Thursday, December 1, 2011

Descending Whole-Tones

I never take anyone’s psychiatric disorders lightly, so when I tell this story, it’s out of a kind of relief from some of the other more serious patients I used to work with, rather than mocking this woman in any way. 

In one of the psychiatric hospitals I worked in, there was a very overweight African-American female patient in the adult step-down unit, the unit that had fewer restrictions with patients than the locked units.  I will call her, “Betty.”  She was out of her mind, but it was an entertaining way for many of us.

Poor Betty couldn't sit in any of her groups for more than a couple of minutes, thinking she was short on time and needed to get ready to go out for shopping or socializing.  We would try walking her back into her seated circle of patients along with the group leader, but alas, within a minute or so of returning to the nurse’s station, I’d hear the door open again, and out would pop Betty. 

She would walk up to someone, usually a male, and say, "Don'!....  Don'…EVER!" as if someone had intruded on her chastity or offended her whole being.  It was truly strange, not only because of the fervor with which she accused the hapless person (often me), but also in that her mood just a few minutes prior and after these episodes were often moments for her of light fluttering about the ward halls with smiles and humming.

But the strangest of her behaviors by far was that Betty would go into the recreation room, which had a piano in it, and she would play a single note, and then practice whole tone scales.  Briefly, a whole tone scale is a scale made up of notes that are exactly two keys (including black and white) away from each other on the piano.  With a little experimenting, one will find that there are only two whole tone scales in music.  One can simply begin and end at different points on either of these scales.  They are used often as fillers for augmented chords in jazz music.  For Betty, what this meant that at some point in the past, she had been through some amount of musical training. 

She would start at a high note, and then cascade down an octave, landing on the note she played on the piano.  She would give this last note a lot of vocal vibrato and then would let it fade out. Her process had an unsettling quality to it, like that of an unknown voice heard far off in some vacant house in the fog.

These bouts of practice session would last all of about a minute, and then she would be on her way down the hall.  It was as if she was trying to hold onto some part of herself by connecting with the piano several times per day.  The distant, echoing tonality of her whole-tone scales still resound in my head even this many years on. 

Oh, I have so many isolated moments in my head from those days!