It goes without saying that absolute pitch, commonly glamourised as “perfect pitch”, is nice. You know what’s also nice? Using it for anything more than showing off and cheating. The whole thing about humility, actually.
An honest recount. Hope it inspires some. ^^
It is written somewhere – I will never forget, and always quote: “use your talents to bless others.”
They Labelled It “Talent”.
I did a specialised, government-funded music program in my secondary school (middle/high-school). We had to do lots of theory, we had to go learn a second instrument and join a performing arts group, and we even had a legit exam that tested all of that. In there, I met some of the most skilled musicians – for their age and even beyond – I have ever met.
Most of us didn’t have absolute – or as they call it, perfect – pitch. So most of us struggled in the dreaded melodic dictation question: listen to a phrase with tonal and metric reference, write it down. Most of us didn’t care as much about the inner workings of the art as much as we cared about getting that government subsidy.
But I got lucky. Very lucky. Because somehow, upon mixing with a class of musicians of various skill levels, I realised that I was blessed with absolute pitch.
When my teacher was very calmly and patiently explaining cadences to a bewildered class, I was annotating figured bass and writing melodic extensions – I’d heard everything on the example scores in my head too many times, and needed to entertain myself somehow. After an hour or so, still jackhammering away at the same topic, my teacher looked at me and asked,
“Darren, you still there?”
Trying to be humble, I replied,
“This is boring, sir. Sorry.”
And everyone was okay with it somehow. Today I still see that as one of the cockiest moments of my life.
But dang, I was good. Melodic dictation questions meant that I could spend the extra time on other questions in the paper.
And oh, did I love it when people asked me to play something – I could just question back, “what song would you like?”, and they’d be impressed even if I held block chords for the left-hand part. Listening back at my old improvisations, I sucked. I really sucked. But the applause that came afterward made it all not matter.
Sometimes, all the perfect-pitched people would gather together at a piano to challenge each other. Play a note cluster, identify the notes. Challenge improvisation skills. Talk louder than anyone else in the room. In my first few years, I got way too much attention. And for the most part, I loved it.
They Figured Out “Skills”.
As the years went by, I realised that I wasn’t that great of a performer. The guy who started off three steps behind was playing Bach Inventions, which I vowed to never touch due to their “boring” nature. The one who couldn’t sing to save his life was doing melodic dictation almost as fast as me. And the one who would become my best friend and the ultimate musical buddy had built the strongest sense of relative pitch in the world; with that the sound he made on his violin could make guys wet.
…like, with sweat. And stuff.
Meanwhile, while I was advancing in skill at my own pace, every performance I made was filled with mistakes and even complete stops. I hated it, yet I loved it – because hey, I had perfect pitch. The pieces came to me like nothing, and the only hard part was executing them. My practice sessions involved running through the piece, stopping a few times, then going to my computer to write electronic music. Or, to play games. Anything but proper practice.
And then there was the theory paper. In my first year I scored without trying. And then as time passed, I saw that people who worked hard found their way. The elements of harmony^ formed a smaller part of the paper every year, and weird things like World Music started to appear. Frikkin’ Chinese music – it sounded so weird, and there was no need to appreciate it. And then we had things like Indonesian music? No way. I’d just keep writing my own stuff.
I bummed my way through the first three-and-a-half years of a program that the government paid me to do. I had perfect pitch, remember?
So Much For “Talent”, Really.
At the other side of things, I think my piano teacher was losing hope in the whole “play slower and to the metronome” thing. I was doing electronic music badly, and I thought I was good at it. In fact, I was doing everything, and stopping once I realised I sucked at each thing I explored.
At the end of my third year, I told my piano teacher I wanted to quit piano and focus on electronic music, because I thought I sucked less at it. She told me, very patiently,
“How about we try some diploma pieces first?”
And so we did. I enjoyed it a lot more than I’d thought I would have.
Somehow, things worked out. One day, when bumming my way through a Bach Fugue, which I was now genuinely interested in due to all the harmony stuff, I stopped playing. Then, I was halfway into my first diploma, and I had actually improved since I almost gave up. I was playing a lot better with the metronome. The touch was refined, the knowledge was there. But I realised that something was wrong – and I knew.
“Shit, I’m cheating.”
To put it simply, I wasn’t reading the notes. I tried reading the notes one by one, and they didn’t register.
Turns out I was using my hearing to cheat everything. I knew what the melody sounded like, so I got away with reading less parts. Every single time. Every single piece I did. I could memorise things, but without details, because melodies were easy to memorise and everything else wasn’t. The whole performance was a mess.
And then there was all the winging and making-do. To accept sixty-percent-work because it was better than the average person’s product. It applied to everything I was doing in music, from performance to that specialised exam I should really have been studying for.
I wasn’t that happy with myself. There was something that nagged at me to keep my bad habits and just get by…because hey – I was perfect-pitched.
