Years ago I read that the Zen way to learn piano would be to sit in the dark and start to play. I sort-of understand this. I suppose the idea is that, in the correct frame of mind, you can tap into the part of you that already knows full well how to play – your portion of the universal mind, maybe. I’ve never tried it, but then I’ve never had a piano.
And today I read an article in the New Scientist about a woman with deteriorating memory, now aged a hundred and one.
‘She rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades.’
And yet apparently she can play nearly four hundred songs by ear. She plays ragtime, show tunes, gospel and many other genres, and can also learn new songs just by listening to them.
She says she does not know how to read music; she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. Although she cannot now remember having learned to read music, researchers think she would have done, at some point. Born in Tennessee in 1914, she learned to play piano and violin as a child, earned two degrees in music education and played the violin in a women’s orchestra, though she did not play much after 1946.
What it is about music that ‘sticks’ when so much else, even everyday common-sense things do not? How can a person, for example, not know that they are hungry or thirsty, whether it is day or night, and yet play the piano with almost as much skill, and as much energy as when they were younger?
As yet no one seems to know whereabouts in the brain music lives. One suggestion is that musical ability may be diffusely located – so presumably damage in one area is less likely to have a dramatic effect on it, as it might with something more localised, like speech.
I do hope this aged lady gets as much pleasure from playing the piano at one hundred and one as she did in her youth, and isn’t just doing it because it’s the only thing she can remember how to do. Supposing it wasn’t just music; supposing we were all allowed to keep a single gift to the age one hundred and one and beyond – or even a single memory, a single name and face – what would those be?