Gaudeamus Igitur

Something about the song Gaudeamus Igitur just makes me want to cry. Whenever I have to play it, I try not to think too much about what I’m playing and why I’m playing it to avoid any awkward tearful pianist situations. I’m just trying to figure out why it makes me so emotional. I have had three university graduations so far and I don’t think the ceremony would have been complete without a rendition of this song. I think it makes you reflect on all of the pain and suffering that you’ve just been through, and that you’ve finally succeeded when you never thought you would even survive, and then all these years of agony are finally released in tears of such enormous relief! Although, you don’t ever let anyone see any actual tears, especially if your mascara is not waterproof, which is the difficult part. Gaudeamus tells you that you can finally go out into the world and function as a free and normal adult human being! What an amazingly fascinating concept for a student.

My last graduation (my MSc, last June) was my most emotional by far, probably because it was my most intensely soul-destroying degree and I actually managed a distinction by some miracle of God, so even the National Anthem made me fall apart (which it does sometimes, but that’s a story for another post…).


Searching for a chord

While writing or arranging music at the piano, there’s always the moment that I have an idea of a beautiful chord in my head that I know would fit just right at a specific part of a melody or phrase. As I search the keyboard for this elusive chord, I try out different combinations of notes, different inversions, and finally – I hit the perfect sound, the sound I’ve been looking for, the sound that makes everything right. And for that moment in time, all the pieces fit together and everything makes sense.

Just for that instant, life is as perfect as it gets.

What If

Disappointments in love always send me back into reminiscence about missed connections – about those once-off encounters, fascinating conversations and deep instant connections with a stranger I will never see again. I’m not one for regrets but I can’t help wondering what could have been had I not just said goodbye, assuming we would somehow meet again.

I have experienced this a few times in my life, and as a rather shy, introverted geek I don’t instantly feel a deep connection with many people, which is why these experiences stand out in my memory. The one I remember the clearest and with the most longing, happened nine years ago. I was 20 years old and in the third year of my geology degree, and I happened to be taking jazz piano as an extra subject.  I was working late on campus and before leaving, I went to the music library to borrow some sheet music. I wanted the original for the two piano duet Scaramouche by Darius Milhaud, which my sister and I were going to perform at a classical concert soon after and were practising from photocopies.

The only other person in the library was a guy who was working the night shift and came over to assist me. I told him what I was looking for, he pronounced ‘Milhaud’ incorrectly and thought that I did, I assumed he wasn’t a classical musician, and we made our way to the counter to check out the music.  He asked me what year I was in and what my major was. I explained that I was actually a geology student and a classical musician, and only managed to gain access to the music library because I registered for jazz piano that year. He told me he was a fourth year student majoring in ethnomusicology. He explained to me what ethnomusicology was and how it fitted in with African culture and the social sciences. We discussed our differences in our academic pursuits and what we found interesting about our studies, how I was a scientific, logical person who liked working with facts and searching for the truth, and how he loved understanding people and culture, and the role and development of music in Africa. We spoke about our plans for when we finish our degrees. He also told me a fascinating story about how social scientists managed to save a rural community from disease where doctors failed, by ‘translating’ medical instructions into their cultural belief system. For the first time in my life I saw a point to social science. I told my friend studying social science that story on the bus to campus the next morning and never forgot it.

We spoke about our differences in the music we played, about how my scientific background and strict classical piano training fitted well together, and how he was more of a spontaneous improvisatory musician. I was fascinated, and so was he. Time flew by and a few hours later, while still standing at the library counter, my parents start messaging me because they have been waiting in the car for a short while thinking I am still busy working. I tried to prolong the conversation – a few minutes more, I told myself. After more than a few minutes of guilty, hurried talking while thinking of my poor parents in the car, I finally said that I really had to go. We could have talked all night, and I’d felt like I’d known him forever by then. We quickly wished each other good luck for the upcoming exams, said that we’d see each other soon and really enjoyed chatting, and I sped out the door never to see him again.

