Stop talking, just listen!

Feb 18


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Helen Whitten

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Stop talking, just listen!

Walking down memory lane

This is what a friend of mine told me when he introduced me to Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.  It takes quite a bit to shut me up but I did what I was told and shall be forever grateful.  For listening, truly listening, is an art and a focus of sensory attention that transports one into a far deeper place.  I had always found Wagner difficult to enjoy but another friend explained how to listen beyond the voices and again it transformed my experience of hearing it.  I shall always remember listening to Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto, followed by Thomas Tallis’ sacred choral music, in the quiet of a room overlooking the sea, and an evening when a jazz pianist played me Debussy’s Clair de Lune on his grand piano.  There are some moments one never forgets and I think I have been fortunate to have friends who taught me to stop talking and just listen!

We have become so used to muzak, hearing it in lifts and shops.  I remember what I used to call “aircraft landing music” that was piped through the speakers on take-off and landing.  A ghastly tinny sound designed to calm us down.  Nowadays we play music on hifi, iPhones, Alexa or Sonos but people tend to have it playing on in the background rather than really hearing it.  In previous eras, without such technology, people played live music to a small audience of family and friends after dinner.  All that has changed and unless one is at a concert it is too easy, in my experience, to only half-hear the subtleties and complexities of a piece.

Why am I thinking about this?  Because I have been reading a book called The Music Store by Rachel Joyce, who wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  This is another quirky and whimsical book that has deep undertones of emotion, relationships and human responses to life’s challenges.  It features a man who runs a music store stocked only with vinyl records.  He has a gift for intuitively knowing what piece of music a customer needs to hear – a little like the concept of prescribing a poem to heal an illness, whether emotional or physical.

Funnily enough this reminded me of a period of my life when I used to wake up in the mornings with a different song in my head that seemed to be giving me a message about which direction to go in my life, what to do.  It was rather like a psychic juke box and often would give me a wise intuitive message.  Sounds weird, I know, but it did happen.  After all, the unconscious works in mysterious ways!

And so, as I have travelled over the last fortnight through some childhood haunts in Portugal and then on to sunny Marrakesh I have been allowing my mind to wander over the pieces of music that have changed me or marked a moment of my life.  I shall share with you some of my musical moments in case your mind might wander back and be stirred to do the same…

The songs of our childhood

The songs my mother used to sing around the house were influenced, certainly, by our years living in Estoril.  “Uma casa Portuguesa” sang my Mama, along with her records of Amalia Rodrigues, queen of the Fado, which skips between mournful and joyful with little in between.  Not everyone’s taste, I know, but, being sentimental souls, the moment either my sister or I hear the first chords we start to cry.  I heard Amalia Rodrigues once, in the Algarve, many years later and had tears running down my cheeks all evening as it reminded me of my parents and their happy times in Portugal and their sadness at leaving to return to England.

My mother would also sing Oh my Papa, Somewhere over the Rainbow and Oh my darling Clementine.  I find it interesting that although she suffered from a nervous breakdown for several years of my childhood my abiding memory of our home was of her singing as she cooked or tidied.  My sister remembers her singing Put another Nickel in … Music, Music, Music.  With my father it was Nat King Cole, or the Missa Criolla which used to bring tears to his eyes. I wonder what songs your parents sang or played? 

I am reminded of my brother when I hear the Searchers’ Needles and Pins as he used to sing it around the house when we were in our early teens, emphasizing the Needles and Pins-a.  And I remember him playing a record over and over on the turntable in his bedroom when he first fell in love in his teens.  Well, I expect we have all been there, haven’t we?

The 60s and onwards

My first 45rpm was Little White Bull by Tommy Steele bought with my pocket money when I was about 9 years old.  The second was Rawhide.  I had a crush on Clint Eastwood! But I quickly followed my older sister into Elvis Presley, Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield and later, when she returned from a few months in Madrid, to Spanish, Mexican, French café songs and Tom Lehrer.  Until we both found the Beatles of course and my proud claim to fame is that I was number 36 of the Beatles fan club aged about 12 years old – ah, what a talent-spotter!  I saw them live at the Finsbury Park Astoria in January 1964 – couldn’t hear a word of the music but it was so exciting. Then ran away to see the Rolling Stones in Weymouth.  Never to be forgotten.

The 60s was full of fabulous songs.  When I imagine being on Desert Island Discs I try to pick out what I would choose and What a Day for a Daydream and Waterloo Sunset would have to be included.  It was such an amazing time for music.  It would be incredibly difficult to choose just 8 pieces of music and have space to include the classical and sacred too.

