Sonya Plays Piano

I love telling people about how Yan and I met. It took place in New York City circa late 2007 at a loud bar in the East Village. Upon being introduced by a mutual friend, I soon learned that Yan was a pianist and I was immediately entranced. On our second date, Yan invited me over to his apartment where he made me a mushroom omelette sandwich and then serenaded me by playing Chopin’s Etude no. 3 on his upright piano. I knew at that moment I would marry him! Here is a video of Yan playing:

Fast forward ten years. We are married. We have a grand piano that literally takes up 34 percent of our living room, and we have a three-year-old daughter who  is ready for piano lessons (well, according to Yan – but perhaps this is debatable). The only issue is our daughter is was born deaf and wears bilateral cochlear implants. That said, she has always loved music. And we have decided to move forward with piano lessons!

However, Yan’s very Russian mantra “chain her to the piano!” may not yet apply. At least for now. Instead, we devote just five minutes a day to the piano and only if she is up for it. We don’t put her in front of the piano when she is tired or not feeling great. The key is for her to associate the piano with something fun. Not for it to be a drag or chore.

The next few weeks, we are working on accomplishing a few small goals:

  • For Sonya to be excited to play piano
  • For Sonya to identify the C key throughout the keyboard
  • For Sonya to have a general understanding of the keyboard

For now, Sonya is to identify two black keys on the keyboard, press them with her two fingers, then skip to the next three black keys and say “skip”. She then must find the next two black keys. We do this up and down the piano using her left and right hands.

Once she has mastered this, we will work on finding the two black keys, and then finding C.

Since the keys of our grand piano are still a bit heavy for Sonya’s tiny fingers, we purchased the MunkikiM Roll Up Rainbow Piano, which Sonya received on her birthday. The piano rolls up so is easy to store in our small apartment, and the colorful keys are perfect for visual learners like Sonya. She also received My First Keyboard Book, which has a small keyboard and simple songs with visual cues that Sonya can learn to play.

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We have a wonderful piano teacher (who is incredibly talented – we aren’t kidding around here:). He visits us periodically to gage Sonya’s progress. Piano isn’t for everyone. It may not be for Sonya, ultimately. She is, after all, genetically predisposed both to love it (given who her parents are) and at the same time for it to be a great challenge for her.

P.s. Check out some of my earlier posts on music:

Sonya Sings All the Time

The Sweetest Dance

Suffering from Music Loss

On Music

 

Sonya Sings All the Time

In the mornings, as I push Sonya down West End Avenue in her stroller, Sonya sings. Loudly.  Sometimes she takes requests. Most of the time she sings to her own soundtrack, on repeat. It’s pretty cute. Strangers often smile as we pass. I love to sing too, so I sometimes try to accompany, to which she immediately protests. “Stop Mom! It’s my turn! Okay?”

During our walks, Sonya sings the ABCs, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Frère Jacque (en Français – pas mal!), Songs of her own invention and her favorite new song “The Orange Room class song.” The Orange Room is Sonya’s room at nursery school. She attends a mainstream two’s program at the Nursery School at Habonim.

 

The Orange Room is the place to be
We learn to count. One, two, three
Music, yoga, science too
Our school colors are orange and blue!
The Orange Room is the place to be
We’re as happy as happy can be!

I can’t help but feel this is pretty amazing progress considering Sonya was born deaf and has worn bilateral cochlear implants since she was eight months old.

According to AudiologyOnline, singing has positive effects in cognitive, linguistic, memory and music perception for kids with hearing loss. At the Center for Hearing and Communication, where Sonya receives her speech therapy services, we were encouraged to incorporate music into Sonya’s life from her earliest days with hearing aids. They even secured free classes with Music Together, which Sonya loved.

While Sonya often sings to express joy, she also turns to music when she is angry.  Her current ‘go-to’ angry song is one she wrote herself. It goes:

I don’t like
I don’t like
I don’t like
Mommy Missy!

As I often discuss on this blog, when we learned Sonya would need cochlear implants we were initially very concerned about what this would mean in terms of her appreciation of music. Now, Sonya hasn’t yet demonstrated tone or pitch accuracy. She often starts a song in one key and ends up in a different key. According to AudiologyOnline, most kids develop this skill by kindergarten, though these are skills that might be more difficult for someone using cochlear implants. Cochlear implants were developed to access speech. Music is more complex. But, clearly, there is much we don’t understand about electronic hearing. Despite the obstacles, Sonya loves to sing. She loves to dance. And for the time being, she seems to enjoy it as well as her friends who hear acoustically.

Sing it Sonya!

The Sweetest Dance

If you follow this blog, you are likely aware that when I learned my daughter Sonya had profound hearing loss and would need cochlear implants, the belief that she would not hear music as we do was one of the most distressing aspects of the diagnosis.

Now that Sonya is two years and five months (and has had cochlear implants since she was seven months old), I still don’t know what she hears when we play music. I do know one thing, however: she loves to dance!

Not only does she love to dance, I see her interpret music in her dance. She seems to hear the dynamics and the tempo. She is also an amazing mimic as she attempts to plie and arabesque. I don’t know exactly where she learned these moves. I am not exactly a great dancer.

I can’t get enough of the joy that radiates from her as she dances. I hope that other parents who have children with cochlear implants find some comfort in it too. We know so little about how the brain interprets sound electronically versus acoustically – especially for children implanted so young. Sonya’s love of music and dance shows us that at least for her, cochlear implants are not yet adversely impacting an appreciation for music.

