. Perhaps it was an overactive mind that needs to ‘work out’ in a particular way that lends itself well to music, which is why I lighted upon music as a preteen and never let go. Or, playing music from a young age begot an ongoing appetite for relentless mental activity, a type of inner restlessness that can only be satisfied by playing or writing music.

And lest you say, “Oh Kela, you’re just too in your head! You just need to dance more, get into your body!” I do dance, almost every damn day in fact, and that is no solution. My brain latches onto songs from the dance floor (or, the living room as dance floor, as it were) and has trouble letting its tentacles unhook from those songs, too. Long after my body has stopped moving, my inner DJ keeps the grooves going in my head. The hookier the jams, the harder it is for my brain to let go of them.

Music is simply a bone for the brain to chew on.

Either way, I don’t fully buy it anymore that music is unilaterally “good” for the mind or the brain. If nothing else, it is definitely a type of complex mental activity, which, if anything, should be complimented and counteracted by actual meditation practice. In the evening after deciding it is time to rest, when I can feel the next loop of a song I was just practicing coming around again, I will often force myself into the bathtub and press play on a chill meditation app. Because, whether I feel enlightened afterwards or not, an auditory background does seem to be necessary to make at least one or two of the cylinders stop moving.

Maybe even if my mom never started me on piano lessons when I was seven, and if my dad never started showing me the endless looping phrases of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on guitar when I was eleven, my brain would still have developed to be the Labrador puppy on meth that it is today. And I suppose if that’s the case, it is nice to have music around, to give my brain a bone to chew on.

Piano Nerd-Out Time: The Journey of Refurbishing & Regulating a Vintage Piano

In my life I have loved many a piano. But none so much as the vintage Baldwin grand I met and became betrothed to about six years ago. And like shorter term relationships that “prepare” you for a more significant investment, there were many educational pianos along the way before I found her.

There were the pianos I grew up playing; a Baldwin spinet with a squeaky, orange velvet-covered bench, and later, a Krakauer baby grand that my mom inherited after my grandfather passed away. It was the piano my mom and her sister grew up playing, and after being shipped across the country, the movers had to haul the piano–legs removed, kidney-shaped body wrapped in quilted blankets–all the way up the sharp incline of our driveway, an ordeal that took an entire afternoon. Once it was inside I couldn’t stop playing it.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

The roommate who came with me to each new apartment, along with my cat.

Then there was my first piano of my very own, an old grand upright with ornately carved legs, rose vines hand-painted on the interior soundboard, and enough chips in its surface you could see decades of past paint colors. (Honeydew green was the most interesting shade that peeked out; I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to have a melon green piano in the living room with me).

After that, I had a Wurlitzer spinet around for a while, with a sound as loud and metallic as a brass band. (I sold that one to a piano student). Then, I replaced it with an electric piano with settings for historical tunings (interesting and useful for a time because I’m drawn to microtonality, but that board, too, was ultimately also sold to yet another student). Thus I was back to my upright, which was showing its years with each move into every humidity-variable room or basement apartment I asked it to survive in.

In the backdrop of all these temporary fixes, I had other fleeting loves. On the second floor of the piano store where I used to teach lessons, I would take advantage of breaks between students to get away from the studio keyboard and practice on the three rooms of used for sale pianos. It was vintage pianos wall to wall, row after row, like aging maidens waiting to be asked to dance. There were the many Steinway uprights, which almost always had a red SOLD tag on them, and notes about the final work to be completed before they were to be shipped to their new owner. And the regal, crystalline tone of the Chickering grands, or the perfectly even action and balanced sound of the Yamahas.

My studio where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed, with the Chickering console.

My studio shed on Salmon Street where I taught piano lessons and practiced and composed. The keys on the right are the Chickering console.

These were all out of my price range, so for my home studio piano, I found a black Chickering console with unusually high pedals, which I always had to wear heels to play; it made me feel like Tori Amos. But like my previous spinets and consoles, I needed something better for regular practice and composing.

For a few years I regularly visited every piano shop that I knew of with a good used piano selection. I routinely scoured Craigslist: “Pianos>Used>Any.” And then finally, after a long, desperate, demoralizing search, after only ever seeming to be feel an attraction to pianos that were way to expensive for me, finally, I found her:

A 1912 Baldwin 7′ grand piano. An oldie but goodie. The first few decades of the 20th century was the best era for the Baldwin piano company, with a sound like nothing else I had played; a symphony in a case. The first day I found her, in a shop called the Piano Technology School for the Blind, in Vancouver, Washington, I just sat there, smitten.

