Wonder, Note by Note
IN my childhood bedroom there was a bed, a lamp, and a bedside table for books. There was a wall-sized mural of the world, with America imprinted in the center. My room was the core of my world and, so it seemed, pretty close to the center of the whole world.
There was also a big black box in my room which, when I lifted the lid, proudly displayed the words "MONOPHONIC SOUND!" By the time I got this box, the stereo age had arrived and another box downstairs had replaced this one. But, like my little GE transistor AM radio, this box was enough for what I wanted. What I wanted from the box was music to fall asleep by.
My father, a doctor, often got medical samples in the mail. But one day he got a phonograph record from a pharmaceutical company. It was entitled "Music to Sleep By." I asked if I could have it, before it got stashed downstairs with Herb Albert, Verdi, Glenn Miller, and Hank Williams.
I took the record up to my box. That night, I pressed the button that made the record drop, the arm move and land. The music began. I listened and relaxed. It was only when the last piece played that I started to fall asleep. It was "Claire du Lune," by Claude Debussy. As I drifted into that space of semi-consciousness that comes before full sleep, I heard the music end, the arm lift, move, and set down again; I heard the box stop moving. I fell asleep. Every night for the two years of junior high I went
to sleep this way.
About the same time in my life, I began listening to some classical music. My parents had some of those big Reader's Digest boxes of "mood" music, much of it gleaned from the classics, some of it by Chopin.
I listened to Chopin. I disliked the Chopin I heard, which was his slow, pausing piano music. Lacking the dreaminess of Debussy, the music struck me as depressing; I remembered some old movie I had seen depicting an early 19th-century European salon full of people listening to this kind of music and looking bored. I wondered why smart adults made such a big deal out of Chopin. I decided not to listen to Chopin any more.
SEVERAL years ago, I watched a television program featuring Vladimir Horowitz. He played many things. He played some Chopin. I listened, obligingly.
Something shifted. With each note, I felt less alone. My solitude and cares were touched, one note at a time. Each pause bespoke not a boredom of spirit but a claim of the human need and right to live at the pace of the heart, a pace which must not be rushed. More than diplomas, my first experience of love, my first car, or even my first great grown-up failures, this music told me that I had become an adult. That night I marked with Chopin an inner commencement.
As a child of a certain temperament, I needed one kind of music to give me sleep. And as that child turned man, another kind of music awakened me to the weight and wonder of being.
Such music reminds me that I am not alone in how the world feels to me. I am also reminded, and gratefully stunned to discover, that out there east of Eden, a few notes can tip the scales back again and again, from weight to wonder.