Read an extract of Ed Ayres’ new book Whole Notes



Through listening to myself and others play over these decades, music has taught me the truth of sound. We cannot develop if the sound does not move freely, if the music does not ring true. The sound will always show you what needs to change – finger position, bow speed or your own attitude. And once you listen to yourself and your sensitivity deepens, you may notice a feeling of not ringing true in your life, not moving freely through your existence. Through listening we find what we need, not what we want. We find something needs to change. Through listening we find the bravery to make that change. 

This was the process I went through with accepting my own transgender identity.  

One of the great gifts of being transgender is the space to rebuild our lives exactly how we dream. Or at least we can try. 

We rename ourselves. We claim the bodies we knew were ours all along. We place ourselves in the world according to our beliefs, not those of our parents, our siblings, our teachers or our contemporaries. We change our sound and ask to be listened to in a new way. If you are not transgender, or are not close to anyone who is, it is hard to describe just how terrifying this can be. Just as the horn is walking a tightrope on stilettos, so is transitioning to the gender you know you are. If you knew how hard it was going to be at the start you might never take that first step, and it is a path so few have taken before us. 

Whole notes

To be transgender in this age is to be a pioneer; doctors still have no idea why we exist, but the fact is we do. We are undeniable and we have our own voices, voices that sound as we want them to. We ask to not only be heard but to be listened to. 

I went to a state selective girls school. I grew up being told to be careful at night and to never be alone with a man. I grew up with the fears and delights of the female world, but as I listened to myself, I realised I was transgender. 

Just as the skills I forged as a musician matured with introspection, time and profound thought, so did the realisation of my gender identity; both came into focus with the same process. I began my gender transition just before my fiftieth birthday. A little later than many, but better late than never.  

It took a long time to say, but now I can. I am a transgender man. 

I found my bravery through music. 

I have been playing the viola for so many years that all my knowledge of how to play, and ability to play, has come gradually and often organically. Just as the horn is not an instrument to learn quickly, the viola is also an instrument that takes time to  enter its own heart, its own sound, its own character. Violin and viola are similar in technique and violinists will often play the viola as well, but I’m a little sceptical of these players. You need to live the life of a viola player for a long time to fully comprehend the sphere of the viola player. 

The viola has such modesty. With its reasonable, human like voice it plays the inner workings of quartets and  symphonies, quietly supporting the main tune, relentlessly driving the pulse, doing the behind-the-scenes work so that others might shine. It sings a short melody full of intangible emotion, somewhere between sadness and resignation, and it reveals the subtle charisma that is its unique beauty. I love the viola’s weight, its mutability, its clarity and its mystery. It is my true voice. 

Attaining knowledge of this elusive instrument takes time and doing. You cannot learn how to play the viola from a  book alone; you need to sit with it, feel its weight with your shoulders, feel its vibrations with your fingers, feel its sonority with your heart. As you ask yourself what you want from the instrument, you are really asking what you want from yourself. And to give yourself the best foundation to play, you must be honest with yourself: what is your true state of mind? What is your basic sound? What do you need to improve, what are your strengths, what do you fear? Only then can you practise properly, with truth. 

This exclusive extract from Ed Ayres’ new book Whole Notes has been published with permission. The book from this musician, broadcaster, and writer is a follow-up to Danger Music and an ode to music and identity. It is available now via ABC Books in partnership with HarperCollins Publishers Australia.

Ed Ayers credit Greville Patterson.