Over the past few days, our editorial team noticed what can be described an extraordinay feat by talented Melania, who will be turning four in a month’s time, where was playing Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on her bells,
“Ode to Joy” (German: “An die Freude” is an ode written in the summer of 1785 by German poet, playwright, and historian Friedrich Schiller and published the following year in Thalia. A slightly revised version appeared in 1808, changing two lines of the first and omitting the last stanza.
“Ode to Joy” is best known for its use by Ludwig van Beethoven in the final (fourth) movement of his Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824. Beethoven’s text is not based entirely on Schiller’s poem, and introduces a few new sections. His tune (but not Schiller’s words) was adopted as the “Anthem of Europe” by the Council of Europe in 1972 and subsequently by the European Union.
Melania Haegdorens Imbroll was born on 28th May, 2016 to Maarten Haegdorens who is Belgian and Marilena Imbroll who is Maltese. So far that might be the story of any other child born in Malta. However five months after she was born, Melania was diagnosed with Leber Congenital Amorosis (LCA) which is characterized by severe visual impairment or blindness.
In the words of her teacher, Ms Sarah Spiteri, Melania is a loving girl with a contagious, joyful personality. “Her ways are sweet, yet determined and strong-minded. She has shown interest in music ever since she was a baby and started attending lessons on turning one. Early intervention for children with diverse needs, is crucial to develop communication pathways in the brain.”
Her teacher explains that the initial music sessions were designed to develop motor and sensory skills. Clapping, beating rhythms and playing with instruments are incredible ways to improve coordination and refine motor control. Melania’s early encounters involved untuned percussion instruments such as drums, triangle, maracas, castanets etc. Even during the very early classes, Melania manifested a steady sense of pulse, with the ability to change speed according to the music without any difficulty. This ability, which was way ahead of her peers, was the first indication of Melania’s inherent musicality.
As her sensory skills increased Melania started to follow a bespoke tactile musical notation made out of small blocks. She was able to play back the rhythm indicated by the blocks immediately after the first session. The blocks represent different note duration which mirror the semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver and semiquaver. Her co-ordination between left and right hand improved to such an extent such that her playing was delayed by a mere second to her reading.
From previous sessions working on tuned percussion, such as xylophone and bells, we realised that Melania had a very strong auditory memory again way beyond her peers. She could not only identify the name of the note for each coloured bell but the colour of the bell associated with that pitch. The association of pitch and colour became an interesting ‘game’ for Melania, and a strong tool from an educational perspective to strengthen memory. It was at this stage that it became apparent that Melania had acquired perfect pitch – a traditional marker for exceptional musical ability – that is the ability to identify any given note without a reference note. This is considered a rare ability, estimated to be less than one in 10,000 in neurotypical people. However, research led by Prof Adam Ockelford shows that visually impaired or blind children are 4,000 times more likely to have perfect pitch than their fully sighted peers.
According to Ockelford, the reason is “the obvious one”. He explains: “In young babies, the brain is very mouldable, synapses grow and connections are made all the time. In blind children, the areas of the brain involved in sight are not being used, but others, including those used for hearing, become much more important. The greater focus on auditory input makes the brain develop in a different way.” (Ockelford, 2018)
Although perfect pitch is not a condition for great musicianship, it is necessary in the development of exceptional musicality among people with some sort of learning difficulties.
Melania is given manageable goals to do through the sessions. This leads to a boost in self-confidence as she experiences success in following musical tasks and begins to experience making her own songs and rhythmic patterns. Lessons have taken a different twist now that they are being conducted online due to the Corona virus directives. She has two slots daily of approx. 20 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This enables the learning curve to be paced without forcing too much, yet gently pushing her out of her comfort zone each time.
Currently Melania is confidently able to play a growing number of nursery rhymes and songs in C major, G major, F major and D major on the piano. Thanks to her perfect pitch, she can identify any key including both major and minor keys and sing songs in any given key without a reference starting note.
This would be a great ability for any musician …… when one considers that Melania is just shy of 4 years old, one cannot but marvel at her extraordinary abilities.