Music for the Soul

Hello everyone and happy holiday season!

It turns out that when I was traveling for work and studying for the GMAT, everything else in my life fell by the wayside and I stopped pursuing potential interviews. But I’m hoping to line up some good ones before I travel again in January–wish me luck!

Since it is now December, it seems to everyone is bringing out the Christmas music. To me, the ultimate Christmas music is Handel’s Messiah, but that could be because I performed it as part of the orchestra for four years (and returned to play it for four years after that–my high school lets alums play/sing, and it was family tradition while my sister was in high school).

All this music swelling around me everywhere I go has led me to dwell on the power that music holds. Many people I have interviewed/spoken to outside the interview format have spoken of music and the strange way it can touch (for lack of a better word) the soul. I grew up in a household filled with music–my dad’s passion for classical music is both inspiring and at times grating. My favorite Christmas movie as a young child was Maurice Sendak’s production of the Nutcracker (which is insane and amazing, by the way). My favorite toy was an old electric keyboard at which I would pound away, making what sounded to me like beautiful music (but I’m sure was not).

The first time I consciously realized that music could bring me to tears (as far as I remember) was when I was in chorus in the fifth grade. We were practicing ‘Bist du bei Mir’, and I found myself overwhelmed by the sadness and longing in the song–which is in German. I didn’t need to understand the words. The intent is in the melody.

In middle school and high school, I was in the orchestra. Playing an instrument, as a part of a whole, can be a glorious and transcendent experience. I could forget whatever angsty problem I was having and stop thinking, stop existing within my limited experience and even within the parameters of my own body. I felt lifted, outside physical boundaries, truly and deeply moved.

I was lucky enough to go to Kenya in high school–and there I discovered that perhaps I did believe in a higher power. We attended what appeared to be a choir practice for the students of the boarding school at which we were staying–and I was awestruck. The Kenyan students seemed to be so deeply within the music that they could harmonize effortlessly. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty students, singing and dancing and somehow existing in a different state of being. And it wasn’t an isolated experience. I found it again when we went to church services with them, and once again when one sweet girl sang us a Natalie Furtado song the night before we were leaving. We sat in the dorm, on our beds, as she started to sing–and the other girls picked up the harmony instantly. The song itself is a decent song–but from these girls, it brought me to tears.

Most of my personal examples of music that has moved me or reached me in a particular way are tunes in a minor key, or with a certain sadness to them–a beauty tinged with pain. But there is music that can make one feel triumphant and joyous as well. One of my favorite pieces of music of all time is Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, “Organ”. You may recognize it:

Now, most of my examples are classical–but there are also some great modern musicians today. Take a listen to Sufjan Steven’s “Casimir Pulaski Day”, Gregory Alan Isakov’s “This Empty Northern Hemisphere”, or Vienna Teng’s “The Hymn of Acxiom”. These are just a few of the songs that I have needed at particular times in my life. (Also, the Hymn of Acxiom is particularly interesting, given its subject matter.) And I will also add that at one time, I needed Avenged Sevenfold’s “So Far Away”: when my grandfather died, it was one of the only songs I listened to. (If that isn’t your thing and you have experienced a loss, Anoushka Shankar’s album “Traces of You” is a salute to her father, Ravi Shankar, and includes collaborations with her sister, Norah Jones.)

Music unites us in a way very few things can. I think Neiloy summed it up incredibly well in his interview:

“There’s no biological incentive or advantage given to us for wanting to, for example, dance along with music, to feel it in us and be moved and lifted by it. There’s no biological imperative for that but it’s still something that we all seem to experience….it is, to me, evidence that yes, there is something beyond the nuts and bolts of what we are.”

So this holiday season, I hope you listen to whatever music puts you into the spirit, or helps you feel your spirit, or takes you outside whatever pettiness comes along (come on, you know it can happen). I’ll leave you with my favorite part of Handel’s Messiah.

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