The minute you hear a tune you are right back where you first heard it.  Perhaps a first holiday or disco.  That makes me think of Creedance Clearwater Revival playing in a disco on my first holiday with a girlfriend to the Algarve when I was 18.  Music is so evocative.  I can still picture the place and the feeling.

I went to a very musical school, Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire.  Harrison Birtwhistle was our musical director.  Of course he then went on to great things but my recollection of him was putting on some music for our school orchestra to play which consisted (in my ignorant head anyway) of clashing chords followed by silence followed by more clashing chords.  Sorry, Sir Harrison, as he is now, I am afraid your compositions went right over my head.  I tended to look forward to nights in the dormitory listening to Radio Luxembourg or Radio Caroline under the pillow, philistine that I am!

Where the music takes you

Music can take you to joy or to tears.  Whenever I hear Roberta Flack’s Killing me Softly with his Song I am reminded of a broken heart.  Your Song by Elton John reminds me of getting married in 1971.  Did you have a tune you both sang?  Shortly after our son Daniel died of a cot death in 1976 a good friend took me to see A Little Night Music and I sobbed my heart out to Send in the Clowns.  Then Elton John sang “Daniel”.

Classical music paints pictures in my mind, transporting me to imagined landscapes that are not only visual but also emotional.

The words never die

I am rather horrified by how many pathetic lyrics I can remember in my head.  If only my addled brain could remember as many relevant and current facts, figures, names and dates instead!  But no, I have the lyrics of almost every single pop song I ever sang along to, stored in some neural pathway or other so whether it was the 1950s or the 60s, 70s or later I can still sing along to Magic FM or my Spotify Playlists. 

I hate the sound and lyrics of rap, hip-hop.  Drill music fills me with fear.  These seem alien to me, somehow so different to the seeming innocence of the songs of my youth.  And children’s programmes are frenetic – worlds apart from dear old Uncle Mac and the Teddy Bears Picnic!  However, I can still sing along to the nursery rhymes I heard on Children’s Favourites and my grandchildren seem to tolerate my efforts.

I do still remember the words, also, to all those hymns, carols, prayers and psalms we sang at school and beyond.  I love sacred music – Allegri’s Miserere, Vivaldi’s Gloria take me to a spiritual place somewhere inside.  I have requested that these to be played to me in my last days, whenever that may be.  And then there’s the music of nature – birds, wind in the trees, rain on the grass.

Music to enjoy as we get older

Nowadays I love songs like I’m Still Standing by Elton John or Let it Be from Frozen as they remind me of times with my grandchildren, singing along or dancing whilst sharing a holiday with them. 

T’Pau’s China in my Hand reminds me of my older son going to his first pop concert at Wembley aged about 12.  My younger son enjoyed Bon Jovi as a teenager.  Later we ended up, my two sons and I, at the Hotel California in Mexico – another of our favourite songs.

As I get older I like to play Brian Adams’ The Summer of ‘69 as that reminds me of being 19 and full of youthful optimism.  I still can’t sit still and hear that song.  I have to get up and dance. 

I have just enjoyed one of the best evenings of my life at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville listening to country music.  David and I saw Leonard Cohen on his last tour.  It was an outdoor venue, the Mercedes centre in Surrey, and it poured all night but he sang his heart out and the band were eclectic and brilliant.  We had rain dripping down our faces but Leonard kept on singing.  Dance me to the End of Love is our song.

So keep playing those old records that make you feel young – the medics have proven that it is good for us.  But we don’t need them to tell us that, do we?!

All this inspired by reading this book The Music Store.  So thankyou Rachel Joyce!  Over nearly 70 years there have been endless moments of music but I hope this might have taken you back, maybe reminded you to stop talking, listen more, and remember which songs and pieces of music have made a difference in your lives. Or made you think that you might encourage a partner, child or grandchild to delve into the wonders of silently listening to music – whether it’s Beethoven or Taylor Swift.   I would love to hear your experiences of music if you feel like writing to me about them…


One Response

  1. The music of my childhood – Jim Reeves (my Mum was a big fan), Gilbert and Sullivan, Ray Charles singing ‘Take These Chains’, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and (my Dad’s favourites) Chris Barber and Acker Bilk! The first record I bought was a Helen Shapiro EP because a girl at school I was friends with was mad about Helen Shapiro.

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