I was good, and I was born to listen to music. In that respect there was a need to get better than I was, because my potential wasn’t being met, and there was no way I could play that way and still tell the world that I was perfect-pitched. Talent did not sound like that, and no composition, or any musical stuff I ever did, could compensate for that. I was good and I needed to prove myself…
…eventually, though, I accepted that it was pride.
I went on to actually study for the specialised Music paper for the first time. For the first time, I treated it like an examinable subject, and gave it that attention and effort that any course of study demanded.
I Figured Out “Skills”.
Obviously, changes didn’t happen overnight. The changes were slow, my teachers were patient as ever, and it took one close shave with a possible diploma failure.
But all the changes that ever happened started with being humble. To, at the very minimum, accept that I sucked at everything.
I forgot the idea of talent, went down to the ground, and built myself up from the basics. I stopped learning my pieces for two months and did sight-reading exercises – this was also where I realised I loved playing VGM. I actually did the boring scales and arpeggios, I found a way to enjoy the smaller, non-melodic details in them, and my teacher was really happy about that.
On the theory side of things, I went to listen to the tracks that I once hated. The Chinese Music and whatever else not.
Above all, after getting through the theory stuff quite well, I focused in on performance. Maybe I was good at composing, or electronic music, or any of those half-developed skills I picked up along the way. But I wasn’t going to use that as an excuse to be bad at performing; I stopped writing for the most part and drilled the fundamentals every day.
But No Amount Of “Skills” Was Ever Enough.
I gave myself extra pressure by blindly shooting for a national piano competition, and for some reason I made it past the selection – in so was forced to practice my pieces at a detail-focused, elemental level for six more months.
In the practice sessions, which my family members started complaining about more and more as I neared the competition date, I went at stupidly dumb snail speeds and did parts over and over again until even I got annoyed. Every practice session was about hating myself, then overcoming it.
And I loved the struggle. I learnt more about myself than I ever did, I learnt more skills than I ever did, and most importantly, I realised how satisfied I was with my sub-par playing. Because I was achieving stuff. Turns out, humility was the undebated first step to achievement – and for the most part I’d argue now that it is the only step that has to be taken before things come naturally.
And then the day came.
I went into the competition quarter-finals, botched the piece I worked for six months on, mulled over it for six hours, wrote an emo post, then moved on with life. My piano teacher watched everything happen.
There was so much more that I hadn’t figured out.
But my piano teacher – she was so, so happy with everything that happened. When I went for the next lesson, she told me some great things that form another long sharing in themselves. And I guess, being defeated in the world, seeing my limitations in such an explicit way, I was pretty happy too.
“Effort Counts Twice.” Thanks, Mrs. Duckworth.
In the army, I read “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, and it fixed in me the “skill mindset” which I take into everything today. The first part of the book can essentially be summarised in two equations:
Talent * Effort = Skill;
Skill * Effort = Achievement.
The only addition I have to make to this is Duckworth’s definition of “effort” – she calls it “deliberate practice”, and it essentially revolves around drilling tiny details with patience and determination, until as many of the rough edges are covered as possible.
“Rough edges”, eh. Winging things and cheating results? Yep.
And so I emphasise – all progress begins with humility.
A Little Apology To You.
I’m really sorry that what you’ve read so far has been nothing but a personal sharing, haha. But I’ve done my best to make it nothing but an honest personal account rather than a preaching session, so I hope you’re cool with that 🙂
I wrote this article/post after striking a revelation of sorts while coaching someone on how to do his first piano arrangement. Yes, I’m doing that now – choosing viewers who seem passionate about building arrangements from scratch and guiding them with a method that has helped me make music through the last seven months. I’m doing my readings, I’m learning from their perspective, and it’s humbling. So, so humbling.
Once I get out of the army (or maybe a little earlier than that) I’d have refined a teaching method that can bring beginners from doubt and uncertainty to the joy of their first piano cover – all in one video series. It’s another conjecture that Duckworth made – eventually passion finds purpose, and that purpose involves using one’s specialised skills to give back to the world.
Recently I taught a complete beginner how to do a transcription – it’s similar to the melodic dictation thing we did back in the day. Find the key signature like this, find the time signature like this, and here’s an app that you can use to find the BPM…
…and now use your keyboard to find every pitch that you hear. Tap it note by note; take your time. Make sure the first note is right, then hear the next note – does it go up or down, and how much do you think it moves by? No worries, you have all the time in the world to try…
Maybe you know that what I’m teaching you now wouldn’t be any trouble if you had absolute pitch. I’ll give you this: absolute pitch – perfect pitch, as they call it – is cheating.
…but if you did have it, I’d congratulate you, tell you to hold back your excitement and passion, and of course, be patient. Take it step-by-step even if you think you know this, because it’s so easy to miss out details when you’re winging everything.
Most importantly, remember that you can be wrong – the advice that people are giving to you, especially the bits about not getting complacent, have so much value. Listen to them a little.
And if you ever want to actually improve, be prepared to humble up.
Cheers, and thanks for stopping by to read this 🙂
^ – if you got the reference, please shoot yourself.