There is nothing that can break the heart quite like music. Or reassemble its jagged, scattered, keening parts. It inhabits such power partly because music is a human birthright as much as it is any other creature’s (or element’s) within nature’s domain. Everything warbles, croaks, chirrups, bleats, bays, whistles, howls–something is offered up. Behold the loon’s peculiar call. The snake’s slither and hiss. The dog’s curious vocalizing. It is inside our voices, runs in our blood. Even the wind-blown grasses, fallen leaves and quieter waters have music to make. And when they do, we listen and it stirs us.
But the human of the species ascribes much more to what might be a simple rhythmic utterance. I know something of this, having grown up in a musical family and having aspired to become a musician the first two decades of my life. I hummed and sang as a little child and a violin was placed in my hands before kindergarten. I sat by family members at the baby grand piano and plunked along when I could. Surely all children come by music naturally, no matter what they hear, sing or dance to. Just watch them.
It becomes a communal state of being when a family is rooted, nurtured, shaped and bound by making music. It is a many-limbed entity that hews a major part of its foundation from vigorous realms of musical expression. Especially if it is classical music. Which means: in our house there was played on the stereo or via our instruments and voices an almost entirely classical repertoire. The exceptions were hymns, a little big band music and musical theater songs. The emphasis was on quality of musicianship even then. If it wasn’t very well executed, it was not abided.
It’s a topic I’ve written about and around countless times, attempting to clarify its meaning and impact. There is an essential musicality of life, it goes to our cores and impacts all cultures– not just mine. And then there is the breaking and reassembling aspect.
Despite being inundated by it, I stopped my engagement in music before I was twenty. I simply abandoned all this: private cello and vocal lessons, innumerable daily hours after school of redundant, critical practice, rehearsing and performing in orchestras, studying musical scores, trying to decipher music theory and learning music history, memorization of long and difficult pieces, performing in voice concerts and music competitions, attending workshops and music camps, protecting my fingers so they would be strong and calloused for heavy pressure and rapid movement upon cello strings, protecting my voice so it was responsive, resonant, accurate.
There is far more to it than this but you get the idea. The ultimate goal was to be worthy of others’ time and teaching, and especially of a discerning audience’s approval. At least, that is what I thought. Learning to play classical music and play it well is about many things. Strict discipline. Patience. Being able to take and utilize criticism. Seeking or creating nuances of sound even within a single note. Duplicating with exactitude a composer’s complex marks on a page. Becoming mathematically oriented and intellectually awake even while opening profound emotional channels–and all this while practicing the same measure over and over and over, then performing in front of people who may be utter strangers as if it was fresh and personal.
And the fact was, I adored it, despite the laborious parts or disappointments, tired hands or those failed attempts with a new measure. Music nestled in my bones, directed my dreaming, held up hope and resided in my best places. And I was singing more and more; it was becoming more compelling than playing cello, at times. So on it went, this life made of music among all the other activities of a child, then youth, those movements through time.
Until I could not do it, not anymore.
For years the drill went as usual, the pleasures were daily; it was nothing extraordinary. Many of my friends were learning instruments at young ages. In our city, elementary schools had music programs, courtesy of my father and others, started when children reached the fourth grade. If they did well on music aptitude test, they were given instruments to play throughout their education, though many bought their own before long.
Our own house held six musicians who were blood-related. (I often thought my mother might have been one, too; she’d played “a little piano once” and possessed a pleasing alto voice.) There were three cellists (the girls), one of whom deserted to play flute and bassoon. One brother played viola while another played clarinet and saxophone, then flute and more. One of my sisters, Marinell, was a very good pianist but became a cellist who played professionally in symphonies and chamber music groups until her early seventies; she passed on at 78. My other sister, Allanya, played sporadically into her thirties with groups. She also learned how to repair instruments. The woodwind- playing brother, Gary, revolted and only played jazz professionally; he’s now in his mid-70s and still plays often. Our younger brother, Wayne, played viola professionally until recently–also past 70 now–and still sings professionally. Our father played all of the above and knew how to play several more. But other than playing sax, clarinet and trombone in dance bands while in high school and college, he always played violin and viola professionally. That is what he mostly taught others. He also was a conductor.
So you can see how it was. We all played something; it was expected, even imperative. We all sang, harmonizing with one another around the piano as Dad or Marinell played. After we dispersed to other places we still would make music when we got together. This extended beyond our nuclear unit. My father’s younger brother was a flutist and successful composer (Dad was a music arranger, too) and his wife a pianist; my cousins have played cello and violin professionally. We have an opera singer in the family tree, Dad’s second cousin, I think. It goes on…
It would have been hard to back away from this life saturated with music. It never occurred to me; I was committed to being a musician then. I was passionate about music, happy to play classical. Things began to change a bit as I strayed into folk music by mid-teens, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar. I sang all the popular folk songs, started to visit coffee houses where singer-songwriters played. And then I discovered the joy of song writing, performing them as I could. To me, it was that happy union of two creative passions–writing (lyrics being a configuration of poetry) and music. But classical “art” singing had become the priority–or, rather, my father’s. I found it harder and harder to sing with hands clasped before me or at my sides, standing with erect carriage, my body so still. I wanted to move–I danced, as well–to express the music more fully. In community musicals I got the chance, so there was a small reprieve from the more rigid aspects of classical training.
