Saturday, December 15, 2007

My Musical Ear

I spent last night at the St Paul Chamber Orchestra listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. If you are one of the people who actually knows me, I know what you're thinking. It goes something like this: "What? You? Music?" I have a little problem with music. I can't hear it. For a long time, I thought I was tone deaf, but my 8th grade band teacher informed me that I was good at tuning my trombone (and finding the notes along the slide), so my problem is deeper than mere tone-deafness. No, I actually think I'm tune deaf. I can't piece together the individual notes in my brain and form a melody. I should say that I have a really, really hard time piecing together the notes, because I hate it when people say they "can't" do math, and, besides, I do know three or four tunes. I know the way "Take me Out to the Ballgame" sounds (and even Jimmy says that I mostly sing it on key). I can also sing "The Wheels on the Bus", which is an old preschool trick. I believe in singing to kids, but with my disability I didn't master every song, so I just made up new lyrics to one song. I'm not so good at "Happy Birthday" even though I've heard it at least 34 times, so I lip-sync that one. I do have the melody to a couple of Beatles songs stuck in my brain.

Mostly what I do when music is playing is I tune it out. My brain gets tired of trying to make sense of the tune, so I think about something else. Sometimes the something-else is the lyrics. I sometimes turn on country music, for example, when MPR is running a pledge drive, because I enjoy the stories in the lyrics, but I couldn't sing you the tune of a single country music song.

Once when I was relatively old, I was stuck in a record store with my dad (who loves music), and I was bored so I wandered around looking at things. I discovered a section of the store called "Movie Soundtracks", which is when I found out that all movies - not just musicals - have music in them. I flipped through the records marveling at this whole new world I'd never noticed before. "Bull Durham" had music? What? I never knew.

Anyway, when my old and dear friend T invited me to listen to chamber music with her, I was flattered and interested enough that I thought I would try it out. Maybe in person, with the instruments right there in front of me, I could pay attention to the music. Classical music, however, is the very hardest for me, because there are no lyrics to focus my attention.

The first song (concerto? musical piece?) caught my attention for a little while because it sounded like men and women arguing. The men were the baseline with slow, steady, repetitive, and well-reasoned arguments. The women were the violins arguing with passion and volume and eloquence. By the end of the song (movement?), both voices spoke with triumphant joy at winning the argument. The men knew that they couldn't have lost with such reasonable and steady arguments, and the women were just as certain that their verbal acumen had once again carried the day. I was proud of myself. I had found a way to focus on the music. I couldn't possibly hum one strain of what I had just heard, but even without lyrics I had a whole story figured out in my head.

Then T turned to me and said, "It's so festive, you can just imagine a room full of people in ball-gowns dancing, can't you?" So I smiled and agreed, because my argument theory was obviously the wrong way to hear the music. Still, it sort of worked, so I tried it with the next piece. I can't say I was always successful at making up stories to keep my mind from wandering back to school or the taste of my dinner still lingering in my mouth or my cracked and bleeding hands, but I can say that I stayed awake for the entire concert. Which is saying something since it went way past my bedtime.

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