A Lesson on Listening

August Rush. It’s not just a movie, but a way of feeling now. The rush of August – all the impromptu sounds, so familiar to us all. The rustle of books being collected, freshman jittery with nerves, trees that whisper with the lightness of summer endings.

“The music is everywhere…all you have to do is listen.”

Love of music was never learned, it was inherent. The thrum of rainstorms, the crunching of leaves, the throaty baritone of bullfrogs…I never had to learn to love music. I still remember early morning car rides in Maryland, the pungent smell of my dad’s leather seats. The whisper of the radio always met with me humming and singing. In those days, my dad and I were really close. He seemed impressed by my ability to remember English lyrics after one or two repetitions. Sometimes, I just knew the melody because…it was supposed to sound that way. The childhood wonder and magic seemed never-ending at 7 and 8. We softly serenaded to “Drops of Jupiter” and belted out the Beatle’s “Yesterday” or Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer.” If it was one of those days, once in a month or so, I got to hear my dad sing in Chinese. Longing notes, coarse like lone wolf. I loved every second, soaking in sunlight, brightness and the feeling of being wanted. The strange way those songs made me feel, as if I could slip into someone’s life, walk around for a few measures, and ghost away.

No…I never had trouble with music, until I felt forced. I want to put up a disclaimer first: I love my parents. I believe everything they have ever done for me has been out of love. Sometimes, through the lens of childhood, the actions seem malicious. First – piano…for seven years. I think I always wanted to compose, as weird as that sounds. Since 4, I was trying to compile notes into jingles I heard on the TV or into my own warped off-tune songs about rainbows. Lessons…I remember the smell of Teacher Ethel’s trailer, a bit musky with the papery baby powder of her skin. She was gentle, how I always imagined grandmothers to be. Her piano was a dark oak Weber, the ivory keys almost sepia with use. I loved her history and stories about the piano more than the dry, easy pieces the book series offered. Suffice to say, I quit because I couldn’t reach the octaves necessary to play hymns. Also, in my pre-Christian days, I felt uncomfortable playing in a church. I didn’t want to be the lone Asian girl in a sea of white faces, so typical in Arkansas those days. Ethel wanted me to play hymns for her congregation, but I found it unsettling at the time. Now…I would give just about anything to go back to that Springdale trailer, to see Ethel and play for her. I wish those hymns would come back, haunt me like the Phantom of the Opera chords…but they escape me.

My mother decided I should play flute…somewhere in 5th grade. I will never know what prompted this action. I believe she thought flute players possessed some litheness and sophistication she desperately wanted to see in me. I was an obediant child, but the most difficult and moody of middle schoolers. Somewhere between the end of elementary school and the start of adolescence, you realize being intelligent comes second, third even, to popularity and attractiveness. Conformity to a standard I could never meet – that unsaid whiteness, the abyss that separates. Flute was the last thing on my mind. Lessons were on Monday first, with Megan. She was so bubbly and peppy, I still feel pains of guilt when I think of how tearful I became. As a musician, I knew I wasn’t good enough. The hours I put in everyday, I slowly grew more and more depressed because I knew I lacked that certain…something. I knew it before I was rejected from Youth Symphony three times and placed in Philaharmonia. I knew it when I finally got into Youth Symphony, and the conductor would single me out as the last chair. Not a glare, but an exasperated, “What are you doing here?” emitted from his eyes. I wanted to shrink…to disappear. I don’t think there was I time I hated music more than in that last chair, with the entire symphony staring. I knew it when I looked into Megan/Victoria/etc teachers’ eyes. The quiet, brushing “It’s ok, you’re doing fine” when the notes said differently. It was all off, somehow. I couldn’t stop apologizing.

It’s still difficult to talk about. I never wanted to join band, but my mother strong-armed me. “Art isn’t useful, Sherry. It isn’t practical. What are you going to do with it?” I was in 7th grade. I just wanted to sketch. I wanted to do something I was good at, that I had natural aptitude with. The silky smoothness of throwing, the heady warmth of charcoal, the wax of pastels. So much colour, vibrancy in a world I was familiar with, that I loved. I didn’t want the cold, metallic classical music life to hinder my already dwindling “social life.”

