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Here Comes Treble: The Ultimate Musical Question

…The need to play an instrument stems from the player’s delight in the sound it produces. If that basic affinity with the instrument is absent, there will be no joy in playing it…

Isabel Bradley asks musicians why they chose to play one particular instrument - then expresses her own deep emotional attachment to the flute.

Isabel delights in words and music. Read more of her noteworthy columns by clicking on Here Comes Treble in the menu on this page.

As a member of a small, amateur orchestra, I’ve listened to the widely-varying abilities of fellow players and wondered, over many years, just why people choose the instruments they do. One evening, during a tea break between rehearsing a Haydn symphony and a Chopin piano concerto, I ambled among the musicians and asked the ultimate musical question: “Why?”

Tom is a ‘cellist who plays his instrument particularly well. His sound rings and sings. His technique is pretty good too, his fingers can get around most difficult passages with ease.
“Tom – why did you decide on the ‘cello?” I asked.

“When I was tiny, two or three I think, I heard a neighbour playing the ‘cello one evening. I just loved the sound, and nagged and nagged until I was allowed to go for ‘cello lessons on a quarter-size instrument. It’s still the sound that draws me to the instrument, makes me want to practice and play it.”
Next, I asked our timpanist, Jennifer, why she had chosen percussion as her form of musical expression.

“I love the sound – any piece of orchestral music just isn’t the same without the resonance of the drums. Besides,” her face dimpled with mischief, “it’s an outlet for my frustrations. Instead of beating my husband or thrashing the children, I pound on the timpani!”

And so it went, throughout the orchestra. People’s eyes lit up when I mentioned their instrument, be it violin, trumpet, French horn, or oboe.

Until I came to one of our weaker players, a clarinettist whose sound is always difficult to listen to – tight, clattery and unfocussed, often screeching up an octave and a half by accident. “Pam,” I said, knowing that she’s a fine pianist, “Why do you play the piano?”

There was passionate delight in her face as she spoke about this chosen instrument of hers: “Oh, I just love the sound of the piano – from the time I was crawling, I was tinkling on the keys, so my mother started giving me lessons when I was three, it’s just the most marvellous instrument to play!”

“Great!” I replied, then asked the crucial question, “And why did you decide to play the clarinet?”

“Well,” she explained, losing her sparkle, “when I was about forty, my husband and I wanted to join a wind quintet.” A wind quintet consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. “My husband, as you know, plays bassoon; we had friends who played flute, oboe and horn, but no-one to play the clarinet. So I took lessons, and we have such fun every week.”

The fun is impaired by the erratic sounds of Pam’s clarinet. Her fingers do all the right things; she knows, at least in her mind, how the sounds should be produced, but her soul doesn’t recognise the beauty of the clarinet’s sound, and she cannot re-create it, no matter how many lessons she attends. Because the sound of the instrument is not part of her innermost being, she has no desire to work at improving her playing. Her clarinet only comes out of its box to be played at orchestral rehearsals and wind quintet sessions.

The sounds of the flute seeped into my soul when, as a child, I listened to my father practising each night. In all its moods, the flute sounds beautiful. It can be silver, crystal, gold, or honey; rippling, soaring, singing and floating. It is this potential for creating heavenly tones that leads me to practice and play my flute as often as time allows. In return for “polishing my talent” by practicing often and carefully, I receive both physical and emotional pleasure when playing my flute. The vibrations caused by that silver tube soothe my soul, heart and mind; the physical delight of conquering difficult passages, the deep, controlled breathing feeding oxygen to all parts of my body, is as beneficial to me as road-running, riding a bicycle, or conquering the physical intricacies of soccer, rugby, tennis or any other sport is to the sportsman.

The need to play an instrument stems from the player’s delight in the sound it produces. If that basic affinity with the instrument is absent, there will be no joy in playing it – or in listening to that person do so!

Until next week – “here comes Treble!”

By Isabel Bradley Copyright Reserved ©
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