To be honest, the past two weeks have been rough. I was in a rut. And when you’re in a rut, you’ll question every little thing, doubt every decision you’ve made so far, and constantly feel like things aren’t going your way. It was enough to drive me nuts.
Which is what this post is all about. Not about me going crazy, of course; rather, this is a small personal project that I started as a way for me to kick myself out of that deep, depressing ditch and get involved once again in an art I’ve loved since I first heard my mom play Chopsticks on the old, out-of-tune piano in my lola’s house.
The other week I was reading this book entitled “Your Brain on Music,” and a particular paragraph stirred something within me.
What artists and scientists have in common is the ability to live in an open-ended state of interpretation and reinterpretation of the products of our work. The work of artists and scientists is ultimately the pursuit of truth, but members of both camps understand that truth in its very nature is contextual and changeable, dependent on point of view, and that today’s truths become tomorrow’s disproven hypotheses or forgotten objects d’art.
It’s not particularly inspiring, but it did leave me curious. Musicians likened to scientists? Works of art as experiments? I was desperate for something to keep my mind off work and the little ideas that floated around and settled in my head, depriving me of my sleep. I wanted to get inspired, to get out there, and learn something new. I thought that a photo project on music would be a great way to blow off steam and get myself out of that rut.
As a kid, I spent most of my summer afternoons roaming the hallways of the UP Conservatory of Music. My mom enrolled me in all kinds of classes – from viola to piano to voice to guitar. Back then, I dreamed of becoming a musician and being part of a real orchestra. And under my viola teacher Ms. Mich Martinez’s tutelage, I was able to fulfill that dream, even if for only a year (specifically, every Tuesday from 2 to 5 PM – I sat in as one of the violists for the UP Orchestra). For now, I’ve put that on hold as I chase after another dream (writing), and I haven’t set foot in the conservatory since I graduated from college two years ago.
So I packed my camera equipment and headed back to roam the hallways just as I used to do, except that this time I had a camera in hand instead of my viola case.
I used to think of that building as my happy place. You could just sit in a corner and listen to music students practicing outside their classrooms. I would come straight from school, find a spot outside Teacher Mich’s door, and cram a few études as I waited. All around, there was music – a trill of a flute here, the eloquent tones of a cello there, a guitar being strummed gently as a trumpet blasted short and fast notes nearby. And I would sit mesmerized, and a little bit intimidated, as these musicians played on, practiced on until they got every single note right, perfecting their craft until they knew the piece like the back of their hand.
I left the Conservatory of Music feeling pretty good. It was and will always be a wonderland. Going around the building, I recalled a speech a friend shared with me a long time ago. It was by Karl Paulnack, a pianist and director of the music division at Boston Conservatory, and it was his welcome address to the parents of the incoming freshman class. At one part he says:
Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
And watching these musicians as they studied their pieces intently and practiced tirelessly, I knew that it was true; music, for them, is a way of life. Language and expression comes out as a tune, a melody, a piece. And happiness is being able to play the instruments, being able to express freely.
That same week I asked my friend, Ryan, if I could tag along in their choir practice. He was nice enough to introduce me to the group as I sat awkwardly at the back and snapped away (while trying very hard not to disrupt their session).
Aleron is an all-male ensemble “geared towards exploring the male choral soundscape.” I watched their concert, “Love, Aleron,” the week before and fell in love with their performance of traditional and popular songs, most especially Kahit Kailan, When She Loved Me, and Circle of Life. At the rehearsal, I watched and listened to them as they went through each piece section by section, making sure the everyone hit the right note, that each voice was in pitch and blended together in perfect harmony.
Translated from Latin, Aleron means “the winged one.” It started as the alumni ensemble of the Ateneo de Manila High School Glee Club, but now it has grown to include male singers from different backgrounds. What I witnessed that night wasn’t just a random let’s-get-together-in-your-house-and-sing-a-couple-of-songs-for-a-few-minutes-then-eat-out kind of thing. This was serious music business. There was emphasis on accurate pitch and right rhythm. Everyone sat up straight while singing, darting glances at their pieces while keeping one eye on their musical director, Christopher Arceo. As a member of the choir, you were expected to not just know your part, but to have actually practiced it outside of group rehearsals: memorized it, turned it around to see what works and what does not, nailed those notes, hit that beat, and perfected them. Again: artists as scientists. Taking it from the book I mentioned earlier:
Most artists describe their work as experiments – part of a series of efforts designed to explore a common concern or establish a viewpoint.
And I admire groups like these because they put more work into their pieces without the promise of pay or salary, only the promise of making good music together.
I ended the week at Route 196, listening to Johnoy Danao as he strummed his guitar and serenaded the crowd with his achingly beautiful love songs. Ronnie accompanied him on harmonica and sometimes the saxophone, hypnotizing people as he rocked his solos and got totally lost in the music.
At this point of the post, I want to emphasize that I want to say that I do not know a lot about music – I have a very limited knowledge of the different genres and musical styles, and I don’t consider myself as a musical expert/genius. But I guess the best part about music is that you don’t have to be an expert to know what kind of styles you like. Some songs have a way of reaching deep within you, fishing out memories and digging up buried emotions to make you feel…human. In the introduction of the book I was reading, music was defined, quite technically, as organized sound. But my favorite definition of it comes from Paulnack’s speech:
Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us…Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.
You don’t need to be Bach or Tchaikovsky to know what good music is. In the end, it’s a matter of preference. For me, it’s music like Johnoy’s that grips you, pokes you, and leaves you craving for more. Good music will make you sing or dance, great music will make you feel. And I think the best will make you do both.
At the end of his speech, Paulnack proclaimed his belief that it would be the artists who would save the world. “If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.”
And seeing all these artists express themselves through music, and in the process, touch someone’s life in a profound, inexplicable way, I think he just might be right.
I ended that week on a high note (pun unintended). Being in a rut has taught me a thing or two. I guess the worst part about it is the fear that you’ll never get out of it, that you’ll give up eventually and concede to live a life that is a little less extraordinary, a little less than ideal. The good news is, it’s not going to go on forever – not unless you want it to. Having immersed myself in this project and having talked to people, I’ve learned that when you’re down, the best thing to do is to take bigger steps, take higher leaps and do the things that scare you.
Challenge yourself. Do the unthinkable. Create something new. Find your passion. And fight for it, every single day.
Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”