Hannah Everett is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in Magdalena, Colombia.
“DO. RE. MI. FA. SOL. LA. SI.”
The seven musical syllables of a solfège spelled out in sing-song Spanish. That’s what he told me they were, anyways. I told him I couldn’t possibly work with those chords, that those were not the same ones I knew, the ones the movie The Sound of Music had inked into my head since childhood.
He told me those didn’t matter. That we were going to learn it this way now: a new way.
“Now you try,” he offered kindly in his mellifluous voice. His name was Guido. He was my new piano instructor, a skinny young man perhaps no older than myself (even if he looked fifteen). He had long, slender fingers that were ideal for piano players, quite in contrast to my small, stubby extensions.
I had decided early on in my Peace Corps service that I was going to take up a new hobby. All the blogs I had read before starting my service said the heavy weights of boredom I would evidently experience should be taken up and utilized for something productive: to make me stronger in anything I set my mind to. I have wanted to learn how to play piano for as long as I have wanted to join the Peace Corps, so the marriage of the two life experiences seemed to make for a union fit for a happily ever after. During PST, I had bought myself a small, travel-sized keyboard and eagerly set myself to learning how to play it using a series of YouTube videos and a songbook sent from the states.
Music is never a waste of time. That was what was inscribed on the inside of the songbook: a special message from my father. He has always believed that any minute wasted could have been a minute spent learning how to play an instrument. Instruments create. They inspire.
I felt inspired, alright. At least, that’s what I told myself that first day when I sat down to make my debut with a few taps at the tiny keys. I remember feeling almost alarmed that they actually made sound. Was that me doing that?
Little by little, I began to made headway. First, I learned the scales, then majors and minors, sharps and flats, Bs and Ds and Cs and Es. I most certainly learned that All Cows Eat Grass and Every Good Boy Does Fine. And yet, something was missing.
After just a few months of getting started, the piano began to make me feel…. Lonely. I suppose the piano itself is an instrument, much like the violin, which holds a special place in our hearts for flooding sadness into our ears with top hits like Moonlight Sonata. But it wasn’t the sounds I was creating that were causing my sentiments to transpose.
I began to realize all too quickly that, each time I pulled my piano out from under my bed was a time…. When I was alone. I only played when I felt lonely. I began to associate the teeth of the instrument with the same chomp of self-pity I felt biting into me.
Eventually, I stopped playing altogether.
Until one day, my neighbor (and best friend at site) mentioned to me that she had a cousin who had been playing piano for seven years. He was the current pianist for the church we attended. He had offered private lessons to people in the pueblo in the past and was currently for hire.
Eager to break the circle of fifths in F minor I had gotten myself into, I agreed to give him a call and arrange something.
And that was when my journey really began. Guido, my new instructor, came to my house at four o’clock sharp and re-introduced me to my piano. In our first hour long session, I learned seven basic things. But they are things that have reinvigorated the staling relationship that had grown between my Peace Corps Service and my desire to learn piano.
Listen carefully to the following:
DO (doe): It may sound like a female deer, but it looks like ‘do’, as in “Just do it.” Don’t wait. Don’t stop. If you want to try something new, go for it and don’t give up. A lot of times in our Peace Corps service, we feel like giving up. We get bored and lethargic, even envious of the busy lives our friends are smothered in back in the States. This is why the first note of ‘DO’ is so important. Do it. Get up in the morning. Put your pants on. Eat that arepa con huevo. Go run in the park. Wear that shirt you love (even if it’s a bit sun-faded, tight and crusty);
RE (rey): Julie Andrews labelled it “a drop of golden sun”, but that’s only if you look at it through the lenses of the English language. In Spanish, it is more closely related to the word ‘rey’ or ‘king’. What does this have to do with Peace Corps service? Simple: it’s learning to see the rhyme from a different perspective. Whereas before, I had memorized the jingle as relating to a ray of sunshine (which seems all too relevant to Peace Corps service in Colombia), I had now learned it as Hispanic speakers hear it and, as the music flowed, the images in my mind began to change direction. I saw royalty and radiance;
MI (me): This chord may be one of the most important as it refers to “a name I call myself’ in two languages. It is the only one which transcends Spanish and English. And although I would not identify myself as being the most important aspect of my service, it can sometimes feel that way, particularly during the times I would spend alone with my piano. Once I invited Guido to join me in the quest to learn and play, I had suddenly self-prescribed a new ‘me’ in the tune. This ‘me’ became attached to a ‘we’;
FA (far): For this one, we can swing along with The Sound of Music and say ‘far, a long, long way to run’. However, it should be adjusted slightly since I have found running a nearly impossible form of exercise during my service given the unbearable heat. Let’s just say, ‘far, a long, long way to be.’ Far from home. Far from friends. Far from family. But also far from the bustling hastiness that comes with this American life. Far is a chord that can be played as a major or minor, depending on how you look at it;
SOL (sole): Spanish speakers identify this chord as ‘sol’, as in ‘sun’. However, to English speakers it sounds like ‘soul’. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we do a lot of soul-searching, soul-seeking and soul-discovery. Hearing this chord reminds me of all the many ways in which I have re-discovered myself throughout my service, learning things I never knew were there to begin with. Colombia brought aspects of my soul into the light that had remained dormant or quiet in the States. My service helped give a melody to some of those qualities and a harmony between the new me and the old;
LA (la): When I first watched Guido scribble LA onto our teaching notepad, my Americanized brain thought: Los Angeles. I had to chuckle at myself. How silly! But that reminded me of how our cultural background can taint the way we see things. LA, in reality, is really just two letters. What they mean, how we use them, and how we interpret them when conbined is all a matter of perspective. A Spanish speaker sees ‘the’ (feminine) but I see palm trees and fast cars, and a surfer bronzing himself on the beach. It’s funny how just two letters can become a single-story in and of themselves. I had to shake this thought from my mind as Guido continued.
SI (see): This one is entirely different than the ‘TI’ we are familiar with, yet it comes with a more profound meaning when taught in Spanish that is quite straightforward: Yes. This simple yet so pleasant word can simmer down to one mantra that needs no further explanation or defense: Yes. I can.
Sometimes, learning a new thing isn’t about obtaining new information; it’s about letting go of old information or blending it in with the new to create something symphonic. My experience learning how to play piano through my Peace Corps service came to me on two sides of the same note. It began with giving me a way to pass the time, alone in my solitude, before turning into a tool I could use to make a friend in my community. I learned that I could not teach myself piano. It wasn’t that simple. I had to humble myself to ask for help and incorporate someone else into an activity that I had tried to keep inherently mine which, in effect, had only made me lonely. It had become a broken record of Amazing Grace and Mary Had a Little Lamb until I got the courage to ask Guido to help me turn it into a steady flow of whatever music I wished it to be.
One of the things I love the most about the piano is that it has the ability to make us feel a variety of emotions. It is like a person, capable of a whole spectrum of thought and expression. Strum a minor chord and you find yourself sinking down the scales in a depressing downfall, creating a sound to match your feeling of loneliness and disconnect. But one need only move one finger to the right of that same chord and suddenly, you have a major chord and the shift from dark to day can be made so simply. This shift is not unlike the shift I experienced in my Peace Corps service: subtle yet abrupt and harmoniously simplistic. It’s a shift up in mindset like a shift up the teeth of a keyboard, going from low and deep to high and sweet. Throughout the remainder of my service (and with the help of my new friend Guido) I hope to develop a fresh relationship with my piano in which I associate it with friendship and progress instead of solitude and stagnation.
DO. RE. MI. FA. SOL. LA. SI. That’s what he’d told me. And I’m going to learn it that way.
Now you try.