I struggle with recognizing people, and putting names and
faces together. I've been like this as far as I can remember, and until
recently I thought it was because I wasn't paying attention. It turns out I
really have been paying attention, more so than most people, but I have a facial
recognition handicap. There's actually a term for this, and it's a surprisingly
widespread condition. The term is prosopagnosia, also known as faceblindness.
Practically speaking, for me it works like this: I eat at a restaurant and the server introduces herself. I make a mental note, "long blond hair, glasses, tall, kinda thin." I'm all
set. If I need more water, I know who to look for. This works really well for
me, until I discover that there are two servers working that evening who both
have long blond hair and glasses, who are tall and kinda thin. Then I'm in
trouble. Because I can't easily remember my server's actual face, I can't tell
which one is which. I can either be embarrassed by talking to the wrong person,
or stay thirsty until the right tall-kinda-thin server asks if I'd like a refill.
Once I discovered prosopagnosia, I became fascinated and
read more about it. There is a part of the brain that's specifically dedicated
to processing faces. Some genetic conditions can affect development in this
part of the brain. Other people have brain injuries such as a stroke which can
impair functioning in this part of the brain. And for some people, a lack of
stimulation to this part of the brain in infancy or early childhood prevents it
from developing as it should. I suspect that's the case with me. In hindsight,
I can recognize that I was profoundly nearsighted at an early age, and my
nearsightedness wasn't diagnosed until I was 7. At the precise time when I
needed to be looking at a lot of faces to develop my facial recognition skills,
I couldn't actually see faces, just vague blurs. By the time I got my glasses,
my visual processes were set.
What does this have to do with music?
We are all born with a set of aptitudes, or an innate
ability to develop a particular skill. But aptitude only refers to an ability
to develop a skill, not to whether the skill will actually develop. We can say
that Mozart was born with a tremendous aptitude for music, but that doesn't
mean he was born with musical skills. Because his aptitude was supported in his
early childhood, it was able to blossom as it did. But if he had not had
exposure to music as a child, that ability would never have developed, and he
might have become an anonymous bricklayer instead of a musician for the ages.
It was the musical exposure that helped his aptitude become expressed into an
My experience with prosopagnosia helps me understand what
this means. I was probably born with a normal aptitude for facial recognition,
but my lack of early childhood exposure kept that aptitude from being expressed
fully for the rest of my life. My early lack of exposure doesn't keep me from
recognizing faces. It just makes it harder. I can still pick out faces of my husband
and other people I love, with no trouble. But it takes a long time for a face
to go into my visual memory, and in many social situations I'm shy and hesitant
to engage because I'm afraid I'll make an embarrassing mistake.
Imagine if my lack of early stimulation was in music
development, rather than facial recognition. If I didn't get music when I was
young, I might still enjoy music as an adult. I'd probably recognize the songs
I love, and I might be able to hum along with them. But I'd have a much harder
time learning new songs, and a much harder time hearing the music in my head. I
might be shy about singing in public, and I certainly wouldn't dance for fear
of being labeled as having "two left feet". I might avoid musical
situations because they make me feel uncomfortable.
This may sound familiar to you. This is where many adults
land after a childhood with limited exposure to the experience of making and
exploring music. Just listening to recorded music doesn't help children become
more musical. It requires actually playing, experimenting, and witnessing other
humans being musical. Unfortunately, in the United States, this is becoming an
increasingly rare part of childhood, and more and more children grow up with
stunted musical development. Their aptitude may have been just fine at birth -
it just wasn't supported enough to develop into a lifelong musical ability.
Our music classes won't really make your child smarter
and more musically gifted - although it certainly looks that way! But what they will do is help your child's
natural aptitude blossom fully into a lifelong musical ability. Your child's
gifts are already there in abundance. Our job - as teachers and as parents - is
to help your child unpackage his or her gifts and learn how to use them. Once
we can do that, your child will be able to access his or her full musical
measure for the rest of his or her life. That's a true gift!