When I Have Sung My Songs
When I have sung my songs to you, I’ll sing no more.
“Twould be a sacrilege to sing at another door.
We’ve worked so hard to hold our dreams
Just you and I
I could not share them all again
I’d rather die with just the thought that I had loved so well, so true
That I could never sing again
Except to you.
I love this song. To me, it very much has the feel of a “parlor song,” the kind of tune that families would gather around the piano and sing on a lazy Saturday afternoon in days of yore. It is almost an ordinary art song amidst a sea of other ordinary art songs. With that being said, perhaps I am overly sentimental, but I am moved by it. Every time.
I feel the tears start to swell up at about the “sing no more” line. It is after the eighth word. Yes, eight words into the song and I am “having an allergy attack” (read: trying not to sob like a baby). Every singer that I have worked with feels a similar way. For me, this song is not just a meaningful text combined with a well-crafted melody and elegantly crafted musical structure - it is a deeply moving work of art that allows for resonant and connective musical interpretation.
I also believe that great works of art allow the observer to discover multiple ways of understanding. Something struck me the other day about this piece. For years, I have taught it as a love song, and I do believe it is a love song. But I wonder if I wasn’t missing something else entirely. Perhaps there is another more poignant thought that can be expressed. It seems to me that there is also a statement of the briefness of time. “Sing now,” the author suggests, because there is a point where the singing stops. There is a point in time where both the listener and the song is gone.
I’ll Sing No More
We love to sing. We love to sing to people we love. We love to sing to people who love us. We love to move people with our song. We love to sing about love. We love the feeling of a phrase. We love hearing other people sing and make music. We love discovering new music. We love practicing and stretching our limits. We love both the process and the product. At the very least, we have an appreciation and an understanding that singing a song is a meaningful experience for all involved.
Yet this love of music is sometimes hampered by the daily living of actually being a musician; academic, student, professional or combination of all or some of those things. Being a musician is tough work. The discipline and fortitude required for the life of musician is not for the faint of heart. The life of a musician is never an easy one and the probability of burn out is high. The constant audition, a perpetual lifestyle of “paying dues,” and the unceasing expectation of always being on the top of one’s game is mentally and physically exhausting. Music making can sometimes lose its magic amidst the overextended commitments.
For twenty years, every time I would go home to visit my mom I refused to play or sing for her. I would insist that I had spent months on end doing it for other people and I wasn’t going to spend my precious vacation time making more music. I did not want to sing or play a single song no matter the occasion. So year after year my little childhood piano sat in her living room, well dusted and maintained yet largely unused. My little piano that had served me so well throughout a tumultuous childhood had fallen silent.
In February 2016 , my mother’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to such a stage that she had to be put in a care facility. She had become another casualty in a war of intelligent and proud people who had lost their private battles against this horrific disease. A once fiercely argumentative, opinionated and demanding woman had fallen into a docile silence with a simple perplexed gaze on the world around her. Mom had become blissfully medicated and horribly unaware of both her surroundings and the people whom she had loved.
One visit I remember very well, a few months after she had been moved to the care facility. My sister thought it would be fun if we all set up a little ice cream social for the residents of the skilled nursing wing of my mother’s care facility. She then came up with the idea of playing some sort of game with the residents that could involve the piano in the little dining room. So we devised a game that would involve me playing the first couple lines of a song or hymn and see if anyone could “name that tune.” While I was not particularly thrilled about “working” during my visit, my sister was determined that this was going to happen and I was going to play the piano
As we brought my mother into the little recreation room she sat in the back of the room very quiet and a little agitated. She did not know me and was wanting to go back to her room and lay down. It had been a few months since I had seen her and naturally I was taken back at what I encountered. A once vibrant woman with impeccable clothes and flawless lipstick, my mom was a shell of the woman she had been. She had been proud of her ability to intellectualize and analyze every situation with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue. But now she was a sweet little old lady, soft spoken with singular word answers to simple questions.
We started the game. As my sister had hoped, people lit up and were able to sing. They not only finished singular stanzas of hymns, but sang complete verses. I played as loudly as I could and my sister passed out the cheap bangles and baubles to reward the winners of each round of our musical game. The reaction of this group of residents was exactly as one would hope. They laughed and something in their brains sparked and they had moments of memory.
But the life changing moment for me was when my frail little mother appeared right by my side; a place she had stood for countless hours listening to me play as I grew up. She sang harmony right in my ear to the hymns we had sung together. She remembered every word and every rhythm. Her eyes were bright and sparkling. We exchanged knowing looks as we sang our songs. For a few moments, the fog in her eyes lifted and I was able to have another moment with her. After twenty years of being too busy and too consumed with my own importance, I made music with a sense of abandon that I had not experienced in a long time.
A flood of emotions came over me in a way that I still am not sure I understand. The overwhelming joy of experiencing my mother regain a little coherence, even for just a few minutes, was beyond powerful. Seeing the other residence giggle and laugh while singing a children’s nursery rhyme or Christmas carol brought me overwhelming joy.
I think it wasn’t just their memories being jogged, but mine too. I remembered why I became a musician; making music brings me joy.
I forgot, in the midst of all of the obligations, the teaching, the deadlines, the paperwork, the endless traffic, the fundraising, the recruitment, and the enormous list of other things that are part of the gig, that making music is wonderful. The opportunity to sing or play for hurting, lonely, complex, ornery, unlovable, stinky and charming human beings and the honor of being a conduit for the power of music is a wonderful thing with an enormous responsibility.
I thought I had run out of songs but as it turns out, I had just forgotten them.
Oddly enough it took a group of Alzheimer’s patients to show me that lesson. They had not run out of songs. They still have them and aren’t afraid to sing them. Their memories weren’t the only ones jogged that sunny afternoon. I rediscovered my own music in a way that was completely unexpected.
While I can never get those twenty years back of missed opportunities, I can make a promise to myself to never miss another chance to sing for my loved ones. I can promise to never let my selfishness, insecurity, or tendency for introverted behavior allow me to miss a chance to share my songs. Time is short and the chance to make songs is finite. The time for my music will have to end at some point. Thankfully, not yet. There is still more.
You are still listening.