“Mum, why does some music make me cry?” I was sitting at the kitchen table fumbling with my algebra homework which, granted, was enough to make me weep. The radio was on and I can’t recall the song playing, but the arrangement of strings, saxophone, drums, chords, and lyrics opened a cavern of sweet pain in my chest, an ache that made me put my hand close to my heart because I fully expected its beat to match the song.
The opportunity to play a musical instrument was not available to me growing up, so it was in middle age that I began taking harp lessons. I’ve always loved the harp, an instrument that sounds lovely even if you’re a fumbling beginner. It’s been a steep learning curve, so I’m now even more in awe of those who followed the call to music from an early age, a time when they found their vocal chords or beat a rhythm on the table of their highchair.
Christine Tavares-Mocha, a vocalist, musician, and Director of Choir at a California high school, was born into a musical family. Her grandfather was a famous musician in his native Hawaii and also invented the pedals on the steel guitar. Her great uncle developed the first portable amplifier and worked on the early Stratocaster guitar. “I was a very loud little girl,” says Tavares-Mocha. “Even at two years old, my grandfather would ask me to sing with him and I would say, ‘No - just me! Just me!’ I was immersed in music and I loved it. I had no fear.”
Peruvian-French Canadian vocalist Elsieanne Caplette had a similar experience. “I came from a musical family,” says Caplette. “So music chose me.” However, because her musician grandparents had been strict with her mother, she was never pushed into studying music, yet at age six she started singing. “I knew I had something in me that was special, that was unique,” added Caplette, who went on to play the violin - her grandfather, a well-known violinist in Peru, encouraged her. “Violin and vocals are very similar,” says Caplette, who continued experimenting with her voice, curious to know what she could do with sound. By age 13 she was writing songs. “I knew I had a talent, and I just let my imagination go. In music I could connect to my dreams, and I had so much to say, so much to express.”
Without doubt, early childhood experiences of music can be profound, but Laurie Rasmussen - who built her own first harp - laughs when she says, “I was exposed to music even in utero. My grandmother was a concert pianist and my mother played. I was eight when she said, ‘You’re going to have piano lessons.’ So I just did it.” Yet according to Rasmussen, it wasn’t until she was in junior high that she knew music was her destiny. “I joined the jazz band and was playing the vibraphone and piano. That’s when I knew ‘This is the fun part - playing with other people.’ I could see how the parts make an amazing whole. That was a high and it’s still like flying, hearing the other voices and sounds soaring together. It was like surfing, when you catch a wave and you feel as if you’re at one with the universe - that’s how it is with ensemble.” (Full disclosure: Laurie Rasmussen is my harp teacher.)
Concert pianist Kelly Evert began playing the piano as a child, and later learned to play the cello. “We lived in Arizona, the worst place to be musical because the heat dries out the instruments.” Although her grandmother was a pianist, her parents did not care for music, so she had to find her way alone. “I fell in love with classical music at the age of eight. It became part of me. I realised I always knew what the next chord would be and that it was all there, in my head.”
The journey from enthusiastic amateur to professional musician can be difficult, and for many it’s a rock-filled path. Caplette moved from Peru to Montreal, Canada in 1999, in search of more opportunities. She recounted, “I had no money, nothing.” In Peru her experiments with different vocal techniques led her to emulating the sounds of instruments. “I wanted to find out how I could do something original without all these instruments. I was always asking, ‘What else can I do?’” Serendipity stepped in when she was chosen by Cirque du Soleil as the vocalist accompanying the show in a role demanding perfect timing to coordinate voice with the choreography of acrobats. She performed with them for ten years.
Tavares-Mocha echoed the experience of finding power in her voice. She gained a degree in music, followed by a teaching credential and school faculty position, yet in her spare time she founded an all-female a capella group. “We experimented with styles and languages I wouldn’t otherwise have tried - it opened up perspective for me performing the music of other cultures. More than ever I realised that music is beautiful everywhere. Every song has a purpose; it tells a universal story or a life lesson.”
Those life lessons are something Tavares-Mocha has brought to students in a number of choirs at the school. Her students perform nationally and internationally at venues such as the Monterey Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall, and were invited to sing at Westminster Abbey during the Queen’s 2012 Jubilee. Each year alumni return to sing with current students, and all look forward to performing a favourite song called The Awakening. Says Tavares-Mocha, “There’s a line in the song, ‘Let the music never die in me.’ So many of the returning students have that line somewhere with them - on a piece of paper, in a book, and even tattooed onto skin.”
Caplette was excited when her band landed a recording contract, but the partnership soured when the company demanded more ‘commercial’ fare. During the two years it took to dissolve the contract, Caplette would not compromise. The challenge facing Kelly Evert as a young musician was no less emotionally draining given her age. “We moved around as a kid. I didn’t tell anyone about my music, or the contentment it brought me. I hid that music was where I felt more accomplished, where I felt calm and happy.” For Tavares-Mocha, the boulder on her path is one facing teachers worldwide - increased administrative demands eating into time spent teaching.
For her new book, The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives, author Jude Rogers interviewed Professor Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster, UK, who said, “Music wraps you up and comforts you and holds you in ways that not many things do.” During my conversations with musicians about their passion and what it brings to them and others, they were often moved to tears. “It’s emotional. I get teary-eyed over music,” says Kelly Evert. Laurie Rasmussen spoke of the comfort of the harp during a difficult time following graduation, when she was working as a cocktail waitress, which she hated. “I would come home late at night, pull my harp to my chest and just strum the strings back and forth until the hurt went away.”
Christine Tavares-Mocha explained, “There’s communion in the space that you play. I’m performing with students who are discovering new ways of doing things. Being in the choir means the students show up - they are part of a team and the success feels amazing. There’s celebration, so the potential for them in all areas of life cannot be measured; whether they go on to become professional musicians or not, almost all continue with music. It’s magic,” she added, overcome with emotion. “In my job, I set the room for magic to happen.”
Following one of my more difficult harp lessons, Laurie Rasmussen told me the story of a friend, an accomplished harper who travelled to Wales to spend the summer learning to play the Welsh harp. A complex instrument with three rows of strings, it requires intense concentration.
On the final day, the teacher, an older woman who owned a number of the rare harps, nodded toward the harp Laurie’s friend was playing. It was over one hundred and fifty years old, and the woman explained that it had first been played at an Eisteddfod, the annual festival celebrating Welsh poets and musicians. “You can have that harp,” said the teacher. “It’s yours.” The student was shocked and expressed a lack of confidence - would she ever be good enough for such a beautiful instrument? The teacher gave a knowing smile. “Oh don’t worry, my dear - the harp knows all the songs. You just have to release them.”
Perhaps that’s the key to discovering bliss in music. Whether we are accomplished professionals or raw beginners of any age, or simply drawn to a certain kind of melody - we only have to release the song into our hearts and let music illuminate our lives.