The Source of the Music
I get my love of music from my father, whether by genes or his teaching. But how do we transform what we receive? How do we give back?
When my sister and I were young — I was probably ten or 11, she was three years younger — my father would make us sit in the darkened living room on Sunday afternoons and listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The speakers were at full volume, the lights were off, and we weren’t allowed to talk. We were supposed to listen, feel, appreciate.
You’d think that an experience like that would make me grow up hating classical music, but it didn’t. That seems odd, in retrospect, because I rebelled against my parents in just about every other way.
Instead, the music entered me — or maybe it was always there, as much a part of me as my hazel eyes, present in the genes my father bequeathed to me.
My father had studied violin as a boy in Poland and was one of those people who could sit down at a piano and, within moments, pick out any tune. When he was nearing 70 and newly retired, he returned to the violin — something he’d always longed to do, and intended to do — but within months, early arthritis made it impossible to play the music he heard in his mind.
I was luckier. I played the piano off-and-on for 20 years, then quit for another 20 when I became a mother. When I returned to the keyboard, I was the perfect age — old enough to have the developed ear and appreciation for serious study that I didn’t have when I was young, and young enough to have fingers that could still do what I wanted them to.
As I look at this picture of my father as a boy, I know where my music comes from.
Music, like the shape of my eyebrows, connects me to my roots.
Not everyone can say that. My son loves to cook and invent new dishes; my daughter loves to care for animals. But neither of them can point to the source of that natural affinity, the way I can point to the sepia-toned photo of my father holding a violin. That’s because my children were adopted.
There’s a debate in the adoption community about whether to say that someone “was adopted” or “is adopted.” The former refers to a single event that took place in the past, while the latter refers to an ongoing identity or state of being.
For some people, adoption as a time-specific event is quite different from the long-term experience of being a family, in the same way that buying a house is different from living in that house; for them, “being adopted” is merely the portal through which family life begins. For others, adoption is a lifelong, existential fact that colors their sense of who they are and where they belong in the world.
In fact, adoption is more widespread in the US than many realize. One out of every 25 American families with children have an adopted child, and nearly 100 million Americans have adoption in their immediate families, whether that means adopting, placing, or being adopted. My children are hardly unique in that way.
The search for one’s origins extends well beyond the adoption community, of course — especially nowadays, when technology and the internet have made that search so easy. Websites and services devoted to genealogy, ancestry, and family history are everywhere. Whether it’s through documents like immigration papers and birth certificates or analysis of DNA, more people than ever are searching for their history.
I can’t help feeling that this recent, widespread interest is not just due to the availability of online search engines and mail-in genomic samples, however. It’s cultural. We no longer live in communities where we have deep roots, where our grandparents and great-grandparents grew up, and everyone knows our family story. Instead, we move from city to city, and our connections are more likely to be with colleagues than cousins. Our families, like our addresses, are fluid. We have step-families and blended families, relatives we’ve never met and never will, and it’s no longer so simple to identify the source of a trait or talent.
And yet we yearn to belong, to find our place in the chain of generations, to find the answer to the universal question: Who am I?
DNA can tell us about genetic diseases and geographic origins; documents can tell us when our ancestors came to America, who they married, when they died — but there are other things that we’ll never be able to know.
Did my great-grandmother like her food salty or sweet? Was she quick-tempered or patient? Drawn to the stillness of the night sky or the colors of sunrise?
So many things, the very things that make us human, will never be captured in a DNA sample or a downloaded family tree.
I would love to know where my father got his love of music, but that piece of my history — like so much else — is lost forever. In truth, my knowledge only goes back a generation or two further than my children’s knowledge, and is almost as limited. How much history do we need, really, to feel that we belong?
In this photo, my father is showing my son — no older than about 18 months — how to hold the violin and draw the bow to make a beautiful sound. Their attention to one another is so clear in the snapshot. The source of the music they’re making is obvious. It’s love, in the present moment.
In my new book, The Sound Between the Notes, the protagonist is a classical pianist who was adopted at birth and raised by loving but non-musical parents. She longs to know where her music came from. What she discovers, however, is that knowing who gave her that gift isn’t nearly as important as what she does with it — how generously she gives it back, shares her music with others. She comes to understand: “If you kept the music to yourself, it stayed small. If you played for others, the surrender was deeper, freer, more generous. Here, I give this to you. It made the music — and the musician — more real.”
That’s true of everything we receive, whether through biology, the attention of others, or the experiences we encounter. How do we transform what we receive? What do we give back?
A special note: Just before this article went to press, one of my cousins shared this photo of my grandmother — my father’s mother — taken in Poland a century ago.
I had no idea that my grandmother played the piano! No doubt it was something she had to leave behind when they came to America to escape the Nazis. It’s another piece of my legacy, another gift. And another reason for me to give back as generously as I can.
Barbara Linn Probst’s new release The Sound Between the Notes (2021) follows her multiple-award-winning debut Queen of the Owls (2020). Barbara is also a mother by adoption and a “serious amateur pianist.”