My buddy, Pete, can play any song he's ever heard.
We call him the human juke box. From "Little Old Lady from Passadena" to "Lady Madonna," from "Maybelline" to "Layla," he knows them all. And not just 60s songs either. He knows every jazz song he's ever heard and every classical piece. Baroque? Romantic? Not a problem. Folk songs? Don't insult him. He's unstumpable.
What about a song he's never heard before? Play it for him. He'll listen to the first verse, then on the second verse, he'll play along with the chords. By the third verse, he plays along to the melody. Every note.
I play guitar too. Do you know what an emu is, that large ostrich-like bird? Imagine the sound of an emu choking on a trumpet. While being pushed down stairs. Inside a file cabinet. The sound of an emu choking on a trumpet while being pushed down stairs inside a file cabinet is preferable to the noise generated when I slam my leaden hands across my electric guitar strings.
Just the same, Pete will frequently condescend to play with me. We've been friends coming up on 40 years after all. I'll play chords--I know several of them--and he'll play the melody or improvise. You know "The Ballad of John and Yoko"? We plug in two cables, crank up my amp all the way to eleven, and play as loudly as we can until someone--invariably a member of my immediate family--calls the police.
"The Ballad of John and Yoko" has three chords--E, A, and B. Then at the end of the song, there's another chord, an E6. It took me some time to get the pinkie finger of my left hand to press down on the string to get that E6 and I was pretty pleased when I finally did. I'd been practicing for some time and I wanted to show off for my buddy. After all, just because he knows ten thousand songs doesn't mean I can't know ten songs. I played the E6 at the end and then, with a mischievous grin, asked my buddy for the name of the obscure chord. I was pretty sure that no one--certainly no one from the Planet Earth--could possibly know what chord this was.
"E6," Pete said.
How obvious was it to him that the chord was an E6 as opposed to, say, an E7 or an E9? Or an A6? I don't know. How obvious is it to you that the name of your first born male child is "Matthew," say, as opposed to "Esmerelda"?
Pete has "relative pitch" which means that if you tell him the name of one note, he can tell you any other note in comparison to it. He doesn't have "perfect pitch" which would allow him to be woken up in the middle of the night by a loud note and tell you the name of that note taken out of context.
Years ago, when Pete was performing at the university to earn a second graduate degree in guitar, I mentioned that his abilities--remembering any song he'd ever heard--seemed prodigious. "A mere parlor trick" he assured me. "See that guy over there?" he went on. "He can listen to a chamber orchestra with four voices: two violins, a cello and a viola." "Big deal," I said. "I can listen to chamber music too." "Yes," Pete went on. "But the next day can you write out the musical notation for all four instruments like he can?"
"No. Not so much." I agreed. "I'm lucky if I can remember where I parked my car."
What do these musician and their uncanny abilities have to do with my usual topics of self esteem and good parenting?
The first take away here is that there is always somebody better. Even if you are a human juke box, you can feel good about your abilities or you can compare yourself to the guy who can write down every note of four instruments the day after the concert. Surely music is yet another example of an activity in which a practitioner should do the best s/he can and be content with the result.
And what about those of us who have iron ears and little musical aptitude whatsoever? After we've given it our best shot, should we be chastised and humiliated from one decade to the next? "David chooses not to advance to the next level" my music teacher might have written on my evaluation. "He refuses to be able to remember the notes to every song he has ever heard."
I met this week with a lovely young man, an eighth grader who is doing poorly in school. Although Enrique loves to read--Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Lemony Snickett--he has trouble writing essays. He has "output failure." It's an especially tricky situation because he's so verbally adept. He communicates well, makes connections, abstracts effectively, but has terrible trouble getting the information out of his brain onto a piece of paper. His terrible handwriting affects his ability to do math as well: it takes him an age to write down one line of an equation and by the time he is three lines down the page, he can no longer read what he has written above. His "4" now looks like a "9." And taking notes? Fuhgedabout it. When his teacher begins, "The seven causes of the French Revolution were..." his teacher has covered the first three reasons and is explaining the fourth one when Enrique is still arguing with his hand: "Make a capital 'F' for 'French' he says," to his hand. "When I feel like it" his hand responds.
Because of his difference--his hand lags so far behind his brain--Enrique is at a disadvantage in the classroom. As you might imagine, his teachers are at a loss. So in their evaluations, they bludgeon him with the word "choice." "Enrique chooses not to do his best work on his classroom notes" they write. "Enrique chooses not to do a good job on his out of class essays."
Just like I "choose" to be unable to hear the difference between an E flat minor and a B flat minor chord. Just like I've "chosen" not to be able to memorize 10,000 songs.
What is the answer? What is to be done for those of us who learn differently? The same thing that we are doing, however slowly, for other underrepresented populations. Women were thrown away for generations. In the 90 years since earning the right to vote, they have made some progress. It is now time to allow our next under represented population--those of us with learning differences--to shine in the many ways that we can, even if we don't have perfect pitch.