The music of our youth sticks with us forever

6 mins read


It is Sunday, and I’m at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Tonight the BSO is giving us Yo Yo Ma and his cello.

For most of my youth I did not know the sound of the cello. Sure, I had unknowingly heard the sound of the cellos, but that sound was overwhelmed by violins, violas, French horns and kettle drums. It wasn’t until “Send in the Clowns” that I truly knew the sad, haunting sound that transports one directly to the Court of Richard III.

Tonight, my wife and I are just outside the Koussevitzky Shed — a huge, open-sided structure that can seat 5,000 people. We have paid $24 (each) for a spot on The Lawn where we have spread a blanket, opened a bottle of Gnarly Head Authentic Red and have a view of the Jumbotron.

We are surrounded by others — perhaps 10,000 Yo Yo loving fans — who have brought their blankets, their basket-borne quiche, their bottles of Bogle Essential Red and, in some cases, their issue. Just in front of us is a family of three that features a young father and mother – perhaps they are 35 – and a daughter who seems to be 5 or 6. For the hour before Yo Yo appears on the Jumbotron, they are content to eat and drink; or watch the others eat, drink and prepare themselves for the Maestro.

As I watch this scene unfold, I wonder if Yo Yo Ma’s cello will make an imprint on the 5-year-old girl. I’m wondering whether or not these notes, delivered in the dark and under a starry Massachusetts sky, will stay with the child who seems, at the moment, mesmerized.

Probably not.

Studies done in 2005 indicate that most early events — things that happen when one is 3- or 4-years old, disappear from memory. Patricia J Bauer, at Emory, did research that shows that by 7, events that happened earlier begin to fade. By the time one is 8-years old, her results show that children have forgotten 40 percent of what occurred earlier in their lives.

When explaining her research she uses the image of a kitchen colander, saying that a toddler’s brain is like a metal colander with big holes in it. Memory, by contrast, are like bits of orzo. She says that most of these bits of orzo escape through the holes. 

However, that ends when a child moves into his or her young adult years. This is when the holes get smaller and the bits of orzo get bigger. That is when, according to Bauer, we begin to hold on to our memories — especially musical memories.

It is argued by a host of scientists that the brain, when we are young adults, is most ‘plastic’ and most efficient in remembering. Brain imaging shows that music stimulates the production of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Music ‘sparks’ this feel-good neural activity and the lyrics we learned and loved at 18 get hardwired. Forever.

That is why I remember Dion, Paul Anka and Billy Eckstein. It is why I can repeat the words to Teenager in Love, Diana and I Apologize with precision at age 74. It is why — when I am alone in my tastefully furnished living room — I can say, “Alexa, play ‘Precious Lord’ by Elvis Presley” and then sing,

“Precious Lord take my hand,

Lead me on, let me stand

I am tired, I’m weak, I’m alone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand Precious Lord, Lead me home

When we made our reservations, we thought that Yo Yo would be backed-up by a full orchestra. Closer examination of our tickets would have revealed that it was just Yo Yo, his cello, and six suites written by Bach. When Yo Yo moved into Suite No. 4, I began to feel drowsy — and so I stretched-out on our blanket and drifted off. Then, from far away, I heard,

“There is a young cowboy he lives on the range,

His horse and his cattle his only companions,

He works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons …”

As I regained my senses, I realized that James Taylor had joined Yo Yo Ma onstage and together they were doing, “Sweet Baby James,” an anthem from my own, long-gone youth. And so I joined James, Yo Yo and 15,000 others singing,

“Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose,

Won’t you let me go down in your dreams,

And rock-a-bye Sweet Baby James.”

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