Why Music Makes You Cry

Thanks to Frances Wilson at the Interlude blog for this essay on how music stirs human emotions. Enjoy!

Just this afternoon at the beginning of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, I got the tingles.

A Lost Earring

Obsession. Ludwig van Beethoven, obsessed with a lost penny (pfennig), composed a little piano masterpiece.

Obsession. Today, I’m obsessed with a lost earring and it’s so occupied my mind that Evan Quinn’s sojourn in Chicago of 2050 has been obliterated for the moment. How could this happen? I thought obsession fueled creativity. For me today, it’s blocking what I want to write. So, instead, I decided to write about the lost earring.

Here is its twin, the one that was in my right earlobe and made it through yesterday secure in my right earlobe.

Sorry about the slight blurriness, the earring was dangling, moving from side to side in front of my computer camera (because I’d discovered that a battery corroded in my little Olympus camera and it won’t turn on), and I was challenged to click the camera icon to actually snap the photo without moving anymore than I was. These earrings are of mauve and green crystal beads, faceted to catch the light like prisms. I’ve been startled at times when they’ve caught sunlight and reflected it to a nearby wall in sparkling purple light. They are pretty. They are fun. And they are in my two favorite colors. I love them.

The loss of one destroys the pair. The pain I felt, standing in my bedroom after I’d arrived home from work, seared through my chest. I took out the right earring, but there was nothing in my left earlobe. I wanted to scream.

Why? It’s just an earring, right?

Well, first of all, this pair of earrings was a gift from a good friend a long time ago. They cannot be replaced. They have always been one of my favorite pairs of earrings. I don’t wear much jewelry, but I did get my ears pierced as a freshman in college and have enjoyed wearing earrings — all styles, colors, shapes — ever since. I have a pair of black chandelier earrings that I love but one broke. I couldn’t bear to throw them away. Could they be repaired? If they could, I’d love to have them back, you see. So, I took them to a neighborhood jeweler’s that specialize in custom-made jewelry and asked if they could repair them. Yes. And they did. It cost me probably 3 times what they were worth, but I have those earrings back.

There’s no repairing something that’s lost. Only finding it. And I believe I know what happened. It’s the face mask. Having to wear a face mask for protection against COVID-19 has affected my earrings. Sometimes the mask just hides them. Sometimes the earrings get caught in the mask or stick out at weird angles from it. I believe that at some point yesterday when I removed the mask, the earring in my left earlobe slid out of my ear from the mask brushing it. When did it happen? Where did it happen? Considering the number of times yesterday I put that mask on and slipped it off, it could have happened at any time during the day. On the bus. On the train. In the office. At the train station downtown. Some of my wire earrings have wire guards to prevent that from happening from any cause. I wish I’d thought yesterday morning to take the extra precaution of putting wire guards on these earrings to protect them.

That darn face mask! I’ve been wearing face masks for a year now, every time I go out of my home, on the city bus, on the train, at the office, in stores, at the bank, to get the COVID-19 vaccination, and to go to the restroom at work. Even at the hair salon as my stylist trims my bangs and the mask catches snippets of hair against my face and mouth. I can now say that my lost earring is a casualty of COVID-19 because if I hadn’t needed to wear a mask, it would never have slid out of my earlobe and disappeared. Maybe that’s the reason I’m feeling the loss of this earring particularly acutely. I have lost my pre-COVID life when I wore earrings and no face mask, and didn’t need to worry about a face mask pushing an earring out of my ear.

Will the vaccination I received 10 days ago protect me from infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus? I believe it will for a while, but no one knows how long, really. Everything about this virus and its effect on humans is a mystery. Except its deadliness. I recently read about an antibody treatment that, if begun within the first week of symptoms, can actually shorten the course of infection and decrease the severity to mild symptoms. This morning, I read an article in the April 2021 Atlantic Monthly (“Unlocking the Mysteries of Long COVID” by Megan O’Rourke) that described the damage the virus does to the human autonomic nervous system and heart, and how it resembles a difficult to diagnose disease that can be treated. Medical researchers are questioning the relationship between the virus and the human body’s immune system, i.e. does the virus trigger the immune system to go on a rampage against the human body rather than defending it against the virus? A virus that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Amazing how something so tiny could cause such devastation and pain.

I suppose I should count myself lucky if all I’ve lost (to date) is an earring from a beloved pair of earrings. I do know people — co-workers, friends — who have been sick with COVID-19 and recovered OK. I know others who have lost family members, relatives, and friends to this virus. I will continue to wear a face mask (and be more careful about my earrings), stay at least 6 feet away from people, wash my hands frequently and telework. There is hope for an end to this pandemic.

Just as I hope that when I go into the office on Monday, I’ll find my lost earring on the floor by my desk.

Time to Think, Time to Dream

Last weekend, I took advantage of having President’s Day on Monday off from work and tagged on two vacation days to the three-day weekend for a five-day vacation. This was the first time in a very long time that I’d actually taken vacation days to take a vacation rather than take care of a health concern. I scheduled no big house projects or chores. Instead, I scheduled writing, reading, rest, and relaxation. Any chores were done as breaks from writing, since I did have some weekly chores that needed to be done.

