When I was a child, my mother purchased pop-music CDs almost compulsively. Many a car ride was accompanied by the likes of Celine Dion or the Backstreet Boys, even though the lyrics often escaped her. It was difficult to say whether she did it more out of genuine enjoyment of the tunes or as a way for us all to assimilate into American culture. Perhaps as testimony to the latter, she took the Now, That’s What I Call Music! compilations as gospel and bought volumes one through fourteen.
However, my parents have always been music enthusiasts, with an impressive collection of CDs and vinyl records acquired prior to immigrating to the United States. Some were by contemporary Chinese or Japanese artists. Others were more familiar to me as a fledgling music student: Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and more. But compared to the catchy hooks and refrains of the pop albums, these were stodgy and uninteresting.
I started learning the piano at age five, but it was a perfunctory chore. Even when I started playing the flute in the school concert band three years later, which I liked a great deal more than the piano, it was simply something to do. Sonatinas were indistinguishable from études. Pieces didn’t have melodies or harmonies; they were merely a mess of notes on a page, until I could brute-force through them and get that validating checkmark from my instructor. With no one telling me otherwise, I assumed the twofold purpose of practice was to get faster at calculating rhythms and triangulating chords, and then train the fingers to reproduce them from muscle memory. I remained staunchly unmoved by the power of music for years, despite being surrounded by and participating in it from such a young age. I didn’t even know emotions were supposed to be part of the picture.
It wasn’t until my eighth-grade concert with the Central New Jersey Regional Orchestra that I felt music. As I listened to the swelling, spirited strings in Brahms’ majestic Academic Festival Overture, something stirred, awakening, within the stone-cold machinery of my performance engine. I had a sudden sense of being part of a great movement with all these other players, something ineffably noble and timeless and beautiful that was carrying us like a tidal wave up and away from these rigid chairs under the hot stage lights. For the first time, I played my brief solo with an intent to shine, not merely to get the notes out. And as the piece slowed to its final booming notes, I didn’t resent having to take those extra-deep breaths and sustain the sound; instead, I reveled in our collective triumph and glory.
That transformative moment affected not only my playing, but also the way I heard pop music. Though I still appreciated its catchiness (and loved to perform it at karaoke sessions), it was no longer something I cared to listen to all the time. Finally I understood why all these works of classical music had survived for hundreds of years and attracted listeners from China to the US. I fell in love.