Music liberates me from my left brain.
Music is good for everybody. They say it soothes the savage beast. Well, I think theirs a beast in all of us. So let’s get some more music and soothe all the beasts out there.
— B.B. King
“The arts are not frosting but baking soda.”
― Michael S. Gazzaniga
I am a big fan of choral music. As a child in our rural home, most nights I went to sleep to the sounds of my Dad composing choir music on his piano. The music wafted through the floor around the woodstove chimney, bringing warmth and comfort to otherwise cold and quiet nights. Choir music was in my blood. A highlight of my singing life was when my high school choir recorded Fauré’s “Requiem” my freshman year.
The “Libera Me” section is my favorite. The cellos and double basses start softly plucking low bass notes, providing a solid but unobtrusive platform for the soloists to shine, as a museum wall highlights a painting.
Our conductor, Ewan Edwards, was world-famous so when he put together a group of professional singers and musicians for the recording, talent of the finest class showed up to our high school concert hall. Highly acclaimed bass Jan Simons took the stage first. Basses are a little scary as their deep voices are so full of gravity, but Jan scared the living daylights out of me as he was also the director of my family choir camp, where I had spent every summer of my youth. He ran a tight ship, and when he wasn’t teaching singing, he was patrolling the grounds to make sure we kids weren’t getting out of line. He was swift, had a booming voice, and eyes in the back of his head.
In an act of comic relief, my sister and I used to slick our wet hair back in the style he preferred and channeled his “Shush!” with a heavy finger-wagging. As a teen, he had caught me, chewed me out, and reported me to my parents for smoking, drinking, and breaking into the camp’s walk-in fridge on many occasions. There was instant shame every time I bumped into him after our rehearsals, but watching him from the safety of the choir riser, I could enjoy his musical genius without feeling chastened.
In this opening solo, he sings “Libera me!” which I had construed was about him asking God to liberate his mind from all his stress. Perhaps because of the singing-related parasympathetic hormones flooding my body, I started to consider what he wanted to be liberated from. He probably didn’t have the shame and guilt of a rebel like myself, but maybe running a camp was stressful. Perhaps he just wanted people to learn and enjoy music without a bunch of rowdy teens getting in the way. Having five teenage kids himself, he probably had some stress at home. I noticed myself hoping that the music was helping his mind find its center, like it did for me.
After his dark solo, our girls’ choir came in as the angels. We were to be the sweet, virginal, and peaceful respite from the depths of despair of the professor. Our purity poured forth through our unsullied and ethereal tones, almost saying, “Come back to your childlike innocence! Life doesn’t have to be so complicated!” It was pretty ironic given that I was entering my peak shit disturbingness at the time. I was often hungover at practices and always had some kind of drama or trouble to share with my best friend and choir mate, Anne. She was a little closer to the sweet innocence we were endeavoring to channel in our music, but listened patiently as I described my troubles with the law, my teachers, and my parents. But as heavy as the drama got, I was rarely unaffected by the music and quickly put on my “sweet chorister” hat and sang along earnestly.
Although Mr. Edwards was well aware of my mischievous extracurriculars and had to assist in scolding me during school detentions, he didn’t seem to bring any resentment to the rehearsals. It was like we left our adversarial relationship outside the concert hall. He was letting the music have its way with me and not trying to take me down by reminding me how much trouble I always seemed to be in.
After our angelic reprieve, the adult choir joined us in the “Dies Irae,” an intense passage with full orchestral backup, loud trumpets where Fauré showed off the depths of his highs and lows. A massive screaming session; we were all pissed off at life, at ourselves and our minds, and this was the therapeutic roar we allowed ourselves. This was the place of our highest drama like we were shouting it all out of us. It seemed like we all felt better after this section.
In the last part, the entire choir and the soloist repeat, in unison, the original “Libera Me.” We joined the soloist in asking for what we all needed: freedom, peace, quietude. It felt honest, peaceful, and reassuring that everyone wanted the same thing — liberation.
The entire “Requiem” was a massive team therapy session and always left me feeling if not wholly elated, then at least cheered up from whatever was going on. The post-rehearsal mood was always jubilant, choristers high-fiving each other in the halls and congratulating each other’s performances; it seemed like everyone needed this refuge as much as I did.
Running out of Words
I later learned that I had it all wrong. The Latin translation showed me that this was not about gaining mental liberation and relaxing into the beauty of life. No, requiems are a plea to God to accept the decedent into heaven. This production, the choir, the soloists, cellos, and trumpets are necessary as God is judgmental and merciless: we have to put on a good show to get him to look upon our souls with kindness.
Most remarkable was our girls’ choir solo. The virginal voices I thought were supposed to be an invitation to rest in the innocence of a child actually sang, “I am made to tremble, and I fear, till the judgment be upon us, and the coming wrath, When the heavens and the Earth shall be moved.”
I was pissed off at everyone, particularly Fauré, for setting such fearful lyrics to such exquisite music. I was mad that music wasn’t made to help me realize my goodness in this moment. I had been duped. I went back to fearing Jan Simons, a perpetrator of this false notion, and resented Mr. Edwards who was clearly part of the conspiracy to take all joy away from children. They weren’t working out their stress in this music; they were trying to gain the favor of an unforgiving God, to gain a place in heaven ahead of us pesky teenagers.
