Presidential Address January 24, 2020
Dr. Marylynn L. Fletcher, TAMS President

I retired August 31, 2019 and am now Professor Emeritus at Victoria College. What exactly does this title mean? It means several things. First, I provide Victoria College with free consultations as needed. Second, for the first time in 37 years, I am not teaching a class at 8 am and I have no students. Third, I am deciding what the next adventure of my life will be. I have read five to seven books per week in this quest. Most of these books are for fun, but about September I started looking for inspiration for this speech. I finally settled on the question of perfect pitch.

Perfect pitch is somewhat of a mystery. I am blessed with this curse or cursed with this blessing depending on how you see it. It does impact music reading ability of those with it. In church one day when my daughter was about ten years old she stopped singing a hymn. I leaned over and told her that the organist was playing the hymn a step higher than where it was written. She said, “Oh,” and then began singing again.

My earliest realization of perfect pitch was when I was about ten years old. At the music school I attended, we received three piano lessons per month and a group theory class. The following dialogue occurred between my teacher and me.

Teacher: What’s the interval?

Me: I don’t know.

Teacher: What pitches am I playing?

Me: F and B-flat above it.

Teacher: What is the interval?

Me: I don’t know.

Teacher, very frustrated: You know the pitches so you can figure it out.

Me, light bulb moment: Wow! I’m allowed to do it that way? It’s F-(G-A)-B-flat. It is a perfect fourth.

Even to this day when identifying intervals, the letter names of the individual pitches jump out at me and then I figure out the interval or chord. I suspect most musicians do not hear this way, but I will never know any other way.

Reflecting on my experiences, I wondered if perfect pitch has a genetic basis. I read a book titled, Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are by Bill Sullivan. This book did not deal with perfect pitch; however, it did explain some individuals who hate broccoli have a specific gene variation that causes broccoli to taste bitter.

The Acoustical Society of America posted an article titled, Perfect Pitch: Knowing may be in your genes. The key words here are “may be.” A specific gene for perfect pitch has not been identified. Their data does show that most people who have perfect pitch had early musical training.

Hitting a dead-end, I read Eugenia Zuckerman’s book titled Like Falling Through a Cloud. Eugenia Zuckerman is a flautist who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was an interesting read, but provided no inspiration. I did get several worthy quotes from the book. The one I find relevant is:

"Now that I am over my peak, but under my expiration date, now I hope to walk off stage knowing I can still float an elegant phrase and spin a tender melody."

Finally, while reading an article in the American Guild of Organists magazine by Don Aliers titled When the Ear Sees, I had a spark of inspiration. I was looking for inspiration in the wrong place. I was looking for it in books. I was looking for visual or intellectual inspiration. I should have been looking with my ears.

This year remember what sparked your interest in music. How old were you when you heard your first live orchestra concert? Do you remember the excitement and wonder at the sounds you heard? How did you feel? For me, watching the synchronized bowing of the violins was mesmerizing. Also, the different timbres of the wind and brass instruments were magic. Perhaps, it was not the first orchestra concert you heard but hearing a singer who sang with dynamics. I will never forget that concert with Dame Jane Baker singing. The list is endless. What performances and lectures stand out in your memory?

In parting I have two recommendations. First, remember to see with your ears. Second, remember those initial awesome performances you experienced that made you choose music as your profession.

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