A musician's DNA: the soundtrack of childhood
"Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it."
One of the joys of being friends with other musicians is that I get to share my favorite pieces of music with them and they share their favorites with me. Most of the time this comes in the form of a suggestion or a link to a place where the music can be purchased. A few weeks ago, my friend Nyaho (William Chapman Nyaho) gifted me with a copy of a piece he'd received from composer Hale Smith's widow.
“It is so rich,” Nyaho wrote. “I’ve been sight reading it and all I can think of is you playing it.”
I opened the score, sight-read the hand-written jazz chords and scale passages until halfway through the piece when Smith slowed things down, shifted into deep rolling chords, and my eyes filled as the melody of the hymn Let Us Break Bread Together emerged. It was then that I understood why piece was titled Breaking Bread With Egbert. It was then that I felt the connection not just to Nyaho and his African heritage but to my family, my grandparents, and the music I grew up with.
The 4-part hymn was the soundtrack of my childhood. The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal enjoyed pride of place on the piano, despite it’s cracked black cover and tattered edges. My mother played and sang those hymns as lullabies when I was young. Hymns taught me to play chorales , and hymns taught me to improvise as I sought ways to make them more interesting. My mother and sister and I sang them in trio and in this way I learned to sing and play the piano simultaneously.
I’ve grown up and my musical tastes have expanded, but those hymns stayed with me. They’re there, as deeply embedded in my ear as the family DNA that shapes my face and the color of my eyes. Their influence can be found in the repertoire I play—melodic and almost always chord-based. It matters not that I haven’t attended the Adventist Church for decades. Hymns remain my musical “mother tongue.”
I’ve had enough conversations with other musicians to know that no matter how sophisticated one’s musical tastes become, none of us is every truly free of the soundtrack of our childhood. Be it high or low, classical or pop, the tunes we know from the cradle shape our musical DNA and can’t be erased. We expand our musical home; we don’t start over. Sometimes we think we do, but those early influences are almost always hidden in the structure of other pieces we enjoy, regardless of how different they may sound on the surface. We may never choose to go home again to the music of the past, but that doesn’t matter. This home travels with us, connecting us to the core of who we are, musically and personally.