Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick
Jaron Lanier Computer Scientist, Composer, Visual Artist, Author
The way I got into music was probably from my mother. She was a concert piano player and my earliest memory, as far as I can tell, is of her moving my fingers against the piano keys. She died when I was small in a car accident, and so in some ways it's continuing to connect with her. There's something else, though, about music, which is, to me, music is pure form. It's a way of expressing motion and structure in time and with the body that's not made of words about something or symbols about something but just this pure form. And there's something about that that I think is extremely important to do. It's sort of exercising the expressive and the perceptive capacity of a person, and to me it's fundamentally expanding the part of the brain that's needed to do science well. And I think that's the reason why there's so many mathematicians and computer scientists and scientists who are also musicians.
Hilda Huang Bach Enthusiast, Musician
This is a funny story. I have two very good friends. Their names are Matthew and Will; they're brothers, actually. And when I used to live in Fremont, which is a little south of where I am today -- well, I met Matthew and Will when I was in preschool. So I went to their house just to have a play date. Matthew played the violin and Will played the cello. Their mom played the piano. I think we went to their house, and they just started playing around on their instruments. I had fun.
I saw the piano and I wanted to try it, and I did. And it was sort of the whole love-at-first-sight thing where you keep doing something and you can never get enough of it. So I think that's basically what happened with me. And I went home; my mom got me an electronic keyboard, and it just went from there.
Alan Kay President, Viewpoints Research Institute
I grew up in a house full of music. My mother was a pretty good player, a pretty good artist. My grandfather was a writer, who was also the organist of his congregation. So there's music on the radio. I grew up in the '40s, so it was 78 RPM records. In those days, a lot of the radio shows used classical themes. I was very attracted to those. I had a pretty good ear as a child, so I sang. Also, the surrounding area that I grew in, which is near Northampton [Massachusetts], had a tradition of having every child play music, because they had a high school that only had a few hundred kids in it. And in order to have a full band, orchestra, and chorus, pretty much every child had to learn to play; so they just taught every child how to play. And that experience, which I didn't think was anything but normal -- I found wasn't normal, later -- it has had a lot to do with the way I think about education. Here is an example where talent matters, but it matters mostly at the edge of the bell curve. And like other things that have been thought to be the province of a few, this school district just taught everybody successfully to read music, play music, sing music, and so forth.
That was a lasting impression on me. Yeah, it's true that talent matters at some point, but learning to read and write is not so much a question of talent but of just learning skill. If you happen to be talented, you might wind up being a professional writer or something.
Jake Shimabukuro Ukulele Virtuoso
I started playing the ukulele when I was 4 years old, which is not uncommon because a lot of kids in Hawaii grow up playing the instrument. You learn it in elementary school. I think in almost every household there's a ukulele buried in the closet somewhere back home.
My mom was my first teacher. She strummed a little. She wasn't a professional musician or anything, but she knew some chords. At a young age I had this desire to learn. I would see her playing, and I would always ask, "Hey, Mom, can you teach me how to play?" Back then she had a Kamaka ukulele, which is a beautiful instrument made of koa wood. It's the same brand that I play today. It's like the Cadillac of ukuleles, so they're quite expensive. She had one of those from the time she was a kid, so she had her reservations about handing it over to me at such a young age.
I remember when I first picked it up when she handed it to me and taught me my first chord. It was a C major chord. It just requires one finger of your left hand. You just hold down this one string, and you play it. It's just the most beautiful sound.
The thing about the ukulele is that it only has four strings. You approach it almost like a three-stringed instrument, though, because your lowest string is the third string. If you were to start at the first string, you would be an A, and it drops down to an E, and then a C, and then a fourth string jumps up to a high G. So your two high strings are on the outside, and your two low strings are in the middle.
But because of that you have a very -- you have chord voicings that are unique to the instrument because of that high fourth string. You also have -- you're dealing with only two octaves. From that middle C, I have a C above that and then one more C above that. If you think about just a two-octave range, if you were to sit in front of a piano, it's about that much of the keyboard.
I remember just playing that chord over and over and just thinking to myself, "Wow, it's such a …" It reminded me of children laughing like myself. It was in the same register as my voice when I was a kid. Now I've dropped down significantly, but that sound to me is what brings a lot of people joy, because whenever you have -- when you're dealing with only middle C as your lowest note, anything from middle C and above -- those notes won't function as a bass tone, which makes the instrument a lot easier to play because you don't have to worry about resolving the bass.
If you're playing certain chords -- if you play the guitar, because you have those strings that fall below middle C, you have to be aware. You have to have some music theory knowledge to understand that if I'm going from this chord to this chord, I need to resolve this bass note correctly. Otherwise it sounds a little funny.
But with the ukulele, because there's the absence of the bass strings, you feel free to jump everywhere, and everything sounds fine. It sounds acceptable. It's very pleasing to the ear.
I think that's where all that passion came from. The instrument brought me so much joy. I remember after school just racing home so I could pick up the ukulele and play. People ask me all the time, "So when you were a kid, how many hours a day did you practice?" I can't really give them a straight answer, because when I was growing up I never thought of it as practice. It was like -- for me that was my -- it was like my video games. It was the equivalent to kids playing video games now. That was the thing. I would race home just so I could do it.
In fact, my parents would have to take the ukulele away from me so that I would do my homework or eat dinner or take a shower, brush my teeth or go to bed. That's how much I loved it. I didn't realize how rare and special that was when I was a young kid. I just thought everyone had something that they feel that passionate about.
Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick Soprano, Composer, Presenter at Freelance
I went to see my first opera when I was 4 years old. It was Hansel and Gretel. I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever heard in my entire life. It was like these voices had been taken from angels or something, it was so beautiful. And I'm sure it didn't hurt that the girl that was singing Gretel in this production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was gorgeous and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. So that was when I fell in love with opera, and it was love at first aria. I was totally transfixed. In addition to that, even before that, my mother would take us to the symphony.
She realized it cost about the same amount of money to get the seats behind the orchestra as it was to go to a movie. So she'd pile all of us in the car. At that point there weren't 11; it was more like six or seven. We'd go and she'd hide the baby under her coat, and she'd nurse the baby so that the baby wouldn't make noise. Sitting behind the orchestra is really the way to go, because instrumentalists are great, but the person who is really interesting is the conductor. Marin Alsop was the conductor at the time, and she'd be there flailing her arms this way and that with sweat splashing everywhere, and in addition to that, we weren't really allowed to eat candy, and the one time we were was when we'd go to the symphony.
My mom would stuff her bag with chocolates and with gummy bears and with all sorts of contraband that we weren't usually allowed to have, and my face would be covered in whatever sweet I was currently consuming. It was just a euphoric experience. I didn't think that it could get any better than that, and so I always had very positive associations with music, and it's what I wanted to do. It's what I wanted to be. I dabbled in other things, but I think when you're an artist and in your gut, you just kind of always know. I knew from the time I was a little girl. So that's how I started on the long road to becoming an opera singer.
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Answered by Wynton Marsalis and Jake Shimabukuro
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