Piles of internship applications loom atop my printer. To my right, Russian memoirs and the Bible await reading, while to my left the Styrofoam remnants of a take-home physics lab sit gloomily. But with R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People blasting from my stereo, I somehow know the varied elements of my life at Harvard will work themselves out—a quick listen to “Try Not to Breathe” and “Nightswimming,” and everything will be okay.
Twelve years ago, my entrance into the world of music seemed innocent enough. Mr. Erickson, the Willy Wonka-esque town music teacher, came to my elementary school to present the myriad of possible musical instruments to play to an audience of rapt third graders. “Play an instrument because you like the way it sounds, not because your grandma has a violin in the attic,” he told us, and, since already I loved the wolf’s theme in Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” I decided to play the French horn. The convolution of tubing didn’t daunt me, nor did the bus driver’s helpful suggestion that I should have taken up the flute. My parents never had to tell me to practice and endured with grace my first spasmodic renditions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Irish Jig #2.” To me, my beginning Yamaha manual seemed like a stepping stone to the moment when I would play principal horn in a sweeping Tchaikovsky ballet or symphony.
After my first year playing in elementary school, I started private lessons and found through music a world so much bigger than my small Connecticut town. Auditions took me as an eleven-year-old to New York City and then to California to play in the Disney Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, where I first felt the thrill of leading a section and playing ensemble music that mimicked my parents’ classical records. The sound was almost more exciting to me than the fact that our concert would be nationally televised on the Disney channel.
Throughout high school, All-State music festivals offered me a chance not only to collaborate with serious musicians, but to meet other kids who cared more about playing under a famous conductor than decorating the gym for Homecoming. Summers at Tanglewood and lessons at Juilliard enriched my ensemble and solo experience even more and expanded my circle of music friends, many of whom I see now at Harvard.
As a senior in high school, I wondered whether playing the horn might provide a fulfilling career and, though I’ve since abandoned that notion, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) provides me with as fulfilling a musical experience as I could hope for outside of a conservatory. Sitting in the horn section, I see the mix of musicians that makes the experience so rewarding. The aspiring professionals from whom I can learn so much sit beside both those who consider HRO only an extracurricular activity and those who, like myself, find in HRO a mix of serious musical training and acknowledgment of a life which exists outside of the orchestra. Dreams of playing in the New York Philharmonic may have fallen by the wayside, but I know the horn will always be a part of my life; when I first bought it, my mother jokingly referred to it as “the fourth member of the family” due to its price, but now neither one of us can imagine if I had grown up an only child.
When I first took up the horn, I liked classical music and classical music only; indeed, the idea of someone, or specifically my entire seventh grade class, who preferred Green Day to the lilting “Swan Lake,” appalled me. Little did I then know that one day the Rolling Stones’ insistent strumming guitars would seem to echo my heartbeat, or that I would find as much poetry in Lou Reed’s tired voice as in a Mahler symphony. Since arriving at Harvard, and I now suppose throughout my life, music has provided a constancy and sincerity which elsewhere often remains elusive. Because of my classical training, I can’t just listen to music anymore. A good song provides me with a challenge as rewarding as any in a textbook; I can analyze its words, feel the contours of its singer’s voice, pick apart the instrumentation to my heart’s content and in the end still find a creation with layers yet to be explored. As I move throughout a day in my life here, I see two possible routes of action; I can worry about the workload ahead of me and resign myself to sink beneath the weight of academia, or I can continue this musical exploration and consider each bump or highlight along the way part of my journey. I know how I’d rather live, and it starts every morning when I wake up.
9 a.m.—The Knack: “My Sharona”
A wake-up song is key, and the unabashedly loud, melodramatic beats of the ’80s start my day with a taut drum line, an over-emoted chorus and a definite pop. Some people seem to regard this decade with horror, but I’m convinced that, as a pre-teen in the ’80s, I completely missed a wave of exciting music. To rectify this missed-timing, I joined the Leverett House Committee (HoCo) with the express purpose of organizing the Leverett ’80s Dance. Bon Jovi’s dramatic power ballads came when boys still had cooties, and, as a fan of Paula Abdul and Debbie Gibson, a world of ’80s music never reached my ears. The Knack’s hit, though, which I first heard in Reality Bites, reminds me of a time when college seemed far away, interpersonal dramas didn’t extend beyond recess and general contentment pervaded my life. By beginning each day with a song like “My Sharona,” the possibility of finding simplicity and sheer, happy moments in my week renews itself. With such a start to the day, a whole ’80s playlist can result, incorporating everything from the sheer exhilaration of J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” to The Bangles’ lingering “Eternal Flame.”
