Recently, my brother-in-law, Zak, has taken up playing the piano, and has quickly mastered standards like Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Last week, Zak was over for dinner (my birthday!) and asked to look through some of my old music books. After paging through my torn-up Beatles anthology, he was disappointed to find that “Hey Bulldog” wasn’t in there. (Either that… or those pages were missing. Those books have been through some hard times.)
No worries, I said… I’m sure I can figure that part out for you. I quickly replayed the song in my head, went over to the piano, and tapped out the opening notes perfectly.
Zak was impressed. Honestly, I was impressed, too. I always had a pretty good ear, but rarely do I try to play a song and get it right away like that. Zak asked how I did it. I explained, “when you’ve been playing for a long time, and you listen to music, you just hear notes and know what they are. Not all the time – but there are a lot of songs I hear and instantly know – hey, that’s in the key of E. Or I hear that a song is a standard I – IV – V progression.”
Zak responded, “but you don’t really play that much anymore, do you?” This is true. I still love to play as much as I did when I played in a band back in college, or with the choir in high school, but months have gone by where I haven’t played at all. Technically, I’m rusty and sloppy when I play now. But what I haven’t lost is the ear. I still listen to music with the same intensity, and find myself thinking about which chords are in a song, what key it’s in, noting the use of a major 7th in a chord, or a key change toward the end of a song to add some energy.
Similarly, just as my musical background has influenced how I listen to music, being a photographer has changed the way I see. It doesn’t matter where I am, whether I have a camera with me or not, I find myself studying the light around me. I look at where it’s coming from, what kind of shadows there are, what color the light is. I see patterns and lines everywhere, whether in a broken pillar, bridge or a miniature building. I see doors, arches, railings, mirrors, even waterfalls, and think about how I could frame a photograph through them or around them.
I’ve found that seeing the world this way is not something that I can turn off or on. It’s become part of who I am – and I love it. I love seeing and appreciating beauty not just in a beautiful bride and groom at their wedding, but in something as simple as an abandoned building, a quiet dock, or a single flower. I feel certain that even if I never took another picture, or even held a camera, I will never stop seeing my surroundings as if through a viewfinder.