Musical note, part one

Across the street from  your house is a small apartment building. Every so often, at the end of the month, someone will move out and someone else will move in. You sit in your upstairs office, the one with the green walls and the fuchsia and orange curtains –be not afraid of color– and glance out as you work.

Cars and vans, sometimes a U-Haul, the sweating friends and family: in and out they go, tromping up and down the steps, lugging the bureau and couch and chairs and television. It’s all so familiar. You yourself have moved quite a few times in just such a manner.

About a month ago, someone new moved in. You have no idea if this someone new is a man or a woman, but you do know that the someone new is a musician.

You know this because it’s spring –finally, it’s spring– and you took out the storms and put in the screens, and the spring breeze blows the curtains and your hair while you work. And while you work, classical violin music wafts from an upstairs window from the apartment building across the street.

At first you thought it was a fluke. You had managed to catch a child at practice. Maybe she goes to MacPhail School for Music, as does one of your own children, you thought, and she’s been avoiding her practicing all week, but today is lesson day. Quick, better get in a few minutes of practice so you won’t have to lie to the teacher.

But a few minutes later you knew you were wrong. This was no child desperately trying to dodge a stern teacher bullet. For one thing, it was the middle of the day on a school day, long after all the backpack-dragging children on the block had trudged to their bus stops. For another, this was serious music played by someone who had put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice.

That first day he (she? Some days you picture a woman, other days a man in a black suit) played for more than and hour and then stopped.

Oh. You were surprised at how sad this made you. That music was so beautiful. You, who are forever embarrassed at your un-knowledge about classical music, yet who love it anyway, in your naive way, didn’t want that music to end.

Your phone rang and you plucked it up.

“Did you hear that?” said your next-door neighbor. “That gorgeous music?”

She too works at home, in an upstairs room that faces the street exactly as yours does. She too likes to look out on the street life as she works.

“It’s amazing,” you said. “Who is it?”

“No idea,” she said. “But maybe we should go throw flowers up at their window. Do you think that would encourage them to keep going?”

But no flowers were necessary. Within an hour, the music had begun again, and on it went, for another hour. And on and off throughout the day, and the days, and the weeks, and now more than a month. Music is the center of the violinist’s life.

Is there anything like that in your life? Any kind of gift you yourself can give the world, or your block, right here and right now, merely by trying to be better at something?

You can’t delight the neighbors with the sound of your fingers clicking away on the keyboard, trying to be better at writing. You can’t delight them with your singing, or your own preschooler piano playing. Maybe you can delight a few with the smell of baking cookies. Come the end of June through September, you might delight some with the hundreds of flowers which by then will be open and waving in the boulevard and front yard gardens.

But that violinist, all he has to do is stand before an open window and try to get better at what he already excels at, and the air around him fills with beauty.


  1. Karen · May 31, 2011

    It’s funny–when I read a book (like one of yours, for instance) and think about how the story, the words, the ideas reach right into my heart, I want to be able to do that so badly. I often feel like the things I want to say musically get lost in performance because of nerves or imperfect technique. It is good, though, to think that maybe my own neighbors weren’t too annoyed with me for the many times I, myself, practiced with the windows open. Thank you for the perspective!


  2. alison · June 8, 2011

    Karen, I guarantee you that it would be pure pleasure to your neighbors. Last night it was 103 in Minneapolis, and the power was out in the neighborhood. I lay on my bed in the steam and listened to a child somewhere on the next block practicing “Greensleeves” on her flute. Halting, full of errors, and still beautiful.


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