I never really thought much of our meeting after that. Just that that was one of the best conversations I’d ever had with a stranger. It is only many years later that I realise that first meetings like these are hard to come by for me. He probably doesn’t remember me at all and I wonder what he is doing with his life now. I just wonder sometimes what could have been if there was a second meeting…

Time travel

I wish I could go back in time, to different eras and places, for experiences that I wish I could have now. I’m one of those dreaded ‘Golden Age Syndrome’ sufferers that you should be familiar with if you have watched Midnight in Paris. Although since officially diagnosing myself when the film came out, I try my best to seek out the same feelings in my contemporary environment, without too much luck. However, if I could really get into a mysterious car on a lonely street in Jozi at midnight (handbag tightly tucked under arm), I would wish for the following, although not confined to Johannesburg:

  • Being one of the front row ladies lucky enough to get a kiss from Elvis while he sang Love Me Tender.
  • Having Charles Darwin discuss his thoughts and ideas with me while on Galapagos Islands.
  • Dancing with Gene Kelly to Love is Here to Stay by Gershwin at the riverside as in An American in Paris. Also joining him in that glorious Singing in the Rain scene.
  • Taking my sister along to the premiere of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony so we could both laugh together hysterically after that frightening fortissimo chord.
  • Checking out some dinosaurs, of course. And giant ammonites (did they actually move?).
  • Jazz nights in Sophiatown! Especially the illegal ones.
  • Having tea with Dorothy Parker and her giving me some outrageous writing (and life) tips.
  • Interviewing Marie Curie on what it feels like to kick male scientist butt and be the first person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.
  • Painting rocks with the Khoisan.
  • Hearing Krishna play the flute and dancing to his blissful music with the gopis.
  • Watching Beethoven conduct his shocking and horrific 5th symphony.
  • Seeing how the Pyramids really were built.
  • Going to a party in Europe when Viennese waltzes were the pop music of the time. I totally understand why Andre Rieu does what he does.
  • Meeting Arthur Conan Doyle and telling him he is the most awesome person I ever met and I want to be him when I grow up.
  • Screaming and fainting at a Beatles concert (then waking up in time to run after and touch their car while pulling other girls off by their hair).

Sigh. If only.

“Choose pieces that show off what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine - 22 February 1932

Yehudi Menuhin on the cover of Time Magazine – 22 February 1932

This was the most valuable piece of advice that I ever got from my piano teacher. I attended a concert on Sunday afternoon where young soloists were given a chance to perform with an orchestra, and if I could have said anything to these talented musicians, that would have been it. Every teacher should instill this concept into the minds of their students, yet many are so carried away with having a little prodigy in their care that they become preoccupied with showing them off to the world. They show little regard for the child’s musical development and polishing of their technique and force them to play pieces much too advanced for them. This gets the child a lot of attention and keeps parents and teachers proud, while doing a great disservice in the long term. One day the child will grow up with this inadequate, hurried training to be an ordinary adult musician, while all the other children who have progressed slowly and steadily would have caught up, but with a more solid technical grounding. I have been observing this my whole life, and I wish that teachers would not let their egos get the better of them.

On Sunday I watched a selection of extremely talented young musicians between the ages of 9 and 16 play concertos. The most brilliant of the performers didn’t necessarily play the most difficult pieces. They played pieces that showed off their strong points. A 10-year-old girl played a most brilliant Concertino for Violin in Hungarian Style by Oskar Rieding, which was one of the most impressive performances for me. It showed an emotional maturity of an adult. Her playing was incredibly expressive and had the most beautiful tone quality. Her technique was flawless. Another excellent performance was given by a 16-year-old clarinettist, who played a slow movement of a Mozart concerto.

On the other hand, a 9-year old boy chose to play the first movement (an Allegro) of a Mozart violin concerto. Most people were very impressed by this display, however, to a musician it was clear that his little fingers could not handle that particular piece, especially at the speed at which he chose to play it. There were quite a few untidy passages, some wrong notes, and his timing sometimes went off as it was difficult to concentrate on playing the right notes at high speed while trying to keep in sync with the orchestra. There is no doubt that this little boy is highly gifted for his age, but wouldn’t it have been better to let him play something easier with absolute perfection rather than force a Mozart concerto upon him to be performed with mistakes?  Surely actual musical enjoyment is more important than the pure entertainment value of watching a little kid play a difficult concerto?

There were two other musicians who were no doubt brilliant and very advanced for their respective ages, but played pieces that they didn’t have the technical skill for. One was a 12-year-old playing the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, and the other, a 14-year-old with Liszt’s Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Melodies. Again, as with the Mozart, it was all very cute but not good to listen to a child’s fingers struggling to play difficult passages. The Liszt was played with much style and flair, but also with some messy arpeggios and chordal passages. The girl’s dainty hands also lacked the strength that some of the heavy chords demanded. The more delicate parts of the concerto were played extremely beautifully. Here as well,  the teacher should be advising the student to choose suitable pieces that show of their skill, and to spend time perfecting their weak points before performing a piece. They should be encouraging musical excellence and discipline. In some cases, parents of unusually talented children may push them too hard to excel, however it is the teacher’s job to guide the student. Every single student at this concert had the capability of performing to perfection.

