Talking 'bout good vibrations: Mark Palardy learns music by ear


Everyone learns differently. There are auditory learners, visual learners and kinesthetic learners, who learn by carrying out a physical activity, rather than listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. Some people can learn through all three senses, but others concentrate on one -- and sometimes none.

Sixteen-year-old Mark Palardy learns best through hearing. He loves jazz and takes jazz piano lessons with Dave Bartley at Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield.

Palardy has a hearing aid, which he takes out during his lessons with Dave, concentrating on what he can hear from his instructor during lessons.

Palardy was diagnosed with Noonan syndrome, which can result in hearing loss, congenital heart defect and learning problems.

"[Mark] has cognitive learning disabilities," said Shirley Palardy, Mark's mother.

But that doesn't stop Palardy from performing in the Pittsfield High School Jazz band, which he says he loves, and performing in the Jazz Ensemble at Berkshire Music School. He started playing jazz piano about eight years ago, and he's improving every day, Bartley said.

Bartley has been teaching Palardy for a few months now, working on repetition of sound with him, as this is how Palardy learns and retains information.

"What I do with Mark is linear," Bartley said. "We do it by memory. It's tough for [him] to pick stuff off the page. When he hears rhythms, unless it's something [he's] never heard before, [he] can copy it almost verbatim."

Rhythm has a lot to do with the way Palardy learns key strokes to "Blue Skies" and "Nostalgia in Times Square."

"I don't know how [he] connects the stuff I teach [him] together," Bartley said. "Sometimes, it's hard to start, but then it retains really well. He can play almost everything he's learned."

Asked to describe teaching music, Michael Dilthey, an associate professor of music at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, remembered a colleague in the art department who once described art teachers: "They don't teach how to draw; they teach how to see."

The same goes for music.

"I teach students how to hear," he said.

Much like critical thinking, he teaches critical listening.

"A musical person, or training, which includes public music schools, teaches students how to pay attention," Dilthey said. "Music does teach anybody, and especially those who want to learn to hear."

Working from that premise, Dilthey teaches a difference between musical sound and noise. Musical sound has either a repetitious frequency and/or speed of pitch, he said.

"Pitch means the vibration is vibrating at us at a sustainable frequency," he said. "It's recognizable."

Few people have perfect pitch naturally, Dilthey said.

"Perfect pitch is the ability to sing or label a pitch without any other information," Dilthey said. "You can hear a pitch and say what that is. You can call it out of the air."

String players, he said, learn perfect pitch because they tune their instruments more often than key-instrument players.

Some people believe perfect pitch has to be innate, a skill someone is born with, but Dilthy said many people, including him, have learned it.

Palardy became interested in jazz by hearing it.

"I got into jazz basically a couple of years ago," Palardy said. "One of my friends played at the Colonial with Dave Brubeck. And I just love Dave Brubeck's music, and ever since then, I've been a big fan [of jazz]. I love his song 'Take 5.'"

Learning jazz piano doesn't always come easily to Palardy. Because of his learning disability, Palardy goes through occupational therapy, speech therapy and physical therapy, his mother said.

"He gets stuck sometimes," his mother said. "He'll hit a wrong key and stop and think [about how] that doesn't sound right and adjust it."

For some, playing the piano is like reading the keys with their fingers. But Palardy hears the music and "the music in his head guides his fingers," his mother said.

According to Dilthey, some musical talents you can be born with, like certain kids who are "born to play" sports, but most musicians believe no one is really tone deaf.

"You can learn later," he said, emphasizing that "very much like a foreign language, you can learn a new type of music."

But why do we like the music we like?

Ed Gollin, professor of music at Williams College, says we like what we teach ourselves to like.

"People can train their ears," he said, "like taking license of the norms of English grammar, you can oust those linguistic norms and maybe get to James Joyce. But the larger context is to make sense of the whole. It's the same in music.

"Why do I like Mozart, but modern music sounds ugly? It's a matter of culturation," Gollin said. "We more readily come to accept the beauty of it. In a sense, it requires a certain amount of ear training to make the connections."


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