My mother signed me up for band.

I was second chair, no need for auditions, but I was never as good as CS. She loved music, anyone could see it. So did I, but she could produce it with the natural talent of a music director’s daughter. Suzuki since age 4 or younger, flute wasn’t even her primary. It was violin. I was perhaps 2 years her flute senior, but she passed me by leaps and bounds. Perhaps I had an inferiority complex…in fact, I know I did. The band directors let me practice wherever I wanted. In the coolness of the pantry, sometimes I wouldn’t even play. I would eat the cardboard-tasting Fiber One in the cabinet, dig out sticky chocolate ice cream from who knows what year. I was this Asian band nerd who put on weight and khakis every morning. I was my own worse nightmare, and my parents never stopped confirming my fears.

“Wear a belt, Yang-yang. You don’t even have a waist anymore.” Dad, looks all disapproval and measured disgust. You wondered why I didn’t believe you when you called me beautiful. Mom, confessing to her friends who happened to be the two most notorious gossips in the Asian community. “Your daughter is shameful. My daughter would never do anything so horrible.” I ate and ate, but that note of sadness still stained the back of my throat.

Shame. Shame in eating, shame in playing music, shame ever lirking in the hollows of now silent car drives.

So many people want to stop the music…even people you love.

Flute choir. Traveling Youth Choir. Philharmonia. Youth Orchestra. Concert Band. Marching Band.

Sometimes my one hour long practices turned into 8 hour stints of mounting worry and frustration. Playing the same etude or minuet over and over again, the sixteenth notes wrestling with me, mocking me. I developed a joint difficulty in my left hand. I wanted to…just once, play flawlessly.

I still remember when I did. That one perfect lesson. I was staying over at A and A’s house. Somehow, the change in scenery and the positive family atmosphere did wonders for my practices. A shocked silence from my teacher. “THAT WAS WONDERFUL.” I was beaming. For once, no criticism. “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” As quickly as my smile came, it left. I couldn’t repeat…for the problem, it seems, was my own household.

I have trouble forgiving my parents for that time….but that was also when I remember hearing God. Not in that voice from heaven, choirs of angels sort of voice. Not a literal, booming voice like a sharp trumpet. Perhaps some people are blessed with such experiences. Mine was…kind of more like a reminder, a voice I remembered but hadn’t heard for a long time.

Bird song, at 5 in the morning accompanied by the promise of dawn. My little brother’s giggles and the patter of his Lightning-McQueen light up sneakers. Music blasting on the stereo and dancing silently in my own room.

The Gospel of John, NIV. The first few lines, blood in my veins…August Rush. “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (via Bible Gateway).

Music. In the impenetrable blackness of night, even a pinprick of light is a beacon. That’s how God came into my life. A steady, beautiful whisper, so still and calm in the chaos of my life. A hum, much like that humming you do on the radio. When you close your eyes and the whole world disappears save that moment.

Listen. The music is everywhere. In laughter, in worship, in prayer. In brokenness. In brokenness that can still be used.

In families that have learned to love each other. In fathers who apologize and mothers who want to make things right again.

Love…as cheesy as it sounds, can penetrate every crevice and cranny in our lives. God is love.

I like to think that God isn’t the dictator some people make him out to be. He isn’t a Republican or Democrat, white or black…he isn’t finite. He’s not in those 70’s, Jesus as the Gentle Shepherd pictures or in any material thing on this earth. He is beyond imagination, perfection. He cannot be contained. That’s the sort of God He is.

This one literary critic, Pater, once suggested music is the “artistic ideal.” The experience is all your own, and no one else has exactly the same experience.

I believe that’s each of our walks with God. He’s the same God, constant and unchanging, but he appears to us in different ways.

He is everywhere…music…and all we have to do? Is listen.


Find your music.


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