On Understanding Music – A Short Story

victrola In 1988 I was seventeen and living in the dorm of St. John’s Preparatory School for Boys.    While I kept to myself mostly.  I would go to my room and do my homework, and when that was done I would immerse myself in some book that I had found at our library.  While the pickings were slim for what I might read these days, the library was full of the classics.  I read Herodutus, Dickens, Frost and Thomas.  I devoured Shakespeare, Melville and Joyce.  I read myself to the very bottom of the popularity totem pole.  A place that was just fine for me.

You see, I was not at all interested in spending any time whatsoever with my fellow students.  I considered them brash and boorish, and I, as pretentious as I was at seventeen, would not give any of them the time of day.

I did my best to be anonymous, assuming that if no one noticed me then I could be safe in this place.  I could ride out my three years in relative obscurity, escape somewhat unscathed and make my transition into whatever college I chose without too many scars, physical or otherwise.

But they say that no man is an island, and neither can a boy be as much.  As much as I wanted to be alone in that place I was destined not to be; and am the better for it, for it was in this place that I learned to finally understand music.

Up until then I had had the good fortune of retaining a room of my own.  Most, if not all the other students were saddled with roommates, but due to some error in administration (I assumed), I had a room of my own.  It was luxurious, to say the least.

I happened to be writing in my journal when I heard a knocking on my door.  I kept a journal of what I had been reading, a habit I had acquired in Ms. Nornberg’s grade 7 English Literature class.  She had asked us all to provide a diary on what we had been reading and the inclination had stuck with me, and has, even to this day.

I was, just then, writing my thoughts on what I had perceived to be a particularly racy poem by Christina Rosetti that I had found in my Norton Anthology of English Literature when I heard the rapping – not so gently – at my door.

“Who is it?” I enquired, somewhat peeved at the interruption.

“Proebst.  Open up.”

Tim Proebst was the student dorm supervisor. I closed my journal and sauntered over to the door and opened it up, just a crack, eager to find out what he wanted.

“What it is, Tim?” I said, quite meekly.

“Open the fucking door.”

I opened it.   As Tim entered he surveyed my room.

“Well, well, well, looks like you’ve gotten yourself a pretty sweet deal here”, he said, all the time looking around.

“Yeah, well, it’s not bad”, I said, trying to appease him, curious now as to the reason for his visit.

“Well, that’s all over now.  Got a new roommate.  Some retard named Harold.  The bookworm and the retard, together at last.  He just got here so you have to help him get his stuff up here and show him around ‘n shit.  Man, how did you manage to have your own room for so long?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I guess it doesn’t matter too much now”, I grinned, attempting to appease the threatening mountain of discord in front of me.

Tim didn’t seem to know what to say, so he just shoved me in the chest, knocking me onto my soon to be roommates bed and said, “He’s in the office, go down and get him”.

“Hey, uh, whaddya mean he’s a retard?” I asked, pulling myself up off the bed.

“He’s a deaf kid or something”, Tim said nonchalantly and left.

I was in no way happy with what had just occurred.  I wasn’t happy with the treatment I had received at the hands of this dull idiot, and I wasn’t happy that I was to be sharing my room with someone, whereby the account I had been given, was a person with whom I may not desire to spend a large amount of time with.

Still, I put on my Kodiaks and my parka and headed for the administration wing of the school.  We had been hit with an exceptionally grand snowfall that year, not a week before, and it had just kept on snowing.  The trees possessed that ghostlike quality that they endure when they are stripped of their leaves and are converted by snow and frost into ghastly, yet catatonic creatures of ancient lore; their skeleton-like fingers reaching out, their roots frozen to the ground, hampering their ability to pursue potential victims.  I watched my breath leave me in vast plumes of steam and apprehension, and trudged over the icy sidewalks towards the office.  I looked up at the old buildings; the lush covering of the Ivy long forgotten, a thin sheet of frost covering the side of the gray edifice in its place, and began thinking about my first day here at this school.  I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular that had happened, just about what I was feeling that day; the way I was in such emotional turmoil being faced with unfamiliar surroundings, faces and sounds.  I wondered how much more difficult it would be for someone with some physical handicap.  It was hard enough adjusting to new surroundings with my severe social handicap, let alone being a deaf kid in the company of wolves.  I actually started to feel a little bit worried for him.

