Classic Confession by Joe Mills

I learned to read using phonics, and I have always been a voracious reader and a limited conversationalist. As a result, much of my vocabulary I have never heard pronounced, so sometimes when I try to verbally use a word, I say it oddly. For example, an avid reader of Westerns growing up (but an Indiana city boy), for years I thought you stopped a horse by saying, “Who. A.” I didn’t realize that tribal names like Sioux and Cheyenne where pronounced “Soo” and “Shy Anne”; I thought they were “Sye O Ux” and Chee Yen Nee.”

I have a similar problem trying to learn piano from the lesson books I’ve been using. Most of the pieces are classical, and I am almost completely illiterate when it comes to such music. I recognize the names Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Haydn in the same way that I recognize the names of famous authors of books I haven’t read. So, although I can figure out the notes, often I don’t know the songs or what they’re supposed to sound like. Sometimes part of a melody will sound vaguely familiar — “Haven’t I heard that in an elevator or grocery aisle?” or “Isn’t that kind of like a Beatles tune?” — but mostly it’s like trying to follow a recipe for a food I’ve never eaten.

Sometimes my wife will sit at the keyboard and play the pages where I’ve left a book open, and I’ll realize, “Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.” I will have been doing a kind of deconstructed, alternative version. If this was deliberate, it would be cool. People might think, “Whoa, nice variation.” But when it’s an accidental stumbling around, it’s just … cringe-worthy.

This experience at the piano is much different than when I learn songs for the guitar. Those are always ones that I already know and like and want to play, and I can hear when I have them wrong. Ironically, even some of the “popular” tunes in the piano books I don’t recognize when I try to play them. I was excited to see “House of the Rising Sun” and “Trouble in Mind” – two songs I learned on the guitar long ago — but when I worked them out on the keyboard, I thought, “What is this?” My reaction was the same as my children’s when I offer new variations of known dishes. “This is NOT macaroni and cheese,” they protest.

I’m not proud of my ignorance, and at various times I have tried to address it. I will read a piece of evocative music criticism or hear someone on NPR, and they will make a sonata or concerto sound so incredible, so mind-blowing, that I’ll seek it out and listen to it and… feel nothing.  I won’t hear what they’ve been raving about. Then I become depressed about how shallow I am. I’m slightly color-blind. Might I be slightly music-blind as well? But then sometimes when I’m at a museum, looking at works of art, I’ll think, “Huh, I don’t get it” and I’ll be embarrassed that I find it more interesting to look out one of the museum windows. Maybe I’m just slightly culture-blind (or more than slightly).

We’re better at learning languages when we’re young. As we age, certain receptors turn off, and we become less flexible in our hearing. The same may be true for music. I was raised on a diet of Beatles, Elvis, and “classic” rock stations; perhaps my tastes became so acclimated to these, that I can’t fully appreciate other types of music. This doesn’t explain, however, why a cello sometimes will bring me close to tears.

Something else may be happening, and I wonder if it’s symbolized in one of my first exposures to classical music. It was a high school field trip to the city’s concert hall for The Nutcracker, which was also the first time I had ever seen ballet. The musicians had to wear tuxes, so clearly this was “serious” stuff. I was intimidated and kept my head down. And then, something amazing happened. I realized that I recognized the melody. I knew this! I looked over at my friend Mike and realized that he had recognized it as well. Excited, we began to whistle the tune – doo de doo doo — and we began to bop along, which for us was standard concert behavior. That’s when the second thing happened. The teacher gave us a look that felt as if he was swooping down on leathery wings. His displeasure was magnificent. We were chastised and silenced. I know now that he probably thought we were being disrespectful, that we were “acting up,” but, in fact, we were enjoying the music. We were delighted that it was something we knew. We weren’t appreciating it; we were participating with it. But, we learned, classical music is not participatory.

This lesson was reinforced later when my folks took me to the symphony for the first time. Upon entering, each audience member was given cough drops. At first I thought this was considerate, their way of saying, “It’s winter-time. We know you may be sick, but thanks for coming out. Here, we’ll take care of you.” Then I understood what it meant. Don’t make a sound. Don’t even cough! Although I never was a head-banger like so many of my friends, this seemed antithetical to what I understood music to be – something that made you want to move. (Eventually, I would learn that it was acceptable to be so overcome by classical music that you allowed your hands and head to sway slightly.)

I assume that the dominance of classical music in the piano books is because these songs help teach certain skills, but I’ve increasingly come to realize that I want to play music that affects the body as well as the mind. For me, this isn’t Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9″ or Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Theme from Scheherazade,” although, ironically, as I learn to play them, they are opening up to me more than when I have simply listened to them, a subject for a later column.

For me, the danger of the books is that practice now is becoming a chore rather than a pleasure. At some point, this will result in my quitting. So, although it’s only November and Thanksgiving, my mind is already turning to 2017 and New Year’s resolutions. I’m going to seek out new songs, ones I know, ones I want to learn, ones that make people want to whistle or dance, ones where no cough drops are needed.

Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

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