A couple years after I got sober, I saw a TED talk that played a big part in setting the trajectory of the next 7 years of my life. In the talk, researcher, educator and music writer Anita Collins presents the case for how the task of playing a musical instrument can completely revamp our thinking both inside and outside of music. Collins’ presentation explains how neuroscientists use fMRIs and PET scans to map just what exactly is going on in the mind of the musicians when they ply their craft. As it turns out, it’s an awful lot.
The presentation took on special meaning when she compared playing music to an all-out jubilee going on in the brain of the musician and compared it to a full-body workout. Since I became addicted to exercise within a month of my departure from rehab because I have an addictive personality and if you told me that shoving a half dozen marshmallow Peeps under each arm pit and hopping around on my left foot would give me a rockin’ buzz I would probably give it a go. And that second month sober happened to occur in the 9th year after my traumatic brain injury. So, sober and curious, I began the process of absorbing every fact, speech, article and book about how best to optimize what brain I had left.
I started playing piano when I was 7 years old. Every week, I walked the block over from my house to Mrs. Fogerty’s house for my weekly lesson and I mostly played to mixed reviews. It was only Mrs. Fogerty giving the reviews and over the course of the years I played under her tutelage, I logged a solid B+ for effort and put up performances that roughly reflected that level of commitment and dedication. I know it frustrated the crap out of her as I didn’t play to my full potential and that drove her bonkers as it has millions of music instructors since the days when the first nappy headed young cave kid with a modicum of natural talent for percussive rock beating was driving his rock beating teacher ape shit by not practicing enough. When I got to high school, I made the most egregious mistake of my life and quit playing piano to play football.
When I saw the TED Talk, I was moonlighting as a pet-sitter and I had just come off a stint of three jobs in a row. So I took my earnings and bought a low-end digital piano and it turns out that taking up piano again, even after a couple decades of inactivity, is like riding a bike. After just a couple weeks, I could play, very poorly, a handful of the first few songs in my newly acquired book So You Used to Play Piano (I swear that is the name of the book I bought at the Keyboard Kastle.) I’ve struggled over the years to find enough time to wedge in a 30 minute practice session but I manage to do so 2-4 times per week. I don’t do it to become a better piano player, necessarily, although one could argue that I did resume improving a little bit at a time. I don’t even really do it to improve my brain power, although one could argue that my short-term memory has improved since I started (although it could also be the addition of coconut oil and blueberries to my diet.) I do it for the same reason 75 % of men who used to be a musician picks it up again, especially if they are picking it up again after 20 years and we are still single. We get into because somewhere along the way, but early in the process, an adult (preferably a kind soul like Mrs. Fogerty or in my case, my father) expressed just a little encouragement of our talent. We stay in it because of the chicks.
And, if we are prudent, we come back to it years later because we never should have left. I truly do love sitting down and playing. More than that, I love to pick up the sheet music for piano tunes written my Joe Cocker and fiddle around with them and squeeze out a serviceable melody. Even more than that I love to pick up the sheet music for a Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles tune, take one look at the time signature and the first line of music and laugh heartily. I think the reason I like it the most (or at least it’s the reason that just kind of occurred to me now) is that playing piano or any instrument is, really, speaking another language. In fact, I’d wager that it’s a lot like learning an Asian language such as Chinese or Korean because the sheet music for a piece of music is just as much about how it is played as the actual nuts-and-bolts content of the piece. The work itself is completely foreign but with effort, persistence, patience and time, what seems to be at first blush an insurmountable task is, in fact, a work of beauty once you have stripped it down into all of its moving parts like time signature, tempo, harmony, melody, pitch, cadence, key and so forth.
Will I be getting that call from the New York Philharmonic? Doubt it. Incidentally, what the hell is a “philharmonic?” I mean, I always get the image of a really fat guy name Phil playing a harmonica and a washboard at that podium where conductors conduct while a symphony orchestra accompanies. In fact, let’s just go with that image. Works for me.