by Rita Leydon ©2003
I’ve always known—been certain in fact—that musically speaking I’m of the genus “outsider.” Homo sapiens musicalis excludus. That’s me. Part of my self-identity is the knowledge that I’m not supposed to be a musician. Music and the making of it is something that others are capable of, others who possess secret combinations entitling entry to the Realm of Melodies. Not me, I haven’t got any combinations, secret or otherwise. I’ve watched folks who can really play their instruments. They close their eyes. Space out. Hover between here and now and the wild blue yonder. Out of reach. Transformed for the moment into channels through which melodies stream, direct depositors into the heart and soul of those with ears tuned to a similar frequency. I’ve envied those who can do this. Be channels. Make music. Speak to the soul. Bypass reason and logic. Cut right to the quick. I’m a card carrying musical wanna-be. So I practice a lot, rejoice when it goes well and bite my lip and try harder when it doesn’t.
I happened to be in Sweden when my cousin Margareta turned the big five-o. My farm cousin—as in chickens, horses, cows, dogs, acres and acres of pastures and crops and kittens in the hay loft. She grew up and became a district veterinarian. I grew up and became an American who visits sometimes. We got the big old tractor going and huffed and puffed our way to the village church, rickety flatbed wagon precariously in tow. Tables and chairs for 85 fit handily on the wagon and back we went. We swept out and decorated one of the barns with birch saplings. Fine china, silver and stemware. A whole marinated deer spent the day rotating to perfection over glowing charcoal embers, basted to tender perfection by two elderly brothers who stumbled upon their true calling late in life.
I had been asked to play my nyckelharpa for the party. I said yes because sooner or later you have to put up or shut up. I figured it was like childbirth—you can’t avoid it if you’re pregnant and it will soon be over. During the afternoon I kept the deer company, nonchalantly playing for my own amusement while my uncle and the brothers shot the breeze across the carcass. I needed to warm up and scare away my anxieties. Being unafraid is an art in itself. Gaining self-confidence in a large enough measure to get from first to last note of a tune takes focus and concentration. I’m not very good at this yet and wanted to do well, wanted to make a positive contribution to the festivities rather than be an embarrassment. This was a tall order. But Rita, thought I, you play all the time at home, and mostly it goes just fine. Pretend you’re at home. If it feels like you’re about to lose it, close your eyes and center your focus again. Simple.
I ambled in the general direction of the parking field as the first guests arrived thinking the weary travelers might like to hear sweet nyckelharpa strains as they opened their car doors and climbed out. The effect was pronounced. Smiles. Ahhs. Ohhs. Nods of acknowledgement. This fueled my confidence. I smiled back and became fearless. No anxieties. No worries. Played for fun. Played what I knew. I even chanced tunes I usually don’t get through. All the time wandering amongst the guests. A couple of hours went by like that. Every few tunes, someone approached wanting to commune with the musician. Comments about how beautiful the music was, how well (!!) I played, how hard it must be to play such a complicated looking instrument. Questions. How can I possibly remember all those tunes without any notes? How can I play with my eyes closed and without looking at the keys? Speculation and fascination about who I might be and my role at the party. Oh, so you’e Maggan’s American cousin. How odd. How beautiful. It adds so much to the atmosphere of the party. Thank you. Thank you.
Dinner was eventually served with attendant toasts and libations. The meat was delectable. I had played for my supper and enjoyed every morsel. During the course of the meal, one shy guest after another came to me and expressed words of appreciation for the music. Slowly it dawned to me that I had migrated from one side to the other of that invisible membrane that separates musicians from non-musicians. I was on the other side. I was the musician—a bona fide speleman. The assembled guests would all solemnly hold up their hand (if asked) and attest to this fact. My cousin and the family expressed astonished admiration and thanks for my contribution. I was astonished myself. Astonished that I could play my nyckelharpa—maybe not brilliantly, but with certitude and joy—out in public without mortification. I had held my own. Hadn’t embarrassed myself or anyone else. Had fun and can imagine doing it again. I’m making progress.
Photos by Jonas Carlsson