🎶The Power of Music

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.

Children dancing at the Duke Symphony Orchestra performance

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 GiftsSimple 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?

💃🏽The Duende of Flamenco

I love that the Spanish have a word for “magic and charm” in duende. When I arrived in Barcelona in August with my children and my daughter’s fiancé, I didn’t realize that I wanted to experience duende until we arrived at the Tablao Flamenco Cordobes in La Ramba.  I have learned over the last ten years that I prefer to have less of a plan when traveling than too much of one.  So outside of tickets to see La Sagrada Familia, we didn’t have any other plans for our six days in Barcelona.  When we were strolling through the Gothic Quarter, there was a street performer dancing flamenco and I realized that I needed to find tickets for a performance.  I had seen Jose Greco II perform in the 1990’s but that was a completely different type of show than the Tablao Flamenco that we experienced in Barcelona.

The performers of Tablao Flamenco Cordobes in La Ramba

The duende of Flamenco:

The Venue. When I saw Jose Greco II dance at Luther Burbank Center, it was a relatively large auditorium, the Tablao style of Flamenco is performed in an intimate setting.  The Tablao itself is the floorboard on which all the musicians and dancers stand, with low ceilings and wicker chairs tightly packed into a cave like setting.  It’s like being ensconced in the experience.  The warmth and closeness draw all your senses into the performance. The stomping and clapping and snapping of fingers reverberate, captivating you. There weren’t more than eighty people in the audience on the night we saw Tablao Flamenco Cordobes. The venue held us as did the dance

The Improvisation.  

Most dance and musical shows are well rehearsed.  Tablao Flamenco is improvisational  There was definitely an outline of who would perform: say one dancer, one singer and two guitarists but the rest was improvisation. The dancer would start to tap and the singer would start to clap to lead the dancer and then start singing which engaged the guitarist which inspired the dancer into striking a pose. It was poetry and dialogue and, as I said at the time, like improvisational jazz with stomping.  It was intense to watch the performers sense the direction and build on the last movement or strum or pause and be in a constant state of creation. The improvisation drew us in.

The Jondo.

There were three male singers throughout the performance.  Sometimes there was one on the Tablao, sometimes all three.  They sing in the form of Jondo. From the brochure, “Jondo is a lament, a scream, an outcry, a laughter based on poems or songs from Spanish literature, which the singer peels away through his own inspiration, with no script and no obligation other than the pace for kind of song being interpreted.” Throughout the show, I could feel the pain, the love, the sadness and the joy regardless of not understanding the words.  The Jondo is and was felt deeply in that room.

The Guitarists.

There were two guitarists although they weren’t always on the Tablao and, sometimes, just the two guitarists were alone on the stage. I love Spanish guitar.  I am mesmerized by the skill and dexterity it takes to play as it’s the only kind of music I have every tried to play on guitar. I loved the intricate fingerings, the improvisation between the two guitarists as they bantered back and forth, and the guitarists themselves stomping their feet and drumming on the guitar to a syncopated beat. The guitarists were mesmerizing.

The Dancers.

There were two female and one male dancer.  From my prior experience with Jose Greco II, I have only seen a male flamenco dancer, what a joy to see a combination of male and female energy and for the terrific costumes they all wore. The power of the male dancer and his lighting speed tapping, and his endless spinning were spellbinding.  One woman dancer was so graceful in her arched back and her delicate yet intentional flourish of her hand as she fed off the singer’s lament. The other woman dancer came out in a classic long flamenco dress and I could not believe how she could even stomp (without tripping) but she was able to lift one leg, supporting the long dress train, and spin the dress flawlessly. The dancers dialogue with all the other performers was palpable and moved me deeply

The rhythm is the common denominator through the entire performance.  The tapping, the clapping, the snapping of the fingers, the beat of rhythm of the guitar, the cry of the singer and the emotion of the dancer were felt deeply in my bones. The duende grabbed me and held me for the whole performance. I felt one with all those in the room and I’m glad I had this deep satisfying experience.