My Tunes for Music and Life

by Morgan Thompson

Morgan ThompsonSomeone always blasts KE$HA or Bruno Mars – something excessively mainstream – in the student lounge. I die a little bit inside whenever I’m forced to hear the tuneless, overplayed productions my peers consider good music. Having idiosyncratically studied the cello since I was two-and-a-half, I stand alone against the onslaught of the same four chords and auto-tuned artists, asking for an inkling of talent (honestly, I’d be happy with Coldplay); alas, tyranny of the majority swallows my protests. However, one fated day, I was typing a French paper and there were only four people in the lounge. It was the moment I’d been waiting for: I smashed the system by playing some of my music for a change. Something passionate and a little stormy, but slightly humorous with a delicate melody. I searched “Shostakovitch 5th Symphony Scherzo,” on YouTube and pressed “Play.” For the next fifty minutes, we listened to nothing but Early Contemporary and French Romantic music. No one complained. In fact, my friend Ashley asked me the name of a Ravel piece she thought was “PRETTY!”

I revel in those moments when I interrupt the mundane with the spirit of nonconformity. I love the individual, so I’m not likely to jump on a band wagon simply because the featured band is the Jonas Brothers. I was born to be different. My mother, forty-three at the time of my birth, suffered several miscarriages and considered me a miracle. She almost named me Phoenix, saying I rose from the ashes of her previous losses. Our family’s precept was simple: form opinions and preferences through personal experience and experimentation. Whenever I asked about strange food my parents were eating, they would answer only by pointing their forks at me: “Try it.”

Their teachings backfired when I first heard the tooth fairy might not exist. My parents maintained that she did. So, to find out for myself, I put my tooth under my pillow without telling my parents I’d lost it. The next morning: no money, tooth still there. Thus, I refuted the existence of the tooth fairy. Sorry if I’ve slapped your inner child in the face.

My parents, who grew up when youth activism was at its peak, always reminded me of my obligation as an African-American and a woman to protect my right to be taken seriously; i.e., “represent.” Many of my peers of a different race with younger parents lack the pressure of this obligation. This is why, one day in English, I was the first to argue, “I find Paul Scofield’s reserved portrayal of King Lear more moving than Trevor Peacock’s excessively emotional interpretation,” when Ms. Brizendine and the rest of the class said the opposite.

Coming of age in the Sixties, my parents rebelled musically by listening to rock and roll. Now, inversely, I am the musical renegade by loving anything written before my parents met. Rather than rejecting the music of previous generations for the music of mine, I prefer Kabalevsky to Kanye.

My outspokenness faced its greatest test in 2010, when my dad suffered a brain injury during surgery. He was in rehab recuperating for several months. I’d always been loyal to my dad when he and my mom argued because he was more tolerant of my mistakes. Yet Dad became more and more despondent in the hospital and he wanted to come home. It pained Mom to see him suffering, but she couldn’t bring him home because he was so far from functioning independently. One awful day, Dad accused mom of wanting to keep him away, and quoted her wedding vows. To hear such ingratitude from my dad made him almost unrecognizable to me and I couldn’t bring myself to look at my mom’s reaction. Instead, I defended her. “Dad, of course she wants you home; we both do. She’s been checking the doctors’ work, she’s been dealing with lawyers to pay for your care, she’s been talking to your employer to keep your job and Grandma’s sick. All of this so that you can come home.”

It was a first. I’d never spoken a critical or reproachful word to my father, who spent a total of eight months in hospital and rehab away from home. It hurt me to see him in pain. After all, I owe my persistent independence to his influence. For years, I played my instrument when others were quitting largely to be an individual like my dad. Gradually, I grew to love the cello and the music. Self-improvement was the product of my rebellion. Now, I aspire to boldly go where nobody I know has gone and to bring everyone with me the second time around. My dad told me recently that he never liked classical music until I started playing it. It may be a parental reflex to suddenly like whatever your child does, but I was glad to have introduced another person to something I love. When I graduate, I hope to have had some impact on every activity I’ve done and every person I’ve met. I hope to leave Shostakovitch playing in every lounge.

Morgan Thompson, a 2012 graduate of The Spence School in New York. graduated from Columbia University earlier this month.

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