The things we forget: playing together

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When I took piano lessons as a small child, it was in the basement of a woman who lived in a neighborhood behind the White Castle. The best thing about piano lessons was that we were likely to stop at the White Castle afterwards. In her basement, the piano teacher had a good six or so pianos set up so that she could give group lessons. And so me and my friends took piano lessons together. We didn’t really play piano together. Every so often we would have a recital, and each of us would take the stage alone to plunk out a few songs.

I’ve listened to music my whole life with great passion and enthusiasm, if not much understanding of what actually went into the sounds coming out of the speaker. I was never one of those people who would turn the volume up and say, “Listen to this part,” and then be able to explain at great length what was so amazing about that particular guitar solo. But I liked to sing along. I felt that music could express more about what I was feeling at any given moment than any amount of words on a page.

But it was not until recently that I discovered the unique joy of playing music together. I wrote recently about my experiences playing music at Irish music session night here in Madison. Until Irish session night I had been playing my fiddle alone. This was pleasurable enough, but not particular social.

I don’t have experience with many musical instruments, but it seems to me that the fiddle may be an instrument uniquely suited to introverts. When I first started taking lessons, I was struck immediately by the intimacy of playing a fiddle. You sit in front of a piano, and the only part of your body in contact with the instrument are your fingers and the bottom of your foot. You are removed from the vibrations and tremblings that produce the sound.

You cradle a fiddle. You lean your head against its body. You put your ear right up against it. You can feel when you hit a note perfectly, because everything vibrates in just the right way. And everything is the string and the fiddle and the bow and you. You feel the right note not just as a sound, but as an actual physical sensation, because you are that close. Where playing the piano felt to me like operating a machine, playing the fiddle feels like coaxing sound out of a living thing.

Here’s the other thing about the fiddle. The person sitting next to you on the piano bench hears the same thing you do even though you’re playing and she is not. But no one can hear the fiddle the way you do when you are playing it; it is like the sound of your own voice in this way. When you hear a recording of your own voice, what you sound like to people who are outside of your own head, it’s jarring and unrecognizable. When you hear a recording of yourself playing fiddle, it is not at all what it sounded like when you were playing. And so the fiddle by its very nature seems to invite you to exist in a world with just the two of you, a world where you are creating music that only the two of you can hear. An instrument for introverts.

On the other hand, the fiddle is an instrument that seems meant to be heard with other voices–guitars, banjos, mandolins, human voices, upright bass, and accordions. It is an instrument that calls to people. That brings them to their feet to dance or tears to their eyes. And so as intimate as playing a fiddle is, it lacks something when played by itself.

Of course, in playing music with other people you learn more than you would on your own. You discover new songs, new vocabulary, new techniques. Playing together is important in all the ways that doing almost anything in a group is important.

But here’s my own unique discovery about playing music together. When you get into that groove, when everyone is humming along together playing Southwind or Whiskey Before Breakfast, something happens to the sound of the music. The sound of the individual instruments disappears or fades away. A new sound is created, and it is a sound that is not reducible to its constituent parts. It is not merely the sound of a fiddle + mandolin + guitar + dulcimer. It is the sound of all those instruments being played together, and it is something completely different from the sound of any one of those individual instruments being played by themselves. It is what you hear most of the time when you are listening to music rather than playing. It is the song. It is music. It is the sound of people playing together.

I remember the first time I heard this sound. It was confusing. I kept trying to tie the sound back to one instrument, and wondering vaguely if I was playing out of tune or something. And then eventually it occurred to me that this was just what it sounds like to play together. The sound of my own fiddle playing fades a bit to be replaced by this other voice. It as if the empty spaces between the notes of all the different instruments has magically been filled in with something else. As if an incompleteness has been made full.

It’s rather sad that it took me this long in life to make this discovery, but better late than never. And what a lovely discovery to make. As a sociologist, I’m all about the belief that there is something about humans in groups–all kinds of groups–that is not reducible to humans as individuals. When we get together–in a family or at a party or in a football stadium–something is created that cannot be reduced to the collection of the individuals involved. A corporation is more than the collection of individuals who work there; it is its own entity. This belief lies at the foundation of sociology as a discipline.

It makes for a more complicated understanding of the world, but for me, a more hopeful one. Sometimes the things we create as social animals are horrendous and scary. Acts of violence and hatred. But many times the things we create together are beautiful and transcendent. They are like music. The Dalai Lama says, “Human beings are not intrinsically selfish, which isolates us from others. We are essentially social animals who depend on others to meet our needs. We achieve happiness, prosperity and progress through social interaction. Therefore, having a kind and helpful attitude contributes to our own and others’ happiness.”

We are essentially social animals, and all in all, we’d like to play together. If there is any magic in the world, it is the magic that is created when we acknowledge this about ourselves. It is the beauty we create when we play together.

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