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Memories That Resonate

By William Y. Yao, Contributing Opinion Writer
William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

These days, I frequent the Dunkin’ across the street from my dorm in Kirkland House because the dining hall’s Fogbuster doesn’t really do the trick for me anymore. Just a few days ago, I was waiting for my coffee with my violin case strapped to my back, en route to rehearsal. A high school student (I surmise), standing six-feet away, cheerily interrupted me from my exhausted mid-week daze.

“What instrument do you play?” he inquired.

“Violin,” I replied, a bit startled. I glanced up to his intrigued expression.

“How long have you been playing?” he followed up enthusiastically.

I paused for a few moments. “Erm. Fifteen years?”

Actually, it has been over 16 years, but I’d messed up the math in the moment. I know better than anyone that I started playing when I was six and that I’m now 22. Nonetheless, it felt surprisingly odd to have to attach a number — even as innocuous as age — to something so essential in my life. Mathematically, for each passing year, the fraction of my life that I did not play violin becomes a smaller and smaller sliver. What a delightful thought.

My older sister started playing the violin when I was an over-energetic three-year-old. She would give living room recitals to an audience of three — mom, dad, me. These moments have been frozen in time by the grainy video of my dad’s early 2000s camcorder. But I don’t need to rewatch the vintage footage to remind myself what I did after nearly every one of these performances: Upon triumphantly playing the last note of her piece, met with an eruption of applause in our living room concert hall, I would rise from my spot on the rug, walk towards the “stage” right up next to my sister, and take a bow alongside her.

In the midst of Harvard’s rich and vibrant music community, I think a lot about why I started the violin in the first place. I find myself wondering how much agency I actually had in choosing the instrument or in starting one at all, what role serendipity played along the way in my journey as a musician. I haven’t figured out much for certain, but what I am confident in is that my admiration for my sister was an essential piece in my origin story as a musician. Over the years, we’ve found many occasions to perform as a sibling duo, and bow together, in our living room, as well as on slightly grander stages.

When the world went remote, musical collaboration and performance did too. Like many, I missed the vitality and energy of live music. I craved the electric feeling of performing for an audience, large or small.

During that period, I spent a lot of time playing a piece for solo violin called the Chaconne, composed by a decently well-known musician named Bach. It’s a work that has been widely studied and performed for hundreds of years.

I think this sentiment by Johannes Brahms, another well-known composer, captures it best: “The Chaconne is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful and most incomprehensible pieces of music. Using the technique adapted to a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece, I am certain that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”

In the absence of opportunities to play music with and for others, I feel so blessed that a piece of music like the Chaconne could keep me company. Alone in my room, a music stand, a small wooden box called a violin, and endless possibilities. Forgive me, it’s hard not to be romantic about music.

This column is about memoirs, and how memoirs capture those very memories in our lives that are deepest and dearest, and turn them into prose. Memory is a funny thing: it’s not really chronological, it plays tricks on us, and it’s influenced by all sorts of factors.

Reading memoirs of others, and in that process beginning to think about how we’d craft a memoir of our own, brings out those fondest, most formative memories that find a way to stand the test of time. Like the narrative structure of many memoirs, our lives aren’t always experienced chronologically. The salient, beautiful moments stand out, and we often glance back towards them as we move forwards. Where may these memories lie for you?

Once in a while, when I bring my violin up to my chin to play, images of those bows I took with my sister long before my own first violin lesson come flooding back. I don’t expect that will ever change.

William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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