Too, when Dad was home doing nothing much–a rare occasion–he would play the old standards from the thirties, forties and fifties on our piano while I got to sing out like a bird uncaged. And he did approve–just as long as I got back to business later. I understood that was frivolous singing, for relaxation and fun. It wasn’t serious music, important music, not to him. Well, this was no shock, but I resented it more as time went by and further explored genres like blues and jazz–but secretly. It was truly a forbidden world. I was drawn into its human woes and triumphs easily despite my primary allegiance to classical. Not that there wasn’t struggle, victory, comedy and tragedy in classical music–it was just set to another beat, was given a different sort of platform, had a different life.
It was clear to me that being a fine classical musician was my father’s true calling, and also the teaching of it, the nurturing of the potential of each student. He did what he was meant to do and was lauded and even loved for it. It seemed some of my siblings wanted to follow suit.
But as much as cello held my poet’s soul in thrall, it was singing that had finally overtaken me. When singing I felt like everything in my life was cohesive, aligned. Enriched and authenticated. Freed. I’d had good training and I had a rapturous desire to sing truly well. I performed often at school and community events as well as music competitions. I did well. But it was no longer about singing well to please anyone. It was for the music that I sang, for the precise beauty of each note and the moving, sassy, challenging lyrics. It was singing for life. Its wonderment and aching. By 15, I was struggling to stay alive due to abuse from outside my blood family and then a assault. It was becoming nearly impossible to always keep up a good front, to speak nothing of it. And music kept me breathing, kept me reaching for a better day. Singing was my lifeline in so many ways, as well as my solitary writing.
But it was that singing that I finally let go after a second rape, after the drugs and breakdown they brought, after I could no longer see the point in believing God might seriously protect me in the world. Sometimes life overcomes the very best intentions, even courage mustered once again. Its contradictions consume such energy and effort. I was 20, and exhausted.
After the grave woundedness and protracted healing, I tried to sing a bit more. Quietly, alone. It came out hard and slow, scraped my throat as if it protested against release of it song. I felt sick when I tried to sing more, as if all that music had slipped away, perhaps recoiled from my living. It left me nothing but a hollow echo and worse, it left me without the easy, spontaneous joy, the passion. It was as if my voice had been snatched from me, the essence squeezed out of it. There was nothing good to sing about or for anymore, not the way I wanted. I had not the stomach for it and, I realized, as many accessible opportunities. It would take such will and work. Each day living with music was both a balm and a bitterness as I felt it slipping away from my destiny.
I had longed to sing so long, so deeply that it struck me soundly with pain when I opened my mouth. So I became more silent, an old way of dealing with things. I stopped wanting it in the same way, then hated ever wanting to sing. It had become a wound that would not give up and close. I was nearly an adult; I had to gather every remnant of strength and move on, leave behind what couldn’t be repaired or reawakened. The life I rebuilt sheltered a tunnel of subterranean anger. It held the fierce resolve to never be caught off guard in the world or in my heart. It would take many more years for that armor to be dismantled. But there were better changes in life direction. I lived another year and then another, grew up despite myself. In time, there were other goals, college, new family. There was love. I sang for my children a little, softly; their very presence somehow made music flow.
Sometimes I was asked to sing but refused. My voice had lain down, made a nest in a faraway cave, wanted to sleep. And a singer who does not truly sing, cannot hope to sing true.
I hadn’t lost my belief in Divine Spirit, but gradually there unfolded a profound renewal of my Christian faith which had been hibernating, only awaiting my return. God had not abandoned me, never would; I had mistakenly abandoned God’s wisdom and succor, inviolate compassion and mercy. I realized again that though the world has few welcome mats for a loving, transformative God, I can still live as though God walks with and among us, in the midst of all the chaos and terrible disregard and grief. I can open doors–mine, too– to what is true and good, still, and work with and share what I yet have left.
But I didn’t rekindle that potent spark of desire needed to sing–really sing. I may have given it away without fully understanding it– to weariness, to a leave-taking of youth, to old scarring that no longer meanly defined me. I remember walking away from my music and singing, as if from a dearly beloved. As if it was a terrible love that could not break through the heartaches. I chose to give it up in the end, to not do whatever it took for my voice to return. Even though it broke the believer, the dreamer within more thoroughly. Even though I was, in spirit, a ready warrior, last to go down, rising up for one more challenge.
It was something I could not, would not, speak about other than the barest reference.