I hadn’t worn gloves so I pulled down the sleeve of my parka to grab the door handle with and pulled the heavy door of the Administration Building open.  I was greeted with an enthusiastic, moist breath of warm air, and I quickly pulled myself inside, basking in the heat.  I made sure to stamp my boots off before walking down the hall, and then made my way to the office.

As I opened the office door I was greeted by one of the warmest, friendliest smiles I had ever seen.  There, sat a boy surrounded by suitcases and several boxes along with a slightly nervous looking Mr. Dreger.

Mr. Dreger was an Administrative Assistant at the school and, looking back on it now, I recognize that he was wholly incompetent at his job.  His job, in essence, was to handle the everyday lives of the students in the school.  This shouldn’t have been too difficult a task, but Mr. Dreger was a shy, nervous man who got very stressed at having to handle the slightest task.

With a look of relief he stood up and came over to me very quickly and took me aside.

“This is Harold Praetzler.  He’s deaf.  He’s your new roommate”, he said tensely.  “Are you going to be able to…”, he trailed off as he shuffled nervously.

I smiled at him, slightly offended, but mostly amused.

“Mr. Dreger”, I said, “He’s deaf, not retarded.  We’ll be fine together.”

“Good, good”, he nodded.  “Very good.  Well, let’s get his stuff up to your room and then, well, I’ll let the two of you get acquainted.”

We turned around and walked back to the beaming young man who sat there in his brown cords, still in his parka.  I could not help but get a good feeling from this pimply faced kid who seemed to want nothing more than to make friends with whomever crossed his path.

“Hello”, he said. He had a sort of precise way of speaking that put to shame the enunciation of my classmates and I.  I found out later that he had learned to speak by watching very closely the mouths of those around him and while he would occasionally appear to slur or skip a syllable here and there, he was well spoken in the manner of a well-bred boy of St. John’s quality, as they would say.  There was something different in his way of speaking, but it was not something that one immediately recognized as a handicap.

“My name is Harold Praetzler”, he said, extending his hand.  “I am deaf, so if you want to say something to me you must look at me so that I can see you and then say whatever you want to say.  And, oh”, he added, “you don’t have to speak louder.  Just talk like you normally would, it will be easier for me”, he smiled.

I laughed at his little joke, thinking that he must be able to notice the change in persons around him as they attempted to compensate for his disability.

I took his hand and introduced myself, suddenly more comfortable with a human being than I had been in as long as I had been at St. John’s.  “I’m your new roomie, I guess.  Let’s get your stuff and bring it upstairs”, I said, careful to look directly at him.

I took a second look at his belongings.  He had three suitcases, a large wooden box and four tightly sealed boxes.  I looked back at him, raising my eyebrows questioningly, but he just grinned back at me.

We moved his things over to our dormitory very quickly to avoid being outside for too long and, once there we set his boxes and suitcases haphazardly about the floor of my room.  Our room.

I was very curious to see what was inside all his packages, the large wooden box especially.  What would a deaf boy bring with him to boarding school?  What tools or devices were necessary for his existence?  Was he so different than I, or was he just like me?  I decided – suddenly and hilariously – that I might enjoy being deaf.  Enjoy not having to hear the sounds around me that inevitably distracted me from my pursuit of quiet.  I was eager to talk with this boy and learn more about him, about how he viewed the world.

I directed him as to where he could put his belongings; explained that certain parts of the room were his, the others mine.  The furniture was not divided evenly down the center of the room, so together we decided how to coexist harmoniously.

He unpacked his suitcases carefully and neatly, folding his clothes into the dresser drawers and hanging his shirts and jackets in the closet.   I sat on my bed casually reading a book and every so often glancing up at him to mark his progress, waiting for him to unpack the boxes.  Finally, he sat down on the edge of his bed, pulled the large wooden box toward him and looked up at me with his ever-present grin.  It seemed as though he must know that I was curious because he took his time with the box, all the time looking back at me and smiling.