The first day, I spent the morning relaxing, catching up with email and other online tasks. I read for a couple hours midday. Then I settled in for an uninterrupted session of writing on chapter 8 of Perceval’s Game. While writing that first afternoon, I discovered something. The chapter I was working on had a problem and I could neither identify it nor solve it. Has anyone else been in this situation? Something was wrong. I felt like I really couldn’t progress with the actual writing until I solved the problem. This was actually good timing for me to realize there was a problem. I had the time to think about it.

One thing no writing teacher told me about writing, as if it was something I would just know: writers need uninterrupted, relaxed time to think. I do some of my best thinking in the shower. It seemed too much to take a 2-day shower, so I sat on my sofa and stared out the window, listening to music playing softly in the background. Music, specifically classical music, helps to unlock my mind’s house and invite my imagination to come out and play. It begins by getting lost in the silent spaces between the music’s notes as I stare out the window, my eyes unfocused. Almost immediately, I began to get clues to what the problem was with the chapter. As my mind played with each clue, scenes began to emerge into my mind, playful scenarios both wild and serious. I just let those scenarios play out and lead into new ones. By the end of the afternoon, with the sun setting outside and the light fading, I knew what the specific problem was with the chapter.

On Sunday afternoon, I talked with a friend on the phone before returning to thinking about the chapter. Somehow, talking with her emptied my mind of the day’s clutter that clouded my vision. When I put on the music and sat down on the sofa, my mind was open and ready to pick up where I’d left off the day before. I was in the chapter with Evan Quinn and the young man driving him to Chicago, and suddenly I knew what needed to happen to resolve the problem. The scenes gushed out of my imagination with a sense of joy and abandon. But I sat quietly on the sofa, staring out the window, focused on what was happening in my mind.

On Monday, I returned to my desk and computer to write. With the problem identified and solved, the action and dialogue flowed out of me. And so, I wrote 1000 words on Monday and another 1000 on Tuesday, progressing the chapter closer to the end. I felt full of accomplishment. I felt supremely satisfied that I had taken the five-day vacation at crucial time in my work on the novel.

I can’t remember now where I heard or read this, but someone connected to the movie industry once said that the reason there are no movies about writers working is because it would be boring for the viewer to watch a writer write. Anyone who’d been watching me last weekend would have believed that I was doing nothing but sitting on my sofa staring out the window. Obviously, I was lazy. Obviously, I wasn’t doing anything. And it’s certainly not exciting for someone else to watch me when I’m writing at my computer. But…I accomplished a great deal last weekend in writer terms.

I miss having the time to think and daydream about my characters and their lives, their problems, their dreams. Before I went back to work fulltime in an office job, my writing day began with 15-30 minutes of stair exercise listening to classical music on my portable CD player and reading through my notes. I got quite adept at reading and walking up and down stairs at the same time. Then I went to my desk. turned on the computer, and began working for the next six – eight hours. I did that every day, six days a week. I followed a similar routine in 2020 when I was on COVID leave for four months and was able to finish the first draft of Perceval in Love. While working a fulltime job to pay the bills is necessary, it affects my creative life by draining my energy during the work week, consuming my time, and burrowing into my mind with issues and concerns that I wish I could leave at the office. So, I guard my writing time on weekends.

Perceval’s Game progresses but much more slowly than when I have a full six days a week to write. I take whatever time I can get to think and daydream about the characters and their lives because that work time is just as important as the actual writing words on paper (or the screen).

For other benefits of daydreaming, read here.

End of Year Updates

The year 2020 will be remembered as a particularly difficult one for the United States, and with the pandemic still raging, for the world. Right now it feels like the year has lasted 12 years rather than 12 months. My emotions have ranged from normal, everyday stuff to sheer terror in March when the coronavirus appeared in my state and city. There’s been a lot of frustration as well. And now there’s hope with two vaccines approved for emergency use and vaccinations already underway. I know that we still have several months if not another year of being diligent about precautions and careful, until we know just how long the vaccine will protect us. But for now, my life remains a hybrid of work in the office and teleworking, then hunkering down at home and staying away from people (as my pulmonologist insisted that I do).

My writing this year has gone well, although I haven’t written as many posts at this blog as I had hoped to write. My focus has been on the Perceval series. Being on paid COVID leave from mid-March to mid-July provided me with the opportunity for uninterrupted time to write and I took advantage of it. I finished the first draft of the third novel, Perceval in Love, in June, then spent time closing out my work on that novel and preparing for work on the next novel in the series, Perceval’s Game. It was wonderful to have the time to think, to work through world-building tasks such as what America would be like in 2050, and to daydream scenes. I had not planned on finishing the third novel this year, so that has been a particularly pleasurable accomplishment. And I began the fourth novel. When I returned to my office work, I reverted back to writing on the weekends. To date, I have finished six chapters and begun the seventh.

