November 27, 2018

lines, dots, and ties

The ability to sight-read music and sing is a gift that came to me subtly, a little at a time, through church hymnals and piano lessons and sitting beside my grandmother in the choir at age twelve.  I was learning a second language without realizing it.  It was a bewildering shock to me later, when I learned as an adult that others could not simply pick up music and understand all that was on the page, could not "listen to it" with only their eyes and mind.  That was when I grasped the magnitude of the gift I was given in childhood.


In December of 2007, I left work when my lunch hour arrived, because I had forgotten my cell phone at home and needed to retrieve it.  While passing through an intersection, a very large Chevy work truck owned by a landscaping company ran its stop sign and plowed into my door at thirty-five miles per hour.  My Subaru Forester ended up on a different street.  You can say what you like about the solidity of a Volvo, but that Soob saved my life.  The door was dented up, and I had soreness and a lot of glass embedded in the left side of my head from when my head slammed into the glass.  That was all.  I was fine in a few days.

Well, almost all.  During the ambulance ride to the emergency room, I knew that I needed to contact someone, anyone, but all of the phone numbers in my memory danced in swirls, fragments and snippets, and I was unable to piece anything together but the number at work.  The EMTs called for me and my co-workers got the word out to everyone, including P.J.  I was released a few hours later and sent home with instructions to stay with someone who could watch me in case of concussion.  The numbers eventually pieced themselves back together.

It wasn't until the start of the spring symphony season in January that I encountered the worst consequence of that wreck.  At the first chorale rehearsal, the score of the Verdi Requiem was passed around and we began singing from the first page.  That's how we did things there.  I was on that level.  And as the hushed harmonies of the first measures were sung ... "Requiem ... requiem ... requiem eternam" ....

... I realized that I could no longer read music.

It was gone.  I knew that the car window had slammed the side of my head right smack in the Wernicke area and language center, but there had been no other apparent sequelae, no word-finding difficulties or signs of speech impediment.  I stared at the dots and lines and ties and markings on the pages in front of me and realized, with rising panic, that while I knew the dots were named C and F and G and that their color and shape told me how long they each lasted, these were facts truly in black and white, disconnected from my ability to translate them into music.  I was reading in a foreign language that I once knew but seemed to have forgotten.  The bridge was out.  I was out.

I spent the rest of the rehearsal as a puddle on the floor of the far stall in the bathroom.  I was shaking, and still shaking, I told the conductor after rehearsal was dismissed.  He listened and concluded that I was going to have to do the painstaking work of rebuilding the bridge.  He suggested that I use a recording and memorize the whole bloody thing - no small feat and something normally anathema for a choral singer - and then follow along and re-learn the language.  He was confident that I could do it.

And I did.  I cobbled it all back together.  But to this day, my skill set looks like an Igor.  The intervals don't come naturally.  I can't look at a note and automatically hear its tone in my head; I have to have something to reference.  The ear for music is gone and memorizing is a poor substitute.  I have reclaimed enough, but I have lost much.  I feel it keenly.

It is enough to allow me to sing Messiah.  It is enough.  This week is a relentless run of intensive daily rehearsals, homework and hydration. On Sunday, we will perform.  I will once again tell the story.

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