I filed this affront in my file marked “ways in which the world has screwed me” and carried on.
Later, at Byron Katie’s School for The Work, we were invited to do inquiry on our stories about God. I pulled out my grievances. “God is misleading: he promises to help but then deceives.” “He should care more about the present moment than the afterlife.” The turnarounds to these statements pierced my heart: I promise to help but then deceive myself. I should care more about the present moment than the afterlife.
I noticed that when I followed my ticker tape mind, I acted like the judgmental God I had been disgruntled with my whole life. I didn’t live in the present moment but was listening to my ticker tape and its mantra, “Life will be better later if you work hard enough, if you finally get your act together.”
“We place sticky notes on everything and everybody with our judgments. What we see others doing is what our minds are doing to ourselves,” Katie observed after this heavy God session in another post-inquiry stupor. My world was again upended.
Lara: Elizabeth, sometimes I feel enlightened: so great, connected, and clear. And then something happens, I start to feel bad, and my mind goes crazy telling me I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was!
Elizabeth: What part of your mind tells you you aren’t OK? Your ticker tape mind or your ruling intelligence?
L: I don’t know, it could be true; I mean, I am clearly not enlightened anymore. I have clearly lost my way!
E: You only have if you start believing it!
L: But I am not feeling good!
E: And how are you treating the rising emotion that makes you not feel good?
L: I don’t want it!
E: So you go into your mind to fix the emotion!
L: I know, I know, I should accept the emotion. I should relax around the feeling and let it have its life. But the thoughts are so loud! I can’t ignore them!
E: Can you hear them as sounds?
L: Like as if they were noises that didn’t mean anything?
E: Yes, ignoring their meaning, because you know how inaccurate they are, and you know what happens to you when you pay attention to them and believe them!
E: The mind does such a great job trying to convince you that it is the cause of your success, that you can’t go on without listening to it. But the mind is just a mechanical process, trying to sort out your feelings. It is foolish, but convincing. My teacher, Francis Lucille, says it is like a clown that runs on stage at the end of a sublime opera and takes credit for the thunderous applause.
As it turns out, perhaps Fauré’s intentions may indeed have been to help us in the moment, to see the beauty of life, and to take respite from the drudgery of our habitual thinking.
He wasn’t a traditionally religious man and once showed up for his Sunday morning church organ gig in his Saturday night party clothes (my kind of guy!) He was known to go out for a smoke during the sermon and otherwise eschew organized religion. He denounced the possibility of a judgmental or vengeful God. He did, however, believe in a supreme “leniency that could only be divine”, a benevolent and forgiving God, one that acknowledged that “the human soul dreams of being cradled like a child.”
His requiem was criticized for being too lyrical and sweet, not expressing the usual terror of death as other romantic composers did, but instead creating a death lullaby. “But that is how I feel death: a happy deliverance, a yearning for the happiness of the beyond, rather than as a distressing transition.”
Perhaps he was referring to what the Buddhists call “die before you die”: put an end to the chapter of your life where you, through your endless narrative, pretend to be “a somebody” full of complicated unending drama and instead take refuge in the heavenly realm of experiencing your life in the present moment, where you can not suffer. Return to our eternal presence.
Jill Bolte Taylor would see this as a switch from a left brain–fueled, stressed-out state to our highest right brain–derived appreciation of the present moment. A return not only to our greatest peace but our greatest intelligence.
Certainly, music is a portal to our right brain. It has a language that can pierce the heart, where we can bypass our usual mindless, mechanical, conceptual understanding of the world. Ticker tape never offers anything fresh, expansive, or transcendent. Those states exist a world apart, where language isn’t the currency.
The right brain, which knows of our infinite transcendence, our total OKness in every present moment, is not bullied into being by the ticker tape mind, just like we can’t bully God into accepting us in the afterlife by a big production. The Master can use his emissary to serve a greater cause, but the emissary can’t bully the Master into his way of doing things. To live in love and light, we need to allow our right brains to shine and not listen to the voices in our heads that tell us that we are undeserving and incapable.
This correlates with another imaging project looking at the brains of nuns as they pray. As they transcend their “ordinary minds” and connect to God the pattern of their brain MRI’s don’t show an increase of right brain activity so much as a quieting of the language centers of the left brain. God is found in the spaces between the words.
Given we were recording the “Requiem,” there was no applause as the piece came to an end, we just stood in silence, letting the notes ring out fully in the auditorium. To think any of us, my conductor, the stern bass soloist, the trumpets, even Fauré himself, could have taken credit for the magic that had just happened was ridiculous. It was simply too exquisite to be described, measured, or compared.
Not knowing the Latin words was a gift: I was allowed to access the highest parts of my right brain, the place that had clear, unsullied communication with God, and allowed me to drop the narrative of who I thought I was. It was wordless and wonderful, at once supreme and yet so childlike.
Art strikes a cord because it reminds us of something fundamental happening in ourselves. The music points to the place of higher refinement and greater understanding, where we aren’t caught up in our limiting beliefs, where we break from our usual smallness to consider something much, much bigger. It invites us to access our ruling intelligence, to shift into our right brain. It says, “I know you much better than your ridiculous head trash; stop listening and rest.”
The right brain is where I want to be because this is where life is, this is where love is, this is where beauty is.– Jill Bolte Taylor