It all began with music.Language was next, and because I grew up in America English was what we spoke. I always have had a knack for languages, but music definitely came first.
Because of this I never considered a life outside of music. I started formal piano lessons at age 4 because I was playing all of my older brother’s piano pieces note for note by ear. I majored in piano in college, and for several years was a staff accompanist at a respected university. It was as natural as breathing or talking, and I think anyone who knows me will agree that talking has always come very easily to me. It all was just so darned simple …I practiced and played for hours every day, but it was always pure joy and release from tension. I seemed to think in musical terms…I was constantly imagining musical phrases in my fingers. Add to this the fact that I had near-perfect pitch, and my life was filled with music. Fortunately I married a musician too, and our children were also musical, so life was rich and filled with flowers, art, books, laughter, and–most of all–music.
Then came the accident. Or as I prefer to say, “a truck hit me.” Everything stopped. The music stopped. My life came within moments of stopping. And it has been excruciatingly s–l–o–w in starting up again. Some days I am more successful than others at coming to grips with this new reality.
All my life has been some wonderful combination of teaching vocal music, leading worship, teaching piano, or simply participating in music. At church, school or home, I sang and was at the piano most of the time. After the accident all that came to a screeching halt. The part of my brain that processes the information coming in from my eyes and ears was badly damaged, so I could see and I could hear, but I couldn’t make much sense out of the signals I was receiving.
Besides this, I had major physical injuries to deal with as well as my damaged brain. The things that directly affected my singing were: my diaphragm was torn and had to be repaired surgically, several ribs were broken which still causes me pain when I try to draw deep breaths, I had a tracheostomy in my neck for weeks. There didn’t seem to be much hope that I would ever sing again.
At first, when we went to church, I couldn’t even match pitch, or sing more than two or three notes without having to take a breath. For several months, just getting there, and being there, was adventure enough for me.
I couldn’t make sense of the faces, the music, I was worried about things like where we would sit and having to get to the bathroom. My main emotion was paralyzing fear, but I was determined to get better. That’s pretty strong motivation for getting out and about again, and I knew I needed God, and church, more than ever before. So I made myself keep going.
After several months of listening I started trying to figure out the time signatures of the songs. I would try tapping along, and periodically ask a member of my family what I was thinking it was, and ask if that was correct. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Gradually I improved. Then I got somewhat more adventurous. I decided I would try to match a pitch.
I knew this would be quite an important endeavor for me. I remembered from my years of teaching that listening was vital to matching pitch, so I thought starting with humming would be best. One morning they were singing a piece I particularly loved, I so I finally got my courage up. I tried to breathe as deeply as I could, I hummed along for a few notes, but couldn’t hear myself at all so I decided to vocalize along with just a few notes.
Total train wreck. Not even close. My only consolation was that absolutely no one noticed, because my voice was so weak that it was practically inaudible. I was so shattered that I stood, blinking back tears, for the rest of the singing time.
That was another rough stretch. It was difficult to collect the broken pieces of my identity one more time and create another action plan. Hadn’t I done enough starting over?
I did a lot of thinking and self-reflection about my life, and realized that this had always been a core piece of my identity, something that I never wanted to lose. The idea of “music” is so much deeper to my identity than any nonsense about having a beautiful singing voice, or playing piano well. It is the lens through which I see the world It very much brings everything into focus for me. I knew that if I was going to find any joy in the remaining years of my life, it was absolutely essential for me to get music back. I just had to find a way to not let memories of what HAD been destroy my joy in what WOULD be. I resolutely pointed my face towards the future, and desperately tried not to glance back over my shoulder.
As a teacher I had always greatly enjoyed working with adolescent voices (there’s some speculation that may be because of my somewhat immature sense of humor) but that’s beside the point. Anyway, now I had to bring all those lesson home to myself. I was among the worst singers I had ever worked with, but I was also my favorite kind of student. A pretty quick study, very motivated, and there’s a big difference between learning for the first time, and remembering skills and theory that you’ve taught others all your life. All I had to do was think. Note names and their places on the staff, note durations, music theory, vocal pedagogy….all of that was in there. I just had to unlock it,
It all starts with breath, both in voice and in piano. Deep, rhythmic, relaxed breathing. How many times had I said that to my students? Breathe in tempo BEFORE you begin the music and then join in. It’s very much like children in a game of jump rope on the playground; if another child wants to jump into the game already in motion, you teach them to watch for a while, count along, then breathe in time and “join in with the rope.” Don’t over think it, just relax, breathe in tempo, and jump in.
