Monday, November 29, 2010

Listening, Hearing, Touching, Feeling

I was twenty-two, trying to make some money on the side... strike that, trying to make some money period (on the side would imply regular employment). I was working with the Glen Ellyn, Illinois Jaycees (United States Junior Chamber of Commerce) a pre-Internet social networking group who had decided to produce a musical a fundraiser. The semi-original work, The Wizard of Wacker (Drive) was a spoof on the Wizard of Oz.

I had been hired as the musical director; it was my job to pull together the pit orchestra, to translate the lyrics and melodies into arrangements, to coach the singers, and to conduct and perform the accompanying music. One night, I sat at my piano facing four volunteer firemen (two realtors, a broker downtown and the owner of a local hardware store) who were ready to work through the harmonies of their song. I'd worked hard to come up with a barbershop quartet arrangement of a relyricized John Denver tune and I was excited to hear it sung. I handed out the music, hit the opening chord and counted "one-two-three-and.."

Words evade me... which is rare... the guys enthusiastically embarked on a boisterous chorus of the music and lyrics sans pitch. I mean, they were "singing" the lyrics to the rhythm of the song, but the none of the notes were anywhere near what I'd written. I raised my hands to stop them finally clapping to get their attention. They all stopped, smiling at each other, proud of their work and happy to be singing.

I thought, "OK, they're screwing with me, right?"

"Alright, that was very funny. Thank you! Now, can we please get to singing what's on the pages in front of you?"

The guys all looked at each other questioningly, and then at me. As I looked from face to face, I heard laughter over by the stage-left curtains. The director was laughing uncontrollably slapping his assistant on the back with one hand while pointing in our direction with the other. Although he'd told me that the four impetuous troubadours before me represented the cream of the Jaycees musical crop, in fact, they were all tone-deaf.

I felt this gut-level sense of loss as I saw the four-part harmony I'd crafted so caretakingly crash to the floor and shatter. However, before I had the chance to thank the guys and send them on their ways, something welled up inside of me and spurt out of my mouth: "OK, let's take this one step at a time."

I tried to get everyone to sing just the melody. I tried to get them to just hum it. I tried to get them to just hum one phrase. Nothing.

Finally, I sat down on the piano bench, extended the index finger of my right hand, poked the G below middle C and let it ring. I poked it again and then again and then again. I looked up at the hardware store owner and said, "Bill, I want you to hum the note that I just played. I'll play it again and then you hum it, OK?"

He nodded. I poked. "Huummmmm..." Nowhere near what I played.

I poked. "Hmmmmmmm..." Different note, but no closer.

Poke. Hum. Stop.

"OK guys, does what I just played sound like what Bill hummed?"

They looked at each other and then off into space and then finally, one of the realtors said, "No! It's not!"


I poked again and this time hummed myself starting on a C# and sliding up and down until I got the G. I then asked the guys to tell me when the note I was humming slid into the note I'd played. Once they got that, I asked them to do it with each other. An hour later, every one of them could hum a G or a C or an F# without any coaching whatsoever.

We went on to learn the complete piece. They were great. It wasn't that they'd been tone-deaf and couldn't hear pitch, it was simply that they'd never associated pitch with music. They weren't aware of pitch. Music to them was just rhythm and words. Once they became aware of pitch as an element of music, they could learn pitch. Once they learned pitch, they could sing.

As you become aware, you learn what to look for, what to listen for, what to feel for. As you look, listen and touch, you become more aware and you seek more. The cycle of building awareness and then experimenting based on that awareness continues and you go from tone-deaf to expert singer, from insensitive oaf to self-aware lover, from class idiot to mathematical genius.

It's never about can versus can't. It's only in the rarest of instances that there's an actual limitation imposed by your capacity to do something. Your inability to do something is almost always due to a missing awareness and the subsequent follow-through and experimentation.

Really! There's almost nothing you can't learn to do and absolutely more than you think you can do.

Happy Monday,

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