Emily K. Michael
SKETCHING THE ROSE: THE LIFE OF PERFECT PITCH
Summer can be a slow season for my barbershop chorus. We enter regional competition in April, and if our scores are good enough, we'll compete on the international stage in October of the following year. Because we have eighteen months to perfect our competition music, we spend the summer months expanding our repertoire and just having fun–which is barbershop code for learning "tags."
Tags are the last few lines of a song, stretched out and embellished with lush harmonies. At our regional competitions, the hotel corridors are filled with quartets singing tags. Established quartets and pickup quartets–groups that have competed for years and foursomes who have just met by the elevator. Because tags are short and catchy, most people teach and learn them by ear.
When we see "tag singing" on the rehearsal agenda, my fellow singers and I find our respective sections on the risers: lead, bass, baritone, and tenor. Even in an all-female ensemble, we still use the traditional part names from men's barbershop–we can't help that the male tradition was established first. As I step up next to the other baritones, our section managers form a quartet in front.
The lead manager sings the first tag, and her section repeats it. I struggle to keep my attention on the music. I want to memorize the other three parts so that I can teach the tag to newcomers, but a low buzz of chatter has started among my baritones–mostly complaints.
"I hate doing this by ear. Do you think anyone will notice if I use my tag book?"
"Basses are off-key again. They need to lift the sound forward."
Baritones are often the last section to learn their part because our harmonies are the strangest. Barbershop arrangers give us the notes needed to complete the chords, not the notes that make sense across the page. Ours is a part for music theory nerds, and only a baritone would insist that it's just as sweet as the lead's melody.
Now the basses and leads are both out of tune. I cringe, but keep my mouth shut. My voice carries, and I don't want to get called out for talking. The section manager calls a halt, and the demo quartet begins to debate pitches. Candace leans over and whispers in my ear: "What key are they supposed to be in?"
I chance a reply, "The tag's in D, and they both start on the tonic. At the end of this line, leads should be on an A, and basses on a low F-sharp. They've sharped the whole thing. They're singing it in E now."
Candace nods. "Right." Then she does the unforgivable.
She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts, "Emily says it's in D! And she has perfect pitch, so you know she's right!"
My face heats up. I want to sink below the scuffed terrazzo floor. But no one scoffs. No one remarks on my audacity–"The nerve! Who does she think she is? Young thing telling the director what key to be in!" No one even sniffs in disgust. And I know my ladies can perform all these derisive signs–they've been doing them all night as the other sections struggle with their parts.
Nevertheless, I've been outed. True, a few of my chorus friends knew about my perfect pitch, but I didn't spread it around, because perfect pitch brings a glamour of its own. Couple it with my blindness, and I've got a veritable mystique.
Among musicians and non-musicians, perfect pitch summons a sense of mysterious authority. No one scoffs or calls me presumptuous because they think I'm right–and after a quick glance at the sheet music, they know I'm right. For the chorus members who haven't gotten to know me, my abilities can seem otherworldly: I memorize quickly, I never hold my sheet music on the risers, I always know what key we're supposed to be in…and what key we're actually inhabiting. Because so much of their relationship to music is based on visual interplay between the printed sheet music and the conductor, they don't understand how a blind musician navigates the world of rehearsal and performance.
But this skill comes at a price: mystery stands in direct opposition to empathy. Authority, musical or unmusical, creates distance, even among friends. So I'd rather open the world of perfect pitch, close the distance between those who possess it and those who don't.
In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks devotes an entire chapter to absolute pitch (AP)–a person's ability to spontaneously identify musical pitches by their alphabetic names. 1 When I purchased the book several years ago, I scoured this chapter first, eager for information on perfect pitch and blindness. I desperately wanted to find my musical experiences on the page, but Sacks offered only a handful of facts that resemble my abilities.
Sacks asserted that absolute, or perfect, pitch is more common in congenitally blind people–like me. Those with AP can distinguish pitches by their character, just as most sighted people identify colors. Many musicians with AP began their musical training early, another similarity. On the advice of a low-vision specialist, my parents put me in piano lessons at the age of three. The doctor said that playing piano would help me learn to type. So even when people aren't imagining a musical future, visual disability prepares the mind for perfect pitch.
My relationship with absolute pitch has been refined by music teachers. For most, my love of singing, low vision, and ability to play by ear sounded like a recipe for AP–and each tested this theory in different ways. One piano teacher said, "It's likely you have perfect pitch," but he did not press me to describe my experience of musical notes; this nonchalance helped me to recognize that AP alone wouldn't make me a good musician.
Another teacher asserted this claim with more enthusiasm, regularly testing my abilities in front of the class. He would play a note on the piano and ask me to name it. I often named the notes correctly, which ended the exercise. But in one instance, he played a note three times before he was satisfied with my answer. Each time, I called the note a C-sharp, and he finally realized that he was the one in error: "I thought I was playing something else!"
