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Rain is what Cornwall does best, and today did not disappoint. It had rained on my way to rehearsal, and it was raining thin drops of icy water now on my way back. Only this time, the grey skies seemed to match my mood more than ever.
“You’re too lost in the theory,” Mr. Warner, my guitar teacher had said earlier in my lesson, disappointedly shaking his head. “Do you even remember what it means to be a musician, Ginny?”
I’d felt the intended stab of his words then, and even more so now as I stepped out of the studio on my way home. Sucking in a deep lungful of cold air to keep my breathing even, I shouldered my acoustic guitar and watched my red boots take the first two steps of my journey home.
Warner knows I don’t care anymore, I realized sadly to myself.
I forced that out of my mind and allowed softer, less painful thoughts to drift around as I pulled the hood of my grey coat over my dark brown hair. Warm fires, dry carpets, hot drinks… they were much easier to dwell on than the frustrations of failing at something as personal as music. When I’d started up, I’d thought of all the things I could do when I’d mastered the acoustic guitar, all of the songs I could make my own. But somewhere along the way that dream had become more of an unrealistic impossibility. And it was that, it seemed, that broke Warner’s heart every time he heard me play. He could tell there was no passion there, no eagerness. And for someone as musically centered as Warner, that was like losing a limb.
My boots kicked a rock as I stepped down from the curb to cross the road. It skittered away, and I turned my head to see where it had landed.
That’s when I heard it.
The ghostly sound of guitar carried on the strong arctic breeze reached my ears just at the same moment when the rain breathed a moment of silence.
Was the music haunting me? Or had someone just left the door to the studio open while Warner’s next student warmed up for his lesson? Somehow neither answer made sense. The music playing was different than anything that I had ever heard before. It was sincere and honest, more open than direct words from a person’s mouth. It had character and spontaneity.
I had to find out where it was coming from. I didn’t know why, and after today’s lesson, I surely had good reason to want to avoid any form of guitar music at all, but something made me turn towards the sea and start to walk. Where it was coming from, who was playing it, and how far I would have to go, I wasn’t sure. But it didn’t matter.
Running the full length of the road was an old, stone seawall that overlooked the raging, crashing waves of the ocean. The rain drizzling down overhead had made the gray landscape all the grayer, and the wetness omnipresent. You’d think that with all of these wintry qualities of the day, people would hurry inside and avoid outdoors at all costs. Yet there was a crowd, standing just around one small part of the wall. They were huddled close together from the cold, and I couldn’t see what the commotion was about, but somehow I already knew. They were gathered to watch the guitar player. This amazing musician that had drawn me a good few meters from the comforts of the walk home, was a street musician.
He couldn’t have been much older than I was, and was leaning against the black and gray stone seawall, open guitar case resting at his feet. The rain pattering down had matted his coal-black hair to his forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice. In fact, he didn’t seem to notice anything. His eyes were closed, not clenched, but relaxed. His fingers, though, were flying. The melody that had sounded so complicated, so full of personality, was much more than that. The technique that he had was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
It was like his fingers knew the strings like it was part of their own hand. They moved smoothly and confidently, like it didn’t matter if a mistake was made, because… because that wasn’t the point. The point was the music. That was all that mattered.
I couldn’t stop myself from venturing closer. He had a magnetic pull, and I was the other half of the magnet. Before I knew where I was, I was already shadowing the edge of the crowd. I didn’t breathe loudly; much less get any closer, in case it somehow stopped the melody unraveling from the hands of this mysterious street side performer.
His eyes were still closed, and I couldn’t help but wonder what difference that made. So I closed my eyes, and the sounds around me changed in an instant. The sea waves crashing against the wall weren’t nuisances anymore—they were rhythms, and this boy’s music lulled and swayed to the time of them. His melody was no longer surprising, but now I could feel that there was something more behind it than that. It was like there was feeling there that I hadn’t ever been able to bottle and label. His song was new. There was no sheet music in sight. It was free-flying and hadn’t been captured yet.
What was it about this boy that made his music so intense? How did he make the notes come to life? Nothing that I had ever done in the studio could have ever held a candle to the experience of listening to the street performer.
And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t his technique, or his style, or his instrument that was different. It was the intangible ‘it’. It was that ‘it’ that was a spark, a soul, that only a true artist understands. It’s what separates those who play for others, and those who play for the music. And he had it.
I had it once. But then it had left me when I’d tried to box my talent and theorize the formula of musicianship down to a note. This boy hadn’t done that. He still remembered what music was. What it is. What it should be.
Whoever this boy was, with the talent and passion of a musician, he had finished his song. He opened his eyes for the first time, and I saw the faintest glimmer of surprise as he took in the crowd lingering around him and his guitar. Not saying a word, he watched with an expression of contentment and curiosity as people dropped money into his open case and muttered their words of awe and thanks to him. Quietly, they all slipped away until the crowd was so thin that the boy caught sight of my guitar.
He looked at me inquisitively. “I’m Liam.” Was all he said. No hellos. No, ‘did you enjoy my song?’ I’m Liam. That’s all.
“I’m Ginny.” I returned simply, waiting to see how he’d react.
He looked once at the cold stonewall where he was sitting, and then once back to me. Absently moving his fingers across the sleek polish of his instrument, he asked me something that I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to.
“Do you want to play?”
I wasn’t sure. After listening to the kind of honesty and power that Liam played with, I was positive that I would sound flat and dull. Or, even worse, stiff and unemotional. Warner had told me that I was too lost in theory, and in only a few short minutes I had realized that he was right. But a few short minutes weren’t enough to cure months of destructive musical habits that would embarrass me in front of a real musician.
“Sure.” I heard someone say. It took me a few moments to realize that that person had been me, and that since I’d said it, Liam had been smiling. His smile wasn’t brazen, though. It was soft, sincere, and his eyes stormed like he was fighting something inside just to pull that grin out. Looking into his face made me think back to the song he’d been playing. Somehow, through some magic of music, he had managed to put into melody something that couldn’t be constrained to words—pain. He was feeling pain. I could see it in his face, and hear it in his music. So maybe, probably, the guitar was just as cathartic to Liam as it was to me. Or how it used to be to me.
I unclasped my guitar from its case and leaned back against the icy, damp stone seawall beside Liam as he watched silently nearby. It wasn’t until I had the familiar smooth wood slung against my side that I realized exactly what I’d say I’d do.
“I don’t have any music,” I said out loud, sounding confused and a little lost in my declaration to Liam.
His eyes, just as stormy grey as the Cornwall rainy skies, sparkled. “Follow me, and you’ll make your own.”
How he’d done it, I’d never know. But somehow, with just a somber song and a grieving smile, this street side performer had shown me exactly what it means to be a musician. Because when you play for others, you’ll never reach your audience. But when you play for yourself, you have the world’s ear.