It’s been 3 months and I am starting to forget. I told myself that when I started to forget, population health I’d write it down. I want to remember this one time I saw a concert. This is not unusual. I see concerts; I have glasses.
But this time, I listened to the concert. I had adjusted to the hearing aids I wore, and had a month before Sara Bareilles stopped at Radio City Music Hall (that link has a setlist and videos of all the songs; I wish I could put it in a box and save it forever) during her “Blessed Unrest” tour. The same time I’d be in town guest-teaching at Hacker School. So I prepared.
My mom was puzzled in September when the envelope arrived. “It’s too small for a book,” she said. “But you don’t buy CDs.” Nope, I don’t generally purchase music; what’s the point? I’m deaf. But for the next month, “The Blessed Unrest” would constantly be on, whenever I could stand it — this is what aural training is. You listen to noise, over and over, until it turns into music. I was determined to go to the concert and understand it, not just feel the drumbeats and muddily hear the bass.
So I memorized the lyrics, and I played the songs on 2.5-hour loops driving between grad school and Illinois; hearing aids on, volume as loud as the minivan speakers could possibly blast them, ripping my hearing aids out when I was driven mad by all the sounds I didn’t understand, putting them in again. Repeat.
It took a while to realize the scratchy sounds at the beginning of “Brave” were probably piano chords; when I did, I took apart the bass line in order to guess at what chords the piano was playing, and held my memory of what those chords should sound like on a piano in a quiet room against the skrt!-skrt!-skrt! faintly echoing behind Sara’s voice, until the scratches and my memories could blend enough that she was singing over something that was music.
I’m used to this. It’s how I learned pieces when I was younger, doing piano competitions and accompanying choirs and playing cello in orchestras and keyboard in my (short-lived) college band; read scores over and over until you have the music in your head, your mind mentally playing every part. Rehearse, hope you don’t piss off all your bandmates. Hope that the occasional faint strains you hear during performance are enough to stitch the real music to the soundscape in your head. I had a perfect simulated orchestra inside my mind, when what I really wanted was to hear the out-of-tune fumbles of the real one I played in.
Hours of that single CD inside the car, at my computer, in the kitchen. The cymbals thwacking over “Little Black Dress” drove me mad. Listen over and over until you can at least predict them even if the sounds still don’t make sense, and you can listen to the whole song, pay attention to the other sounds in it; a coping strategy.
And so on. There were easy parts, small bits of songs I would immediately fall in love with — the kick drum on “Chasing the Sun” sounds like a literal heartbeat under the lyrics of a cemetery in Queens — and lyrics that annoyed me when I learned them: “1000 Times” is basically “The Doormat Song,” and I groaned when I discovered my favorite song was actually titled “I Choose You” (of course it had to be the sappiest title on the album — but boy, does it sound fantastic!). I started out enjoying “Little Black Dress” but after weeks of listening to “here is how you get over a breakup!” lyrics the snappy polka chords started to grate on me. Also, the cymbals.
After a month, I could listen to the entire album at one go and felt like I understood it — could tell when guitars would start, knew how bass lines went, sort of sometimes heard the piano. I started branching out to other Sara Bareilles albums; I’ve got “Between the Lines: Sara Bareilles Live at the Fillmore” which has awesome pieces and confusing silences and background noises. (Later on I realized the silences were quiet playing or applause. And that the roar of static that crackled through several songs? That’s people cheering. They do that at concerts. But I didn’t make the connection.)
And then the concert.
I don’t know how to write the concert. No matter what I put down here, it’s never going to match the feeling of hearing a concert — hearing, understanding, making sense of, not just slamming through a loud noise. How do I write down what this meant to me? I’m a musician, love music, love music — and I settled for this crappy thing that wasn’t worth going to concerts for. I had settled for this crappy thing, and didn’t go to concerts. When you’re deaf young enough and long enough, you figure this is all there is and all you’re going to get, and then you get hearing aids and sopranos show up on the radio and you start crying in the middle of the highway. You know?
