Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
The Mourning Bride – William Congreve, 1697
When my sister was pregnant she played classical music for her unborn daughter. Amniotic fluid, it happens, is an excellent conductor of sound. Every evening for an hour my sister placed plush headphones on either side of her extended belly. While she and her husband watched the X-files on TV, and determined they would name their daughter after one of the characters, their daughter slumbered on in her waterbed to the soothing strings of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 or Debussy’s haunting Claire de Lune, or sometimes to the melancholy, but stirringly beautiful key of Chopin’s Prelude.
Had they listened to this music themselves my sister, deep in her hormonal fugue, would have been constantly in tears, the precision of the sound too beautiful to bear.
My sister had read that exposing children to classical music in the womb heightened their physical and mental development after birth. At six months, the study showed, these babies were more advanced in their motor, linguistic and intellectual development than babies who received no musical stimulus during pregnancy. Soothing is the operative word. You wouldn’t want your child squirming in their amniotic sac to the high-pitched screams of Aerosmith or Metallica.
My niece, now 11, encapsulates that research. In her 6th grade class she is in advanced placement for reading and math. But, surely much of it is due to genetics and parenting. It’s up for debate how much can be attributed to having listened to the complexities of classical music in the womb, and how much is from example.
Our brains reward us with a surge of dopamine when we listen to music. It’s one of those illusive “natural highs.” The same thing occurs when we eat sugary confections or enjoy intimate encounters, or on the dark side, take drugs. If only we might replace one with the other.
As kids we are encouraged to learn to play an instrument. This too rewires the structure of our brain. My niece has attempted the cello, and this year she’s opted for the flute, as her mother did at the same age.
Playing an instrument is difficult enough. Building one is a feat of perseverance. So I was intrigued to learn of someone who, in his 70’s, learned to construct violins. That gives meaning to “It’s Never Too Late.”
Remo del Tredici, now 92 years old, makes violins from scratch, and gives them away.
Remo’s parents gave him a violin when he was a boy. He took lessons and played throughout high school. One night in 1937, in his hometown of San Francisco, he and his fellow band members were involved in a grisly car accident that killed one of his friends. In his shock and grief he quit the violin. He didn’t touch another until he was in his 76 years old.
For 45 years he was a mechanic and worked on cars. In 1996, for reasons he couldn’t name, he pulled his old violin out of a closet and tried to play. “I was terrible,” he says. At 76 he took lessons. Out of his love of the instrument, it occurred to him he might try to make one. “I was always a tinkerer,” he says. He bought books. He bought violins, and took them apart. Eventually he built so many he began to give them away.
One of Remo’s neighbors volunteered at AmVets and encouraged Remo to attend a luncheon to share his story and speak about the craft of violin making.
Of the 35 veterans in the room most hadn’t touched a violin since high school. By the end of Remo’s story everyone wanted one.
The vets that visit his workshop watch and listen as Remo details the construction. “The sound post is a little piece of wood inside,” he tells them. “The French call it the ame, the soul. It’s the soul of the violin.”
Earl, an 86-year old vet who served in the Navy during WWII, and a recipient of Remo’s violins sees it this way: “Anybody that can make something like that … what else can you ask from a person? When they give a present, they give a piece of themselves.”
It’s never too late. Have you ever wanted to learn to play an instrument?
To hear the wonders of the violin listen to Sarah Chang, once a child prodigy, now 32, play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Astonishing.