7.8 The Piano Player
For the first few days of being sequestered in my apartment, I couldn't take my eyes off my keyboard. As most of you know if you've been reading this blog the past few months, I was in a car accident and got a concussion. Also, as some of you may know, I purchased a keyboard because I wanted to start playing music again. The piano seemed like a logical start as I learned how to play as a kid. My instructions from the doctor was to rest up and not strain my brain too much. In the accident, I also got a sprained wrist, whiplash and a stained neck and back. I tried to play the keyboard, but it was a bit too painful for my wrist and neck. But I kept looking at that keyboard.
Before the accident, I wasn't playing it as much as I'd hoped. Sure, there was some sense memory left in my fingertips and I could still read music, but it wasn't coming along as fast as I'd originally thought. As I lay around trying not to use my brain, that keyboard sat across the room gathering dust.
I'm sure I had cabin fever and needed to do something other then watch another movie or television series. I went over to sit in front of the keyboard. Wiped the dust off and switched it on. Put my hands on the keys. You won't believe me when I describe what happened next.
I not only played better then I ever had before in my life, I improvised a new piece of music. I had never improvised anything. The music just flowed out of me and I didn't even think about it. My mind was totally clear. I sat and played until the sun went down and it was time to sleep.
From then on, I played everyday for hours. I didn't care if it strained my neck and wrist, it filled me up with something else. I kept improvising new pieces everyday. Played old favorites with ease that I never could seem to wrap my brain around. I could hear a song or piece of music and instantly be able to figure it out.
Although it was amazing to be the kind of musician I'd always wanted to be, I wondered if this had some darker connection to my brain injury. I found my answer on an episode of This American Life. They did a story on a man who suffered a concussion and afterwards could learn new languages almost instantly. To all accounts, he seemed fine, but for the addition of this new and very specific skill. Doctors described this man's case as Acquired Savant Syndrome, in which a person discovers prodigious capabilities or skills far in excess of what would be considered normal after suffering from dementia, a head injury or a severe blow to the head. The patient demonstrates exceptional skills in specific areas, such as rapid calculation, language skills, art, memory or musical abilities.
I kept this a secret from my friends and family. I was worried that this was a dangerous symptom, but what feared me more was that this ability would go away. On This American Life, they talked about medications that can be used to diffuse the symptoms, but I didn't want to do this. I didn't want the music to go away. When I played, I felt the music come straight from my heart like it hadn't done in any of my other creative pursuits. I didn't think about it, the music formed as it came from my fingertips, it was creativity in the purest form I had experienced. It was not music to be performed in a concert hall, it wasn't being recorded. It was just for me. It was art without ego.
Weeks later, I was making food in the kitchen. I took out some plates from a cabinet. Bent down to throw an empty container in the recycling. On my way back up, I banged my head on the cabinet door I forgot to close. I saw stars and sat down. My head was still somewhat sensitive and my head hit right on the corner of the cabinet door. I closed my eyes and didn't want to face what this second bang on my head in the past few weeks might bring. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at the keyboard. I sat in front of it, put my hands on the keys. When I improvised before, I just let my fingers do the work. I felt nothing, saw no notes bouncing in front of my mind's eye. I took out some sheet music of my favorite pieces. If anything, they were worse then before my concussion. I'd need to practice a lot before they were even half decent.
I thought I would be sad that I lost my ability to play music prodigiously. But I took away from the last few weeks the memory of allowing creativity to flow through me. It was an addictive feeling and one that I wanted to experience again. I would just have to find it in places other then the piano.