In this five-part column, Hannah Howard explores the senses from a craft perspective
I almost unconsciously read my own work back to myself, right after I write it and then about a million times in the editing process. How does it sound? When I trip up and stumble, when the musicality feels off, I know I have to keep tinkering with it. It’s not right until it is as catchy as a pop song.
Most of us learn to listen first, and then to talk, and finally to read. My parents and I listened to the first basic songs that I would learn to play on the Suzuki Cello School: Volume 1 CD over and over and over again, as my teacher Miss Annette urged me to do. To this day, I know those songs like I know my name; they are somewhere deep in my marrow. I learned to sit, the cello between my knees, with proper posture. I learned to listen.
Then, slowly, I began to make music myself. It felt like a bit of magic, coaxing the strings to sing and wail. “You have great musicality,” I remember Miss Annette telling me, not understanding quite what she meant but feeling proud. I’d fall asleep humming the songs I was learning to play, “Song of the Wind” and Minuet in C, no. 11 in G Major. In math class, I’d notice my fingers making the same motions they did against my instrument’s slick neck on the pages of my three-ring binder.
What I never mastered was learning to read music, and I struggled to muster the focus to practice cello after a long day of school, sports, and homework. The music I listened to obsessively was not classical music, nothing I could play on my cello; it was Lauryn Hill and Third Eye Blind.
I wanted—wanted is an understatement; I longed—to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts for high school. It felt like the fix for feeling like I didn’t quite belong at my all-girls’ school with its scratchy blue uniforms. In my imagination, School for the Arts was an artsy, quirky mecca just like the school in the movie Fame. Miss Annette helped me polish J. B. Bréval’s Sonata in C Major, op. 40, until I knew the whole thing by heart, the way the belly of my cello vibrated against my own belly when I made those opening chords really carry, the way the vibrato felt under my pinky finger when I leaned into it.
I got in.
And then my parents broke the news at our favorite Chinese food restaurant: My dad had a new job, and we were moving to New Jersey. My body turned sour with rage and sadness.
He drove me on a spring day to audition for the youth orchestra in our new town. Everything was in bloom, and the suburbs felt like a pristine foreign land. I played J. B. Bréval’s Sonata in C Major, op. 40, with everything I had, but when it came time to read music, I froze.
I still played cello during high school, but that audition marked the beginning of my end as a cellist.
Reading and writing have always been a lifeline for me, as crucial as breathing and eating. That I never learned how to read music, well—maybe that was a sign something was missing.
I might not be able to look at a piece of sheet music and hear the notes and the rhythm, but the language of music, of sound, is so much deeper than that. It’s the lullaby I sing my baby girl before bed every night. It’s the funny dream howl my dog makes, half asleep. It’s the lovely baritone of my husband’s English accent. It’s the constant traffic buzz of city life, the twittering birds and crickets in the suburbs. Writing about sound is transcribing melodies and cacophonies—the weird, wonderful symphony of life.
Sounds come from vibrations moving through the air or other mediums and then meeting our eardrums. A study from the University of Washington found that deaf people experience vibrations more acutely than hearing people, perhaps almost as another form of hearing, or of feeling.
Last week, we went to see my parents in New Jersey, and we all watched the movie Sound of Metal, in which Riz Ahmed plays a metal drummer who loses his hearing. The film is exceptional and exceptionally sad. I cried a lot of the way through. The protagonist’s whole world is about sound, and, as a recovering addict, music is his tether to both excitement and meaning.
Since music is his world, losing his hearing might mean losing everything. But it’s hopeful too. Ultimately, he discovers other ways to create connection. There are other senses. And even if he cannot hear with his ears, he can feel in his body.
That’s what the best music, and the best writing about sound, can do. It can make us feel in the deepest, most elemental place. Even just for a second, in a Target, shopping for baby formula.
Hannah Howard is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen and the forthcoming book Plenty: A Memoir of Food and Family. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Hannah writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.