Saturday, November 8, 2014

By Heart

I took piano lessons for twelve years, from my fifth birthday through high school, with a short hiatus somewhere in the middle because I finally confessed to my parents that I hated piano because my teacher's constant berating (given my overly sensitive temperament) was making me cry.

I was good at piano; I memorized things quickly, didn't have to practice much in order to make it sound like I'd made some progress.  Over the years, I accumulated quite an impressive repertoire of music that I could play on demand without sheet music, including Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu:

I delighted in sitting down to a keyboard and blowing away unsuspecting audiences.

Over the years, as I've practiced less and less, my finger memory of that music has faded.  I've found the same thing is true of poems I memorized: Invictus, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (that one in the 7th grade).  I sat down to the piano today to tinker around a bit, and found myself halfway through "New York State of Mind" when I realized I'd lost the chord progression.  I couldn't help but feel like the things I'd learned by heart over the years-the things that are less intellect and more emotion-are slipping away.

The ancient Greeks believed that the heart was the seat of intelligence and memory, as well as emotion (in fact, it was with them that the phrase "learn by heart" originated).  Though neuroscientists have long since proven otherwise, I think about this sometimes when I wonder where the things I've forgotten go, and what is taking up residence in their place.  Is it course numbers?  Day care schedules?  Small projects?  My shopping list?  Whatever it is, it can't be as worthy of a place in the heart as music and poetry.

The root of the word record is Latin, too: before Latin, we had to work on re (meaning "again") and cor (meaning "heart"), committing it to the heart again.  And perhaps there's some truth to it after all: we make the time and space for what we love.

What things do you know by heart, and what things have you lost?
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  1. I'm impressed you could play that!

    I studied piano throughout my childhood, too, but I adored my piano teacher and loved playing the piano. Still, I have the same difficulties with the loss of the ability to play by heart these days. If I don't use it, I lose it, apparently, and, like you, my memory is now devoted to more mundane things.

  2. Ha, I just finished writing a post about how I wish I knew more songs by heart (to sing to AJ, and myself) in the witching hours of the night. It seems like I used to memorize things a lot more easily and knew more. As for where they have gone, I do think a lot of it is the internet - so easy to look things up, that it hardly seems worth the time to memorize. And yet there are times you can't or don't want to be online, and the memorized poems and songs and music is priceless to have at your fingertips.

  3. Wow- you knew how to play that amazing, lovely composition?! You are a woman of many amazing (current and past) talents. And yes, you may have different talents than in the past, but they are not diminished when viewed cumulatively.

    I agree, however, that we probably trade out skills over time. I once was skilled at captivated men, now I I am skilled at negotiating with two small men on how much candy they can consume in one day. Both are keen skills and the later is no less valuable. Ha ha ha.

    Since I disliked my lessons, I always asked my piano teacher, the great Miss Rossy Andrews, to recount her 1930's music career heyday which got her distracted. Hence I never learned much in piano class other than the basic ability to read. She served Danish cookies and I always chose the ones with sugar crystals on top. She let me drink International Coffee when I was just 6 or so, so I loved her deeply. I don't care a fig for my lack of piano skills but her memory stays with me still. Perhaps Miss Rossy had traded her once astounding musical skills for another enchanting skill- the ability to make magic through a story or the ability to be memorable.

  4. I have to say, I am LOVING you posting every day. I feel like it's a special present just for me (clearly it's not, but a girl can dream), I'm sorry I'm not commenting much but please know that I am reading and enjoying every word.

    I used to play piano. I played for eleven years. I too was really good at memorizing pieces, so good in fact that I never really learned to site read. Learning a piece was painstakingly slow in the beginning but by the time I got to the end I had the whole thing down. I can still play some piece but there are parts where my muscle memory fails me. I hope to get a piano some day so my kids can play... we'll see.

    I didn't know the origins of the word "record" but I really love them. Thank you for sharing that etymology.

  5. I took piano lessons for several years too. I don't remember any pieces by heart anymore, except Chopsticks and Heart & Soul. ;) I have my old piano here in my house -- I barely touch it but I like having it.

    One thing I did memorize in school that has stuck with me all these years is the Remembrance Day poem "In Flanders Fields."


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