The decades brought what marriages and children, fulfilling experiences and new places, trials and more loss, happiness, work, sharing my life. I sometimes got out my cello, its soulful sound billowing in the room, giving me goosebumps and peace. But it was hard to keep up skills without practice, without performance.
I did not sing except for my little ones, then less, then nothing came.
Until something astonishing came to pass.
In 2001, after my second parent died and my heart attack in the forest at 51, I worked hard to recover. I took three years off work to find ways to sturdy healing and a longer, happier life. Prayed and meditated often every morning, read and studied. Briskly walked an hour each day. Wept more easily, began to laugh more. Created peace and found gratitude. Made it a priority to have a little fun every day. Traveled a bit more and reached out. Started to make art and take photographs. And I wrote and wrote, wrote a novel and more. That sort of thing–the good stuff we can forget or just put off. Until it’s clear you can’t put it off, not one more second.
One morning I awakened with music full blast in my head, songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I barely had my eyes open when I began to sing, still in bed. They were the old standards I used to sing with my father, at first. The songs just slid out between my lips. I was sure they would disappear but no, I got up and they kept coming. I sang right out loud in the shower as if I had never stopped singing. My voice didn’t hurt, it wasn’t strained, it was on key. I was no longer a soprano but an alto–that was alright. I kept on, not laboring over notes, not trying to remember more songs. The songs arrived like they wanted to be sung. I was entirely happy with this, to have so much music rise up and be freed. To know it deeply again, to feel that rumble of air, recognize notes intimately as they swirled about and rose from my innermost being and then–that sharing of light and life. Oh, Lord. That perfect melding of heart, mind, body and soul given sound! And I knew I was all put back together. The old terrible things were just ghosts that had no songs of their own but now my music was back.
Music, it has always seemed, is God’s mouth.
I didn’t go on to become a fabulous singer in my fifties. Those lovely songs lasted for a few months. I find I can sing more easily at church whenever I attend–I had been used to feeling breathless and constricted. I also joined two choirs but the repertoires–classical– weren’t what I wanted, anymore. I enjoyed the seasons but did not return.
I believe, though, that the sudden gift of singing made serious repairs in my physical and emotional heart. It opened wider and then gentled and fortified my soul. That late-coming, magical time of having an easy, rich voice came to an end as mysteriously as it began. Now I hum about the house. I am a quite good whistler. Half-sing along with snatches of music I enjoy. I might even put on a CD and let loose when I’m alone. But more often I do not. There is a small empty room inside me, that holds my singing. I keep it well tended, but the door is barely cracked.
I don’t make music with my family members now. I might, but it’s alright like this. They’ve been living their musical lives and I have lived mine in my way. We are ever attached soul-to-soul by inherited abilities and adoration of music, by the ways we yet make it and inhabit it. Or to it. For this alone, I love them well.
The result of all this is that not singing as I once sang (and hoped to sing) doesn’t hurt nearly so much. In fact, it doesn’t reduce me to tears, anymore. We all make choices whether we grasp the truth of it or not. Things get left behind. Or certain manifestations of our dreams slip away. It was likely that all that music played and created and sung was enough–for that time, for those needs.
My cello now reminisces in its case, is stained with the lost heat of my fingers, the sweat of my chest. My singer’s voice sneaks out now and then and sometimes startles me with its vivacity. And I attend great concerts performed by others. I hear music daily on the radio and computer, play my stacks of CDs. I listen to two primary genres: jazz and classical. Anything that catches my attention I will give a serious listen. Love a little soul and bossa nova, flamenco and Celtic, indigenous, experimental, singer-songwriter, electronic–but that is another post: such myriad music I adore or seek. I would, I admit, still like to compose music.
But classical music….its complexity and dignity, its swell and flow, the mercurial shaping of notes and rhythms; its fractious and buoyant nature contained within the bounds of deep structure, like an elegant sound architecture in wilderness…It yet serves me well and has my devotion.
But I would have sung jazz if I had found my way to it.
Here’s the thing: music is everywhere, moving us. That is its power and mystery. Its gift to us mortals. How can we all not hear it in our waking or sleeping, in our plodding, seeking lives? It is a primal connection to all. And I don’t have to even sing it to stay alive, anymore. It will go on within me or without me; it sings me–and surely you–through each moment. Will do so until eternity where there is surely an extravagance of music.
4 thoughts on “Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts”
A beautifully expressed, deep, exploration of a life with music. When Jackie and I were young we enjoyed Tom Paxton’s visits, especially to Earls Court’s Troubadour (quoted in Leaving London). After we parted, I could never listen to my collection of his records again, even though a hopeful girlfriend gave me Peace Will Come
How extraordinary an experience you must have had. And it makes sense, your ending response. “Peace will Come”–that was an interesting twist! I have similar feelings about a few musicians and find it hard to hear many of Bonnie Raitt’s songs for similar reasons. Thanks, Derrick.
Beautifully written article , very inspiring ! keep up the good work .. Just loved it 🙂
Thanks kindly for the good words; I love that you loved it and found it worth your time!