Sunday, May 24, 2015

Songs I Cannot Sing

Have you ever thought how the way we sing a particular song changes it's meaning? Not THAT it changes the meaning, lots of people think about that, but HOW it changes the meaning. 

I'd need to talk to some linguists, music therapists, and psychologists of varying specialties to get the exact answer, but I can tell you, it happened to me today. 

I was singing a song from the musical Matilda. For those unfamiliar, this musical is based on a story by Roald Dahl and was made into a movie that remember well. In the story, Matilda is a bright young girl from a difficult and less-than-amiable family, who feels she doesn't belong. She is constantly being told to, essentially, stop being so bright, to stop being a voice of change, and to simply fall in line with everyone else. 

In the musical, she sings a song titled "Quiet" (as a foil to the song sang earlier by her mother, titled "Loud," which for the record is also one of my favorites). She has a bright, front sound of a pre-adolescent soprano, and the lyrics that struck me are as follows. 
She starts with an intense, conversational tone, that slowly builds into almost frenzied anger.

Have you ever wondered--well, I have!--about how when I say, say red, for example-
there's no way of knowing if "red" means the same thing in YOUR head as "red" means in MY head, when someone says "red"!
And how, if we are traveling at almost the speed of light, 
and we're holding a light,
Well that light would still travel away from us at the full speed of light! Which seems right, in a way--
what I'm trying to say--I'm not sure, 
but I wonder if, inside my head, I'm not just a bit different than some of my friends!
These answers that come into my mind, unbidden! 
These stories delivered to me, fully written!
And when everyone shouts (like they seem to like shouting) this noise in my head is incredibly LOUD
And I just wish they'd stop! My dad, and my mum, and the telly, and the stories, would stop for just once!
I'm sorry! I'm not quite explaining it right--but this noise becomes anger and the anger is light!
And it's burning inside me would usually fade--but it isn't today!
And the heat! and the shouting!
And my heart is pounding!
And my eyes are burning!
And suddenly--everything, everything is---quiet. *

Her voice immediately drops to a quiet, thoughtful, childlike tone. 

Now, when I sang this song in a bright, frontal, British accent, I saw Matilda in my head. I was singing Matilda as we know her from the story. However, the song's climax is slightly out of my comfortable vocal reach, so I moved the melody down about half an octave. 

My mental picture immediately changed. 

I saw instead, in my mind, my cousin Em. All grown up, singing in the alto range to an audience only she could see. 
See, Em has autism. Like many young people in our world today.

She is one of the funniest, brightest girls I know, and she does well. Sometimes, her brain works very differently than the brains of the people around her. Things translate differently in her mind, and she processes emotions and sensory stimuli in a very Em way. She thinks about things that I don't think about, in ways I have never considered. She is a little bit different--just like the heroine singing the song. Sometimes, the noise in her head becomes too much, and it translates like Matilda's does. 

When that image of Em came into my mind, I stopped singing. It was one of those life moments that forever alters the way you think about people--a flash of what Em's world must be like, on the bad days. Then the song continues, in a quite, child like wonder: 

Everything is quiet--
like silence, but not really silence. 
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book, 
Or a pause in a walk in the woods. 

Quiet--like silent, but not really silent. 
Just that nice, kind-of quiet
Like the sound when you lie upside-down in your bed--
Just the sound of your heart in your head. 
(tone moves to quiet triumph)
And though the people around me, their mouths are still moving--
the words they are forming, cannot reach me anymore!
(softly)
And it is quiet, and I am warm. 
Like I've sailed into the eye of the storm. 


I wonder if that's how Em feels, when the noise quiets down, and the anger goes out, and the world is safe again. She is left to appreciate both the thoughts and analysis of the world around her, and to appreciate simple moments that I take for granted. 

And that half-octave transposition has left me with quite a bit of pondering to do. How many people do we see around us, having exactly the same tests, just slightly different details? How much difference is there, really, between the "gifted" kids and the "normal" kids and the "special consideration" kids? Is this something we adults have invented and exaggerated, just another way to sort people into categories? We are all here, having the same human experience. We are all singing the same song, just at different places. 
 

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