In tune

IN no other field does the subject of genius come up so often as it does when one discusses musicians. Mathematicians and physicists are runners-up. But talk about music -- particularly composers and performers -- and genius invariably pops into the conversation. So, of course, does its stepsister, talent. That's exactly what happened during lunch at the British ambassador's residence in New York some years ago. The guest of honor was the late Sir Malcolm Sargent. He was talking, I believe, about conducting Mozart. Predictably someone asked him what caused genius in a composer, and why there seemed to be more child prodigies in music than in other human pursuits.

Sir Malcolm's reply baffled us at first. He started talking about an in-law who was tone deaf and was embarrassed to be heard trying to sing in church. That's a long way from Wolfgang Amadeus, but it certainly grabbed the guests' attention. Other conversations stopped down the table.

The in-law in question had simply opted for mouthing the words of hymns in order to steer between the awkwardnesses of (1) being overheard singing like a wounded moose, or (2) appearing disrespectful or even sacrilegious if he stood tight-lipped at vespers while everyone else lifted joyous words in reverence.

``I started thinking about the injustice of it,'' Sir Malcolm told us. ``Here was a perfectly intelligent man feeling segregated from his fellow parishioners through no fault of his own. So I decided to do something about it.''

``Something'' turned out to be an ingenious instruction program. In-law was asked to sing a simple tune. When he hit the first false note, Sargent halted him. Sargent hit the right note on the piano. In-law tried again. If he was flat, Sargent said, ``slide upward''; if sharp, ``slide downward.''

Pupil pushed vocal cords in the desired direction like some internal slide trombone till he hit the note square amidships. At which point the conductor gestured success.

After a lot of such trial and error -- or rather error and trial -- the pupil increased his confidence in his ability to internalize the true note. What he really did, said Sir Malcolm, was to improve his memory for pitch -- just as someone who is not a natural mimic might gradually get the hang of memorizing how a Yorkshire or Cockney or Maine lobsterman's accent sounds. Result: In-law sang lustily, happily, and mostly in tune in church.

The neighbor to my right at the lunch table said she wanted to go right out and start working on her unmarried sister, who always sang off-key into men's ears while dancing to sentimental tunes.

But Sir Malcolm wasn't finished.

``That little success started me thinking,'' he said. ``I had always wondered why some musicians have absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, as it's sometimes called, and others don't. You know. The sort of person who leads the choir in a cappella singing by hitting the opening C to get everyone off on the right note. Without even a piano. Or the person who can step up to an oboe player, sing an A, then have him join her and the notes are so perfectly in tune that there are no beats at all.'' (``Beats'' are the throbbing sound that's heard when two almost-but-not-quite-same notes are played in unison.)

The Sargent approach to absolute pitch wasn't much different from his technique for tuning in-laws. He took some pupils in tow. Had them play a note on the piano. Probably an A. Asked them to hum along. Then silence for a minute. Then each was expected to hum the remembered note again and check it against the piano.

Those who succeeded went on to five minutes' gap, then 10. Graduation, like soloing after flying lessons, came when a pupil could hum an A in the evening, go to bed, sleep soundly (and soundlessly), wake in the morning, approach the piano and hum the perfect A from memory.

Sir Malcolm's lunch table audience wasn't acute enough to question him on the subject of tampering with the pitch. Most of you who have read this far are probably aware that middle C or A isn't as immutable a note as we'd all like to think. It's supposed to be like the atomic clock by which Greenwich mean time is reset from time to time, so we can set our mantel clocks. But, since the Baroque period, instrument makers and musicians have moved pitch all over the map. In the past 50 years the trend has been sharply (pardon the pun) upward. The goal of conductors tampering with frequency is apt to be to make orchestral music more brilliant. That aim is controversial enough in itself. Does anyone think that Bach's unaccompanied cello suites should be orchestrated for a Mahler-size orchestra or transposed for organ to make them more compelling? Or that Richard Strauss's ``Four Last Songs'' should be switched from soprano to baritone to make them more weighty?

Anyway, the kind of experiment that Serge Koussevitzky performed by tuning up the Boston Symphony Orchestra's A to a frequency of 444 vibrations per second or higher certainly has its hazards. Primarily in terms of fealty to what composers intended. But also, if it isn't too bold to say so, in terms of what it would do to people born with absolute pitch. (Or Sargent students who had learned it.)

Try to imagine Mozart (who had absolute pitch and also, it seems, a data bank full of absolutely perfect music) coming into Koussevitzky's Symphony Hall and hearing his Hafner Symphony cranked up over 22 vibrations per second. Ouch! Wolfgang would have enough trouble if he wandered into a performance of ``Amadeus'' without having to wrestle with a musical world gone sharp as well.

(Actually Mozart's ear would be offended whether he moved forward or backward in H. G. Wells's time machine. After Bach's time, pitch was generally lowered -- sometimes as low as A-415. Mozart was known to have tuned a piano to A-421.6. Then, after the Mozart-Haydn era, the trend was upward: to as high as 452.5 in mid-19th century, after which a Paris conference in 1859 introduced a standardized 435 vibrations. That remained the supposed standard until a further revision in 1939 to a fine-tuned A-439 at 68 degrees F. -- usually rounded off to 440. When was the last time you attended a concert where the hall was kept to 68 degrees F. ? As halls get hotter the pitch goes up still further. So, had Mozart gone either Baroque or modern or central heating, he might have wanted to unlearn absolute pitch to preserve his musical sanity.)

Never mind. What I've always liked about the Sargent experiments is that they tell us a lot about genius, talent, learning, persistence, and satisfaction. Mozarts are few. Toscaninis, Serkins, and Szells only slightly less so. Possessors of absolute pitch fairly rare. But those with talent can push toward genius. And those with capability and determination can push toward talent. Push, in fact, may not be the right verb. Opening up oneself to what is available and can be learned -- to what can be expressed. That's a more accurate description of the process. It applies to music, painting, writing, computer programming -- the whole catalog.

Satisfaction doesn't come from having absolute pitch. It comes from achieving it, if you didn't start out with it. Or using it, for hearing music accurately in your mind and scoring from that flowing mental image.

Or satisfaction may come, as it did for Sargent's in-law, from growing out of tone-deafness. One suspects that Churchill or Eisenhower wrested the same quality of experience from painting rather simple landscapes that Matisse or Picasso achieved only when they moved well beyond the youthful landscapes that came so easily.

Our lunch at the ambassador's broke up before anyone wandered into that kind of speculation. I went home. Tried to hum an A. Plunged my index finger onto the keyboard of our upright. And called the piano tuner the next day.

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