“How would you like to try piano, Sunny?”
My little 6-year-old self-squinted up at my mother.
I’d often heard the sounds of the instrument my mother played as I went to bed, but I wasn’t sure if that was something I could learn myself.
As I spent more time practicing, I immersed myself in different styles, composers, and periods. I’ve performed at countless recitals and competitions, and recently wrote my own piece for my school orchestra’s annual Halloween concert.
As I grew older, I became interested in exploring the ways that music reflects our emotional state — particularly feelings that cannot be easily expressed in words. In the final boss battle of OMORI, a game about struggling with guilt, loss, and depression, the track that plays is a simple violin harmony, hauntingly beautiful and full of sadness. But as the battle progresses, layers of bass and cello are added, and the track becomes heavily distorted, to the point where it almost sounds like someone screaming. The violin is consumed, like the main character being consumed by guilt and despair visualized. In Celeste’s “Anxiety,” a lone piano melody is similarly consumed by heavy synth beats, completely overpowering it: a panic attack in auditory form.
While learning about evolution in biology, it occurred to me that music might offer some kind of evolutionary function. After all, responsiveness to music seems nearly universal — music has played an important role in virtually every known civilization, past and present. I wondered if perhaps music could have served as a precursor to language: a way of communicating emotions and ideas.
I remember what my Honors Humanities teacher taught me about the different Greek words for love — philia: intimate friendship; eros: romantic love; agape: unconditional love. In English, we only have one word for this rather multifaceted concept, but music allows us to express a nearly infinite range of these more nuanced variations.
Some scholars are skeptical that music offers any evolutionary function at all. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker referred to music as auditory cheesecake: enjoyable, no doubt, but nothing more substantial than that. When arguing in support of programs like Music4Kids, we often cite statistics that show students who play music perform better in school, among many other practical benefits. But even if this wasn’t the case, I believe in music as a tool to develop students’ confidence, and a means to express the kinds of feelings that aren’t as easy to convey in words. More than anything, I simply want the kids I work with to see music as fun.
-Sunny Fan, 2022 High School Senior Scholarship Award Recipient, CAPMT 1 San Diego South Chapter
Music to me is like a gateway to bringing joy to others and the world.
As we finished our penultimate song at a senior home, I announced the next song and thanked the audience for coming to listen to us, only to be met with a “No, thank YOU” followed by a chorus of laughter. I promised we would return in December to perform our Christmas lineup. As I was preparing to leave after finishing our last piece, one of the residents, Mrs. Taylor, came up to me and said the performance was our best in her eight years of hearing us perform, and she couldn’t wait to hear our twists on the Yuletide classics.
Prior to the pandemic, my tenure as North County String Ensemble president oversaw a half-dozen performances at senior homes and children’s hospitals. Those performances embodied why I feel good when volunteering: the connection that forms when I instill splendor into someone else’s life.
Boy was the merriment a-flowing at that Christmas performance, our last before the pandemic forced us to lock away our instruments for the foreseeable future. Being away from not only the community we performed for but also the talented violinists and cellists I lead every week at rehearsal stoked a pain that gave way to a yearning to connect, to perform in the retirement home lounge and lobby of the children’s hospital. Sadly, the two places I most want to remain the most restricted.
When we were finally allowed to rehearse again, we could only send recordings. At that first rehearsal, I ushered the dozen of players to their seats and basked in the buzz of togetherness. My look toward the director was his cue to tell everyone to take out the sheet music and set our bows. The music started and came satisfyingly into sync, each of us, without saying it, knowing to play with even more heart in order to bridge the digital abyss. And I just knew that somewhere out there, Mrs. Taylor would soon be smiling.
-Nicholas Xue, 2022 High School Senior Scholarship Award Recipient, CAPMT 1 San Diego South Chapter