“So, whaddya have in there?” I asked, the suspense finally too much for me to bear.

“A gift from my grandmother”, he said and motioned for me to sit beside him.

I looked closely at this exquisite box.  Large and heavy and dark, dark wood.  Two feet tall, with brass clasps around the bottom about two inches from the bottom indicating a foundation of some sort, and an engraving of a little English Boxer, his head tilted to the side at the very top of the box.

The word Victrola.

Victrola?  It…can’t be.

Harold undid the clasps and lifted the bulk of the box high, revealing the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.  An old gramophone made in the early part of that century with the sort of care and attention to detail that one quite simply does not see in today’s devices.  He set the top down lovingly and smiled at me, obviously proud of his possession.

“It’s a gramophone”, he said, “You play records on it.”  He was good enough to ignore my obvious surprise.

“But how…?” I trailed off, unable to finish the question.

“You wind it up with this”, he said, pointing to a crank and looking at me to await my response.  Getting none, he proceeded, “I have tons of old records here too.  I’ll put one on.”

I was baffled.  How could a deaf person enjoy a record?  Why would a person who could not perceive sound of any kind be in possession of such a thing?  I could not understand the point in this boy having such a device.  It made no sense to me whatsoever.  I felt, at once, confused and angry, thinking that perhaps he was playing a joke on me, unsure as to what to expect next.

Harold opened one of his cardboard boxes and removed an LP record.  He showed the cover of the record to me.  Wagner:  Tannhauser.  I recognized the title.  It happened to be an opera that my parents used to play frequently so I knew it well and had enjoyed it myself.  Harold placed the disc on the player and lifted the needle that was nestled under a spherical housing and placed it at the beginning of the recording.  He then wound up the player and, moving on to the floor, sat right next to the Victrola.  At once, the music began to emanate from the gramophone, flooding the room with the soothing sounds of the Overture.  Harold closed his eyes, wrapped his hands around the bottom of the horn and placed his cheek against the bell at the top of the horn.  As the music played, Harold hugged the mechanism and gently swayed to the rhythm.

I was amazed!  How could this be?  Was he not really deaf?  Maybe just partially so.  As the Overture became more dramatic, leading into the part where the orchestra becomes increasingly climactic and the strings begin to utter their staccato ascensions, Harold removed one of his hands and began to move it like a conductor in time to the music.  And each time the theme changed, Harold seemed to know exactly what was happening, his countenance absorbed, entirely consumed by the enchanting Germanic orchestral exhibition.

I watched his expression change with each movement, his body move in time and his hand wave notes away one by one as they escaped his grasp.  As the Overture came to a close he raised his fist in perfect time with the last nine dramatic punches of the tune and then I saw, for the first time, his face change to a look of disappointment, defeat and dejection.  And then, as quickly as it had happened, he smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders, perhaps a bit embarrassed, or maybe just saddened to open his eyes and find himself still in this room with a new roommate and the prospects that lay ahead of him, having been transported to another place and then so harshly slapped in the face with reality.

“I don’t understand”, I said to him, leaning forward and squinting, “I thought you were deaf.”

He sighed.  “Yes, I am, but I can feel the music the same way you hear it.”  He reached for the handle and gave it several more cranks.  “Here”, he indicated to the horn, “put your hands here.”

Reluctantly, I placed my hands the way he had done at the bottom of the brass and felt a slight sensation in my palms.

“Now rest your cheek on the end of it here”, he said, and I did. “Now, don’t listen to the music.  Feel it.  Don’t even try to pretend that you can’t hear it, just try to understand the music on a deeper level”, he said, becoming a bit excited.  “Allow the very essence of the vibrations to absorb deep into your being and instead of rejecting them by hearing them with your head, accept them by feeling them in your soul”.

