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Musical traumas

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A playful ode to the minor indignities of childhood music lessons

Learning a musical instrument as a child can be a rewarding endeavour. It can also be a pain in the neck. Whether it’s piano, violin, clarinet or guitar, the learning curve when picking up a new instrument is always going to be steep. The necessity of practice, practice, practice before you’re able to actually enjoy what you’re doing can feel burdensome, especially for a child with boundless imagination and a desire for instant greatness. Add on top of all that the anxieties caused by strict teachers and nerve-wracking recital performances, and the experience can be a recipe for minor trauma – or, at very least, the source of some awkward moments and amusing anecdotes.

This is the premise of the short animated documentary Musical Traumas. A self-described ‘unfulfilled musician’, the Serbian filmmaker Miloš Tomić was fascinated by the challenges of musical education, and so he collected childhood stories from friends and strangers. Of the dozens of tales he amassed, he picked out the most interesting and embarrassing to bring to life via animation. ‘There are not so much juicy, bizarre and emotionally charged motifs in happy stories,’ he noted in an interview with the animation news website Zippy Frames in 2019. Tomić’s subversive approach sets the stage for a charming melding of light schadenfreude, dark humour and perhaps a healthy dose of catharsis as well.

At the centre of most of these stories is the student-teacher dynamic. In one first-hand account, a woman recalls how her piano teacher forced her to balance tea cups on her hands while she played – an effective method, no doubt, if the point of the lesson is to prompt a strained relationship with ceramics. Tomić portrays these heightened emotions and fraught memories with energetic hand-drawn animations, layering lines, colours and textures over cartoony characters, making sure to keep in the bits of pencil shavings and eraser dust for an additional layer of messiness. Using stop-motion, Tomić defaces and crumples up report cards and rips apart sheet music. Threads straighten and curl across the frame, transforming instrument strings into a swirling storm that engulfs a student. Where one might expect busts of colour to represent notes and melodies in a film about music, here they mimic bursts of emotion.

This amalgam of techniques gives the animation an eclectic style that at once energises the stories and lightens the mood. The result is a visually and thematically distinctive work that will likely hit nostalgic notes even if the viewer never struggled with music as a child. Whether one had a fraught relationship with sports, or science, or public speaking, Tomić’s frantic visual sequences and choice of subject make for a playful – and mercifully temporary – window back into the many minor indignities of childhood learning.

Written by Tamur Qutab

Director: Miloš Tomić

Producer: Iva Plemić Divjak