Your Lips Move, But I Can’t Hear What You’re Sayin’

It’s amazing what we don’t hear simply because we’re not ready to hear it. It sounds simple, but over and over I’m blown away by this. When I was in college, majoring in music, my sophomore year I was supposed to take this intensive course called the Music 30 series. It was a three part course that spanned the full year, and it was where you learned the bulk of your ear-training and theory skills. There was lots of listening, lots of singing, and lots of piano playing.

The first quarter was Music 30A and it was challenging, but I made it through without really having to put out my full effort. Music 30B was a whole other ballgame. It probably didn’t help that I had a super tough-ass Russian professor, who of course had perfect pitch. Our class was first thing in the morning, and he would sit right down at the piano, bang out a chord, then start calling on people in the class, rapid fire, to sing an interval or identify a pitch from the key, practically yelling “Too slow!” if you didn’t come up with it within a beat. It was nerve-wracking for everyone, but some people handled it better than others, and what I began to notice was that most people seemed to have an easier time than myself finding pitches and singing them back. I really set to work that quarter thinking that I could overcome my deficit simply by putting forth my full effort.

One part of the final that quarter consisted of singing pitches in the chords of a Bach chorale, or organ/keyboard piece, without the help of a piano. I failed miserably and my professor, who I thought was a total asshole at the time, failed me. I would have to repeat the Music 30 series the next year and just barely be able to graduate in four years. It really threw me and I began to question if music was really the thing I wanted to study. I was so upset. I had never failed anything in my life and I began to doubt I would do any better the next time around. But the following year, I did do better. Everything came easier to me and at first I attributed it to hard work and it being the second time around, but then I began to just have this feeling that I was somehow different. Something had clicked in me that allowed me to hear all the things I wasn’t hearing the year before, and I was almost able to work less hard.

In our senior exit exam, my fourth year, a third of the grade was aural dictation and the first test we took was transcribing a Bach chorale that was played on the piano. I dreaded that test all quarter while we were preparing for it, but when it came to the test day and the professor began to play, the empty staff just filled itself. I heard all four parts separately and together, and in my mind, I could see the music. I got a perfect score. Actually, it was better than perfect because I got an extra point for notating an implied harmony which almost no one actually hears. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; I just wrote down what I heard.

That experience has followed me through the rest of my life and because of it, I am a firm believer that sometimes we simply aren’t ready to hear things, no matter how clear, how simple, how logical, or how important they are. It can be frustrating when we give out advice to a friend and they ignore it, only to take it from someone else years down the road and we get no credit for it. On the flip side, I imagine it’s very frustrating for others to watch us struggle with something they hear and understand so clearly. I guess we just have to be patient with ourselves and with each other, and trust that we’ll get there when we’re ready. We don’t all arrive at the same time and it’s not something that can be willed, or learned, or forced. I’ve tried that. You have to grow into it. The key for me ten years ago is the same today: I keep at it, keep listening, and when I’m ready, what I hear is amazing.