Tilman Lewis

improvising cellist

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the practice of music

image: sunset reflected in windowif you took music lessons as a child, you were almost certainly enjoined to practise regularly. that’s how you progress to a decent level of proficiency—you’re assigned a challenge, and you chip at it until you’ve mastered it and you’re ready to move on to the next one. as a sometime music teacher myself, i certainly try to instill the value of regular practice in my own students.

but there’s another sense to the word. when a doctor practises medicine, she’s not making repeated attempts to master a skill until one day it goes well. rather, she’s engaging in the field to which she’s been called.

when we talk about spiritual practice, we sometimes get the meanings of this word confused. as in, “the more i practise meditation, the better i get at it.” that’s using the first sense of the word. but meditation is really a practice in the second sense—a significant commitment, one of the meaningful things i do with my life.

music, too, is such a practice. it’s a discipline you live out in a committed way—with colleagues, in the moment, on the stage. or less publicly, walking down the street open to the rhythm of your heart and the birdsong in the wind.

it’s good, i think, to commit yourself to the practice of music. whether or not you go home after and practise.

(repurposed from myspace, march 15, 2009)

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image: sunset caught in windowback when i was an angry young man, i had coffee with one of my heroes, margaret gibson.

gibson was a writer of semi-autobiographical fiction, pretty heavy on the mental illness. her “butterfly ward” inspired the movie “outrageous” (with female impersonator craig russell) and tied margaret atwood for a toronto book award in the 70s.

i’d been putting in hours and years with a typewriter and a tape recorder turning her short story “beautiful strangers” into a dense – and sadly, unmarketable – piece of sound art, which i sent to her care of her publisher. a couple of months later – i’d long since given up – i get this breathless message on the answering machine from margaret gibson: she’s completely reliving the whole story hearing it back from me. when can we unleash it on the world?

i still get a shiver: “when he wept he wept tears of diamonds, and when he laughed his laughter split suns apart, and when he danced pearls burst beneath his feet…”

we meet up at this greasy spoon she’s picked out at coxwell and gerrard. i scan the booths and immediately recognize her from her jacket photos (do you know the look? bette davis eyeliner, nerves tied taut…) gibson’s excited to meet a fan. she’s heard words of gratitude from the odd survivor of the mental health system over the years, but mostly, she doesn’t know who reads her. who are you people? she wants to know.

what can i say? at some point i mutter something about how much anger i’m carrying around. most of the time we can’t give each other anything, but it’s good to reach for something true.

“hold on to that anger!” she bursts out. she’s looking across the table at me, pretty animated now. “it’s great material.”

don’t know if it was very good advice – i wouldn’t recommend it myself. if you can get a little peace in your heart, that’s better for the world. and perhaps there’s good material there, too.

i never got the radio play off the ground, and by and by we lost touch. a while ago i saw on the web that she’d died. but i think of the moment every now and again. it was intense – sitting there with someone fragile i admire, reaching to share something true.

(repurposed from myspace, april 27, 2009)