The Hum of Music Beneath the Traffic

11:06 a.m.

A daytime blog, at last…but something doesn’t feel right, though it’s beautiful outside. What feels off, I wonder? I stop and use my ears. I hear the ubiquitous traffic noises, the sounds of humans doing human things outside, and the calls of birds, all mingled together. I realize that what I need today is silence. Why is it so much easier to hear this silence at night? There is a stillness at that hour that makes it so much easier to think.

But then, there is something else happening in my mind today, a kind of distraction I can’t escape. It hums just below the surface of everything, until the distraction itself becomes my sole focus, flipping my world and its priorities around. All other noise becomes bothersome, intrusive. It is the strain of a song I have been working on for several months, and it is the only sound I want to hear right now. Maybe it is not complete silence I need today, but simply the ability to hear this music, underneath it all.

I have an upcoming concert with several choirs in Pittsburgh, and with the Symphony, yet I’ve been unable to really inhabit the space of the music all semester. Something to do with being too busy, and putting my graduate school homework first, methinks–music is always the thing that’s getting put on that proverbial back burner, since I don’t need it to graduate. I am doing it for the love, as they say.

But something has shifted in me this week. This shift has something to do with a few two-and-a-half hour rehearsals at Heinz Hall, spent in the presence of an inspiring musical trainer, who gives us bits of wisdom such as “The professional gives–the amateur gets. Do it for them, not for you,” and “Music is the consistent eternal march.” Somehow, I’ve started to internalize that last one this week; I’ve awoken these past several days mid-song, as though I’d nodded off in the middle of performing a concert the night before, with the words (in German, no less) still lodged in my throat. It is a strange sensation to wake this way, as this kind of focus usually takes many hours to achieve instead of being built-in to one’s morning–but it feels right to me, somehow. I think of Bing Crosby, of Rosemary Clooney and Billie Holliday–all my vocal heroes from the old days, from my grandfather’s day–and wonder how often they woke up singing.

Perhaps every day should begin this way, with the promise of a song on one’s lips.

“In the arts,” Bob says, “do not divide your own attention between many things. You think of only one thing.” This lesson seems so applicable to everything else in my life right now.

Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of handling only one problem at a time, but if I can manage to maintain my focus out there in the world, until the first of many problems is solved, I feel more accomplished, less divided amongst warring factions of my own psyche that want to do everything, and want to do it right now. I am surely a product of my generation, of this high-speed moment in our culture.

I wish I could hire Bob as my personal musical guru, but I’m sure he costs a lot.


Auf-er-steh’n,” we sing in German, “ja auf-er-steh’m, wirst du mein Staub, nach kur-zer…” He has some of us hum the words. Those in our choir born from May through August sing them, so that between the two groups we nail the pianissimo just right. A tremulous sound echoed throughout the hall before; now we seem sure of ourselves, sure of this language most of us don’t speak in our daily lives. Some of us hardly even know what we are singing, but nevertheless, we are certain of our voices, now. Bob has done his job.

Arise, yes thou shalt arise, my dust,” the translation reads on the first page of the Mahler, “after brief rest. Eternal lifeTo bloom again thou shalt be sown. The Lord of Harvest goes to gather sheaves of us who died…” But we are not capturing it, just yet. “I will arise,” Bob tells us, by way of translating the translation, so that we can understand not just the meaning but the purpose of the words. “My death will give life to something.” A Resurrection Symphony, they call it.

On page 6, Mahler’s own text appears: “O believe! My heart, Believe! Nothing will be lost to you! Yours is, yes, whatever you longed for. Yours-whatever you loved, fought for!” Enthusiastic exclamation points aside, his words seem beautiful to me, accessible. It is as though I could have written them myself, though he composed them between 1888-1894 when he was about my age. “O believe: You were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!”

I think of the meaning we try consistently to locate, the purpose we must determine for ourselves before we die, lest we feel we have lived unfinished lives. Mahler felt it, too: “What has arisen must pass away. What has passed away, Arise! Cease to tremble! Prepare! Prepare to live! O pain, you all-piercing one! O death! You conquering one! Now you are conquered!”


Bob is speaking from above, perched at a music stand on the stage, while hundreds of us listen from the audience, in a reversal of the usual setup that places choir singers up high and the teacher down in front. The reversal seems appropriate, as everything Bob says is the opposite of what it seems to be when he’s not in the room. The girl sitting next to me frantically writes down every witticism and piece of advice he utters with her pencil, on the last page of her choir music, lest something get lost in the shuffle of pages and singing.

“Our modern technology keeps us from communicating. It does not help us communicate,” Bob tells us from the stage, and I know in an instant that he is right. It makes me wish I had turned off my phone during rehearsal, that all these girls sitting around me to my right had turned theirs off, too. Some of them are sending text messages during Bob’s talk, including the one with the pencil, even though she certainly seems to be paying close attention to his words in other moments.

I think again of what Bob said before: “You think of only one thing.” I wonder how we will ever find a cure for ourselves, for this inability to do just one thing.


With wings that I won for myself in fervent strivings of love, I shall spar to the Light,” we sing in German, “to which no eye has reached! I shall die that I may live again.”

My world is filled with music, suddenly. I don’t want to go back to a world that isn’t. I’ve been waiting all semester to wake up singing, to fill the bathroom with the sounds of German and Latin, Norwegian and French while I hum in the shower. To know the music well enough to recall it from memory. To let the voices fill my head, to give them accompaniment while I empty out the trash, take my dirty dishes downstairs, brush my teeth. All I want to do is sing, and the singing follows me to the bus stop, onto the bus, on the sidewalk. It is with me in every moment. The songs I carry with me become my life’s soundtrack for a day, for a week, for a month. When the concert is finished, when the last strains of 2,000 voices have hushed the audience and the applause recedes, the songs will fade from my mind. I will try to hold onto them, but they will lose some of their magic until next fall, until the next concert. I will live in a world where music is here only sometimes, like before.

But for now, the boundary between these two worlds is permeable, a “thin place” like St. John’s Cathedral or the entire city of Edinburgh, a site of transformation and possibility. The songs bleed through. The world is music, one endless song uttered in all languages at once, meant to be sung in the shower, on the bus, or anytime at all.

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Filed under: Prose