Outdoor Advent Day 10

Bare tree branches against a baby blue sky. The branches appear black except for the very tips, which have been turned silver white by the sunlight. The spaces in the centre, where the branches don't quite meet, clearly show "crown shyness".

To remember love after a long sleep; to turn again to poetry after a year in the market place, or to youth after resignation to drowsy and stiffening old age; to remember what once you thought life could hold, after telling over with muddied and calculating fingers what it has offered; this is music, made after long silence. The soul flexes its wings and, clumsy as any fledgling, tries the air again.

– page 128, The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

These beautiful words are Merlin’s. To be more precise they are his thoughts when he is reunited with the harp he played in his youth and had not thought to ever see, never mind play, again. When I first read those words as a teenager I longed to learn to play the harp and did make a request for one. As I was already learning the bassoon and piano and taking singing lessons my parents unsurprisingly said no but the wish to learn never left me.

It did, however, spoil me for other stringed instruments; if I could not play the harp I would not play anything else with strings either. And so I went on, adding the saxophone to my list of instruments but ignoring the possibilities of guitars and violins. It was fine, I thought to myself. So what if I couldn’t sing and play the sax at the same time. I still had my piano to bash out an accompaniment to my warbling. I didn’t need anything else at all.

Then I had to get rid of the piano. And music sort of stopped because the dog didn’t like* the saxophone and I didn’t own a bassoon and singing without any backing felt … wrong. I drifted on for several years without really making any music at all, not really thinking much of it, filling the time I had spent practicing with writing and walking and, eventually, crochet. I thought I’d filled the hole and I was fine.

Reader, I was not fine. Up until the piano went I had sung and played music, in some form or other, nearly every day for thirty years. Music had been as much a part of me as breathing and I’d just banished it without a second thought. So much for filling up the hole, I’d barely papered over the top of it. I was, as my mother so astutely pointed out, wearing thin around the edges for lack of it. The saxophone was still there, I still played it every now and then, but I needed something I could sing with. That was the key to unlocking that part of myself again.

I started pricing pianos, both stringed and electrical, but quickly realised that what I wanted was out of my price range for the time being. I was toying with just getting a cheap keyboard that would give me something to play and made my music a bit more mobile. Yet I did nothing. I didn’t know what was best. I was discussing the problem with the friend I go to with such dilemmas and, when I’d talked myself out, the simply said, “you’re making it all too complicated. Just get a uke. It’ll be cheaper than a keyboard and you can take it anywhere”.

I dithered. A ukulele was not a harp, after all. If I was going to buy a stringed instrument surely it should be the one I’d been dreaming of learning for years. Except I’d need lessons if I was going to buy a harp and given that money was the reason I wasn’t buying a piano, picking something that would like cost more in the long run was ridiculous. A uke, on the other hand, was apparently easy to learn on your own plus my friend played one** so if I got stuck I could just ask him to give me a few pointers. So last year he took me to his favourite uke shop in London and helped me buy one.

I cannot tell you how much difference it made. I felt myself opening up on the inside every time I picked it up and practiced. I was absolutely awful to start with. It felt so alien in my hands and I struggled with the finger placement and I wanted to be able to play really complicated things that I absolutely wasn’t ready for but it didn’t matter. I had music again. And it was making my brain work differently, creating new neural pathways even as it reopened old one, dusty with disuse. Clumsy as a fledgling though I was, I was soaring again, singing and strumming and, until I got a strap for it, dropping the poor uke when I played for too long and got tired. It was glorious.

It still is. I have a go at anything I fancy singing (the internet really is my friend in terms of finding music for everything under the sun***) and I’m slowly teaching myself picking rhythms as well as experimenting with strumming patterns. I still struggle to go from G to E minor and I still spend most of my time looking at the uke whilst I’m playing. I don’t mind at all. I don’t have goals for this hobby. There is nothing I want from it other than the sheer joy of making music. The only thing I do try to do is play every day because I know that makes me a happier person over all. What is even more joyful is that I’ve learnt to forgive myself when I don’t.


*This is an understatement. I think she thought it was some sort of call to doggie arms and would either howl with neither fear nor favour or run around barking so frantically anyone would have thought the hordes were coming to ravish me.
**As well as guitar, bass, double bass, basically anything with strings that isn’t harp shaped – he’s one of those people who have music in their souls.
***It provided me with so many options for “Toss a Coin to your Witcher” so quickly after the show was released that I really did wonder if everyone was quite okay, and that was before the pandemic happened!

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