Last night I attended a dinner party at a penthouse in Park Lane. Not my usual environment, but I had been hired by an old acquaintance to come and play violin for the guests, whilst they celebrated the life and work of a famous Indian painter.
I was paired with a pianist whom I met fifteen minutes before the guests arrived.
“So, what do you like to play?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, I’m more of a singer than a violinist really…I mean…I do play the violin…but, I don’t really have a repertoire, as such…I just…improvise and accompany.”
“Like…jazz or classical?” he asked.
“Um…kind of Indian, like folk, traditional…with a bit of classical… ,” I trailed off.
“Could you tell me some of the songs you know?” He whipped out his phone. “I have this app where you can search for songs and find the chord progressions. You can even change the key!” He looked at me expectantly.
“Well…you see…I have a feeling they aren’t going to be searchable on there. They’re not really pieces of notated music. Let’s play something that you like, and I’ll try to follow. What’s your favourite to play?”
He smiled, “You know – jazz standards, be-bop, swing…”
As we spoke, guests started to arrive – all clicking heels, fabrics and fine gems. We looked at each other. Time to go!
Over the next two hours we did our best to marry together our abilities. My part Indian, part folky, part rusty (!) violin playing found ways to harmonise and flow with his pieces. He tried to find ragas or modes for me to improvise within. Where I couldn’t join in, I tried to sing along. Six floors down, I could see the Park Lane traffic flowing beneath the sycamore trees as I tried to remember all the words to ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. There were a few ‘la la las’, but I don’t think anyone noticed.
It was a learning experience and judging by the smiles, nods and comments – we made the grade. At the end of the night, he said to me, “It was great to play – very unexpected, and your sound is very nice – but you only play the white notes. Don’t you ever play the black ones?”
It was a simple question – and one that might not mean much to a non-musician. What he referred to was that in my playing I consciously chose keys that only use the white notes of the keyboard – the safe zone. Black notes are ‘sharp’. Black notes are ‘flat’. Black notes require work and thinking; transposing; learning scales. Playing jazz, and generally being a flexible musician requires someone to become fully conversant in different scales and modes that utilise both black and white notes in different ways. But it’s always easier to stay on the white ones. Predictable and safe – minimal risk.
Friends sometime make fun of me for always having something deeper to say about trivial things. I know it can seem silly sometimes, but this thought really stuck with me and brought up some timely questions. How we do one thing, tends to be how we do everything. Have I been ‘playing only the white notes’ for years? Am I cosy and comfortable in predictability? Or when called to improvise, am I ready to take the risk of some bum-notes; to surrender to complexity, and imperfection?
In life we are called upon to ‘make music’ with all kinds of people – often with little or no warning or rehearsal. To become great musicians requires both a highly refined listening ability, as well as a willingness to jump off the deep end; to put our faith in a deeper knowing, and in the path that is opening up before us. Some know this a spiritual faith, or as a relationship with God, others as intuition or ‘going with the flow’.
Regardless of how you look at it, I ask you that question today – are you playing only the white notes? If so, what can you do to surrender a little bit more to the sharps and flats?