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A musical Mennonite, the sound of silence, and the hokey pokey

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photo © 2010 gerbor, Flickr

photo © 2010 gerbor, Flickr

I have no doubt I inherited my love of music from my Dad. He grew up singing in a quartet with his dad and brothers, trained professionally as an opera singer before switching to a career in ministry, and conducted many choirs over the years. The rest of my family is no less musical – Dad’s twin brother did, in fact, have a long and successful career as an opera singer in Europe. My grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents also sang in quartets, conducted choirs, wrote music, and played instruments. We Mennonites have inherited a rich musical heritage.

So it’s no surprise that, as a kid, I listened to music and loved to sing along. I had many favourites, Raffi and Sesame Street among them. As a teen I sang in choirs at school and church. At home, I spent hours alone in my room with the stereo blasting one Christian rock band or another. And in university, I studied guitar – classical and electric – and listened to folk, celtic, and oldies, like the Rankin Family, Enya, and ABBA.

Then, when I came down with chronic pain, I found that worship music got me through the darkest times. Later on, in an especially painful dating relationship, my tastes switched and singers like Dido and Evanescence kept me company. And all the way through, of course, Dad’s own voice and his musical favourites – the Gaithers, Steve Green, opera, and country music – were a staple in our home.

But when Dad came down with dementia, as I watched him lose bits of himself on a daily basis and I began to grieve those losses, my tastes switched again. To silence. For the first time in my life, I lost interest in music. You see, I couldn’t listen to moving or meaningful lyrics anymore. They stirred up too many emotions for me during a time when I was already overwhelmed by the deep, difficult emotions I slogged through every minute of every day.

Lyrics that were trite, materialistic, and romantic also hit me in all the wrong ways. I couldn’t listen to people obsess over normal, everyday stuff – it reminded me that most of society didn’t understand the heart-wrenching, mind-bending daily grind of a family carrying a loved one along the road of dementia. This type of music declared society’s ultimate values, and its general apathy towards the problems faced by families like mine.

Even instrumental pieces, if they sounded overly melancholy, chaotic, or epic, were too much for me. My brother, who listens to movie and television soundtracks, has learned to skip the ‘sad’ and ‘heavy’ songs if I’m in the room.

There were a few exceptions: Classical and jazz were usually easy to listen to. Also, when I was looking after Dad on a daily basis, we’d often take in free classical concerts in the community. Two of those stand out to me: I lost myself at a fantastic jazz concert put on by a local university music professor. And I found myself thoroughly enchanted by a string quintet’s performance of Peter and the Wolf.

But for the most part, I listened to the sound of silence. (Not the song. Actual silence.) By the time I was expecting my son, I had read numerous articles on the benefits of playing music to babies in utero. I liked the idea of this, and deliberated over the styles and composers to prioritize on the playlist. But I kept forgetting, because I was so used to silence by then.

In spite of my quiet ways, though, today my now-two-year-old son is a music lover, and in that he takes after his Grandpa Friesen and the rest of his music-loving Mennonite family. And while I still don’t listen to music for my own sake, I find myself happiest with the music my little boy introduces into my life.

And you should see him dance the hokey pokey.

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