For thousands of years, song and instruments have been used to celebrate new life and to ease the passage for those who are dying. Music was used to harvest and to plant; to instill courage and daring before battle.
Science has proven that music, especially baroque, boosts intelligence and helps people with math and to learn a new language. We know that plants respond to music. Now, the Homeland Security research labs have discovered that each of our brains has its own soundtrack, which changes with our mood. They’re making individualized recordings to induce relaxation states for those who are working long hours under intense pressure or sharpen reflexes for emergency workers.
I’m not sure I want them mucking around in my brain, although I do love the idea that each of us has our own “song.” Personally, I feel that the universe plays through us when we’re ready to listen.
My first strong connection to music came at age five. I was undergoing my own emergency—a battlefield mined with secrets and pain. One afternoon, a door-to-door salesman appeared, hauling a large trunk on wheels. Cradled inside were several miniature violins. My mother, a talented pianist, was amused when he put one to his shoulder and began to play a popular tune. When he switched to a Hungarian Czarda, the flare of his bow, and the brilliance of the quick fiery notes sent jolts up and down my spine. I had to have a violin of my own. Mother wasn’t quite convinced. While she went to get him a glass of water, this scrawny scarecrow in a shiny black suit, leaned down and whispered in my ear—There’s a chord to soothe the savage beast and one to start a war.
At that moment, wrong or right, I needed to believe him. And when you believe that strongly wishes do come true. I didn’t tell my mother what he’d said, but I was convinced that my violin would soothe the savage beast gnawing at the heart of my family. At best, love would safely return to the house on Hadley St.
It was frustrating at first. Anyone who’s learned to play a violin knows what I’m talking about. I scratched way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and arrived to simple melodic classical pieces. My parents weren’t getting any cozier but music became my retreat. I practiced loud to drown out the yelling. I cried while I beat the strings with my bow. I played until my fingers couldn’t turn the knob to open the door—focusing on finding that mysterious chord.
It was about that time that Donny, a boy with Downs Syndrome, moved in next door. He didn’t have any words. Nobody understood what he was trying to say. His eyes were angry, as if deep inside, there was someone longing to get out. He sat on his front porch rocking for hours. The clacking of the metal chair blended with the clicking sound that rose from his throat. The neighborhood kids called him “the idiot.”
A few weeks later, on the night of the full moon, Donny started going outside, where he sat on an old tree trunk and howled at the sky. The only person who heard him was me.
The next full moon, I picked up the violin, crept down the stairs and went outside to join him. He howled. I played. I played for the sadness we both felt, the frustration. We wanted someone to understand that we were both under siege; to say that everything would be alright.
As the frenzy of emotions began to settle, something else slowly emerged. I could feel it coming up from the center of the earth through the soles of my feet. I heard it on the wind, and in the trees. I felt as if the music of every living thing was pouring into me. Donny stopped howling, and started listening. As the music kept coming, I began to feel taller, stronger. The universe was playing through me. I don’t know how long it lasted, but when I finally stopped, I saw Donny quietly shuffling through his back door.
I sat there for while, wondering what would happen with my folks, with Donny. Somehow, it didn’t matter. I’d been given a gift, a way to soothe the beast inside me.
I played for many years after that, even studied opera for several more. Then I gave it up. It was time to move on from my dream of being a professional musician. Mostly, meditation and yoga are my soothers now, but when spirit moves me, music is the voice of my soul. I listen, I cry, I laugh, I dance, and then I do it all over again.