editor’s note: After a long hiatus, Variations on a Theme is returning with quite a fitting story. We almost lost our calloused skin on our proverbial musician’s fingertips but are making a comeback: reengaging, rediscovering, and returning to our collective musicking.
The only sound that wakes me up is the classic alarm from my iPhone, anything softer would ring past my ears. I have recently developed this…habit that the only thing that can make me feel is coffee along with the palpitations that come with it, and my alarm that causes me to panic every time I hear it. It gets me running, even when I don’t want to. I get up and I see my desk is a mess. I get an iffy look from three of my roommates, one of which is my brother. Mine is the only desk filled with unorganized papers, leftover packs of whatever food I ate three days ago, and a ukulele that I don’t think I have touched in the past three months.
I’ve got this day memorized. I’m going to wake up ten minutes before my brother and once I get out of the shower, he’s going to say “Clean your desk. You don’t use that uke anymore, might as well give it away.” I shrug him off and go about my day, getting coffee at the nearest Starbucks, or Coffee Project, or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I’m twenty minutes late for my first class but what the hell do I care? I’ve lost all sense of feelings I was once filled with, so I did not care about anything anymore.
Today feels different, though. After that poetry discussion, for the first time in a long while, I cried. I mindlessly cried and allowed myself to feel while I was walking back home while a playlist of songs I’ve co-written was playing. (In all honesty, I couldn’t remember if I was listening to it from my phone or if my head played it for me.) I didn’t need to stop by Starbucks this afternoon.
Conveniently, I was alone at the dorm at three P.M. I got my ukulele (that I had named Tala, the Filipino word for star) and felt the strings and the sounds that came with it. That was beautiful, so I continued working my way through the four strings of this instrument and pulled out from deep within. I almost lost my calloused skin from not playing for three months, so it hurt while I was playing the chords but the sound I am creating allowed me to look past it. I can’t see anything because of the darkness of the dorm at this hour but I continued playing, my fingers know where to go because it has memorized where all the strings were.
Right now, the world could be at war while the biggest cyclone is brewing, but my dorm room is the only sanctuary left and it is at the eye of the storm. Everyone could be screaming at the same time, and the voices inside my head are at their loudest, but the sound I make drowns them all out until I only hear music, my music. How empty did I have to feel to be able to get myself back here again? Creating music allowed me to experience what I have lost months ago. I played until I hear the right sounds.
“Let’s start with E-flat. Wow, that might just be my favorite chord. What works with it?”
“Oh, maybe an F?”
“No, no. Maybe a G? That’s okay!”
“So it’s E-flat, G. Then what’s next?”
The room is dark, but it is filled with “Nah that sounds bad” and “Hmmm maybe that works.” Until I finally get it; E-flat, G, F-minor, A-flat. That’s it. No eureka moment, no light bulb on top of my head, it didn’t just pop right out of my hands. I worked until I got here. I kept repeating it until it gets buried deep in my chest. I kept repeating it until I got calloused skin again. I kept repeating it until my ears become accustomed to it.
I kept repeating it until I momentarily forgot about the coffee and my alarm, and I think that’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in a while.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Erwin Ray Gerona is an Engineering student from the University of the Philippines who writes to process his experiences and emotions, and to immortalize his thoughts. He dreams and thinks as a writer but never calls himself as one.