I was skeptical and I raised my head from the horn and removed my right hand, wanting to express to him how crazy this sounded, how utterly ridiculous this was.  I was embarrassed and frustrated because I did not understand what he meant, and I was confused by the notion of having music explained to me by a deaf person.

He must have sensed this.  I’m sure this was not the first time he had tried to explain this to a hearing person, had attempted to allow someone else to reach an understanding of the vibration in the way that he had.  He smiled at me patiently, in the way that a math teacher attempting to explain calculus to a D grade student would, and took my hand and calmly placed it back on the horn.

“Don’t listen”, he said again, “Feel.  Don’t let anything stand in your way of understanding this new thing.  Allow yourself to set aside the notion of sound and replace it with the reality of vibration.  Sound is merely a vibration that your ears translate into specific notes that you understand in a certain way that may or may not be real.  But touch is real.  This sound has a tactile quality that escapes 99% of the population.  They allow it to trail off into the Universe unappreciated fully.  Allow it to flow through your fingers into the whole of your being.  Let the vibrations fill your head with a new sound, the sound of the beginning of the world, the breath of life.  Each of the instruments recorded by this disc (and I have touched and understood each of them) creates the sound that you hear through resonance.  Each instrument is made of a different earthly material and they all reverberate in their individual ways.  See if you can pick them out with your all of you instead of just your ears.”

His words and the way he spoke were almost hypnotic and I was overtaken by the moment.  I embraced the machine and the music wholly and completely, and allowed myself to begin to understand.  I closed my eyes and traveled into the heavens with each individual note, with each compelling oscillation, and then I began to not only hear the music, but I began to see it as well.  As the music overcame me I was struck by the overwhelming immensity of what I was experiencing and began to cry.  I pulled myself closer to the magnificent contraption and sobbed deep, heavy tears of sorrow and joy.  In that moment, I began to finally understand what music was meant to be.  That it was not background, that it was not about elevators, supermarkets and luncheons, but rather that it was an explanation of the very essence of humankind.  Of our worldliness.  Our triumphs and tribulations.  Our exultation and anguish.  Of our true potential and our woeful inability to achieve it.

As the piece came to a close I held on for a few moments to the horn, unwilling to allow the moment to pass just yet.  I opened my eyes and saw Harold there before me, a magnificently triumphant smile on his face.  He knew that I had understood.  That I had allowed myself to cast off my misconceptions and had been to a place that most of us in our society will never know exists.  I saw and felt and understood Original Man, sat by his fire and partook of his kill.  I now knew.

I could not say anything as I snapped back to the reality of my surroundings.  In such a short period of time I had experienced more than I ever had in my life to that point and I was weary from its possession of my soul.  I relinquished my grasp and slumped to the ground, exhausted and excited.  I smiled and Harold looked at me and shrugged.  He did not say anything, just raised his eyebrows knowingly and removed the disc from the player and affectionately placed it back in the sleeve, then in the box.

I slept that night, the sleep of a man in complete harmony with himself and his environment.  I awoke to a whole new world of possibilities and took to listening to music with Harold in much the same way I had been with books.  I was, in turn, able to share with him my love of words and we were, for the rest of our stay at the school, the best of friends.

As a result of my transformation, an interesting thing began to happen in my life.  I learned not only to understand music, but I began to understand how to really listen to people.  To understand them at a level that I had not previously been able to comprehend my fellow man.  I was able to see the good in people, to see why people were the way they were.  That though they had rough exteriors and acted in a manner unbefitting of their breeding, they were, deep down, as human as you and I, and they deserved every bit of attention I could afford them.

My life changed dramatically as a result of these revelations, and ever since then, though I may lock myself in my room for days at a time in pursuit of earthly knowledge, I know I need never be alone.

While I kept in touch with him for a time, Harold and I eventually grew apart.  I shall never forget the lesson I learned that night, the way it changed my life forever and the doors it opened for me.  To this day I find myself listening to music with my hands on my speakers, my eyes closed and my soul soaring high above me.  And I see Harold there with me, smiling, shrugging his shoulders and winking at me.  Understanding.

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