If you are interested, check out my earlier posts on Sonya and music:

On Music

Suffering from Music Loss

Suffering from Music Loss

This post follows an earlier post On Music in which I discuss how we are approaching music education for Sonya.

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Sonya points to her ears when she hears Yan practice piano. “Ee!” she says, meaning “I hear it!”

This afternoon as Sonya napped, I did something I hadn’t done in a long while, I listened to music for fun. As Radiohead’s Separator played, I concentrated on the first dense and complicated beat, which in its second half drops into a gorgeous guitar melody. It’s impossible to describe. I want you to listen to it. It suddenly hit me that Sonya may never love it as I do.* It might not be something I can share with her when she is older and it pains me to think that.

Music used to play an enormous role in my life. My dad plays the piano and guitar. To avoid having to clean up after dinner as a kid, I would sit in the rocking chair in our living room and listen to him play. I wanted to be like him so I took up the instrument too, and then, in high school, the guitar. In college, I continued to study classical piano, folk music, pop, alternative rock and (a bit embarrassed as I write this) underground/old school hip hop.

When I want to reminisce about the time I spent in France, I listen to Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising album. Scenes of my early days in New York City are forever coupled with the music of Bob Dylan, Rakim and Horowitz – playing Scriabin. For most of my life, I fell asleep and woke up to music.

This changed once I knew Sonya was deaf. When we incorporate music into our playtimes, we do so purposefully in order to help Sonya understand how to listen. For example, rather than just enjoy a song in the background, we play the song, dance to it, and then stop the music to help Sonya understand to listen for sound. Months ago, (to my naive delight) Sonya would dance to what I believe was music in her head. Now she knows that she must hear music aloud to dance. She will now point at the computer when she wants to hear it.

We also refrain from having music on in the background, as background noise can make it more difficult for people with hearing loss to perceive speech sounds.

I miss music but I also must remember that I don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know whether Sonya will appreciate it when she is older. We don’t even know what she is hearing. She may hear the overall theme or rhythm, but she might miss the oftentimes subtle moments that make music so pleasurable.

For now, Sonya certainly appears to love it. Whenever Yan has a moment to practice piano, Sonya runs to living room pointing to her ears and shouting “EE!” her sign for “I hear it!”

*I do realize this might be the case regardless of Sonya’s hearing loss. Yan also hates Radiohead 🙂 

 

On Music

When Yan and I used to discuss having and raising kids, we knew music education would be a given. Both former musicians (Yan plays piano and I used to play piano and acoustic guitar), music is what brought us together. On our second date, Yan made me lunch and then played me a Chopin Etude.

But we disagreed on how we would pass our love of music on to our children. I would suggest introducing them to all sorts of musical genres. Classical, jazz, pop, whatever. Let the child decide what they enjoyed and how they would incorporate it into their life. Yan on the other hand had a different view. “Chain them to the piano!” he would say in a joking (but not really joking) way.

We even bought a grand piano a few years ago. It takes up a significant amount of real estate in our New York City apartment, and forced us to forego having a TV.

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Sonya “listening” to Yan playing piano as an infant. She also might just be enjoying the vibrations that complemented her already vibrating bouncy chair.

When we learned that our baby had a high risk of hearing loss during pregnancy,  the irony was not lost on us. How could this happen to us of all people?

“Actually, it could be great.” Yan told me. “I will be able to practice at night and she won’t even notice!”

Yet, this also was not the case. Despite the fact that Sonya had hearing loss, she could feel the vibrations of the six foot-long instrument just fine. Yan’s interpretation of the Russian Romantics was enough to wake her (and many others in our building) from any sleep.

So the question of whether Sonya will appreciate music has haunted me. It is something I always ask older kids with implants. Trying to understand how they understand music through the prism of their deafness, I ask them simply whether they like to listen to music, and whether they play any instruments? So far, the response has been mixed. Some kids say they love music (typically pop or hip hop) but they would not want to listen to orchestral music. Others say they read the lyrics, but do not remember melodies. It is not something they participate in unless they have to. Disheartening to say the least.

While I have read that the newest devices (Sonya has the Nucleus 6 device by Cochlear) are much more sophisticated when it comes to hearing music than their predecessors, we will never really know what Sonya hears when she listens. We can try to emulate what it is like to hear electronically – as in a recent NPR story, which offers accounts of people who have cochlear implants and what music sounds like to them, but we will never know for sure. Interestingly, in the comments section of this story, even those with cochlear implants do not agree on what they actually hear. One commentator wrote, “Fascinating, but I’m not sure that I agree. I have cochlear implants in both ears. I could hear the differences in all of the clips, and the ones that are supposed to sound like CIs don’t sound like what I hear.”

For the time being, I will continue to encourage Sonya to experiment with music. She recently received a glockenspiel – which she seems to enjoy, though she also just loves to hit things with mallets, so I can’t be sure she is actually appreciating the sound she is producing. Ultimately, Yan and I may have to accept that our child will not touch the piano that sits in our living room, and that is okay.

Update: Sonya recently has taken interest in watching Yan play piano. I overheard them playing together recently and quickly caught it on camera. I think it is brilliant. She seems to play the right notes at the right times! Yan, however, says pure coincidence. Haha. In any case, we agreed it is adorable: