Have you ever noticed music’s ability to transport you to another time or transform your behavior altogether? This happens to me all the time. I use music to mine for stories, to jog memories while working with hospice patients, and to lift the mood after a crummy day or when cleaning the house. Who hasn’t sung along with a favorite song on the radio with the wind in their hair, not caring what people think? Music builds community. It gives expression and meaning to our lives.
I was raised rehearsing and performing songs in three-part harmony around our grand piano with Mom and my sister KK. My mother was a voice instructor and expected us to learn to read music as surely as we learned to read words. Most all of us were musicians, and the one sibling who wasn’t, chose not to be – just to be different. My dad would burst into the kitchen singing “Mona Lisa” or the “Toreadore” aria from the Carmen…and sometimes when he’d had too much whisky, he’d sing it again to the surprise of diners at the local Mexican restaurant. My upbringing may have been difficult, but music was the one thing that held us together.
I remember once when I was in high school Dad announced we’d start listening to music at dinnertime. (Ours were long meals with heated debates, crushed egos, frequently involving Dad scraping his chair back to teach us something important at the kitchen blackboard.) I have no idea what prompted this musical news, but his plan was that each night one member of the family would showcase a favorite album. I couldn’t wait to play mine.
As the week progressed, I noticed that each person’s musical choice mirrored their temperament. Dad went first with Beethoven (power); Mom chose Marion Anderson singing black spirituals (sorrow/hope), my brother Walt chose The Rolling Stones (arrogance/anti-everything); and KK chose Eric Satie (heady pondering). Finally, it was my turn.
Walt’s eyes expanded as he snuck a peek at the album I was hiding under my arm. He looked over his shoulder at Dad, then back at me. I shrugged and slipped past him to the hifi. Pulling the album from the cover, I smiled at the photo. Man, I’d love to take pictures of people like this one day: People a little messed up, a little on the outside; people who demanded to be heard. I watched as the stereo’s automatic arm dropped my choice onto the turntable, and then there was no turning back. Janis Joplin’s voice erupted from the speakers: riveting; commanding attention; saying what I couldn’t. My back straight, I strode to the kitchen table, nodded to my father and put my napkin on my lap.