I threw the pillow against the window of my bedroom, groaning in frustration as it completely missed its target and landed with an unsatisfactory thump against the nightstand. I burrowed further into the already tangled sheets and covers, tossing and kicking in sleepy exasperation and sending several other pillows flying in all directions. I finally gave up and strapped the remaining pillow over my head, as though it were a pair of bulky, down-filled earmuffs—hoping in vain that it would drown out the deafening chorus of twittering birds outside. Springtime in Georgia certainly has its charm, but at four-o’-clock in the morning, when the blossoming magnolias and dogwoods are still enshrouded in darkness, the chirping of the birds sitting atop their branches can only be described as irritatingly and unbearably peppy. “It’s so early!” I drowsily wailed to the winged rascals. As a medical student on the cusp of graduation—free from clinical responsibilities and, like many around the world, ensconced in my apartment during the ongoing pandemic—this unusually long limbo period before the start of residency represented my last opportunity for extra hours of sleep. I am typically a “morning person,” so it was perhaps a testament to my own fraying nerves, that I found myself harboring increasingly uncharitable thoughts toward the birds who unceremoniously jolted me awake each morning. “What on earth could they possibly have to sing about?” I wondered darkly. Over the last few months, the world has experienced a level of chaos that is both unexpected and unprecedented—at least, in my lifetime. How could birds continue singing, amidst a deadly virus, widespread fear, depleted grocery store aisles, strained hospital resources, panic-inducing and politically charged media feuds, and forced isolation? It seemed too normal—too incongruous, too heartless—for springtime and morning birdsong to persist in the current tumult.
Whether we are sheltered in place or on the front lines of medical care, all of us have experienced a myriad of emotions in the past few months. We oscillate between feelings of anxiety, restlessness, dread, loneliness, depression, guilt, passion, bewilderment, and even boredom. This is a spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically arduous time for everyone—even those of us who are privileged to be safe, healthy, and equipped with ample supplies and a reliable income. The most unexpected and unshakable feeling that I have experienced is a deeply penetrating sense of loss, with regard to music. Although I chose a career in medicine, singing gives my life meaning. I have spent nearly every spare moment of the last twenty-three years on the stage, in some capacity. I have made many of my closest friends through musical experiences, and over the past eight years in Atlanta, I have built a rich musical support system that includes fellow singers from college, medical school, church choirs, and the Atlanta Master Chorale. I have felt disoriented since AMC’s 2019-2020 season was abruptly halted. I do not know what to do with myself, when I am not constantly dashing to and from rehearsals, voice lessons, and performances. I yearn for the organic fellowship that we share with our audiences. Their hushed tears, appreciative laughter, stifled coughs, rustling programs, murmurs of surprise, and jubilant applause transform our performances into celebrations of what it means to be human—to simultaneously suffer and rejoice in the extraordinary and the mundane, together, as one family. I want to stand less than six feet away from another person and blend my voice with theirs, synchronizing each breath, consonant, and cutoff, as our voices soar into the atmosphere. I miss chatting with friends before rehearsals and on concert nights. The enormous pile of sheet music that usually inhabits the back seat of my car has been looking rather neglected, as of late, and I have even caught myself glancing wistfully at the drab, black choir dress hanging in my closet!
As I grappled with these feelings in the concrete purgatory of my apartment, the words of Kiki Dee’s 1974 pop hit repeatedly came to mind:
“Ain’t got no trouble in my life, No foolish dream to make me cry. I’m never frightened or worried, I know I’ll always get by. I heat up I cool down When something gets in my way I go ‘round it. Don’t let life get me down. Gonna take it the way that I found it. I’ve got the music in me.”
In light of recent events, this song seems twisted, insensitive, and downright wrong. Dreams have been deferred, panic prevails over peace, and spaces that were once filled with live music are empty, save for the echoes of performances past. Much like the cacophony of birds outside my window, the irony of “I’ve Got the Music in Me” seemed too unbearable. However, as I actively worked to extract this song from my brain, I began to realize that there was some merit to Kiki Dee’s blithe, yet soulful words.
Music is the poetry of our lives—our joy, pleasure, love, and success, mixed with our anxiety, restlessness, dread, loneliness, depression, guilt, passion, bewilderment, boredom, and loss. We compose, direct, play, and sing, whether we “lie down in green pastures” or “walk through the valley and the shadow of death.” Music is woven into our souls.
There is music in our attempts to maintain some semblance of normalcy while sequestered in our respective homes—Zooming into classes and work meetings, donning masks while running errands, binge-watching Netflix series to pass the time, devising creative activities to entertain stir-crazy children (and adults), taking “social distancing walks” in our neighborhoods, organizing virtual game nights with loved ones, and renewing treasured, but time-neglected relationships over weekly video calls. There is music in the hospitals, where valiant healthcare workers strap on their armor of PPE, rush headlong into battle, and selflessly care for patients at the bedside. There is music in the volunteer initiatives organized by charities, religious organizations, medical students, and local businesses to remotely serve the suffering. There is music in the hastily altered wedding and graduation ceremonies, and innovative Passover and Easter celebrations—thoughtful solutions that allow us to honor milestones and observe holy days, in a time of scarcity and uncertainty. There is even music in social media, for it fosters worldwide solidarity and provides a platform for much needed comic relief.
Throughout history, some of the most magnificent works of music have stemmed from adversity, and in the time of COVID-19, music continues to exist in a literal sense. I am moved by the arts community’s ongoing efforts to provide comfort around the world. I have been touched by virtual recitals and choir performances, remotely-filmed concerts on late night television shows, and publicly accessible Broadway and opera streaming services. Members of my own music community have also continued to spread joy and hope. Michael Dauterman, who sings in AMC’s bass section, organized a virtual recording of “Amazing Grace,” with a few members of the choir that he directs at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church. Claire Berger, a member of AMC’s soprano section, is drafting her annual choir “E-yearbook,” which includes reflections from each chorister; this year, she has challenged us to ponder how we can use our newfound free time to pursue creative projects. Inspired by these, and countless other efforts, I, too, have begun finding ways to hold onto the music that lives inside of me. I bought a Belt Box on Amazon.com, so that I can vocalize to the full extent of my soprano range without terrorizing my neighbors. I dusted off the untouched guitar in the corner of my living room and have slowly been attempting to play a few chords and develop the appropriate finger calluses. I have begun researching musical opportunities in Miami, as I prepare to leave AMC and find a new arts community in an unfamiliar city. I have resumed my old tradition of deeply immersing myself in the music of one particular artist each month. While it is not the same as rehearsing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with some of the most talented singers in the country, finding ways to keep singing has done wonders for my soul.
Yes, these are unusually wearisome times. Some of us long for the day that we can resume the rehearsals and performances that we once took for granted. All of us continue to wrestle with our emotions as we try to make sense of a situation that took the whole world by surprise. To be human is to suffer, but it is also to create. Therefore, we must find paths around the obstacles in our lives—ways to make music amidst the strife. Remember that, even when the world’s chaos threatens to drown it out, music lives inside all of us. Be like the birds outside my window, who continue to sing in the darkness and in the dawn.