These in-class pitch drills made me self-conscious, so I began keeping my AP to myself. But it emerged again during a music theory test. After our unit on major and minor intervals, our chorus director passed out a slip of paper with ten numbered blanks. At the piano, she played ten scales and chords, and we had to identify them as major or minor.
She played the chords and scales once, and I filled in my exam. As she repeated the passages, I wrote the musical key of each item next to my correct answer: D Major, f minor, G Major, A Major. It was something I did to amuse myself, better than sitting at my desk with my hands folded.
When the teacher collected my exam paper, she said with mild surprise, "I'm going to have to check if these keys are correct." A week later, she returned my paper–and everything I had written–including the pitches–was accurate. "You have perfect pitch," she confirmed. But there were no subsequent drills, no in-class demonstrations. She called on me as a pitch pipe only in dire situations when we performed a cappella.
I kept quiet about my perfect pitch because of the emphasis on "perfect." As Sacks says in his chapter, the "absolute" of absolute pitch comes from a person's ability to name the note without hesitation; the pitch itself is absolutely one note and not another. Each note has its own personality, so a person with AP would never mistake a C for an F.
I felt that if people found out that I had AP, they would expect unflagging perfection from me. What triumph they would feel if they asked me to sing an F and I sang a G. I felt that others would delight in debunking my abilities, in saying, "Well you're not so special after all, are you?"
In this quest for the perfect human pitch pipe, people miss what I would call the spirituality of absolute pitch. For me, there is little value in being able to assign each note its arbitrary man-made name, to call an A an "A." We don't love the color red because we call it "red." To my ears, pitch is a round, living sound.
Because my chorus performs a cappella music, we blow the pitch pipe before we sing. You'll here it as a straight tone, like a sustained elevator chime. If we are preparing to sing in the key of F, we blow an F. Then we "take the pitch"; we sing the F on an "ah" or "ooh" to prime ourselves for singing in that key. If we don't sing the pitch accurately, we won't sing the song in tune.
When I hear the pitch pipe, I imagine a thin strand of bright light, rising up to a bold point against a dark background. The bright spot is the pitch–a crisp but nonhuman sound. I sing the pitch, and imagine my voice sketching around that bright spot. I like to think that I am adding petals to a deep red rose, making the pitch come alive by remembering all the harmonies around it. An F may be a beautiful pitch, but it is beautiful on its own fo a limited time. What makes music such a powerful, evocative art is our ability to use it as collective memory. When I sing this note, when I sketch the rose, I am making the pitch as full-bodied as I can. I am using the best red, the softest petals, the most inviting nectar. I am filling the rose with memories of all other roses in all other colors.
And here is where I differ from Oliver Sacks's examples. He says that perfect pitch can be a constraint because it can overpower a harmonic context–it can make the individual note more important than the chords around it. Knowing what an F is can make pitch-perfect musicians think that each F must sound the same. And any musician, any artist, realizes that the humanity of our arts lies in their imperfection and impermanence.
Other musicians often ask whether perfect pitch makes me miserable. I feel off-key music in my ears and in my body. Sometimes it is so unpleasant that I find myself cringing, clenching my fists, making horrible faces. When a singer sings a G instead of an F, it sounds "wrong" to me–and hearing that wrongness can be jarring. But for me, out of tune doesn't always mean the wrong pitch. Usually it is a matter of selling the pitch short–of singing a diluted, low-budget version of the note. The note is a partially deflated beach ball, lumpy and irregular. The note is a rose frozen in time with petals so beautiful that you can't wait for it to bloom. But it is half-full, closed down, washed out, skeletal. And hearing this sparseness against what I know can be so full and lively, so rich and deep–that is the real pain of poor tuning.
But living with perfect pitch is far from miserable. Occasional off-key moments are outnumbered by instances of private mirth–when I realize that the automatic door at Starbucks creaks at a C and the elevator chimes at an F, the cash registers ring at a G, the vacuum hums an E. Even the silverware falling into the drawer clinks and Ds and Bs.
I love bringing others into this everyday music. Sitting in the audience at a panel on disability in the workplace, I started humming in harmony with a vacuum outside the conference room. The mentor on my left and the friend on my right joined in, and soon we were building quiet triads around the vacuum drone. (The music majors on campus played this game with the elevator; we all sang chords around its bells as we rode up and down.)
These moments of unscripted harmony reinforce the value of music as a non-linguistic art, an art that works without words. Our system for naming pitches helps us write and perform music, but calling and A by its name doesn't make music happen. Much of the time, we focus on the printed page and sacrifice the art and the intuition of our ears. No one needs perfect pitch to compose, perform, or enjoy music.
Absolute pitch testifies to the sacredness of music for me. I may know what an F is, I may be able to hear its character and its sister harmonies, but there are spectra I do not know–overtones I catch only in passing. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that music came to earth as the physics of the divine realm–the architecture and proportions of heaven filtered through our human perception. And this is how I feel my absolute pitch. It is not a rigid skill or an indisputable authority. Absolute pitch is a gift, my fleeting brush against the shape of empyrean roses.
1. Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Vintage, 2008), 129-139.