This is a piece that I wrote a while ago. It has a few good lines. It feels incomplete and abrupt in many places, but think of it as a reflection of the emptiness and confusion I felt at this time. Bam. Just made that one up on the spot.
“I think you’re tone deaf.”
I thought back to the days of my unencumbered life when even with ten hours of sleep, I could watch reruns of Full House, roller skate around my street, and get all my homework done. During this time, I had a drill sergeant voice teacher who trained me in sight singing with such musicality and accuracy that I received a perfect score on my NYSSMA music evaluations for the subsequent years.
I sang the two notes again, sure that one was half a step lower than the other.
“You’re singing the exact same pitch twice.”
I was sitting in the hallway after Science Olympiad waiting for the proctors to compile the results. Supervisors had herded all the students into the auditorium and projected onto the screen the Symphony of Science, a series of science documentaries turned music videos. A group of us left after five minutes—I could only endure so much autotuned Carl Sagan superimposed in History Channel videos. Although, when I got home, I searched it on the internet and found that the majority of people who came across these videos liked them, some even going as far to call them genius.
After various topics entered and left our conversation, we learned that one of the girls on my team had perfect pitch. Annie. Anyone in music is envious of people like her, even though they, so used to the convenience, dismiss their talent as useless. Consistent fixation, awe, and unrelenting commands seem to be inevitable when around a person with perfect pitch. For half an hour, we tried to construct the most complex chords and scales for her to sing which she did effortlessly. Although I did not have perfect pitch, I was confident about my relative pitch, the ability to discern how correct a pitch is given other pitches for comparison. Deciding to test myself, I sang two pitches that I perceived to be one degree apart in the D major scale.
I sang the two notes for the third time, this time with more force getting the attention of more people around me.
“I’m singing two different notes. Can’t you tell?”
My head tilted up, I stared at the person sitting next to me waiting for approval, confirmation, or any type of response to the two pitches that left my throat and funneled into his inner ear where the vibrations provided messages for nerves to relay to his brain.
Finally, I saw him say, “No. You’re repeating the same pitch.”
I looked around and caught the glance of the girl with perfect pitch and I sang the two notes for her who along with the other faces of the group nodded to confirm what he had just revealed.
“You must be tone deaf.”
I gasped and my palm shot up to cover my gaping mouth. I was immediately confronted with the urge to retaliate, “No. I think you must be tone deaf,” but after a few seconds of rational thinking I retreated into my most natural state, quiet and calm.
Tone deaf. It seemed so harsh and degrading. My perceptions of myself as a not only a musician with dedication and ambition, but with an internal rhythmic and harmonic senses had been irreparably shattered. A physical impediment that I may have been inflicted with my entire life was suddenly imposed upon me by two individuals who nonchalantly confirmed my flaw.
I learned what tone deaf meant in second grade when my friend had a karaoke birthday party. Although I was unsympathetic and frustrated by her at first, I realized after that she had no idea that she changed five keys while singing one verse, even with the looks that everyone gave each other across the room.
My mind sprinted back to the previous week when my flute teacher had praised me for my ability to identify and play pitches in tune.
Pulling out her iPhone, my flute teacher said,
“This is the best thing I’ve ever found for tuning. All of those metal box tuners are tampered, but this allows you to ‘true’ tune. It’s an app called iTanpura lite.”
She then had me play notes on the flute while iTanpura Lite droned chords that helped me gauge whether I was playing sharp or flat. As we started playing the literature, we came across a fourth chord.
“It’s more pleasing to the ear to hear the tonic flatter and the fourth note sharper. It’s like the German ambulances. Their sirens are fourth chords that have flatter first notes and sharper fourth notes. Try to adjust your pitch by tensing up your bottom lip.”
Thinking back, what perplexed me was not only the fact that sirens were harmonious in other countries, but the fact that I had had a tight grasp on the pitches of German ambulance sirens. I played the pitches, heard the pitches, and did not once question my ability to hear and discern.
There are twelve different pitches in each octave in the Western chromatic scale. While each pitch has a unique and specific frequency, there are an infinite number of pitches between the closest two pitches in the Western scale. It is like two points on a line—those two points are defined, but there are an infinite number of possible points in between the reference points. Because the 12 exact pitches are the only notes recognized in classical music, the challenge of playing or singing is getting the exact pitch according to the Western music standard and not wavering in the frontier of pitches foreign to classical Western literature.
Standards. My world is obsessed with standards. After I was told that I was tone deaf, I sang one of the notes to myself over and over so that I wouldn’t forget. I went home and sang it to my tuner and found out that I wasn’t singing a note that was part of the Western scale. I was three quarters of the way between C sharp and D. Annie had imposed standards on my note. It was never a D. It was a note that didn’t have a place within the standard. Reflecting on what happened that day, I had thought that what I believed to be a firm grasp on the physics of the world had been incorrect. I had thought that my world was fragile and my perceptions were skewed. The standards set by my world made me question and doubt myself.
Foreign. Something my world is afraid of. I’m afraid too, but I make the effort to challenge myself. I run, I sing, I write because it’s foreign to me. Never having been praised for my writing and never having fully grasped my voice, writing is foreign, but I still do it in hopes that one day it will be mine.