Thursday, March 8, 2012

music in the air


I am sitting in the living room of my flat, windows open, enjoying a quiet evening at home. Correction: enjoying an evening at home. Crowded living conditions, crammed neighborhoods, countless high-rise buildings, and seven million people squeezed onto 426 square miles of terra firma don’t contribute to a quiet existence. Add in the fact that many Asians prefer “fresh air” (open windows) to air conditioning or heating, and noise abounds.

Tonight, I hear a woman singing some kind of opera-type music—Western opera, I’m grateful to report. It’s actually quite lovely. An ethereal melody, almost haunting as it echoes among buildings, occasionally punctuated by a tenor voice with full vibrato. I am transported to starlit Venice, serenaded down the Grand Canal in a gondola.

Last Friday night, I spent an excruciating three hours suffering through a beginning trumpeter’s rudimentary exercises. Considering the length of practice, and the repetitive, yet extremely basic nature of his playing, I suspect the student was cramming for a lesson or class. (Note to beginning musicians: cramming doesn’t work for instrumental practice, as it may for a written exam.) Poor kid probably had seriously busted chops after the long evening.

Piano students thrive in Hong Kong, and it’s not uncommon to hear scales practiced late into the night, along with drifts of Bach, Chopin or Beethoven. At times, a specific measure or phrase is played over and over: an annoying prospect for some, but a comfort to the piano teacher—it’s a sign of quality practicing.

Brass instruments and piano music are always preferable over the beginner woodwind. Pity the neighborhood where a Grade 1 clarinetist or oboist resides. The squeaks and squawks of a reed instrument can make one cringe.

Stringed instruments—equally popular to the piano in this city—can also create the sensation of fingernails on the chalkboard when a student is learning fundamentals. I haven’t heard this in my building lately, so perhaps parents have the good sense to make the violin kid play behind closed doors and windows.

A few weeks ago, I thought I heard a woman humming in my kitchen. It turned out to be a domestic helper, quietly singing in her kitchen, whose windows open near mine. Two nights ago, I sat on my couch trying to determine what instrument I was hearing; I believe it was a plastic recorder played by a non-musician.

The sounds of music—mismatched timbres, wrong notes and poor intonation aside—are oddly soothing to me, perhaps because of years of studying music. Standing in a crowded High School band hall, surrounded by sixty other instrumentalists, each playing their own melodies and rhythms at once, create a unique atmosphere. Tonalities mix and pitches clash as one walks down the practice room hallway of the college music building. A pianist here, a vocalist there. Familiar tunes and new refrains conflict. Together, an entirely different kind of music is created.

That’s what I hear in my neighborhood. Sure, there are times I’d like to open my window and hear the silence of the night, punctuated gently by the song of crickets and the croaking of frogs (sounds of my childhood home backyard). But as a professional musician, who believes strongly in teaching music—both instrumental and vocal—to children and adults of all ages, I am grateful to know that my neighbors are hard at work, improving their musical skills. Making music should be an everyday part of our lives, which is, sadly, becoming an increasingly less common phenomenon as our cultures are overtaken by other forms of entertainment.

So when I open my bedroom window and hear “Three Blind Mice” breathily played on the penny whistle (or maybe it’s that plastic recorder), I smile to myself. Music is in the air.