In an earlier post, I talked about my enthusiasm for Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. One of the things I adored was Howard Shore's music. I ran out and bought the CDs, of course. At first I listened to the music as a way of re-experiencing the movies. I’d done this with other movie music, like The Last of the Mohicans, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, and all the work of Ennio Morricone. Romantic, evocative music fits the same slot in my brain as Mendelsohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or his violin concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” suite, or Borodin’s “In the Steppe of Central Asia” (one of the pieces I listened to while writing Shannivar). It’s narrative music, emotive rather than abstract, and I find it marvelous to write to.
When at long last it was my time to embark upon piano lessons, as a first-time older adult student, I grabbed a copy of the easy piano versions of The Lord of the Rings music. My goal was to play “Into the West.” I was one of those folks in the theater with tears down my cheeks as the song ended. But I was just starting out, I had zero self-confidence, and I wanted to make sure I had the skill to play it well. My teacher and I selected “In Dreams” (which is also the leitmotif for the hobbits) as one of my early pieces. Even in the easy version, it was a challenge. And it had words, words in a key within my limited vocal range.
Like others of my generation, I got caught in the folk scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even taught myself a few chords on the guitar. Although I enjoyed singing in a group, I had become convinced I had a terrible voice. I remember being told as a child that I couldn’t sing. So of course, my voice was strained, thin, unreliable in pitch. With the piano to support my voice, however, along with lots of practice when no one else was in the house, not to mention having an encouraging teacher, I learned how to breathe more deeply and relax my throat. The higher notes became easier and more clear. I added other songs and vocal exercises, which helped my confidence. “Wow,” my teacher said after one class, “who knew you had such a voice?”
Learning to sing in this way helped me to see places in my life I had “lost my voice.” When preparing for a parole hearing, when I needed to speak loud and clear, this was the song I came back to. Like so many other songs, it became more than a particular piece of music by association.
As I gained in skill, I played other pieces from the easy piano book and eventually arrived at “Into the West.” Then came the seven weeks I spent taking care of my best friend and her family as she died of ovarian cancer. I found a place near her home to walk, a mile round trip down a country lane, and did this two or three times a day. The brisk autumn air, the glorious colors, and the solitude (except for a few horses and goats) gave me a blessed break. I found myself singing as I walked, as I once had done as a child. One of the songs that came to me was “Into the West,” octave leap and all. I sang it terribly and with tremendous emotion, often alternating phrases and sobbing. It said so much I wanted to tell my friend, but it was for me, not for her, who was not at all a Tolkien fan. It wasn’t her kind of song, but mine. Even now, when I play it (I can’t sing the key the easy piano version is written in), it eases me through another layer of grief.
When The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released, I bought the easy piano/voice version of “The Song of the Lonely Mountain,” from the closing credits of the movie. By this time, I was on my own, without my teacher, but the piece was comfortably within my skill level. I knew how to drill fiddly fingering passages and such like. The key as written was a little low for my voice, but manageable. I even figured out how to use paper clips to grab on to so I could turn the pages without breaking the flow of the song.
Of course, I wanted more. The song was so much fun, how I could I not want more? But I also wanted to challenge myself. I looked at the online previews of the regular and easy piano editions for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My first reaction was, “Ack! Too many little notes! I’ll never figure out that timing!” and then I calmed myself down. The music really wasn’t that hard. If I could play the Brahms Waltz in A flat, modifying the chords for my small and slightly arthritic hands, or Kabalevsky’s “Novelette” (how could I as an author resist?), I could jolly well tackle these pieces. So I got the first book and immediately found a couple of pieces that were about the right level (“Misty Mountains” and “Dreaming of Bag End”). Not trivial, mind you, but learnable with practice. Then, just to reassure myself I wasn’t missing anything, I ordered the easy piano version. Those pieces were simpler but not necessarily easier. And they were not nearly as interesting.
Wow, I thought. I’ve really come of age when what is fun to play is not necessarily something I can sight-read perfectly the first time, but something that’s got more depth and complexity to it. Something that makes me work. Could I find these qualities in other music? Of course! (And I do.) The piano settings of Shore’s music were my gateway drug. I think it’s important, whether you’re a kid or an adult student, to include music that fires you up. The classical repertoire is all very well and necessary, especially if a grounding in Western music is your goal. I, on the other hand, play for my own pleasure, and what a pleasure it is to make music I love to listen to.
I guess Howard Shore, or the folks who design the soundtrack CDs, got carried away by The Hobbit movies, the same way the screenwriters and director did. I grabbed the extended versions – two CDs each -- of all three films and began playing them in my car. I recognized some scenes but had to consult the liner notes for others. As I listened repeated times, I heard much that I never noticed in watching the films.
I noticed something else, not about the music but about its effect on my driving. I’m not a particularly aggressive driver, especially on our twisty mountain roads, but listening to Shore’s music made me more courteous, less hurried, and more attentive to my surroundings in a way radio (when I could get it) never did. Even the dramatic, fast, loud music had this effect. Maybe it put me in a good mood, or maybe the musical journey made the automotive journey a whole lot more fun so I didn’t mind how long it took. With repeated listening, I heard more than just the melody lines and leitmotifs. I was able to hear more subtle aspects of the orchestral settings; for example, I especially looked forward to the unusual percussion instruments, like the gamelan gongs in the “Smaug” theme and Radagast’s wacky percussion, which always sounds to me like a manual typewriter, bell and all.
A family emergency required me to drive solo halfway across the state, 8 hours at least, each way. Armed with extended version CDs of all three Hobbit films, I embarked upon my own adventure. The miles sped by with surprisingly little fatigue. A freak thunderstorm slowed me down but did not dampen my spirits (thankfully, the battle of the thunder giants was not playing during that time!) The return journey proved a particular challenge and involved driving all night (something I have never done before, not even in my college years) and passing a not-quite-extinguished brush fire (no Smaug passages here, thank you!) I cranked up the volume, sang along at the top of my voice with the end credits songs, and stopped frequently to stretch and get some coffee (which I almost never drink). I had music that I loved, that “carried me along,” and that I had become familiar with. Although I could identify some passages from scenes in the movies, the music had taken on a life of its own. I hope I never tire of it!