March 21, 2019

Digital Resources and Analog Music

I haven't been able to blog this week because it's our Spring Break and I'm at my dad's in Austin -- yes, we are now in Year Two of what was supposed to be just a few weeks of hospice care for lung cancer (he was diagnosed in October 2017 and went on hospice care in January 2018), and the hospice miracle continues. I come to Austin every month, and something really cool happened this visit which I wanted to write about here: my dad is learning to play the xylophone! At age 91!

Even though he loves music, he never learned anything about music in school or as a hobby. He can't/won't sing, and every time I suggested to him getting some kind of instrument to play, he was completely negative about it. "I have no musical talent," he insisted.

Well, of course I know that this whole "musical talent" thing is just a fixed mindset myth: every human being is born ready to be musical, but sadly that musical impulse needs support and encouragement, and it can easily be squashed by unkind words or shaming, or simply by neglect.

What happened this week was that the hospice chaplain brought her mandolin to play some music for him, and he was fascinated by watching her play. And what a beautiful instrument! I had never seen a mandolin up close before myself. One of the songs she played was John Denver's Country Roads, and that's a special favorite for my dad.

So, even though my dad insisted that he didn't want an instrument and said that he was disgusted by the whole idea, I made him an executive decision ordered him a xylophone anyway! And................

.............. it worked! He is absolutely delighted by the thing and is already learning two songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb (which is all CDE and G) and Row Row Row Your Boat (which is CDE and F and G). We can't get him to sing along while he plays, which makes it harder, but no matter: there's no wrong way to get started, and there is no wrong way to continue... because he's MAKING music.

His xylophone is a very simple 13-note set of keys with no sharps and flats, and I also ordered a xylophone for his main caregiver (who loves music and sings beautifully) which has a full two octaves, plus sharps and flats.

And it was so cool to see how he is really curious about her xylophone too: he can see that it is similar to his because it has the same white keys that were the same letters (plus a few more), and then it also has all those black keys. This morning he played around on that just listening to the sounds to hear what he could hear. And he accidentally started playing Frere Jacques on his own, and he recognized that's what he was playing! How cool is that???!

Plus, he could also see from her xylophone that this is like playing the piano, but without any finger work: the black and white keys are indeed like keys on a piano. Of course I told him that if he wanted to learn to play a piano keyboard later, we could get him one of those too, and then he could play any melody he wants.

One of the joys of the xylophone, though, is that it is not electric at all. This is good old analog music, and that analog experience means you hear changes in the the resonance of the key based on how you hit it, how you hold the mallet, etc. When you get a good hit, the sound really is lovely, like wind chimes.

And, as promised in the title of this post, there is a digital part to this analog music story too. My dad's xylophone is meant for kids and it came with some simple children's songs written out with the lyrics plus the letter notes, easy to read and follow along (you can see the music cards in the picture above).

But there's no reason he should be limited to children's songs! These thirteen notes should be good for all kinds of music, right? So I went looking online for a source of music for beginners without any musical notation because I would never dream of trying to teach him to read sheet music. I wanted just the lyrics and the letter notes, and I found this wonderful website: Here's how it presents a song, just the letters, with a little dot to indicate the lower octave and a ^ caret for the higher octave:

Not only does it have a wide selection of all kinds of songs, but it also has a feature that allows you to transpose, which meant I was able to go through the songs, adjusting to see if I could find something with a range between low G and high E, and with no sharps or flats, which would mean a tune that he could play on the little xylophone. When I found one that would work, I printed it out to add to our music collection.

What a treasure trove! I found some of his favorite songs like Always on My Mind, Can't Help Falling in Love with You, Love Me Tender, and Wonderful World, plus many more. All conjured up with just 13 notes! In total, I found 23 songs at the site that are favorites of his and which fell in that 13-note range. Including... John Denver's Country Roads. So I alerted the chaplain that if she didn't mind playing Country Roads in his key, they could play together.

And that is the power of digital, letting me search for songs and transpose, with a great visual presentation that immediately alerted me to the presence of sharps and flats. Digital search in the service of analog experience!

So, I am really happy with how this trip has gone: I thought my main task this time was going to be to do my dad's taxes. And yes, I did the taxes (ugh), but this musical breakthrough has turned out to be the real success story. My dad has been given an incredible chance to really put things in his life right over the past year, and I am so glad that making his own music is a part of that miracle story.

Here is one of my favorite songs that you can play with just those 13 notes: Morning Has Broken.

Make music, people!