Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

On accidentals and broken reeds [January 21]

If you can read music you probably know what accidentals are. They’re those notes that suddenly change to a sharp or a flat – or even a double sharp. They’re like musical booby-traps and if they catch you unawares you might stumble mid performance.

In the past year my mother and I have watched countless musicians taking accidentals in their stride. We’ve listened to chamber ensembles, orchestral players and soloists tackling the most challenging music ever written. Some of them have played pieces that I’ve played in the past. When I know a tricky bit is approaching my whole body tenses with sympathetic nerves. My mother probably feels the same.

We both used to play woodwind instruments – at music camps, in orchestras and in recital. She was an oboist and I was a clarinettist. We’ve both fretted over broken reeds and unreliable tuning. But other career paths beckoned and both of us allowed our skills to atrophy. Our fingers grew stiff and our reeds moldered away in airless boxes at the back of cupboards. Eventually we gave up our instruments, but we never stopped loving classical music.

My mother is in her eighties now and, like those dreaded accidentals, illnesses have been catching her unawares. Much of her day is now spent trying not to stumble. When she is suffering my whole body tenses with empathy. The thing that still gives her the most pleasure, though, is listening to live music.

I have become ferociously assertive on her behalf. I have phoned box office staff and hassled them about seating arrangements. I have berated taxi drivers running late to take us to concerts. I have harassed bewildered ushers about their disability access policies.

The last performance we went to was a chamber concert by some brilliant young students from the Australian National Academy of Music. They all played string instruments so my mother and I didn’t have to worry about tensing up at the hard bits. We could sit back and let the waves of nostalgia wash over us as we remembered hearing this music for the first time.

I’m not sure how many more concerts we’ll get to together. As staying alive becomes more exhausting for my mother, staying home can seem like a better option. But I’ll keep trying to entice her into those concert halls. These days, every note is precious.


(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2019)