The First Law of Music – Part 1

“Aloysius.- I am happy to recognize your natural aptitude. There is only one matter that still troubles me. If this is removed I shall take you into the circle of my pupils… Perhaps the hope of future riches and possessions induces you to chose this life? If this is the case, believe me you must change your mind….. Whoever wants riches must take another path.

Joseph.- No, certainly not. Please be sure that I have no other object than to pursue my love of music, without any thought of gain. I remember also that my teacher often told me one should be content with a simple way of life and strive rather for proficiency and a good name than for wealth, for virtue is its own reward.”

Johann Joseph Fux, “Gradus ad Parnassum,” 1725

***

Valerie was sitting at the piano, working on a very intense, deceptively simple classical piece. I listened to her play the first page and I could tell that she had worked hard on the mechanics and on getting the notes right, but it was stiff and felt a little bit forced.

Her heart was in the right place, but I could tell that she wasn’t aware of some of the subtleties of the music that come from playing with a more developed sense of realized passion and emotional depth. It’s a lot to ask of a 14 year old, but I knew she was ready for it.

I asked her to let me play for a minute, and I played the first page of the piece with a much quieter touch. She listened intensely.

I narrated as I went, talking as I played some measures loud, some soft, changing the articulation in key places to make the music really breathe and come alive. I played with different volume levels in each hand, so that the right hand’s melody could float in 3D above the rippling texture of the left hand’s chords. When I feel my heart, head and hands all connect and come into alignment, the music moves with the sensitivity and responsiveness of a living being opening its eyes for the first time.

When I finished my demonstration, Valerie sat back down at the piano. Sensing that she had no idea how I had done that, I changed the subject for a second and told her about my love for music.

“Lots of people play notes,” I said, “but not everyone knows how to play feelings. Do you know what the First Law of Music is? It’s something that people miss constantly. It gets trampled under the day to day rush to get things right, to multitask, to cram information and technique in. It’s something that I carry around with me everywhere I go. It’s literally right under my nose. I carry it in my heart. What do you think I carry in my heart? What does everyone carry in their heart?”

“Love?” she asked.

“Yes! And love is the first law of music. You’ve got to LOVE it!”

Quickly, she responded, smiling. “Yes!”

“If you love music, then you will always have a reason to play,” I said. “When you love music, do you count the minutes and the hours that you play? Do you write it down in “practice logs” and keep track of it like an accountant? Do you count down the minutes and seconds when you are with a person you love, looking forward to when you can finally say goodbye, and be alone again?”

“When you love someone, the most valuable thing you can give them is time. And when you love music, you spend a LOT of time with it. You listen to it, you play it, you work on it, you share it with your friends. If you love music, you never have to measure your practice time, because you never practice. For someone who loves music, you are always playing music like a game.”

“Do you practice playing video games? Do you practice playing card games or board games? Or, do you just play them?”

She looked more focused now, and clearer. She was smiling more. She answered, “You play them.”

I could see that she understood my point, and it was the perfect moment to bring it all together.

“Because you’ve spent all this time playing music like a game and loving it, you’ve learned a lot! When you put those three things together, that will lead you down the path to mastery. But that’s not always enough. Most people who love music and who spend time playing a lot also need help with the technical side. They need lessons because a teacher can show them how to do amazing things that would normally take them decades to learn on their own, if they even learned them at all. The technical things only matter when you’re heart is in the right place, when all this time spent playing music like a game has inspired you to love it unconditionally.”

The message was hitting home.

“So we will always work to increase your skills,” I continued. “We’ll always study technique, notation, notes, chords, scales, all the nuts and bolts. But underneath all of that, there’s one feeling that is more powerful than anything else. It’s so powerful that it’s the first law of music. And that feeling is……”

I waited for her to finish the sentence.

“Love!”

***

When you play music, do you put a love of the art before all other things? Post a comment below, and share your opinions and experiences.