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Black Dots

January 8, 2013 at 5:24 PM

It used to be that I could not hear music. It all sounded like a monochrome pointillist painting of black dots. Think Georges Seurat canvas of the night sky, absent moon and stars. Sometimes the dots were longer, sometimes shorter, sometimes louder, sometimes softer. But they were always just a colorless collection of black dots. Piano was the worst. It sounded like a sandbox. Violin was not much better. It sounded like a cat scratching in the sandbox. I hated it.

Thankfully, it all changed. Unknowingly brought about by my son’s piano teacher.

About three months into his lessons they were working on Mozart’s Turkish March. His rendition sounded pretty much like intertwined lines of black dots. “No,” she says, “try it like this,” and she plays a phrase. I was dumbstruck. Only four measures, with each note distinguishable from the others, formed of unique color and flavor, and the phrase evolved ending elsewhere from its origin, transporting my ears. Never had I heard anything like this before.

He tried his turn. Some difference from before was detectable, but it wasn’t what she wanted. They spend the rest of the lesson as she patiently explains how to move his fingers and touch the keys to shape the sound, how to roll the energy through his arms to shape the phrase. By the end, he had it.

Listening quietly to the lesson from my place on the couch, it was my first exposure to the music in music, to the physical process of how music is made, and to teaching and learning that can make it happen. The next four years I attended his lessons. The repertoire they covered was extensive: Bach Inventions, Brahms Ballads, Beethoven and Barber Sonatas, Concertos by Mozart, Chopin and Khachaturian. With a singular ability to connect physical action to musical sound, and to describe this connection with words, she shaped his sound and expression, nurturing a young musician. Listening, listening, listening from my place on the couch, I, too, learned what music is and how it is made. Only I didn’t know the effect was taking place.

When, on a whim, I began violin lessons a year and a half ago, I wasn’t expecting anything more than black dots out of my efforts, if I could even get that out of the violin. I had always wanted to learn to play an instrument, but fifty years of attempts had come to naught. What a surprise then when my tone improved, phrases emerged, and I was actually learning whole pieces. What had changed? It was the piano teacher. In teaching my son, she also taught me how to listen and how to hear, how to go about practicing, how the physical process affects the sound: essential building blocks to learning music, and to fulfilling a dream.

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