So, I had a bizarre moment the other day. I was sitting in rehearsal for the church choir I work for as the soprano soloist and as we started singing, I choked up. Like, throat thickening, nose starting to run, tears starting to well kind of choked up.
Now before I get to why, let me explain a little bit about my relationship with music. The act of making music is not something that makes me choke up often. It is, in most cases, just another day at work for me. Why? Well, I’ve been active in music since basically the day I was born. My mom is a professional musician, and so I’ve been embedded in the industry for as long as I can remember. I started official violin lessons at age 2, switched to cello at 10, and by the time I was fifteen I too was considered a professional – meaning I was getting paid regularly for gigs.
So, long story short, I’ve been at this game a long time. It’s a job for me. A job I mostly enjoy, yes… but a job. And just like with any job you’ve been doing for nearing 30 years, it’s easy to sort of disengage. Which is something that, admittedly, I do more often than I should.
And was definitely something I was doing in this particular rehearsal. It was just any other day, and I was exhausted – as always. The day we rehearse my schedule has me going from 7 am until 10 at night not only that day, but the three days prior to it as well. So I was, admittedly, totally on autopilot. And the rehearsal was nothing out of the ordinary.
That is, until our director passed out the music for this:
And we started to sing.
And that’s when it happened. Even with my brain shut off.
I was baffled at first. It took me completely by surprise. My body had betrayed me – why was I starting to cry? There was no reason. It’s not like the experience of singing it was particularly moving – we were sight-reading, and quite frankly we weren’t doing it particularly well… So, what the hell? What was happening?
But then I realized that this particular song was one of the pieces we had been doing in the concert choir I’m in right around the time when my family member got their cancer diagnosis a year and a half ago. We were lucky, because it looks like the cancer was taken care of quickly, but the months that followed that initial news were easily some of the most terrifying, difficult, and trying months of my life. And through it all, we were rehearsing and performing this piece.
Once I put two and two together, it dawned on me that the mere act of reading through the piece again was enough to bring back the flood of stress and emotion from those months. Even as my brain was somewhere miles away thinking about my lecture plans for the Revolutionary War and a nap.
The realization left me dumbfounded. Blindsided, even. Because even as someone who is literally surrounded by and involved in the act of making music nearly every day of my life, it had been so easy to forget exactly how powerful music can be. How the music around us at a particular time and place can stay with us for years – if not a lifetime.
You know how they say that your sense of smell is one of the most powerful triggers of memory that exists? This odd experience reminded me that music has got to be up there in the ranks with it. I’m just not sure there’s anything else in my life that can bring back memory the way that music can. Particularly in times of great change.
Because as I sat down to reflect on this experience (shocking as it was), I realized that there were literally dozens of songs and pieces that had that type of power for me. The power to transport me back in time to a specific experience or place.
Because anytime I hear the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, I’m 21 and sitting on stage in an old bank building turned concert hall, cello between my legs and the smell of rosin mingling with the salt from the stray tears that had managed to escape down my cheeks. The sheer joy at being able to play with a symphony orchestra for the first time since leaving for college, on top of being able to perform something I never thought in my life I’d get the opportunity to play simply too overwhelming to fully keep control of.
Because every time I hear the opening drum beats of Steady As The Beating Drum from Disney’s Pocahontas, I’m 8 years old again, dancing across my grandparent’s porch singing at the top of my lungs. I can smell the cigar my grandfather is finishing as he carefully tries to suggest that I maybe try singing along to something else, barely able to hide the annoyance in his voice after hearing it 96 times in a row. I can see the twitch in his arm ripple through his military tattoo as my grandmother’s voice wafts in from the kitchen chiding him gently to be a little more patient.
Because every time I hear Yeah! by Usher, I’m 17 and sitting in my high school boyfriend’s (surprisingly reliable) tin can of a Suzuki Sidekick that smelled like a combination of baseball equipment and Ivory soap, assuring him that nothing is wrong as I quietly try to push down the nagging feeling that staying together when we left for college was not going to be the right thing. (Surprise: It wasn’t).
Because every time I hear anything by the Shins, I’m 18 and laying on the dusty carpeted floor of a stuffy Russian classroom turned temporary practice room for the high school music camp I attended for 6 summers, decidedly not practicing. Instead I’m discussing with three friends the fact that our tenure as students there was coming to a close for real this time – as rising college freshmen there would be no next summer. We’re all just weeks away from moving here there and everywhere across the country for our college orientations, a prospect that both frightens and excites us. I can feel the nerves in the pit of my stomach, and the thrumming urge at the back of my brain to somehow try to freeze time as it is, so that the massive change would never come.
Because every time I hear anything by the Spice Girls, I’m back in 5th grade, eagerly waiting alongside my cousins to be let in to my very first real “rock” concert. I can see the homemade tee my cousin was wearing, and smell the funnel cakes being cooked higher up on the mountain in preparation for the opening of the gates and the flood of tween girls that was sure to follow. My heart is pounding in anticipation and I can hear the high pitched scream that ripples through the crowd any time a stage employee would even look like they were moving towards the gates.
And because every time I hear Heartbeats by Jose Gonzalez, I’m 23 and sitting in the passenger seat of a purple saturn in the parking lot of taco bell at 11 at night as the rain torrents down on us so hard that the windshield wipers can’t keep up. The rain has made it impossible to make our way home, and so Jim and I are sitting listening to quiet music and watching the rain hammer the poor little car’s sunroof – drawing tiny pictures in the fog on the windows and just enjoying being removed from the world. Isolated from tomorrow’s responsibilities and yesterday’s pressures by a downpour, alone with just ourselves and each other for a rare and fleeting moment in our relatively young relationship. I can feel the peacefulness settle in the back of my brain as everything just feels so… right.
As is obvious, for me, music and memory are two very intertwined things – theirs is an inescapable association. And it both baffles and delights me.
Does anyone else have these same types of experiences with songs? Please do share in the comments – I’m eager to hear other’s tales of the power of music and memory.