Labor Day weekend of this year, my friend Mark and I went to the annual outdoor Duke Symphony Orchestra Pop’s concert on Duke University’s east campus. This was a pilgrimage of sorts for me. My daughter Natalie, had played this very same concert as a freshman 12 years earlier. It’s an amazing feat for the musicians as it was the first week of school and they had just auditioned, been selected and rehearsed together for a mere 6 hours before performing for a crowd of several hundred on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September. It was my experience 12 years earlier at this very concert that started a dream that eventually brought me to Durham to live. So here we were, Mark and I, sitting in camp chairs, the orchestra players under a white canopy and all walks of life surrounding us from babies, toddlers, freshman with back packs, families with picnics, couples with wine and cheese and senior citizens barely managing their folding chairs. We waited to be entertained by the music.
The experience reminded me of the power of music:
Music moves. I usually write while listening to classical music. It’s amazing how I instantly wanted to nod my head or tap my feet. As written by Daniel Levitin for Psychological Science, “Researchers have shown that music stimulates the cerebellum, a region of the brain crucial to motor control. He says connections between the cerebellum and the limbic system (which is associated with emotion), may explain why movement, emotion, and music are tied together.” At the outdoor concert it was intriguing to watch the young children coming together to dance and swing and run and sway. It was apparent that most didn’t know each other but they were drawn in by the music to dance in joyful exuberance.
Music is nostalgic. I had no idea what music they were going to play. I may not know the name of a song but regardless I can be suddenly transported to another decade. They played part of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring which has in its seventh section a rife on the Shaker tune Simple Gifts. Simple Gifts supplants me to a beach on Dan Hole Pond in Ossipee NH at Camp Merrowvista at the age of fifteen. There we are – skinny teenage girls in overalls and t-shirts sitting in a circle under the moonlight singing, “’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right.” I was in the right place 45 years ago and I was in the right place at that concert. Time travel in the matter of a few seconds without a time machine or plane ticket.
Music engages. The last song of the concert was John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the Maestro had us clapping in time. At the flamenco performance I saw a month earlier in Barcelona, I was dying to stomp my feet and grab up a large flowing skirt. The children at the outdoor concert were compelled to grab each other’s hand and spin in a circle. At the last choral performance I saw in the Duke Chapel, the entire group joined in singing Hallelujah. I remember my last day of work and my coworker Kiesha asking what walk out music I wanted. I said I didn’t have one. She selected one for me on her phone and played it as I strutted out of the office with my coworkers coming out of their cubicles to witness my last day of work to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”. Music calls you to be a part of it. To engage in it. To participate and belong to the experience.
Music connects. As an undergrad at Cornell in the early 1980’s, we had a group of us that worked at the Pancake House called “The PhD’s” (pancake house drunks) that used to go out most Thursdays to bars around Ithaca, NY. We only went to bars that had a jukebox with the song “Mack the Knife” sung by Bobby Darin on it. There are hand movements (neh, body movements) that go with the song. There would be twenty or more of us singing along with Bobby crooning away. I think every wedding I attended post-graduation, it was a “must play” song as well as Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” It was a PhD anthem. Anything from Pink Floyd connects me to my brother, Rick while sitting on a bean bag chair in the basement of our house between two giant speakers listening to “Wish you were here” or “Money”. My children and I took a terrific 2,000 mile road trip around the southwest United States when they were in elementary school. We had a video player (very new age at the time) in the back seat. We listened to Lion King countless times. “Hakuna Matata” was the anthem for that trip. Music weaves connections in my life.
What is so powerful about music is that its meaning is different for each one of us. I hear the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” and I am taken back to riding the subway to work in Manhattan with my Walkman cassette player. For you? You may have never heard it or it takes you to a hospital room or a senior prom or a marching band performance. Its power is endless in its connection, nostalgia and engagement in countless ways. How does music move you?