I have an embarrassing inability to recognize music that I hear on the radio or playing in the other room. It is not an exaggeration to say that I might walk into the house to find Matt listening to, say, Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto, a concerto I played last year with orchestra, and for me to have no idea what I am hearing. It is not uncommon for me to hum a tune to Matt and have him tell me it was a piece I played on program the previous month. This is all true. And rather sad. I am, after all, a professional musician.

Perhaps related is my inability to recognize faces. It is completely possible for me to meet someone three or four or five times and still have no idea who they are. I often joke that Matt could walk into a room and I might, depending on the day, have to be prompted into remembering that this is the man I married 21 years ago.

In case you might be starting to think I am suffering from some sort of dementia, you should know that these are not new problems. In a nutshell, I have little to no visual or aural memory. I cannot close my eyes and picture my house, husband or cats. I never have a song stuck in my head. Inside my head, it is very, very quiet. Inside my head, I am like Helen Keller, both blind and deaf.

Part of the issue, I have come to believe, is context. I was pretty good at drop-the-needle tests in college. In those settings, I knew ahead of time the list of pieces I would be tested on. All I had to do was correctly match what I was hearing (This is either Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.). Not hard. I need no clues to name what Claire or Jonah might be playing when they start banging on my piano. I can accurately place faces in the situations in which they belong: church people, yoga folks, studio parents. But ask me to identify a member of a choir I played for several years ago when I run into that person at the grocery store and you are asking for trouble. Context is everything.

Context-based knowledge, cognitive psychologists will say, is an inferior level of knowledge in the same way multiple-choice tests demand less grasp of the material than short-answer tests. But context-based knowledge is a beginning, a good place to start. And so to that end, students and I play a lot of “Name that Tune” in performance classes. I consider it to be a part of their general musical education that they shouldn’t leave my studio after 10 years of piano lessons without being able to recognize somebody’s cell phone ring as Für Elise. Or without knowing that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and that Ode to Joy is the 9th. Or that one of their favorite Looney Tunes themes is really the William Tell Overture by Rossini. I mean basic stuff. Really basic stuff.

In every performance class we take ten minutes for “Name that Tune.” We spread across the floor an ever-growing stack of postcards on which I have written titles, composers, and other random facts that students have to correctly match: Joplin. Ragtime. The Entertainer. Or: Haydn. 104 Symphonies. Surprise Symphony. Classical Period. And so on.

We have been doing this for years now. These days our “Name that Tune” repertoire list is pretty long and keeps growing. Heaven help the new kid in the studio, because the learning curve is steep for sure. “I know this. I know this,” a kid will squeal and then tell me that what I just played was In the Hall of the Mountain King by Brahms. (It wasn’t. It was Can-Can by Offenbach and, besides, Grieg wrote In the Hall of the Mountain King.).

We all have our bad days, I, more than anyone, know this. And certainly even working on music identification in this way is context driven for sure. In fact, the game of matching postcards facts and names is really nothing more than a multiple-choice test on steroids. It doesn’t guarantee that students will recognize these tunes outside the abbreviated versions I give them in performance classes. But still it’s better than nothing. “The more you know, the more you love, and by loving more, the more you enjoy,” said St. Catherine of Siena.

Several years ago I was at a student recital sponsored by our local music teacher’s association. A student from another studio got up to play. Upon hearing the first few measures, one of my students got very excited. Turning to me, she whispered loudly, “Miss Amy! This is Turkish Rondo! I LOVE this!”

The Ten Thousand Stars Studio “Name That Tune” list as of August 2016:

Spring by Vivaldi
Prelude in C Major by Bach
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach
Surprise Symphony by Haydn
Turkish Rondo by Mozart
Symphony No. 40 by Mozart
Für Elise by Beethoven
5th Symphony by Beethoven
9th Symphony by Beethoven
Unfinished Symphony by Schubert
Lullaby by Brahms
Funeral March (3rd Movement of Piano Sonata in Bb Minor) by Chopin
New World Symphony by Dvorak
Can-Can by Offenbach
Toreador Song from Carmen by Bizet
William Tell Overture by Rossini
Theme from Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky
In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg
The Swan from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saens
The Entertainer by Joplin
Clair de Lune by Debussy
Simple Gifts from Appalachian Spring by Copland

The more we know, the more we love.