I made my concerto debut at the age of 18, which is later in life than all of these kids. I played Poulenc’s double piano concerto with my then 16-year-old sister. We knew our strengths and weaknesses, and chose to play something that we had complete control over. I am thankful that my teacher taught us to understand our musical abilities and made sure we were more than ready to play with a professional orchestra before we auditioned. We received superb reviews all round and it was well worth the wait. Music is made for enjoyment and performers of all levels should feel free to express themselves. The bringing to life of great classical works however, particularly on the orchestral stage, requires great care, a high level of  musical understanding, interpretation and attention to detail. This cannot be achieved in a hurry and by cutting corners in one’s musical education.


~ Sorry for sounding all old-fartsy; I’d been dying to say this for half my life and just had to let it out. ~



Experiencing Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim (Copyright John Edwin Mason, 2010)

On Thursday night I attended a concert given by the most successful jazz pianist to come out of South Africa, Abdullah Ibrahim. Formerly known as Dollar Brand (and born Adolph Johannes Brand) before his conversion to Islam, he is also one of the greatest composers to come out of South Africa and drove the development of the “Cape jazz” style of music. He has even recorded with the great Duke Ellington himself.

I was so excited about this concert I couldn’t contain myself; I couldn’t even concentrate properly at work during the day. I had never seen him perform before, as he is now based in New York, and being 79 years old, I’m not sure if I’ll ever have another opportunity to witness his greatness. As a classical (and aspiring jazz) pianist, it is one of the most inspirational and beautiful experiences to watch a master such as Ibrahim at work. So my (also classical pianist) sister, Meruschka and I rushed off to the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City after work for this most epic event in our musical lives.

The theatre is beautiful and small enough so that every audience member can still feel connected to the musicians during the performance. The front of the piano was also tilted relative to the stage edge, which is not normally the case, so that people on all sides of the theatre could still see the pianist’s hands. Once seated, we looked around to see if we could spot any celebrities and other musicians in the audience. The audience looked quite jazzy themselves, with a lot of people who looked like they could be famous. We did end up having our deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe sitting 3 rows in front of us, which got Advocate Mer really excited and wondering if she can take a photo with him (and then trying slyly to get pictures of him, all stalker-like). We like him even more now, for his good taste in music.

Eventually the band, Ekaya walked onto the stage, followed by the great Mr Ibrahim himself. The band consists of four wind players using a combination of alto/tenor/baritone sax, flute, piccolo, trombone and trumpet, a double bassist and a drummer. Every single musician showed extraordinary skill and discipline and the most amazing solos were heard when it was time for each one to let loose. I have to say that those were the most enjoyable bass solos I’ve ever heard.

Not one word was said during the entire concert (except by enthusiastic fans), with Ibrahim showing a humorous “time out” signal to the audience to indicate a break and the end of the show. Watching the behaviour of Ibrahim and his band made me admire them all even more. The show was all about the music, with the humble musicians themselves seeming to acknowledge the music as being far greater than they are. Ibrahim, even though the star of the show, preferred to remain in the background for much of the performance, providing a soft, solid support on the piano against which the other soloists got to shine, although he did astound the audience with his virtuosic skill during a few songs. He always thanked the band, calling them out repeatedly to take a bow and applauding them, and putting his hands together to thank the audience. It was so heartwarming.

The thing that most impresses me is the honesty and realism in Ibrahim’s music. It’s not many people that can paint a scene with sounds, using not a single word, and bring across such strong imagery, reminding me very much of the impressionist style of Debussy. And he uses such simple, straightforward themes. There’s no way that you can compose that out of your head only; it’s straight-from-the-heart kind of stuff and when you listen with your heart you immediately know what he’s talking about. I’m sure many were disappointed that night when he didn’t perform one of his greatest compositions, “Mannenberg“, named after the township Manenberg in the Cape Flats. This piece was an apartheid anthem, the unofficial national anthem of South Africa in the 1970s, because it represented so much of the struggle and reflected clearly the personality of the townships that were destroyed by the apartheid government.

The band did, however, play my favourite Abdullah Ibrahim song, “The Wedding“, even though Ibrahim himself didn’t play a single note. I find this song so realistic, it’s unreal! It’s so simple, with such an enchanting melody. And it’s the most perfect blend of every emotion that exists at a wedding, with a typically South African vibe. How you achieve this without getting all complicated, I don’t know. It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s spiritual, it’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s hopeful and optimistic and full of love – all created by the expressive saxophone melody over the steady “churchy” accompaniment. I can even picture the weather from the way he’s written this!

