Secretly Listening to Music as a Child
Vinyl records, dancing, and playing piano
“And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon.”
― Edward Lear, The Owl, and the Pussycat
It was rare to hear music in the house where I grew up in the 1970s.
My parents were both Jehovah’s Witnesses and unless the radio was on for my father to listen to a gardening show, we rarely ever heard music playing as most of the modern radio channels were considered by them to be “too worldly.”
My father and mother had a collection in our lounge room of about two dozen vinyl records, gathering dust in a cabinet upon which sat the record player.
My Dad loved Shirley Bassey (b. 1937), so there was a couple of her records in the cabinet. However, to the best of my knowledge, he never listened to them or played them. The rest of the records as I remember them were not memorable.
Shirley Bassey was a Welsh singer who had a Nigerian father and English mother. She was one of the most popular female vocalists in Britain in the 20th century. My father said he loved the rich, deep tone of her voice, and he would compare any modern singer he heard on the car radio (if it happened to be switched on) disparagingly to her.
Given the restricted nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the total lack of music, dancing or other passionate and stimulating music in our house I adored listening to these records if I ever found myself home alone. It was a secret activity, loaded with the ‘forbidden’ and I don’t believe I was ever ‘found out.’
I would shut the lounge door, draw all the curtains tight, put on one of the records, and move, sway and dance around the room, sometimes with my eyes shut or else dancing with an imaginary other.
They are memories of innocent bliss and pleasure and some rare occasions where I experienced pure joy.
The lounge of our house was never in use, but was kept closed and only used if we had guests. It was a large room and immaculately maintained, but sterile and cold and furthermost from the heating we had in the main living area. Because of this we rarely ever entered it in the winter time.
Singing and dancing to “Kiss me, honey honey (kiss me)” and “Goldfinger” was foreign and completely “out of left field” from my day to day life as a Jehovah’s Witness child. I reveled in the joy, lusciousness, loudness, and sensuousness of her voice.
Even today, listening to her sing these songs, I am transported back to how her voice made me feel inside. I felt free. Empowered.
I felt the stirrings of what it meant to “have a voice” without really even knowing that is what I was then feeling and enjoying.
Her form graced the cover of the records.
Shirley Bassey’s tight dresses and sexual allure was something foreign to me as any display of female sexuality, or any movement of the body that could be seen as sexually stimulating to the opposite sex was condemned within the congregation.
We were counseled that our dresses had to be below the knee, breasts completely covered, and no form-fitting dresses. Dancing in any way that could be deemed sexual, even in the eyes of the observer was condemned.
Shirley Bassey’s form-fitting alluring sequinned dresses did NOT fit the bill.
Here is a direct quote from a Watchtower article, “How Should Christians View Dancing?”
If a Christian can participate in a dance with a good conscience before God, because of having no wrong motive, that is not enough. He must consider the effect upon the onlooker.
The onlooker knows what goes on in his own mind when he sees a sensual dance, and he assumes that such thoughts are going on in the mind of the dancer.
One’s saying: “My mind and conscience is clear” is not enough, because the Scriptures are emphatic about keeping “from becoming causes for stumbling.”
Given that I never saw my father play the records, but I knew he always kept them in the cabinet made them even more appealing to me, and added to the mystery and forbidden nature of listening to them.
“Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart” ― Pablo Casals
Listening to them now, I can see how tame and innocent they were compared to what is available nowadays but listening to them, I also am transported back to that time forty years ago, when on the cusp of puberty, I danced alone and secretly in the lounge.
Her voice and the music would swell and fill the room and go right through me, and it was if the rest of the world did not exist.
I did not understand or hear anyone express emotion in that way in any other context in my everyday life. It made my mind open to the possibility that other people lived in ‘other’ ways, which were more expressive, more open and awakened a small crack in my heart to the possibility of a different sort of life.
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness” ― Maya Angelou
My father was caretaker of a primary school in Christchurch, New Zealand as we grew up, and so we lived in an old school house (over 80 years old) which was on the grounds of the school where he worked. I was permitted to take piano lessons when I was about 11 years old, and I took them for three years.
