A while back, I taught an autistic child how to play the piano. We worked together for over a year, and I was regularly frustrated by how challenging it was. I was also amazed at how this boy would, seemingly out of nowhere, totally understand a fundamental skill that had apparently eluded him for weeks prior. It was clear he was listening, but not on my timeline.
During one particular lesson, as he started to play his piece on an electric piano in my office, he stopped and said, “This piano sounds funny.” I thought nothing of it until he started getting rather angry at my request that he continue anyway. I asked him if it was too loud or just sounded different. He simply repeated that it sounded funny. His father, who sat in during our lessons, looked as confused as I was, and to save the lesson, we moved to another room with a different instrument. He seemed content.
Not two weeks later, while arranging something for piano with my computer playing in the background, I noticed that the pitch of the electric piano didn’t quite match the recording on my computer. As I investigated, it seemed that the piano had been digitally adjusted (accidentally) to tune at 441 Hz, instead of the generally accepted 440 Hz. In other words, it was almost imperceptibly sharp.
The piano in my office did, indeed, sound “funny” — it was not tuned correctly, and after setting it back to 440, I immediately emailed my student to let him know that the piano had been “fixed” ahead of our next lesson.
I am a classically trained musician with 35 years of experience, and a 9 year old boy heard something that I did not. Was I embarrassed? No. Upset for not hearing what was so obvious to him? Absolutely not. I was and still am in total awe of each individual’s ability to perceive uniquely. I live with total appreciation that everything I do, every person I interact with every day offers me an opportunity to learn something new…to perceive something, however mundane, in a different way…to pass along my own passion for what I experience in a complete piece of music, or a simple A 440.