Thursday, December 14, 2017

Playing By Ear

Last month I admitted I’m not a singer – just a theater guy temporarily exiled to sing in choirs. For twenty-seven years. [Ed. note: The Dalai Lama has lived in exile for fifty-eight years. No rush.]

Today I’ll confess I’ve never thought of myself as a musician at all – just a smart guy who can read music.

I’m not referring to “musician” in the occupational sense we routinely hear from conductors, i.e. “This instrumental interlude will make sense when we rehearse with the musicians.” I’d like to think our beloved conductor is contrasting paid members of the professional musicians’ union with unpaid volunteer singers in a community chorus, rather than suggesting instrumentalists are real musicians, and vocalists are not.

Instead, I’ve always drawn a line in my mind between an us of ordinary mortal music-lovers who at best can persevere with our instruments or voices through painful lessons, endless practice, and intellectual rigor; and a them ­of natural musicians who play by ear, with a mysterious instinct for chord progressions and harmonies, and a sponge-like absorption of melody, theory, and technique.

One of my deep dark secrets is that I’ve always wanted to play piano like a cabaret lounge artist – casually knocking out favorites from the Great American Songbook, or impressing cute vocalists by ad-libbing their Gershwin and Cole Porter accompaniments in any key.

Instead, I can play SATB hymns. Haltingly. They sound the same in English or Korean – you can’t tell whether I’m playing “I Need Thee Every Hour” or “Nul hamkke hapsoso.”  Both versions of the missionary standard are buried in my memory somewhere. I’m also skilled at not-quite sight reading hymns. At least I was spared years of stressing over classical piano examinations.  Pity the dazed Asian students who wander the halls of the music academy where Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearses. 

The reason for my arrested development is I quit piano lessons in my youth. Twice. [Ed. note: Wasn’t that grad school?] Both times my parents warned me I would regret quitting, but I insisted. Last week I was chatting about childhood piano lessons with an elderly neighbor, and he attributed his lifelong enjoyment of piano playing to having older siblings who sat on him when he attempted to quit piano lessons too early. Unfortunately I’m an eldest child.

Meanwhile, I’ve always envied friends with musical gifts – folks who pick up new instruments and memorize songs with no apparent effort, mysteriously learning by instinct and ear.

By the time I was in junior high, I sensed music and language were intertwined. In particular, I made a connection between the ways different people learn both music and languages. Some students had a parrot-like ability to mimic strange foreign sounds. New vocabulary words stuck in their memories. Even as novices, they enthusiastically initiated conversations with native speakers, unashamed of their imperfect syntax. Those same students often were the ones in band or orchestra who could pick up a new instrument and immediately start playing.

In contrast, I had to thoroughly understand how a linguistic or musical principle worked before I could put it into practice. Even before studying linguistics in grad school, I was fascinated by the patterns of similarity and difference among languages. I would laboriously memorize vocabulary and analyze grammar rules, just as I would hammer out a line of music.   

The contrast between learning “by ear” and “by brain” became particularly stark when I arrived in Seoul, Korea as a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary. According to the folks at the Foreign Service Institute, Korean is a Category V difficulty language for English speakers. (Spanish is Category I – apparently you really can learn it on the plane, as we used to tease missionaries called to serve in Latin America. At least if your flight is slightly delayed.)

One of our marvelous cohort of elders and sister missionaries who arrived in Korea together, Elder Young, had a particularly quick ear for language acquisition, and became the “senior companion” in a missionary pair in record time. Elder Young was also a gifted musician. He put together a pickup band of missionaries who played suitably G-rated pop songs in English and Korean. He’s the guitarist on the left in this photo from a missionary talent show. (FYI, the picture at the beginning of this blog post is me doing standup at the same show. The rainbow proscenium wasn’t a gay thing. This was Seoul in 1984 – sometimes a rainbow is just a rainbow.)

Meanwhile, I threw myself into learning Korean, poring over grammar primers and eventually memorizing a couple of thousand Chinese characters. At the same time, I was busy coping with culture shock and the continuing trauma of the Mormons’ anti-gay message. Including the fallout from observing one of my closest BYU friends being sent home in disgrace just before boarding his plane to Korea. I was stunned when the authorities discovered – from coded love letters retrieved from the garbage by a snoopy janitor – that Todd and another one of our friends were secret gay lovers. (Yes, I’ve always been this clueless.)

Eventually I learned to speak Korean. I never achieved Elder Young’s fluency, but I can still wow immigrant dry cleaners and grocers. I even won a trophy at the Korean Times’ annual public speaking contest for foreigners. Eventually our mission president asked me to come work in the mission office updating various language-learning tools. One of my old companions recently wrote to tell me he’d run into a group of Mormon missionaries traveling back to the States, and they still use the edition of the grammar text I edited thirty years ago.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how our brains rely on two contrasting mental processors, which I've referred to as Thing 1 and Thing 2. The first system is fast and automatic, multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, the second system allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks.

Experts effectively harness the power of both Thing 1 and Thing 2. In particular, natural ability and/or experience allows an expert’s Thing 2 to offload increasing amounts of mental labor to be performed by Thing 1’s largely automatic functions.

Vancouver Men’s Chorus’ longtime pianist, Dr. Stephen Smith, is an exceptional musician. He is a distinguished composer and arranger, as well as an impressive keyboardist and telepathic accompanist. Steven is also a delightful and humble man. Whenever someone from the chorus gushes to him about his accomplishments, he invariably responds by praising the singers for performing our concerts entirely from memory. Steven is paralyzed when asked to play without sheet music – even songs he wrote himself. I’ve observed a similar dynamic with my favorite local cabaret pianist, Kerry O’Donovan. Whenever Kerry performs one of his signature songs for the umpteenth indistinguishable time (such as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” or “New York State of Mind”), he still needs his trusty iPad as a security blanket.

Even an expert musician’s Thing 2 brain processor isn’t fast enough to read all the information on a musical score and consciously direct his fingers to hit the right keys. Instead, the visual images provide mental cues that make beautiful music mostly by triggering complex systems of “muscle memory,” intuition, and habit.

Vancouver Men’s Chorus started rehearsals for this month’s holiday concerts the first Wednesday after Labour Day. As we began sight reading the pile of new music, I realized I’d left my reading glasses at the beach.

I also recognized that after twenty-seven years of singing in choirs, I had somehow become a musician. I couldn’t read most of the words on the page. But I could still “sight read” the new and new-ish songs. The blurry blobs of notes on the staff, together with Thing 1’s web of memories from all the songs I’d sung over the years, in most cases were enough for me to intuit the progression of chords and melodies in real time.

For example, I found that I had already memorized one of our songs, even though I had never sung it or even seen the music before. “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah” is a charming crowd pleaser by Eric Lane Barnes. My twenty-year tenure with Windy City Gay Chorus and then Seattle Men’s Chorus exactly overlapped with Eric’s time as associate conductor with each chorus. I would recognize his musical style in my sleep. And I had heard “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah” countless times – not from the audience but rather from the chorus risers, listening as it was performed during concerts by Windy City Slickers and Captain Smarty Pants (each chorus’ small ensemble). But I had not just absorbed the words and melody. In addition, my brain accurately reconstructed the Second Tenor part of each chord, all so smoothly that I could sing the entire song practically blind.  

So there’s hope out there for aspiring musicians. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll live long enough to become a dancer.

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