My name is Bob, and I know what it’s like to be flat on your back for more than two months.
My first encounter was for a form of arthritis called Reiter’s syndrome — a three-month stay in a Veterans Affairs hospital marked by boredom and depression. Fifty years later, I was confined again, by a broken hip, but this time my stay turned out to be surprisingly productive.
Rhythm: It was purely by chance one night that I attempted to keep track of a basic rhythm with my left hand while beating out the rhythm of the words to “Jingle Bells” with my right. My multitasking coordination was way, way off: It took me several weeks to get the knack of handling two rhythms simultaneously.
When it all came together, though, the impact of this multitasking upon my self-esteem was electric.
Songs: Each of us is a memorization winner with a repertoire of at least 2,000 songs (at least according to the Internet). If you cue yourself with a word like “love,” for instance, you’ll probably come up with at least three song titles. The words in the songs trigger memories of more songs and many evoke strong personal reactions. “Jingle all the way” triggers “Way down upon the Swanee River,” which triggers “Moon River” — followed by as many more as your ingenuity can produce.
For me, “Moon River” evokes composer Henry Mancini and a vivid picture of my high school brass band performance with more than 50 other Sousaphonists in Aliquippa, Pa. — all of us playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Henry Mancini (then a senior) tootling away nearby with more than 100 fellow flutists. One of many precious personal memories waiting to be activated by chance.
Visibility: The mind’s eye can quickly translate the music we hear into visual shapes that distinguish between high and low notes, even in the dark. Imagine “moon” (a middle-pitched note) as a sphere or as a line. Or borrow the images you choose from “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” of “The Sound of Music” fame. But the important element is seeing each syllable as a visible creature in its own musical space.
There I was, flat on my back, with all of these friendly, little musical creatures dancing through my head until I drifted off to sleep, always with a feeling of honest work well done.
Parodies: Keep the melody and change the lyrics a little — as a fourth-grader, how I admired my friend Charlie Mushwick’s parody of the national anthem: “Oh-oh SAY can you SEE / an-y BED bugs on ME? / if you CAN, take a FEW / and then YOU’LL have some TOO. A gross form, certainly, but well worth it as an opportunity to go public and please.
To sum up: The challenge of solitude, be it that of jail, hospital, social isolation or sleeplessness, can be transformed to a resource, not a penalty. Why not allow our personal love for songs to help us when we need it?
Oliphant is the author of books such as “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), a Reader’s Digest worldwide selection whose film version won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis. He writes a column for EducationViews.org. His recent e-books can be accessed via https://www.NonpartisanEducationReview.org.
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