1 p.m.—The Strokes: anything from the album, Is This It
The Raveonettes: “Veronica Fever”
Rolling Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil”
Billy Joel confessed, “It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me,” and this year, more than any other, I finally understand how rock surpasses so many other genres of music in its ability to grab a listener, hold them transfixed and then fling them away completely changed. The Strokes inflect all their songs with the same disaffected, frustrated tone, and The Raveonettes use the same three chords in every noirish number they perform, yet the final product of both bands is undoubtedly raw rock music. Strip away overproduced backup and the extra three minutes in synthesized pop interludes, and honest songs which speak with the frankness of a genuine friend remain. And though the Stones epitomize the brash attitudes of these bands, Mick Jagger’s irreverence and self-important strut remind me of an often forgotten mantra at Harvard: take yourself less seriously. Alas, it is a mantra that I also often forget.
3 p.m.—N.E.R.D.: In Search Of…
The Roots: Phrenology
Off to the gym, and onto the treadmill, with nary a sourcebook in sight. The infectious beats of these two musical innovators are all I need to spur along an hour-long workout. So often, as I first begin to listen to a new song, I attempt to categorize it, but I find this nearly impossible with both N.E.R.D. and The Roots. On the surface, both seem rap/R&B, but the beauty of expertly crafted music is far from skin deep. Moving through In Search Of… resembles a tour through every music genre, from the neo-soul/new wave mix of “Baby Doll,” to the smooth groove and psychedelia of “Provider,” to the booming rock of “Rockstar/Poser,” all backed by tight drums, electric guitar and insistent, almost desperate human beatbox. The Roots similarly blend genres into an album which always captivates me with the music of a rock band, the beats of a rap group and the fiery, contemplative words of poets. But it’s not the fast tempo of this music which reinvigorates me. The spitfire style and intricate composition of these songs show how the best music comes not only from talent, but from a willingness to take risks, meld ideologies and then sit back with satisfaction as the results project a message that will stick in any listener’s head for much longer than one day.
9:30 p.m.—Tchaikovsky, Symphony #5, “Movement 3”
Walking through Sever Quad, it’s hard to believe that earlier in the day the shadow of Widener Library seemed so imposing. The darkness envelopes me as I stroll through the cold toward Leverett, and, for once, the yard is completely quiet, save for footsteps of passersby. Music still plays within my head, but a softer tune, muted by the distance between the present moment and the HRO rehearsal that just ended. The third movement of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony, with its soaring, romantic violin strains, makes the chilly walk warmer.
Classical music lacks the words which give such power to the other music which shapes my day, but the walk home from HRO always reminds me of why, 12 years ago, the desire to make some never-before-heard sound come out of a twisted mass of brass so captivated me. A symphony offers more than a single song, as it combines multitudes of emotions into one creation which both the musician and listener can shape into different messages from time to time. While the Tchaikovsky evokes passion, the Debussy piano solos I listen to every night as I fall asleep conjure up lazy, wandering thoughts and utter relaxation. Classical music never begs me to think, but instead extends an open invitation to analyze, follow or simply open my mind and enjoy.
Of course, the temptation to let music direct my day comes with possible dangers. Enthralled in one artist’s words or another’s singular instrumental talent, it’s easy to get caught up and give in too freely to the feelings of loneliness, excitement or heartbreak a song or symphony expresses. But I gladly take the risk, for this precise possibility of getting caught up draws me to music in the first place. I’ve grown up and perhaps away from the little girl who, once upon a time, only wanted to play the horn that sounded like the musical equivalent of hot fudge, but I remember her eagerness to discover and learn from music every time a new band catches my eye. There may be piles on my desk and books on my back, but if you see me walking around campus, chances are you’ll find a smile on my face. There’s always a song in my head—and with any luck, one in my heart as well.
Rebecca M. Milzoff ’04 is a History of Science concentrator living in Leverett House. The ’80s dance playlist this semester will include The Pixies “Here Comes Your Man,” Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and Bon Jovi’s “Always.”