The first time I heard classical music, I was in second grade (probably around 1960), but the first time I truly appreciated it was third grade. Our music teacher was Miss Babikian, a tiny woman who wore cat's eye glasses, smiled all the time and had hair that I'm sure was hairsprayed into its truly permanent waves. She was a no-nonsense kind of person and demanded our attention, sometimes even more so than our regular teacher who was in charge of making sure we learned what was valuable (English, History, Math). Miss Babikian convinced me that music was just as valuable -- maybe even more so.
She taught our classes upstairs in what I could refer to as the "attic" of our grammar school. It was probably used as a rehearsal hall, because it had a stage and an audience full of folding chairs. (We also had a big auditorium downstairs.) I remember being up there one day when she played Peter and the Wolf for us, and she told us the story in between the orchestra's pieces. I visualize it in my head as she talked: the cold, winter white scene, the boy and the hunter, the wolves. Then she started teaching us the different sounds of the instruments: the timpani (love that word), the bassoon, the viola, the flute. And she would play a piece of music, asking us to identify the instruments. I knew the sound of the oboe, and she was amazed. Her reaction still sticks with me to this very day. ("Excellent, Dawn! That's right! I'm amazed you knew that instrument. It's one of the ones no one ever recognizes.")
After that, I would ask my mother to change the radio channel in the morning from her usual country music (don't ask me why she listened to that -- but that's what we ate breakfast to every morning. Maybe that's why I don't like it) to the classical station. Occasionally she would do it, and I would get swept away in this romantic reverie, seeing delicate women dressed in huge, flowing ball gowns, circling a floor in a graceful waltz. It entered my subconscious like no other sound.
When I was 14, my parents gave me a new dress (sleeveless ivory lace with a brown velvet trim -- the prettiest dress I'd ever owned) and took me to dinner at a restaurant on the wharves in Boston. There was a piano player there, and he asked me what I wanted to hear since it was my birthday. I told him the name of the only classical piece I could name: Clare de Lune. It made me feel so grown up to hear that song and to actually recognize/name it (I still love it). My parents had no clue how deep my love for classical music went.
I'm sure I'm not the only person who ties particular songs to certain moments during my childhood, teenage and adult years, and I'm also sure I'm not alone in needing music to take me away from the day's confusion. Certain songs can make me cry no matter where I am ("Dance with my Father" by Luther Vandross), and others make me feel exceptionally "dangerous" ("Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf). Others are signatures ("My Girl" by the Temptations was the first song they'd play at high school dances, and it's always been my phone ringtone), while others simply evoke memories ("United we Stand" was our high school song, and all of the Cat Stevens songs remind me of my first years in college and the friends who came to my house at least once a month for a party). I can't listen to Frank Sinatra without fond memories of my mother, and the Big Band music from the Forties makes me want to dance -- my father taught me how to jitterbug to that music, and it always makes me smile. And, of course, there are those songs that remind me of particular romantic moments when the future was something I looked forward to without fear. Those songs make me sad because that future is here and I should have feared it then, but then again, if I had, I wouldn't have had the experiences. I would have had "The Dance," as Dave Koz says.
Yup, I'm listening to Norah Jones now on that "new" $12 CD player, and this little apartment seems so much warmer with the sound of music filling its little rooms . . . I'm less alone.