I decided it would be most time-effective to combine practicing singing with practicing piano. So I formulated a plan for daily practice of both.
That Christmas my family bought me a stationary recumbent bike to strengthen my legs. When I finished my piano practice, I would climb on my stationery bike and start pedaling and singing. This, I reasoned, was not only strengthening my singing voice and breath support, but my memory. During that Christmas season I would sing every Christmas carol I knew, and all the verses. Especially Good King Wenceslaus. My oldest daughter and I, when she was in high school, challenged each other by memorizing ALL the verses to that carol. Every Christmas since we (somewhat teasingly) test each other on the words. That was one thing I was simply desperate to get back.
I had taught general music for years, so I knew lots of folk songs. Those all came in very handy during our child raising years as lullabies, and they came back into use now. Again, all the verses. I thought of it as “double” or “triple teaming” my therapies.
My singing voice now no one would describe as “beautiful.” Not anyone who didn’t know about the accident. But at least I can contribute to singing in church now, and I can pretty much make it through a complete phrase. That was a necessity for my inner musician. Now that’s all I ask. But I’m still working. Still pedaling away madly on my bike doing vocal warmups.
Now for piano. This was definitely the most painful blow. I was never an operatic vocal soloist, but I was a very serious pianist. The accident threatened to steal all that me. I forgot everything. Except that, once upon a time, I had been very good. Now I couldn’t see the notes…they didn’t stay still on the page. I couldn’t remember what they meant. My cerebellum was damaged, which greatly affects one’s coordination, so my fingers wouldn’t work right, and my hands wouldn’t work at all together.
My music therapist at OWL was wonderful. My family had told her how vital music had always been to me, so they all thought music would be a great way to reach me. So they started taking me in to sit in front of the piano, and putting my hands on the keyboard. I was wearing a heavy neck brace, so I couldn’t keep my head upright for very long. Multiple times a day my husband went through this pain. Then, one day, a miracle. My hands played a major chord. Then, a few seconds later, another one. Then slowly, back to the first one. Back and forth this went on, for quite a while. Then my hands fell to my lap, and my head fell forward. After the first chord, he had begun videoing, and when it was finished, he sent it to our children, They happened to be all together, on a rare afternoon off-duty, off for a walk. They watched in disbelief, and then hugged each other. They told me afterward that even though I still hadn’t spoken, or recognized anyone, they knew in that moment it would be all right. That I would be back. That I was still in there.
Fast forward several months: when I first came home, I was able to pick out single melodies again by ear, and could vaguely remember how to read music, but the notes still wouldn’t hold still at all, and I couldn’t tell the notes apart on the page. Fortunately my whole family reads music, so someone was always available to help me out. My cerebellum injury left me with very little sense of tempo, so I’m reliant upon a metronome. I had to start over with the simplest exercises, one hand at a time, then work up to scales. At first I tired extremely quickly, so I could only practice a few minutes a day.
When, eventually, it became clear to me that I would never hold a full-time job again, or possibly ever drive myself again, I sank into a deep, dark depression and thought “why practice? I’m never going to use it again!” Then, one day while (hopelessly) praying about it and the thought stole into my mind “you’re never going to be ready for ANYTHING if you don’t get your butt over onto the piano bench and start practicing!” After all, it took me years of practicing the first time when it was all so easy. Now it seemed it was going to be much more complex. Better not waste another minute. It seems as if I can’t even succeed at giving up. Believe me, I’ve given it quite a few tries.
As of writing this, I’m mid way through the Grade 4 Alfred books. I’m tempted always to compare it to how I was before, but I simply cannot do this. It’s just much more difficult for me this time around. I laugh that I’m not only like most “ordinary” piano students, I’m like the most challenged ones now. The ones that I always watched in wonder. The ones that I sometimes thought “How I wish I could just climb into their heads to see what it’s like!” Well, how I got my wish. Except it’s more than a visit. Now I live here.