I think one of the happiest things in the world is to see a person sitting in a public place playing a musical instrument. No matter if they are playing for tips or simply for their own enjoyment, I think that playing music in public, especially by yourself, is such an act of courage. You are opening up your creative heart to the world around you and giving it the option to reject you or appreciate you.
People might walk by and ignore you. Some might mock your playing. And some might stop and listen. You are being vulnerable with the world, offering it a gift, and you can have no idea how it will respond.
About 5 months back I started playing the ukulele. I would say that the absolute best thing about the process, so far, has been developing a skill for no one else’s sake but mine. A lot of the things I do revolve around pleasing people: impressing them, supporting them, working for them, completing assignments they give me, making them proud, making life better for them. So a good bit of my life consists of making every moment worthwhile and useful to other people. However, I tend to take it too far, never resting, and rarely doing things solely because I alone enjoy them. Obligation reigns over rest.
However, playing the ukulele has become a skill that fills me up with joy, energy, and peace. When I sit down to play it, I’m not doing it because someone else wants to hear it, or because a professor or boss requires me to practice and strengthen my skill. I’m not extraordinarily good at it yet, and I may never be. But I don’t really care. I play to produce and channel joy in my life. And it’s a lovely feeling.
Now, it’s not that I never play for others. I have learned and performed a few songs as gifts for friends and family; taking the time to learn and dedicate a song to someone seems like a very meaningful gift, in my perspective. And my roommate really enjoys listening when I am just sitting around, practicing. The cats do, as well.
However, in those moments, I am still playing because I want to and because I enjoy it.
So, I’ve taken to sitting on my apartment porch, accompanied by 13 sad potted plants that barely survived the out-of-the-blue Florida freeze last week, and playing the ukulele for a bit before I begin the day. I sit out there, overlooking the oak tree in front of my porch, and finish my morning reading while enjoying a cup of coffee. Then, out comes the ukulele for 15-20 minutes (maybe longer, if I get on a roll and keep thinking of new things to try playing). I’ve never really worried about people getting annoyed by the noise. I am sitting on my own porch, after all, and if the noise drifts, people can deal with it.
Well, my apartment building is right next to the complex dog park, so anyone walking their dog has to walk past the building. Dog-walkers will often pass by as I’m playing, but no comments have ever been made.
So, I was out there this morning, practicing Annie Lennox’s “Into the West,” from The Return of the King. The song is one of my favorites- so peaceful and thoughtful. I saw my neighbor who lives on the opposite side of the building out walking his two dogs. Somehow, I knew his dogs’ names, but I didn’t know his.
A few minutes later, I heard paws scrambling up the stairs. To my surprise, I look to my right and see my neighor at my porch with his dogs.
“Sorry to interrupt you,” he said. “They just wanted to know what the sound was.”
So we struck up a conversation about the ukulele and about animals (my two cats are mesmerized by the instrument, as well). He said that he’d heard me out here playing in the past, and that he really enjoyed starting out his morning hearing the music as he walked his dogs.
As he was saying this, my brain was going, “Who? Me? 5-month-experienced, previously-competely-unmusical me? My music brings you joy? My music isn’t an annoyance? It has a voice of its own? It reaches out to touch people I didn’t intend it for?”
But as he kept talking– saying that it was nice to hear the music before heading to a long, busy day of work– I realized the sincerity of his words. I was kind of blown away; I hadn’t intentionally been trying to reach out to anybody.
“Where do you work?” I asked.
“The newsjournal. Yeah, it can get kind of stressful in there. It’d be great to have a ukulele-player to just have in the office.” He smiled jokingly.
Understood, friend. Office environments seem very dead inside.
“Aha…. a newsroom bard. Good idea,” I joked. Turns out that “bard” actually means more an epic-poem musician, but whatever.
My mind is still a little blown. He actually feels like I’m approachable enough for him to come talk about the ukulele. This just comes to show, once again, the atmosphere that playing instruments in public creates. It invites people to approach ask, and engage, rather than making them feel awkward or pushing them away. Obviously, if a person is playing music in public, they are not ashamed of other peope engaging with it. And my mind is even more blown that it is possible to be doing something solely because I enjoy it and at the same time bring joy to someone else, unintentionally.
So, before he headed back to his apartment, I made sure to introduce myself and find out his name, which had somehow eluded me in the past. He went on his way, and I went back to my ukulele-playing.
Joy is a powerful thing, I suppose. And when I seek to find joy and rest for myself, perhaps I am reaching further to give it to otherst than when I am intentionally trying to help them.
So, here’s to many more mornings to starting the day out right with 13 sad but slowly resurrecting potted plants, a cup of coffee, a book, and music with my ukulele, Georgina.* May such mornings continue to bring much joy.
By the way, if you guys are interested in seeing me post some videos of ukulele-playing, just let me know down in the comments. 🙂
*I named my ukulele Georgina. Don’t ask where I got the name; it just randomly came to me. But I like it; I can nickname her Georgie, or Gina, or George, etc. 🙂