I was never much good at rhythm and timing, but I adored practicing the music on the piano in one of the school classrooms.
My parents never had a lot of money, and so we never could afford to have instruments, but I was allowed to go and open up one of the classrooms in the evening or weekend when the school was empty and practice as much as I wanted.
My memories of going to practice the piano in one of the old classrooms are mainly sensory.
The building was old and built in the days when old vintage oil heaters ran all the way along one wall, and the smell of them heating up in winter was unique.
The key for opening the classroom was as long as my hand (from wrist to end of my fingers) and clunked on a chain I carried.
There was floor to ceiling partitioned windows on doors which opened out onto the side of the classroom that faced a wide verandah.
The floors were wide wooden scuffed floorboards my father would polish until they shone every school holidays and the smell of floor polish and wax would intermingle with the oil heaters and the smell of ‘old’ from the furniture, and desks.
The classrooms were filled with the old wooden single school desks with holes for inkwells, although no one used the ink anymore. Blue ink stains permeated the wood on the desks, surrounding the gaping holes and the desks had been etched with marks from pencils over the years.
In the weekends when I would go over to practice, often the sunlight would filter through the doors on the verandah side of the classroom, and the streaks of light would cut pathways across the wood as I sat at the piano.
The sunlight would pick up the dust in the air, and the chalk dust would be thick on the ledge under the large blackboard that took up one end of the class.
Often pieces of chalk would be laying on the floor where they had fallen, and I would pick them up and return them to the ledge, leaving a residue of white dust on my fingertips I would have to brush off before I sat down to play.
Some of the ebony keyboards on the piano were yellow with age and would stick as the piano was rarely tuned or serviced.
I would be alone with the music and my thoughts as I practiced the songs I had to learn to play.
In between playing tunes, I would pause, and take in the moments of silence between the music.
My mind would reflect on the sunlight, dust, smells, the feeling of comfort, and the feelings of inclusion from being surrounded by old desks and cupboards holding memories and imprints of unknown children over the years that had filled the space before I had ever arrived.
I had an awareness of all these ‘people’ both past and present, filling this space, and separate to that sense, was my singularity.
The awareness brought me comfort. It felt peaceful, serene. It was a respite from the rest of the world. It was like the outside world ‘stopped’ when I entered the class. I could breathe. And be still.
I could make music, or not.
I could sit and think, or I could lose myself in ‘not thinking’ and play the piano.
I would be swept up in my fingers moving across the keys and the swelling sounds of the music, traveling through the room, contained by the room but at the same time moving through my body, penetrating my heart and mind, filling all the spaces inside of me, pulsing.
I did not feel empty. I felt full.
It was heaven. I enjoyed every minute of it.
My teacher was another matter. Grumpy, obviously disliking children, and impatient, he never failed to let me know how bad my timing was, and how the song could be improved. I did not care though. I suffered through the lessons so I could get the time to go and practice and play and enjoy playing on my own.
Music was an escape. An escape from reality. A pleasant diversion and a retreat into another world that I loved. I could lose myself for hours, practicing piano.
My mother loved listening to me, and it was one way we bonded, and I felt her approval and support. She was the one who took me unfailingly over the years to lessons, despite money being very tight at times. She knew how much I enjoyed them.
So these are my childhood memories of the role music played in my life, and how it nourished me.
During childhood, these two musical expressions were my only real creative outlets.
I secretly wrote but threw what I wrote away so no one would find my words. I cut out pictures of flowers and birds from old copies of women’s magazines and would put them in shoeboxes. I would look at them. I always marveled at their beauty.
So, in these two ways, reflecting on the music of my childhood when I was listening and dancing in secret to my father’s forbidden records and practicing the piano in an empty schoolroom, I realize I was nourished by the music at a soul level.
It kept that part of me alive — my creative me.
Today, I still only dance alone. In secret. When I am home by myself.
I have not played the piano for years, but I still love listening to music and love to lose myself listening to lyrics, letting the music ‘wash’ through me and fill the air.
My art (painting) and my writing are now my main creative outlets.
Hmmm…Maybe I will go and take those dance classes I have been thinking of doing?
“And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky — so the space where I exist, and I want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”
― Donna Tartt