The Orchestra Inside My Head

The other night, I was training with two of my rowing buddies on the erg (ergometer, a rowing machine with a seat that slides back and forth, mimicking the action of a real racing shell). We were doing a long piece, one that takes about 40 minutes, rowing at a reasonably challenging but steady rate. In other words, not much was going on.

“Oooookey-doke,” one of my crew mates said about 10 minutes in. “I’m bored.”

We all were. But finish, we must.

The great Leonard Bernstein performed in my head often.

The great Leonard Bernstein performed in my head often.

“Pick your favorite album side and hum it in your head,” I suggested. “It’s the only way.” And we all fell silent again, with only the zinging of the oar handle’s chain that connects it to the whirring flywheel and fan providing soundtrack. I damned myself for not bringing that little wireless speaker that hooks up with my phone, allowing me to play music. Then I mentally launched into side 1 of Billy Joel’s The Stranger.

There was a time when I would employ this little survival tactic frequently. Long bus rides home from college, interminable airport waits, boring lectures, the tail end of a shift at a menial teenage job — I would zip them along by imagining, completely in my mind, without singing out loud, entire pieces of music. Every note, every nuance, all the lyrics (where in my brain do they live? And why can’t I find that folder and monetize it?), in exact tempo.

And now I was trying it again to cruise through 30-some minutes of erg death…and…well, it’s not the same as it was. There’s static on the line. Picket-fencing, verses dropping out, rushed sections. The whistling end of the title track of The Stranger went too fast, and all of a sudden I was halfway through “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” Hm.

I soldiered on, mentally, and got through 10,000 meters on the erg and most of the album. But no question, it’s harder than it used to be. I know why. It’s the seamy back end of technology, the curse of availability. We can, and do, listen to music just about anywhere, any time these days. It lives on the cloud, it can be brought down to anywhere. And then there’s our hyper-busy schedules. Gone are the days when you had to set aside a half hour to just sit. And listen. And do nothing else.

C'mon, Billy. Give.

C’mon, Billy. Give.

What a shame. For whether it was Bach, Leonard Bernstein, or Billy Joel, I used to do that as a kid, and nearly every day. I developed a prodigious musical memory that helped me do everything from get the lawn mowed to get to sleep without trouble. Now — with an adult schedule and music worked in too much around the edges and not enough as the main attraction — that memory is starting to fade.

I wonder…is it too late? Might not 20 minutes a day, off by myself with earbuds and no distractions — might not that be enough to strike up the band again?

I think I have time to find out.

© 2014 Adam Barr

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