For Dr. Fidel Nemenzo
Many musicians fear Math. We cringe at the mention of numeric equations, and scrunch our brows at the sight of mathematical symbols. The irony of it all is that music is based on organized sound — patterns of all kinds. Combined, they create a complicated cacophony of elements moving simultaneously. Sound is measured, augmented and diminished in various ways, whether as frequencies or durations. A competent pianist can sight-read a piece, easily computing distances of pitches and the length and quality of their resonance, concurrently for two hands. His brain interprets the piece both horizontally and vertically, and simultaneously throws in extra-musical nuances like emotional interpretation. But if given a mathematical equation that’s linear at best, this pianist will most likely run.
Why is this?
When I was a child, despite my propensity for Music, I didn’t fear Math. Indeed, as a very shy young girl who stared mostly at the ground, I used to count my steps and even the number of cement cracks my feet lands on. I was fascinated by patterns and recognized them in the sounds I heard. In fact, I wrote my first composition in color-coordinated numbers: with measured distances both in a horizontal (melody) and vertical (harmony) manner. I was five years old.
My fear of numbers began in grade school when my Math teacher corrected the way I added them up. I remember being able to add figures easily but not, according to my teacher, in the “right” way. I had my own unusual method of getting the sum of two quantities and it was not one that could be explained with ease so bear with me.
I would think of the numbers as images that I break up much like this:
I tend to find the relationship between both figures, match them up, and identify their difference. I can’t say that the illustration is an accurate representation of what I envision in my mind, and it’s possible that it doesn’t appear like it makes any sense, so it certainly demonstrates the thorny task of explaining to my teacher what the process entailed. Her remarks embarrassed me in class and my love for Math wavered. In first year high school, my algebra test paper was returned to me with encircled solutions and a glaring red question: “How did you get this?” All week long I waited to be confronted with cheating during the exam. It didn’t matter that I got the answers right: my method at arriving to it was different and, therefore, wrong.
Thus began my loathing for the subject. Though I didn’t stop appreciating patterns in Music, I gradually stopped seeing the connection between my art and Math. I started composing music seriously around this time and playing more complicated piano pieces. Although I believed in my gift, I recognized my limitations in sight-reading and in notating my compositions. Was it any accident or coincidence that my difficulties lay on interpreting symbols and visually representing musical patterns? I think not. As I look back, I now realize that my fear and loathing of Math have stunted my growth as a musician, especially in the area of logical organization. I thrived in my early years as a composition student in College, but as my requirements grew in length and size, I could no longer rely on inspiration or plain will. I needed to shift back to “hearing” sound as patterns and visualizing them in my head.
I took Robert Frost’s cue and walked the road less travelled. My journey took me to the world of Theatre, Dance, and the other Fine Arts. I gravitated into the realm of teaching, heard and finally answered its call. My quest as a Music teacher was to put myself in my students’ shoes, as an actor would, and see music in their eyes. My challenge was to introduce music, not as an entity so foreign to them, but as one to which they can relate. I firmly believed that all in life is connected, and if so, I can find a way to bridge music to anything my students were interested in. Having strongly-left brained students forced me to reconcile my fear and loathing of Math in order to reach them, and I revisited my “incorrect” methods in Mathematics and slowly began to appreciate their uniqueness. As an educator, I am encouraged to regard my students as individuals with distinctive characteristics and needs; why, then, should I not value myself as one and welcome my different method of solving problems in Math?
Recently, a professor’s narrative about Math and its place in the world made me excited about it once again. His desire to make it less formidable and more accessible to us was an invitation to love Math again, and to see that I am part of a universe of patterns, and therefore, am, myself, a mathematical blueprint. And as he spoke about patterns everywhere, and how the Supreme Being must be a Mathematician, I couldn’t help but imagine new possibilities in Music and in Life, strengthening my belief that everything in life is connected in an unending and infinite design. Near the end, he declared his hope that we leave the auditorium and see Math everywhere and in everything; and as I let myself out the room, I took in my surroundings in wonder as I had done as a child, and walked to my next class fully aware of my existence in a world that made sense.