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Emily Grossman


February 10, 2012 at 10:43 AM

One of my students displays a disorder of some sort, which I am professionally unequipped to diagnose. She whispers and mumbles when she talks, and recent lessons have revolved around her unwillingness to give me anything past a mezzo piano, as she runs through her weekly piano routine. "More volume, more volume!" I say, and watch as she reluctantly adds weight to her fingers and tries it again. I know that she has a deep love for the piano, which is displayed by her continual devotion to her practicing. Unsolicited, she plays for hours at a time, as reported by her mother.

My requests for dynamic contrast had become redundantly awkward. So, finally, I asked her what she thought about loud.

"It hurts my ears," she whispered.

She comes from a loving, well-balanced family. She has no reason to hesitate. She simply hates LOUD.

Having no idea how to make her like LOUD, I thought about my own parents and their struggle to make me like onions. It's not that they failed, it's just that onions were way too strong for my sensitive palette.

Sometimes, you are best to let it be, and not make an issue of trivialities. I mean, whoever failed in life because they didn't like LOUD?

I told her mother that I planned to ignore her lack of dynamic contrast for the sake of preserving musical enjoyment. As far as educational agendas are concerned, I feel unfulfilled in letting a fundamental slide. But, what is my job, anyway? I've taught her about dynamics. She knows about dynamics. She doesn't like them.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 2:42 PM
Interesting. I have never heard of someone like that, but it does not surprise me that there are people like that out there. Is she very musical? Maybe she has a career as the soft sound version of Lang Lang (lol).
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 3:35 PM
I had this for ages!! To the point where I didn't like rosin, let the bow gravitate toward the fingerboard, practiced constantly with a mute. I played very quietly on the piano as well. A small focused pretty sound was my ideal. It wasn't until I saw the Minnesota Orchestra under Vanska (their specialty is dynamics) and a variety of chamber music groups that I changed my preferences. And I only did that because I was enamored by the drama they created by going from f to p and p to f, not because I like loud playing in and of itself. And the idea of that drama really only clicked for me in live performance. So if a great classical player comes nearby, maybe send her out to see him/her and hope something with a lot of exciting dynamic contrasts is on the program... In any case, though, she's not alone.
From Christian Lesniak
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 4:17 PM
I have some problems with loud noises, and have developed a more or less benign tinnitus. I sometimes wear ear-plugs when I practice - especially in a smaller room that magnifies the sound coming back at me. It's not optimal, but it helps. Maybe occasionally, you can ask her to practice her dynamics with some ear plugs, and it might help to know what the acoustics are like where she practices. It's tough, though.
From Bart Meijer
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 5:18 PM
She has a wise teacher.
From Amber Rogers
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 5:19 PM
I've had similar experiences with students of my own. Two things come to mind:

1. Get an ear plug in that left ear and see if it makes a difference. I had a similar issue when I was a kid, lots of volume really hurt my ears, and passages that were high and loud made me positively sick to my stomach. I still need to use 'em sometimes.

2. Explain (again) that what she hears and what someone standing three feet away/a concert hall away, is very different. Record her at different distances and play back so she can hear what it actually sounds like.

From Roland Garrison
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 5:24 PM
My grandson has aspergers, which is a high functioning form of autism. Loud noises really do cause him distress, but there is some variation on the pitch.
Maybe try going down an octave or two, and seeing if the same volume is still a problem?
For some quick information on aspergers, here is a good site:
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 5:25 PM
Really interesting, and I like your response. I've been reading this book lately called _Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking_ and I was just reminded of it by this blog. The book is about a larger issue and concerns people of a particular "quiet" personality type, whereas this sounds like it's primarily a sensory issue. Nonetheless, the fact that it's okay to be quiet, and to like quiet, in many realms, is often overlooked and undervalued.
From Amber Rogers
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 6:44 PM
I guess your final approach would depend on what you, the student, and the parent want out of lessons/music for the student. If you're going to go the route of, 'everybody has they're own personality, something valuable to contribute, snowflake snowflake, music is a valuable experience, etc. etc.' then no, it's not a huge deal that the kid doesn't like to play at an audible volume. If the student wants/is inspired to be a great player, then yeah, you've got to help her find a way around the volume issue so that she is equipped to deal with her peers, expectations, etc.
From Christian Lesniak
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 7:20 PM
Karen, I think that introversion largely stems from a generalized hypersensitivity to stimuli. I could see the link in a case like this. While my "diagnosis" is by no means legitimate, I think it's difficult to tease out this being a sensory issue, unless of course this child is hypersensitive beyond that which would normally accompany an introvert.
From enion pelta
Posted on February 10, 2012 at 8:36 PM
I've been doing a lot of reading about kids with sensory integration difficulties lately, as my son was (incorrectly - he's actually fine, it's just that he's a pisces...) diagnosed by one of his teachers with such a problem. However, in my reading I recognized that the techniques used with "sensory" kids are equally useful with "normal" kids with heightened sensitivity in certain areas. I don't recall the techniques used for kids sensitive to loud sounds, but it might be worth looking into.

Whether or not this girl has sensory issues is not my place to say, but the therapists who have come up with ways of helping kids who do tend to agree that their games (and they really are games, quite fun!) are good for ALL kids to do.

Depending on the age of this girl, helping her teach her body and brain not to be so shocked by loudness may work better than an intellectual explanation.

Also, if she's young, her response to loudness may change as she matures.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 12:45 AM
I wonder if this girl would enjoy playing viola or cello. (The higher register of a violin might bug her, too.) Does she play on a grand piano either at your house or at home? If so, would a spinet make her more comfortable?
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 11, 2012 at 1:03 PM
Headphones could be a good idea, but they are kind of bulky, and visible. What about trying foam earplugs first? They are inexpensive and unobtrusive.

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