When I was in fifth grade at Littleville Elementary School, something magical happened. One day, our teacher announced that the band teacher from the nearby high school would be coming to Littleville to talk to kids and their parents about joining the band. It was 1973, and resources for extra-curricular activities–heck, resources for curricular activities–were limited. I remember in previous years, our musical exposure at school had been the on the rare occasions when our teachers had brought out a box with mostly percussion instruments and let us play with them, mostly trying to keep time while a record was playing. This was different. This was band. I could hardly wait for the meeting. When the evening came, the band director, Mr. Wright, brought a variety of instruments so that we could try them out and, with his advise make our selection. I realize looking back that, of course, he wanted a well rounded group of instruments, which is probably why I became a flute player. From that point on, I was in love.
I went to high school in a football town, and a football town doesn’t scrimp on its band. We were the Marching 100. I remember the day I was issued my uniform. I remember band camp and big, chartered band buses, chocolate sales and Homecoming parades. I can still remember how to play The Horse–if you have ever marched, you know The Horse. I remember our signature parade song–a marching mix of China Grove and Smoke on the Water. I still remember–and feel–lining up on the sideline for the halftime show, and I can feel again what it felt like then standing on the field, horn up, knees slightly bent, leaning back to hold the last note until the crowd stood and cheered. And they did. Every time.
I quit the band just before my senior year for a very, very bad reason. It’s a story for another time, because this one is about joy. But I must say–for the rest of it to make sense–that over the next thirty years I had recurring dreams about being back. Sometimes, they would let me join them again for just one performance. Sometimes, in my dream, it was entirely acceptable for an alum to join up years later. Whatever the scenario, I slept happy. Then woke. It was not unlike dreaming of someone who has passed then waking to sadness when you realize it was only a dream.
The blessing and curse of being an academic is that whenever I come across any really interesting “thing”–whether it is an experience, a news story, situation, work of art, or take on the human condition–my first thought is, “Wow, that would make a great paper!” I wonder if my other egghead friends do that. It isn’t all bad; the blessing is that clearly there will never be a shortage of topics to write about. The curse is that everything around me becomes a potential scholarly topic. And I start planning out where to begin the search of existing literature before I finish feeling and experiencing whatever it is. A case in point is divinity school. For the first two weeks of being at Candler (School of Theology at Emory University), I felt like a researcher doing an ethnography of seminary. I still think that’s a pretty doggone good idea! It took almost a month before I began to feel the experience as something other than a research project. What’s so bad about that? Well, this world is best experienced by feeling our feelings every single minute we are going through it. I’m sure there is research to support that claim.
It happened to me again yesterday, but luckily I caught myself. I was at the kitchen counter finishing up my annual review and listening to Elvis on the Sirius radio I had managed to hook up to my home stereo speakers, the coolest thing ever invented. Back in the fall, it had taken me a whole day to figure out how to make my old dvd player into a tuner through which to conduct music into the speakers (Is my technical language impressing you?). Because I had a home kit, the Sirius radio was easy. But figuring out how to hook up the Apple devices was less intuitive. Yesterday, though, as I looked from the kitchen to the system in the living room, the obvious solution just came to me, kind of like how I can think of things the minute or two as I am waking up in the morning that I cannot think of during the day (That happened this morning; I was able to think of the song title, Shine On Us, that the choir had sung Wednesday night. Yes, I did forget the title of a song between Wednesday night and Friday morning. That’s not the point….). So, I disconnected a wire from the radio, plugged it into my iPod, and viola: my music!
I’m going to try here to explain what I feel when I listen to music. It’s harder than it may sound. I am inspired to do this after having countless conversations with one of my friends who loves music so much she moved across the country to be able to hear live music every night of the week–something, interestingly, one can’t necessarily do in Atlanta. I was also inspired to try to express what music feels like to me after reading my friend Alan’s book, Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place. I don’t have it in front of me to quote (I’m at Starbucks) or I would share some of the beautiful imagery and language he uses to portray the importance of music to him as an embodied and emotional experience. That’s what it is like for folks like us, it picks us up and does something to us and puts us back down while something electric courses through us. Yeah, we like music.
I confess I am not current on music. Whenever I meet someone who is, they have to catch me up some if they want me to be able to talk about it with them. I like it, but there is something about the old songs, the old groups. New music that sounds like it was old. I do like that, but it’s kind of cheating. As I scrolled down through the almost 3,000 songs on my iPod to test out the speakers, that is the kind I chose. A new (well, fairly) new song with a 60s Phil Specter beat: Doin That Thing You Do. And I was not playing around. I turned the volume up on 35 to see what those speakers would do. Drums. I am a sucker for music that features drums. Sixties rock beat. Refrain that shifts to a slightly minor key. The Wall of Sound. Here is where I wish I had the language to describe musically what was happening. I can’t, so you should play the song to hear what I’m talking about.
You should know I cannot dance, but I don’t think about that when I hear music that moves me. Elvis felt it; he said so when asked about his “gyrations.” He said he didn’t know anything about gyrations–he just felt the music and couldn’t help but move. That’s how it is. I was standing in the middle of my lovely little bungalow yesterday with music blaring, me singing at the top of my lungs and, yes, dancing. I played that song five times. Then I scrolled to the Stars and Stripes Forever and played that five times while I directed it. Listen to it sometime: wait till the very last stanza of it, when Souza puts all the parts together–piccolo, percussion, AND those wonderful loud, blasting TROMBONES. You know how your heart can swell till you cry like mine does when I hear the national anthem at the olympics, or Just As I Am during the altar call? The last thirty seconds of Stars and Stripes Forever goes to my core and comes out something spectacular. Then I scrolled to Martina McBride singing Hank Williams and played You Win Again three times. I don’t have to tell you what Hank’s words sung by a woman in my vocal range can do to me.
I will confess something: I am fifty years old, and I have one of my brother’s old microphones in my closet. I cut off the cord, and on days like yesterday I take it out and have a concert. So, to recap. I felt a surge of sun-shiny happiness that made me want to move like Elvis–which I did (sort of). I danced, sang, waved my arms in the air (in my mind I looked like one of the Chiffons), conducted a concert band, and sang torch songs deep and loud. Think about anything that can make you move, any physical sensation. Heat or cold, a shock, rain, fear, joy. When we feel these things, our bodies move because we can’t help it. That is how I am when I hear music that moves me–it literally does. I feel happy and strong. Sometimes my eyes tear up, and sometimes my stomach lurches like it does when I see someone beloved to me.
Why was it important to write this down? For one thing, it means so much to have music–loud magical music–in my life again after I had lost it for so long. More on this later. I’ll tell you one thing. I won’t lose it again because now I let myself feel it. And, it would make a great topic for a paper.