My friend Linda has been teaching piano for over forty years now. Over all those decades, with literally hundreds of students, she has developed many tools to reach and teach people of every age and learning ability. To give them the robust gift of music.
I had always wanted to play but, even before my brain injury, I had never learned to read music. To me it was like Statistics in college….like some foreign, frustrating language that everyone seemed to be able to speak except me.
I had taught myself to play some over the years. With a handful of guitar chords that I practiced over and over and with some easy chord books and song selections that included just the few chords I knew, I was able to strum a little guitar here and there. Never anything great but enough to enjoy it and actually recognize the few songs I was trying to play.
Linda knew I had always wanted to play piano and the idea kept returning to me when I was recovering. I kept coming across evidence and testimony of music as a useful tool to help unlock cognitive potential in recovery.
I think she, too, was curious about the challenges a TBI survivor might face when trying to encourage the brain to execute the many simultaneous demands in order to play. You have to be able to read the notes, process them and apply them to fingers which are attempting to find corresponding keys. You have to read two sets of notes in order to play the right hand and the left hand and have all of those things happen together, over and over, throughout a song and within the confines of time measurements.
For someone like me who cannot, some days, manage to pair two simple things together and execute them at the same time for even a moment, the idea of stringing those skills together over the course of an entire song felt almost impossible, really. I didn’t imagine it would be much fun if I couldn’t keep up with the processing speeds and one simple song would take ten minutes to play.
Didn’t sound like too much fun.
Linda knew, too, that, when I used to play guitar, I would come across a tough chord that I hadn’t mastered and just play a G. I told her, “Yep, just play a G anytime you don’t know a chord….” For an award-winning, classically-trained professional, I’m sure she was aghast. Laughing here.
We decided to give it a try and just see.
Linda searched the myriad strategies that had served her so well in helping the countless students she had taught. She realized that, when we hit roadblocks that TBI had made so frustratingly distinct to my potential, she threw out the playbook and literally rewrote the language of music in a way that my brain could actually recognize, organize and process quickly enough to stay in a song. We stuck to songs I knew so that the familiarity might add to the processing speeds. We drew pictures in the margins of the sheet music and found ways around the demands that I simply could not execute.
And I played the piano.
The other day Linda was telling me about her new piano students. Two of them are just six and seven and she reported how well they are doing and how quickly they are picking it up. I told her I was a little embarrassed by how hard it was for me, even before my brain injury, and she said something interesting that made a light go on for me.
She said, “Kids just play the music. Adults have a lot going on in their heads. They bring a lot of baggage. Kids don’t ask why. They don’t second-guess the music. They trust the music and they just play.”
As soon as I heard that, I thanked her for my new blog subject.
In any life I think we all get caught up tripping over the baggage. In our own heads, we complicate the simplest of notions, of gestures, of evidence. We deplete ample. We muddy. We can take a beautiful ice sculpture of an eagle and keep chipping at it and finding flaws and seeking perfection until all we’re left with is one big honkin’ ice cube.
Admittedly, with a brain injury, we may have to rewrite the music a little. There might be drawings in the margins and notes and skips and end-arounds in order to allow ourselves the gift. But the gift is the music.
We gotta just play it. We just gotta hold tight to the simple truth that it is a good thing to play it.
Giving ourselves the most extraordinary gifts of life: love, music, compassion, forgiveness, wellness, inclusion, support, peace….is worth every note in the margin. For those of us with TBI in our lives, those gifts are worth every strategy, counsel, learning, medication, and compensatory tool to get us there.
I cried that first time I played Silent Night with two hands, chords and all. I cried. It was a little slow and admittedly a simple version, but it was Silent Night, nonetheless.
Thank you, Linda. Thank you to all of you out there willing to help us enjoy life’s most beautiful gifts.
I played Silent Night. And into that Silent Night, I poured music. Into the dark still where sometimes hope flickers and falters, I poured hope. And flames of tomorrow’s possibilities sparked tall and bright, crazy into the night.
Just play the music.