In sweet music is such art


I like to think I have had a long history of music, although I’m fairly certain my mother didn’t play Mozart to me in her womb -a lot of yelling maybe, but nothing with staves. And yet, even in those early proto-Holocene days, there was a general recognition that, at a minimum, music was probably helpful for calming down young children. So in pre-Flood Winnipeg, we all had to take piano lessons and all my friends complained about having to practice. Mrs. Burns was the piano teacher in our neighbourhood, and she was a stickler for scales, I remember. We all tried to fool her with our mastery of C major because it didn’t involve any tricky black keys, but if we caught her in a bad mood, she’d assign us a difficult minor one -C# minor comes to mind. Sometimes childhood can be fraught, although in truth, I’ve never regretted the music.

There has been a fair amount of research into the value of learning it in childhood, and I recently came across an article discussing that in the Conversation.com -an app on my phone: https://theconversation.com/learning-music-early-can-make-your-child-a-better-reader-106066  It was written by two Australians, Anita Collins, adjunct assistant professor, and Misty Adoniou, an associate professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, both at the University of Canberra.

‘Music processing and language development share an overlapping network in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain developed music processing well before language and then used that processing to create and learn language. At birth, babies understand language as if it was music. They respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean. Babies and young children mimic the language they hear using those elements of rhythm and melody, and this is the sing-song style of speech we know and love in toddlers.’

It makes sense when you put it all in context, although I worry that it’s a bit facile. Still, ‘Fluency includes the ability to adjust the patterns of stress and intonation of a phrase, such as from angry to happy and the ability the choose the correct inflection, such as a question or an exclamation. These highly developed auditory processing skills are enhanced by musical training.’ -I left in the link as an attempt to exculpate my tentative credulity…

Oh, and ‘Children should also be taught to read musical notation and symbols when learning music. This reinforces the symbol to sound connection which is also crucial in reading words.’ I mention this, because although very few of us went on to sterling careers in academia, and I can’t name even one of us in the neighbourhood who ended up as a famous novelist, most of us that made it through Riverview Public School were at least able to read, so that’s got to count for something.

But in those days, we all had music classes in school, no matter whether or not we had to go home and practice scales for Mrs. Burns. In fact, I think the lessons she taught had far reaching tentacles. Remember her C# minor scale -the Punishment Scale? I suspect I must have been subject to more than my fair share of extracurricular discipline in those days, because I remember practicing the scale with my fingers on any flat surface -garbage can lids, fence posts, and garage doors in the lane on my way to her house- just in case. I got so I could recognize the scale anywhere, anytime, but especially on the piano.

Years later, when my family moved out to Quebec, I suddenly came face to face with Mrs. Burns’ prescience. I was in a music class at an Anglo High School in Lachine when the teacher decided his class was getting a bid rowdy and needed some retributive justice: a shaming.

The class was thoroughly bilingual, whereas I, the foreigner-from-away,  could barely hold my own. Fortunately -or maybe because of me- M. Honneur decided to put us down musically and after glaring at the class menacingly through truly startlingly unkempt eyebrows, sat down at the piano, turning his head only slightly to smirk at us.

“We’re going to play a little game,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. I want you to name the piece…”

The first three notes -the A, then G# and finally the C#- gave it away, however. He didn’t need to play the rest, although I remember he worked his way through several bars to help us further.

Then he stopped and looked at the now totally engaged class. Apparently he had done this before -well, before my time there, at any rate.

They tried various names, and his smile grew. “Sounds… Slavic, or something,” someone said, as Honneur’s head shook triumphantly.

“It’s in a minor key…” This from a rather smug girl in the very front by the piano.

“How about Beethoven,” another person piped up, but everyone groaned at that, and it quickly slipped into the anonymity granted a voice hidden in the middle of a crowd.

I could hardly believe it. Honneur was playing a kind of Rumpelstiltskin game with them and nobody could guess. I suddenly felt embarrassed -was I the only one in the class who knew the answer?

Honneur’s grin was becoming unbearable, though, and I realized I needed to make my move before he surrendered the answer, so I timidly held up my hand. Everybody went silent and stared at me.

“It’s obviously the Prelude in C# minor,” I blurted out before he could acknowledge my gently waving arm.

He stared at me, in disbelief, and it took a second or so before he said, “By…?” Honneur seemed a bit miffed that I had called it out, and his tone of voice suggested I had cheated, somehow.

Now that I had everybody’s attention, I think I blushed. “By Rachmaninoff, of course…” I’m not sure why I added the ‘of course’, except that it had been one of my favourite, albeit unplayable pieces, from my Winnipeg days.

His eyes retracted a little with my ‘of course’ and then his expression turned playful, teasing. “Very good, young man…” he said, drawing his acknowledgement out slowly, “But can you spell it?” He thought he had me -and so did the class. The silence was electric.

I stood up, and spelled it out slowly, carefully, so I’d get it right: R-A-C-H… M-A-N…” The next part was tricky, I knew: “I-N-O-F-F… although it’s sometimes spelled with a V instead of the two F’s, at the end… To account for the Russian spelling, or something, I guess,” I added triumphantly.

The class and Honneur actually applauded, I remember.

So, despite my initial suspicions about the value of early music training as outlined in the Conversation article, perhaps it did do me some good. If nothing else, it helped cement together les deux solitudes -as Quebec and the rest of anglophone Canada were beginning to be referred to around that time. Mrs. Burns was ahead of her time; maybe she should have run for political office… Of course, since everybody in the neighbourhood knew her, maybe she did.

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