Sure, she had some prominent scratches and nicks on her case, including many tiny, weird etchings into the wood above the keys. I imagined a Liberace type with fistfuls of ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold rings, scratching away at the wood on the key cover over the years. But for me, the point wasn’t to have a perfectly smooth, glossy case; it’ was the sound.

I was so mesmerized by the sound, in fact, that I didn’t pause long enough notice the Baldwin’s considerable quirks. She had suffered a hard couple of decades in her century of longevity: partial refurbishings, objects being dropped or slammed on the keys, parts warping, and the general malaise of never being in any one technicians’ care for long enough to get a full refurbishing. But I was swept away by her sound. I sat there on the bench, in a Glenn Gould hunch, face close to the keys, playing one at a time, mesmerized by the gradually, softly decaying overtones.

For a while I was content to get lost in the Baldwin’s endless chambers of resonance and overtones. I wrote all the songs on my first record on her, including “Theory of Survival,” for which I used prepared piano techniques to create sonic layers:

But the Baldwin’s actual playability was another matter. For a while, I couldn’t practice for more than twenty minutes without my arms getting sore. I was also worried about the impact on my technique because the piano had such limited aftertouch and heavy key weight.

Even finding a piano technician who was willing to work on this old gal was a process; in fact, one practically hang up on me when I told her I had a partially-refurbished grand piano on my hands.

“I don’t touch a grand piano that’s had unknown hands working on it,” she said flatly.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Piano action. Grand pianos have between 15,000 and 20,000 moving parts.

Finally, I found master piano technician John Rhodes. He was passionate about pianists having good instruments to play, and keeping the tradition of quality, acoustic pianos alive–he felt so strongly, in fact, that he was willing to donate his time to come by and do an assessment to figure out exactly what was wrong.

He came over to my house and we ate cupcakes and talked about cats and pianos and pianists all afternoon. John said he would take on the project–pro bono, all I would have to pay for was parts–but it would mean the piano would need to be in his shop for a while, and he wouldn’t be able to promise a completion date.

During a nearly year-long field trip away from home, the Baldwin’s action was lovingly, meticulously reworked. John kept extensive records on each stage of the entire process.

Upon returning home the Baldwin was definitely in a much-improved state, but even with all that work, there remained the final leg of the restoration: regulation. I had to wait yet again until it was in the budget, and in the stars, to have it done. Then, on a soggy Portland night in October 2013, after a Piano. Push. Play. event, under the eaves of the smoky outdoor patio at Roadside Attraction on SE 12th St., I met piano technician Alvin Alghrim. After hearing about my piano Alvin said he had to come “meet” it, and after playing it once, he, like most people, fell in love with it too and proclaimed it one of his favorite pianos. He said he wanted to work on it.

Le grande dame of my living room.

Le grande dame of my living room.

Before launching into the project, Alvin did intensive research over the next few months going over John’s extensive notes, absorbing John’s process up to that point, and factoring in how that would influence his approach to the regulation. Once Alvin decided he had everything he needed to figure out how to approach the regulation, and he whipped it together in two afternoons. The result:

I’M IN PIANO HEAVEN. I didn’t realize that one of the bonuses of a regulation job is that it actually improves the sound, too. (As if the old girl’s sound could get any better).

xoxoxoxo

xoxoxoxo

At times I am a little bewildered to have such a special instrument, just sitting there waiting to be played, in my daily life. Lest I forget how lucky I am after this long journey, I am reminded by each pianist who comes over and gets to share in this special little slice of acoustical heaven, as they sit down and play and gaze off into dreamland.

I remember an opera singer friend once told me that every singer has to go through some type of profound illness that prevents them from singing for a while; it’s part of the spiritual journey of opening up your voice. Maybe instrumentalists go through a similar thing, that manifests in our instruments?

At any rate, the journey of getting to know and rework an old instrument yields just as much as the attainment of the improved working instrument itself, as through that process we develop an appreciation for sound, how it works, and come to better understand how we respond to it. The oldie-but-goodie instruments might be a bit work, but they are most definitely worth the trouble.