No, you probably don’t know. That’s fine. I’m writing this for future-Mel because she knows — I know — and now we won’t forget.
The pre-concert was a rough time for me. I’m sure they’re a fantastic band, but this — I didn’t do aural training for their pieces, so it was all lights and noise and just too much, and rather than shut down and snap away inside my mind (because I’m learning not to do that; it’s a bad survival habit that I’m kicking) I ended up just stepping out into the lobby, wondering if I could make it through the actual concert. Because when you’ve counted on watching the hands and fingers of the musicians in order to match the realtime noises with the songs you’ve burned into your head, having colorful photons shunted into your face makes that… well, harder. Duck, because the light will blind you, and when you’re blind, you’re really deaf; you miss a second or two of the music, have to figure out where to pick up again.
But then she walked onto the stage, and people screamed and hearing aids were loud, and then — and then — ”Chasing the Sun” started to play with that familiar kick-drum heartbeat I could latch onto, and there were sounds, and then my brain went yes, I know this song, and from my memory the gaps — the script — started to fill in, flesh out, make sense, and –
This is why people go to concerts, right? Because you lose yourself inside the music. You can actually immerse and swim in it, in all its detail, all this sound that swirls around and embraces, a million different things at once in harmony, and – and it doesn’t hurt. You’re inside it, not outside trying to get in, not standing there trying to imagine a Van Gogh from stick figures and a blurry photocopy.
And when they go off-script, you follow. During “Manhattan,” when the double bass and twin cellos took up the thread of harmony between the lyrics, it sounded so right – the auditory equivalent of thick purple velvet winding between threads of leather, the fragrance of a rich red wine — the I was surprised during post-concert CD listening to find there were no strings on the track. Whatever instrument carried the harmonies there, I’d learned it well enough to transfer to the strings during the concert. Inside the music, headed wherever it was going. Along with everybody else. Not an outsider in the concert hall.
I repeat myself and grow verbose and incoherent. That’s okay here.
She covered “The Way You Look Tonight” — which thankfully, I knew because my parents go for Frank Sinatra music. Well, mostly knew. The melody, a couple of the words; enough. I’m a sucker for jazz piano, and this was it — the instrumental, and the vocals, the tune that soars into the lyrics up and up on “There is nothing for it / but to love you / and the way you look tonight.” It’s music! Listen! Scratchy now, but patch that in your head with how the music must have sounded in that hall; patch it inside your mind the way I do, with memories and fabrications of how music should sound — I felt like I was soaring up there with that song.
Okay. The concert ended with my least favorite song (“Eden”) and then another not-really-favorite-song (“Once Upon Another Time”), but look; I don’t care.
Marathon of self-imposed aural rehab: worth it. Everything: worth it. Music. Like a universe unfolding and enfolding you within it; like a door you’ve knocked on, like a window you’ve peered through, finally opening and bringing you into a warm hall lit with fellowship and firelight; a wider world beyond my earlier capacity to imagine.
Months before I even knew this concert existed, Abbee asked me to explain how heaven worked. I’m not sure where my answer came from, but I told her it was like a concert; you’re deep inside the music you’ve been listening to on CDs and playing badly on guitar your whole life, except now the original band is playing, and you’re in the middle of it singing along, and your friends are right there lost in the music, right beside you. “Disclaimer,” I told Abbee. “This is from a deaf girl who has never really done that at a concert, but I imagine it’s something like that. The concert, I mean. Dunno about the heaven part.”
I can’t write this, really. I’m beginning to forget. But after the studying and listening and all those hours of preparing, and how that folded into the concert — and the being in the concert — I think… yes. That explanation, that poor pale analogy of heaven — works for me. I don’t know how long the concert was, but it was time that stopped, and time within which my faded little world of music — for a tiny little while — exploded.
There. Remembering. Grateful I have that memory to remember.