Following the journey of Abigail McArthur and Emma Moor, two talented musicians telling their own stories of their lifelong relationship with music.
“My mom taught me my first piece on the piano, before I started going for lessons. And my dad taught me my first piece on the saxophone. That was and still is special to me. I started playing piano when I was eight, so I’ve been playing that for nearly thirteen years. And I started playing sax when I was ten, so I have been playing that for going on eleven years. I’m currently looking to do my Performance Diploma for saxophone and I’m at a Grade 7 level for piano.
I didn’t actually choose to play the saxophone. My dad played the sax but he also played the clarinet. So when my dad was learning sax, I took his clarinet. He would play his sax in the one room and I would go and pretend I knew what I was doing on his clarinet and just blow and fiddle around. I said I wanted to go for lessons so when I went to the school’s head music teacher, she said there was a shortage of saxophones in the school wind ensemble. She wanted me to play sax. So the school loaned me a sax for two years and I fell in love with it. I couldn’t imagine myself playing anything else now.
I played in the school wind band for nine years because my music teacher wanted me to. But I started young and was really excited to play in those bands. I then heard about the youth orchestra and I thought it would be cool to broaden my horizons and meet new people while learning how to play in a different, more professional group. So I played in the orchestra for four years. Playing in an orchestra is amazing. You’re hearing the music around you and you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the music. You’re playing to make something beautiful, something that would otherwise remain a couple of sheets of black and white paper. Playing solo is very different from playing with other people. Because when you’re playing with people you have to hear what everyone else is doing and link into that. But when you’re playing by yourself, you can express whatever feeling you want. Music without emotion is pointless.”
“Having that emotion is very important to playing. Because you can be practically good but your music can do nothing. You need the emotion, from yourself. And you need to have the skill, through your music, to bring it out in other people. In any good performance, you have to fully immerse yourself in that moment and give yourself completely to the music. Your mind and body needs to be concentrating on your notes and on your fingers and on the sound that you’re producing rather than anything else that’s happening around you. As you get better, you’re able to keep that focus and still feel what’s going on around you and play for that audience. I played five different pieces for my last saxophone exam, ranging through all the styles. I loved the fact that I could produce, within the space of thirty minutes, different emotions in the people who were listening, just by the way I was playing and by the emotions I felt I was able to portray through my instrument.
I think, when I look back on it, the study of music came easy to me. And because it came easily, I didn’t learn. I did the bare minimum that needed to be done and I was luckily able to produce the same result as what people who worked really hard produced. Through playing music and through studying music as a subject, I learnt to listen for and appreciate the finer details of the music, the things that come together to make up the entire piece. So when I listen to music, I don’t just hear the music. I am able to dissect it when I hear it on the radio. I hear the beat and all the different instruments that are being used and whether it’s electronic or acoustic. I hear the repetition of patterns and I appreciate the musicality of each song. I learnt to see and feel the art in the music rather than to simply listen to it.
Since finishing school and my academic study of music, I didn’t play for a year. A whole year. I didn’t touch it. And I could feel it. It’s not the listening to music, it’s the playing of music, being in the music and grappling with it and then finally being able to produce something. And, in missing that process for that year, I felt like my brain was just sludge. It was switched off. I felt like I was functioning at a lower level than what I was capable of. And I realised that music is something that is part of me. It’s something that I simply have to do for myself to give myself love. In having that talent, I’ve come to realise the power I have with it. I took it for granted for so long and I’m only just starting to realise that I can actually do something worthwhile, for myself and for other people.
I don’t think I decided that music was going to be my life. I think I was blessed with a musical talent and the musicality was born in me. It wasn’t me choosing the music. It was the music choosing me.”
“I always knew that I could play piano. It’s a born talent of mine and it’s always just come naturally to me. I started playing when I was six. Before that, my mom would play music by all the greats like Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. That music was ingrained into my mind from a young age. A lot of my love of music is owed to my parents. They nurtured my talent, they fostered my experiences with it and exposed me to really beautiful music. That had quite a big impact on how I perceive music now and how I enjoy it. I have been playing for around fourteen years now and I have my Grade 8 for piano.
I didn’t do grades when I was younger. I just learnt how to play piano, how to read the music, how to find the notes, how it should sound. My mom knew that if I did exams at that age, I would grow to hate the instrument. So when I got into the grades, initially I was very nervous. I knew that there was a possibility of completely destroying my passion for it. But I’m quite a determined and competitive person with myself. So when I started climbing the ladder, I realised I could do it and that the end goal would be quite an achievement. For a long time piano was as easy as breathing. And then, when I started playing harder songs, I had to really study and put the hours into practicing it. A song would often take so long to decipher, to figure out and learn the ins and outs of it. But when I eventually overcome it and I could play that piece, I knew how long I spent looking at that music and how long I spent crying over not knowing how to do it. It became such a reward every time I played it again, like I had conquered it. There were times when I didn’t want to carry on, because the constant practice was completely snuffing out my passion. And then I would overcome a song, ace an exam or play for others and suddenly my passion was renewed.
There are people who can just sit down and play a piece once off and not need to practice it. For a mere mortal like me though, it takes a long time to master a piece so I feel a personal pride when I finally get it. And it reminds me that this is something that not everyone can do and I love that it’s something special about me. And so I love it when I can play something and have other people enjoy it. It excites me to know that I can give someone an experience that is completely unique. I attach quite a lot of emotion to the music that I play. When I play something in a certain situation, often, if I play it again, it brings memories of what that situation was like, what happened and how it came about.”
“I have a musical talent. I can sing, I can play piano, I can hear notes and pitches. I can understand it all. You can’t really avoid falling in love with it. You can’t switch off the ability to listen to music in a critical way because you’ve got this deeper understanding of it because it’s something that is a part of you.
But after school, I hardly ever played and I realised how much I missed it. At school, I played for about ten hours a week. I put a lot of time into it and I was always thinking about it, always doing something with it, always working towards something. And when that structure fell away, I was no longer forced to play. Having been forced to play for so many hours, all the time, to suddenly not have to answer to anyone musically anymore, it completely changed my relationship with it. In the beginning I felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
But over time, it went from “I don’t have to play because someone is telling me to” to “I wish someone was telling me to.” I almost gave up on the instrument because someone wasn’t whipping me to play it. And then I ended up whipping myself because I couldn’t stop missing it and I didn’t want to lose my skill. I can tell that I have lost a great portion of my skill because it’s not something that I have been doing over and over again recently. That really upsets me that I can’t retain it. I’d love to be able to learn something and always be able to play it, remember the notes, the chords, the song itself. When I tried to play some of my old final exam pieces, it was quite a blow for me to go back to something that I could once play perfectly, only to find that I could no longer remember it fully.
I really miss playing. It was a useful stress reliever. In school, when I was stressed about something, I would go and play piano. If I was upset about something, I would go and play piano. If I had a really good day and I was on a high, I would go and play piano. It was the perfect outlet for all of my emotions. It became a best friend to me. I would give it the knowledge and skill that I had and in return, it would give me beautiful sounds and amazing melodies.
There is something born into people who can really hear music. Everyone can hear music but when a select few listen to it, we can hear things no one else can hear because we’re listening for it. Because we are tuned to it. Music can never be a passing phase for someone like that because those people are constantly trying to make up new harmonies for songs, to perfect pieces that have been neglected and always trying to improve their knowledge and relationship with music. It makes me sad that some people live their lives without that, only engaging with music in shades of grey and not experiencing the full colour that it has to offer.”