I also worked on marketing Perceval’s Secret and garnered more reviews at Amazon as a result. Sales still remain disappointing, but at least it is selling. In 2021 I will probably launch at least two marketing campaigns, one in the first quarter and one in the third quarter.

It may also be time to secure the services of a professional editor for the second novel in the series, Perceval’s Shadow. It has been fermenting all year. I’ve also been thinking about gathering some beta readers as well. Depending on what I learn from the editor and/or the beta readers will determine how I proceed with that novel. I don’t think it’s ready yet for publication, but just how much more work it needs is the question.

Of course, I “published” the Aanora novella at the Fan Fiction website. I have heard nothing but positive responses to it which makes me happy. I enjoyed writing it, and I hope readers enjoy reading it. If you haven’t yet read it, you can find it here.

My essay writing took a back seat to my fiction work this year, as well as my blog writing. I began a couple essays that I can finish in 2021. I didn’t even read as many books as I normally read during a year, although part of the reason was choosing long books instead of short ones. I’m still reading Thayer’s Life of Beethoven and learning a great deal about the man and his life, and I continue to be astonished by the power of his music.

Happy Birthday, Beethoven!

This year on December 16, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrates his 250th birthday. That’s a lot of candles on the cake. If he were alive to blow them out. His music, however, is very much alive and well. And I’ve been thinking about his music the last few weeks, as I’ve turned to it more and more during this year of pandemic, civil unrest, important election, and climate change weather.

When did I first hear Beethoven’s music? I don’t know, really. I think it was in the background of my childhood probably from the beginning. But I do recall the first time I heard his symphonies as specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. I think it was either the summer between 9th and 10th grades or between 10th and 11th grades. My piano teacher generously loaned me her complete set of Beethoven symphony recordings on 78 rpm vinyl records for the summer. Fortunately, our summer house had a record player that could play those records; and being summer, with open doors and windows, I could play them as loud as I wanted. I could not tell you now how many times I listened to them all, but I’m certain it was more than ten times. The first two symphonies are full of sunshine, youth, and optimism before Beethoven decided to go off in his own direction, different from everything that had come before. He began his Third Symphony with two loud chords. Heaven forbid! The Fourth is full of humor and slyness. And of course, the Fifth, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it and still makes me laugh. So full of Sturm und Drang!

The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in a live orchestra concert was in Vienna, Austria at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was on a big national holiday, and I managed to get a seat way in the back of the balcony. The Austrian President was in attendance as well as other government officials. I wondered if hearing Beethoven in Vienna would be a different, special experience compared with hearing him in concert in America. He had lived and worked in Vienna. You can walk around Vienna in the First District and note the number of decorative signs on buildings that announce Beethoven had lived there and composed such and such there. He had been well known in the city, and it was still possible when I was a student there, to hear stories about Beethoven. But I still wondered what the music would be like performed there. Well, I remember it being crisp, with that opening phrase in the Fifth Symphony demanding everyone’s attention. (Yes, I did giggle.) It said, “Listen to me. Now. I want your undivided attention.” Then Beethoven takes the listener on a journey through determination, a pleasant lilting stroll from shadow to sunshine (2nd movement), a five-minute scherzo of heroic music followed by one of the most amazing crescendoes in music that crosses the bridge of the scherzo to the triumphal joy of the final movement. I remember getting goosebumps when that crescendo began, and I realized that there really is nothing like Beethoven live in concert. Anywhere.

I have walked along the path in Heiligenstadt where Beethoven walked, inspired by the nature that he saw all around him to compose his pastoral Sixth Symphony. Then he turns his attention to the universe, that which is larger than any one life, in his last three symphonies. Again, he breaks rules right and left of musical composition, and especially with his final, Ninth, symphony, the Choral Symphony. I have this delightful memory of sitting in a half-filled movie theater watching Immortal Beloved, the movie about Beethoven’s mysterious love affair late in his life, when a scene of Beethoven’s nephew Karl, who lived with him, sitting in a cafe with a friend, telling his friend about his uncle’s obsession with a melody that was driving Karl crazy. And he sings the melody of the famous “Ode to Joy” that is in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. He sings it with derision, though, and I laughed. It amazed me that I was the only one in the theater who got the joke.

To play Beethoven’s music is to spend time inside his beautiful soul. During my college years, I played some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and to this day they are favorites. I came late to his string quartets, and I’m still a student. His piano trios are especially sublime, and I am partial to the “Archduke.” I attended a performance of Fidelio, his only opera, at the State Opera in Vienna, and it’s the only Beethoven music that hasn’t filled me with awe. And believe it or not, I’ve not listened to his Missa Solemnis. I guess I’m holding that for a future moment of discovery.

After all this music, you’d think I’d have read a biography of Beethoven a long time ago, right? But no. I don’t know why. I know the general outline of his life, I have a copy of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and I heard my share of Beethoven stories when I was a music student in Vienna. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I began reading a biography of Beethoven, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. It’s considered the definitive biography, the work that everyone else cites. I decided that I needed to celebrate his 250th by learning more about the man himself. Not the myth.

And maybe when I’ve finished reading the biography, it will be time to listen to his Missa Solemnis.