One of the amazing things about music is that we all experience it in our own way – two concertgoers, or even two members of the group playing, can have wildly different reactions to the same performance. In ensemble playing, as I’ve noted before, this is both the challenge and the reward  – while rehearsing, we have to shape our different perspectives into something cohesive and unified. This is often exhausting but well worth the effort – the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts.

I regularly ask my cello students to make up a story to go with the piece they’re working on, and the answers I get are quite amazing. From a lamb’s journey through the woods to someone recovering from a car accident, these stories often reflect what is on the mind of the player as much as the music itself, but that’s fine – verbalizing these ideas helps the student play the piece in a much more engaged way.

Recently, I met Elsa Kennedy, a young voice student, when I was playing at Second Sunday on Main, a big street festival in downtown Cincinnati. It was very hot that afternoon, and most people who came by my spot seemed much more interested in the StreetPops vendor nearby than the Bach I was playing. But Elsa stopped and stood for a couple of minutes with her eyes closed, listening intently.



When I finished the piece I was playing, she came over and explained that she sees colors when she hears music, and that those colors change depending on the notes and keys being used. This condition is called “synesthesia” and is actually not uncommon – here’s a list of some well-known musicians who have reported some connection to color in their hearing. Russian pianist-composer Alexander Scriabin, who may not have had the condition himself, still became so intrigued with the idea that he designed a special keyboard, with each pitch having a different color.

There was some chalk nearby, thanks to the intrepid Margy Waller, of Art on The Streets, and so Elsa sat down and drew what she heard as I played pieces in different keys. Here’s what she came up with –  each title and picture is linked to an audio file of the piece so you can hear what she saw.

Bach – Allemande from Suite #4 in E-flat major

 E-flat Allemande - cropped

Bach – Gigue from Suite #3 in C major

Gigue in C - cropped

And finally, the Prelude from Gaspar Cassado’s Suite for Solo Cello in d minor

Cassado Prelude - cropped

Her work inspired another young artist, too:

elsa and friend

Playing in situations like this is often a roll of the dice – bad acoustics, weather and a less than captive audience can make for an experience many performers would rather skip entirely, and I’ve played many an outdoor gig that I swore would be my last. However, this particular afternoon reminded me that a successful performance need only reach one person, and that you never know exactly how that will happen.

As I said before, we all experience music differently, and it’s quite mysterious how that works – there’s much research being done now on how music affects the brain. What is clear, though, is that though each of us may react differently to what we hear or play, music touches our very core. Let’s close with a video from a London home for dementia patients, where music is reaching even people whose way of interacting with the world has otherwise been radically diminished or even cut off – a powerful reminder that though our experiences with music may vary, they are an essential part of being human.

Till next time,


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