Posted by: Marie | December 6, 2012

(762) Mysteries of life

Post #762
[Private journal entry written on Thursday, January 12, 2012]

The last few days have been rather interesting . . .

I had a lesson with my autistic student, Matt, that I’ve been working with for three years. He has steadfastly refused to play for most of that time. Once in a while, his mom or I can get him to play a simple song if we push him hard enough. He loves to learn about chords and keys, and he has perfect pitch . . . so, I know he has an amazing ear for music. He just hasn’t been willing to actually produce music himself.

Well, this week, he sat down and played some music out of the book – like it was no big deal. I asked him to play something and he did. I didn’t have to push at all. And, he seemed very interested and willing. I knew something had shifted . . .

I asked his mom about it, and she said she has finally decided to change how she has been working with him. She plays the piece for him so he can hear it, then she puts her hands over top of his so he can feel it, then he tries it on his own. That means he is learning by ear and by feel, not by sight. But, she then reviews the printed music with him to verify that he is capable of reading the music. The difference is that she is no longer requiring him to initially learn a piece by sight.

Sea View by Martin Chen

Sea View by Martin Chen

She said that this process goes against everything she was taught (she has a college degree in music education), but that, after watching me and doing other research, she decided the the teaching methods she learned in college are not appropriate for her son.

Apparently, her process is working. Matt is onboard with the process and is readily playing songs out of the book for the first time. This is amazing . . . three years of working with him with minimal measurable results, then all the sudden he starts playing. And, he is flying through the books about five times faster than the average student.

I knew he was understanding everything . . . I knew there was a light on in there . . . we just had to wait for him to decide he was ready, and we had to find the best teaching method for him. And now, all the work is paying off. He is delighted that the sounds he hears in his head can now come out through his fingers.

Of course, I was moved to tears. Of course.

And, I saw Jared this week – he brought his daughter to her lesson. I haven’t gotten up the courage to call him up and ask him out for coffee yet. But, after the lesson, I walked them out to the parking lot because I was leaving the studio at the same time as them. All the way down the stairs and to our cars, we were having a lighthearted conversation. As we said our good-byes, I said to Jared, “If you ever get bored, we could maybe go out for coffee or something . . . ” He responded, “Okay, I’ll call you.”

I guess we’ll see. This is the third time I’ve attempted to arrange time together since the game night. I’ve done more than my fair share. The ball is definitely in his court now.

And, my sister finally dispelled the mystery behind the strange musical thing from India . . .

My sister’s husband grew up in Mumbai, India. My sister’s father-in-law is well known within his local community (in Mumbai) as a decent musician. (I’m not sure if he is better known because he is a physician or because of his music – and, by the way, he doesn’t do either much anymore due to his advanced age.)

Over the years, her father-in-law has frequented a tiny music retail store that is near his home. While my sister and her husband were visiting Mumbai recently, they stopped by this store. My sister said the store was about the size of a bedroom . . . with instruments hung from every wall, floor to ceiling.

My sister recognized very few of the instruments. So, she walked all around and asked a million questions . . . the collection was fascinating to her. (She has played a number of instruments in her lifetime.) The owner of the shop followed her around . . . she wasn’t sure if it was because he wanted to be of service to her and answer all her questions, or if she was making him nervous by running her hands over all the instruments . . .

Anyway, her husband asked if they had a shruti box, which is an instrument that has been used in traditional Indian music for hundreds and hundreds of years. The shop owner said they are nearly impossible to get now because they have been replaced by digital boxes. My sister and her husband were disappointed . . . it would have been a neat gift for me . . .

A few days later, the shop owner called them up . . . he had asked a friend to build a shruti box for them, and the box was now finished . . . could they come pick it up? My sister and her husband were shocked . . . they had not asked for that, but the shop owner wanted to be of service to their family . . . it was the least he could do after decades of business with her father-in-law. (Talk about customer service!)

Of course, they hand-carried it across the ocean, and my mom hand-carried it across the United States, and that is the story of how my shruti box came to be sitting on my desk in my piano studio in Northern Colorado . . .

Once I heard the story, I had to learn more about my new instrument . . . here is what I learned . . .

This instrument creates a constant drone (one or more notes) against which a melody is played or sung. Sometimes there is pleasant harmony between the shruti box’s tone and the melody, and sometimes there is haunting dissonance. The beauty and character of music comes from this tonal ebb and flow.

My sister sent me a link to a YouTube video that shows a shruti box being played . . . the man is also doing a type of “throat singing” that creates a growling tone . . . and the shruti box creates a sound much like a bagpipe or accordian. In the video, it is sometimes hard to separate the two, but you can separate them if you listen for the difference in timbre. Oh, by the way, the style of his shruti box is a bit different from mine . . . but it works and sounds similarly.

So . . . mystery solved! My students are having a blast with it . . . it is like nothing they have ever seen! I have to laugh . . . the billows must be quite old because they have “bad breath” and the kids make a funny face when the smell hits them. And, I’m sure the blue paint (dye?) on the billows is original and surely has lead paint in it . . . so, I make sure the kids wash their hands if they touch the billows.

Through my research, I learned there are supposed to be 13 valves on the box . . . all the notes of either a C chromatic scale or a G chromatic scale (depending on if the box is a C-scale or a G-scale version.) The musician opens whichever valves he wishes to hear (maybe the notes of a minor chord or a power chord, for example.)

So, I mapped out which notes I have on my box . . . and I discovered that, not only do I have only five unique notes (many of the reeds are of the same note), but there seems to be three different sets of reeds, each with a slightly different tuning. For example, one G is a fraction of a step higher than another G, and the third G is a fraction of a step lower than the first G.

I’m guessing that the guy who made the box used whatever reeds he could get his hands on with such short notice. Maybe he figured, since it was going to an ignorant American, no one would probably ever know that the pitches were not as they are supposed to be.

And, the billows are not very effective, so you have to pump it vigorously in order to get a more or less constant sound (unlike the slow movement shown in the video), and the noise from the mechanical movement is louder than the musical tones the box produces.

But . . . I don’t care . . . it’s not like I’m going to actually use it in a performance. It is super neat to have an instrument with such a cool story behind it, and it is a way by which my students can learn about the music from other cultures . . . and the kids love playing it. It serves my purposes very, very well.

I love it!

Quotes 672


  1. What an interesting present. And it’s wonderful your autistic student started playing – must have been a real feeling of accomplishment for you!

    • Hey, Ellen –

      It was an awesome moment to see him make that connection!

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      – Marie

  2. Hi Marie. This line sticks out to me that you wrote.
    “I knew he was understanding everything . . . I knew there was a light on in there . . . we just had to wait for him to decide he was ready, ”

    Can you see how this may also relate to the process that your therapist employs with you, and what might or might not occur down the road?

    • Oh . . . my, yes, Aaron!

      I hadn’t thought of that before!

      However, there have been many times when I’ve been working through a moment when a students wants to quit or thinks he or she can’t do something and I find myself channeling Edward, LOL!

      Thanks for the insight!

      – Marie

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