String Quartet Playing as a Model of Sanity and Self

Photo by John Gurrin

People get together to play music.  There is a common project which the people are engaged in, each for their own reasons, so that each of us is satisfying our own ends, in cooperating with the others.  It is a perfect balance between autonomy: I get to play my part however I want to, and interdependence, as satisfaction in the music depends on how well we fit our parts together.  Nothing but encouragement and appreciation makes sense.  It’s clear to everyone that putting another person down is counter-productive of the pleasure we hope for from the music, though helpful suggestions are in order and well-taken.

It is a clear model of human beings cooperating to create, that assuages loneliness, like making love four ways.  There is no product, no accumulation (as with pots, or papers) to wonder whether to throw away. Often it is not productive even of anything another person would want to listen to.  It is almost pure process, the enjoyment of the moment for its own sake.  Some need is answered, too, in the repetition of familiar forms.  I am happy to have a script, something I can pour my feelings into, without having to invent a form for them at the same time.  There is a wonderful sense of emotional clearing, similar to the effect of a good cry, or laughing fit.

The playing of music requires more than mere conscious intention, though that is also necessary. There is a lot of habit that goes into it, like driving a car.  Practicing exercises trains the ear and fingers to know what to do when the time comes to make music.  And where does the music come from?  I can almost remember the day, in grammar school, when I discovered the difference between reading notes, and making music.  The notes are a very approximate mnemonic device, necessary but not sufficient to the production of a Beethoven quartet, for instance.  How does the communication happen?  Soul to soul. Some sense of miracle here, of communion, gratitude, love! –a possibility of pouring out in the forms provided, feelings one might not otherwise have experienced, becoming oneself the instrument of something known, but of something to which one has no other access.  

Part of the pleasure, the sense of release, or restoration of balance, order, health, has to do with how all parts of oneself are called upon, to work together.  The imagination that hears “how it should go;” the body, coordinating its movements according to training; communion with the other people to coordinate our efforts, conscious and unconscious, willed and unwilled; a letting go at the same time as a taking hold.  

In the performance of a piece of music, there is a requirement of notes and rhythm, technical demand and expressive nuance, to which one must lend oneself single-mindedly. Any personal thoughts, self-consciousness, will provide distraction sufficient to throw off a beat, or a note.  It is an intensely demanding discipline, and immensely satisfying opportunity to know and to grow. A guarantee of a good night’s sleep, following!

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