I feel so fulfilled after that experience and I’ve learnt so much about making music and about jazz. I’m so grateful to have been able to witness the bringing to life of such great music by great musicians, and to have seen a South African that has touched so many through music.

My Worsfest debut (which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with sausages)

Last night I attended my third annual ‘Worsfest’. For non-South Africans, ‘wors’ means ‘sausage’, so ‘Worsfest’ should actually be a sausage festival, right? Well, not really. In this case, Wors is a friend of mine, who is Indian and (more importantly) vegetarian, so there are definitely no sausages at this festival. How he earned the nickname Wors though, will forever remain a mystery to those who were not part of his close circle of university friends (although we did enquire, but received the answer, “It’s a long story.” and we all know what that means…).

So Wors is a musician and every year for his birthday, he gathers all his musical friends together for the most epic jam session of the year. Actually, it’s not normally held anywhere near his birthday, and we’re lucky if it makes it within the same month of his birthday, but he uses his birthday as an excuse to get all the important people in his life together. I’m told that one year the Worsfest, as it has become known over the past 17 years, was held approximately 5 months after Wors’ birthday. Many people meet up at the Worsfest, who never get to see each for the rest of the year, and it sometimes ends up feeling like an enormous family reunion. It kicks off with a dinner, followed by hours of jamming to everyone’s favourite hits. Wors’ friends and band members are mostly into old school rock, and the crowd gets to sing along to everything from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Deep Purple and U2. This selection is guaranteed to entertain all age groups, with six-year-olds to senior citizens rocking out together in front of the stage (although the seniors are much more clued up with the lyrics).

This year I was lucky enough to jump out of the audience and play a few songs, as requested by Wors himself. I performed with a lovely lady named Marlini, who sings beautifully, and we were the only two females on stage for the night, kicking off the proceedings after supper. Wors wanted us to perform some piano-driven pop songs that he liked and gave us a list of (mostly to please the general audience, since he really isn’t much of a pop fan). I’m also not really into pop, but it’s always much more fun playing these songs than actually listening to them, so I gladly agreed! And anything to be a part of the epic-ness of Worsfest.

So we started off with ‘The Rose’ by Bette Midler. Wors just loves this song, and even though Marlini and I got slightly bored after the first two verses, we did it for Wors. Actually, I like listening to this song, so I think it’s one of those rare instances where the song is better to listen to than to play. ‘Heaven’ was next (not sure who was singing on the recording we were practising with, and I’m in no mood to Google it now – some girl, although we all like the Bryan Adams version), followed by ‘From This Moment’ by Shania Twain. This one was quite nice to play. Next we performed ‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan, which is such a beautiful song, but this was the first time that I had paid any attention to the lyrics, so it was really depressing and I wanted to cry and help this person stuck in the dark, cold hotel room! Luckily the next song had me making a quick recovery. This song was not chosen by Wors; he doesn’t even know it. But out of the ten songs Wors asked us to play, we only managed to learn four, as my schedule is crazy enough with the band and incomplete master’s thesis, and Marlini is heavily pregnant so the singing was tiring her out. So we decided to add one that we both knew and enjoyed, even though RnB is totally out of the scope of the Worsfest. It was ‘Save Room’ by John Legend (check out my favourite, acoustic version; I just want to eat him up here). Marlini’s husband is a big John Legend fan, and I play this song with the band, so it was a natural choice for us. I knew the chords and had already practised a really good solo (if I may say so myself – virtuosic*, but not at all classical, okay, maybe a little towards the end). It was also upbeat, a pleasant change from the preceding numbers.

The crowd loved it (thank goodness)! Including all the rockers, who, like the good musicians that they are, appreciate good music in all forms. The most rewarding appreciation though, came from a six-year-old, who came over to tell me that she liked my piano playing, and then ran off before I could even thank her properly! I then got to relax the rest of the night and sing along to ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Islands in the Stream’, ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Smoke on the Water’ and other timeless hits, while drinking tea (there was a bar outside, but most of us went for the tea). It was an awesome night and I can’t wait to do it all again next year. Although Marlini and I have decided to surprise Wors with more of our own choice of repertoire, which does not include anything that will make me cry. And I’ll probably get to play with the band guys too, since we were all excited to meet each other afterwards. It will be cool to broaden my band chick experience to include more rock. And to introduce the rockers to some jazz, of course! All thanks to Wors.

*I’m disappointed to note that ‘virtuosic’ is not recognised here in my WordPress dictionary as a word (okay, even ‘recognised’ is not recognised here as a word). But it is in the musical world. I even have a Grade 6 piano exam report from Trinity College to prove it!