Out of tune as well as outnumbered | TheUnion.com

Out of tune as well as outnumbered

When people tell us we can accomplish anything we want to if we try hard enough, they mean well, but they are sometimes quite wrong. I have spent a lifetime struggling unsuccessfully to overcome two serious learning deficits.

First of all, I am a lost cause, musically speaking. Melodies do not strike my ear and linger pleasantly in my mind the way they do with other people. I cannot carry a tune and, for me, rhythm is merely an intellectual concept.

Secondly, I find anything having to do with numbers downright arcane. For example, there is a perpetual irreconcilable difference between my bank statement and my check register, no matter how painstakingly I calculate.

Researchers have located specific sites in the brain responsible for musical and mathematical aptitude. For this reason, I have resolved never to have a brain scan of any sort. I have no wish to be revealed as a medical oddity with a cerebrum as riddled with holes as a Swiss cheese, or, worse yet, perhaps one with a whole hemisphere atrophied to the size of a prune.

My musical education, which I entered into with the utmost good will, began at age 6. My adoptive mother, who had always yearned to play the piano, saw to it that I received the music lessons she was denied.

Neither my eager young music teacher nor I had the least premonition of the struggle that lay ahead. I easily learned to read single notes, fascinated by the small bug-like forms that crawled about among the lines of the bass and treble clefs, but when the time came to combine these notes, I was incapable of discerning when I had hit a wrong note except by the restrained gurgles of my teacher or by my mother’s more overt cries.

Furthermore, I had no sense of rhythm. When my teacher asked, “Honey, don’t you feel the beat?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Like Sigmund Freud, who did not care for music, I felt nothing and heard only “musical noise.”

You might suppose that my mother could have accepted that I simply had some gaps in my circuitry, but, alas, no. Dreams die hard. She was a determined and optimistic woman who believed that with training and practice some dormant musical ability would awaken in me. I certainly did not want to disappoint my brand-new, lovely mother. I can honestly tell you I put my all into learning to play the piano.

After a while I learned to sight read pretty well, but since I never had any real idea of what should come next, each time I played a piece it was a new adventure. Tempo remained an iffy concept, inversely related to the complexity of whatever composition I was attempting. When attending to runs, trills, arpeggios and grace notes, timing fell by the wayside. Memorizing music was out of the question save for one notable exception. After seven or eight years of lessons, I could play, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Charms” from memory. And, at age 83, I still can. I have no idea why.

As to mathematics, my troubles began in the first grade. Once again, I started out with a genuinely positive attitude. I liked the looks of numbers, particularly fours, which I had once seen written with the top of the four closed into a triangular shape so that it looked like a little sailboat.

I persisted in writing my fours that way until the teacher complained to my mother and I was told to produce a standardized version. This convinced me that there is no room for whimsicality when you’re dealing with arithmetic. It was an uphill journey from there.

Nevertheless, I survived the years of basic arithmetic with the kind of stoicism we reserve for coping with chronic illness, and actually clawed my way through first year geometry. Reprieve finally came when my high school math teacher implored me not to sign up for algebra. After our geometry experience, she figured both of us had suffered enough.

I once heard mathematics described as a study of “pure cold beauty.” It sounded to me as if they were talking about graveyard statuary. Frankly, I am more attracted to things that are warm and fuzzy. As a matter of fact, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” has a kind of warm and fuzzy quality about it, don’t you think?


Lucille Lovestedt lives in Grass Valley.

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