Sing Me Back Home: Coda, Frequency, Harmony

In the final year or so of my dad’s long life, he did not know who I was anymore. That is not so uncommon, but it was a good thing I had done so much work on my early neglect trauma by then because it was painfully reminiscent of my childhood with him. Our visits were not much fun, to say the very least. Until we discovered that he seemed to remember the entire playlist of songs from his whole life. 

Dad was always a very musical man, and although the Nazi Holocaust robbed him of his education from age twelve, when he finally got to the US and was able to work his way to being able to pay for it, he found a college that would accept him without a high school diploma. He became a cantor. In Judaism, the cantor is the musical counterpart to the rabbi. That was a fitting job for him.

I always wondered if music was Dad’s real first love, but he would not quite let himself pursue a purely musical career out of some sort of Holocaust responsibility or guilt. Regardless, however, he always sang. I can remember all kinds of songs, including a fair measure of spirituals and even popular songs. He sometimes had moonlighting gigs singing in cocktail lounges and restaurants, although he never cared much for that because the “audience” was eating or drinking and not paying much attention to him. And he loved classical music, my mother did too.

When we were a little older and moved to California, I remember my dad would buy records called “Music Minus One” (MMO.) They were the accompaniment to famous operas or Schubert’s Lieder and the like. He would blast them in the center of the house and vocalize loudly. There was no escaping his bellowing baritone without leaving the house. By then, I was an adolescent, and perhaps part of my rebellion was to reject classical music, from which I have only partially “recovered.” But I hated being displaced that way for hours on end. And although many rhapsodized about his beautiful voice, I found it another of the ways that his large presence dominated our life. 

Most distasteful of all was going to his performances with the Stanford Opera Workshop and seeing him prance around, singing in tights. Oy vey. I was so embarrassed! All this is to say, music was deep in my dad’s psyche and nervous system.  I even vaguely remember how intrigued and probably relieved my mother was when an old family friend who was a psychiatrist used music to calm him down or comfort him.

As my dad declined towards death, I found that we could spend our visits singing. He still remembered every word, especially of the Jewish holiday songs. We would often sing rounds, and on a good day, when my sister was able to coordinate her visit with mine, she would bring her guitar, which was formerly his guitar. Music would get a smile out of him, he seemed more alive, and the time would pass. When he was in his final hours and barely conscious, I had some time with him alone. I had already said anything I still needed to say to him. So, I sang, mostly the same song over and over, the old spiritual, Twelve Gates to the City. Somehow that seemed a fitting way to send him off. It certainly comforted and regulated me. And I was somehow sure he was hearing me.


I always have a song in my head. Although, as is common for those of us with trauma and neglect histories, I remember very little about my childhood. Even now, my narrative is spotty. But I also remember every word of countless songs. My husband is often amazed. Even the repertoire of Latin American revolutionary songs we sang 50 years ago, I can still sing pretty much word for word in Spanish. And I still love them. I have groaning shelves of old vinyl that I cannot bear to part with, even though we don’t have any device to play “LP’s” on.  I am quite struck by the way music has made a home in my brain and body and has ever been a source of sustenance, comfort, and regulation. It still is, and I treasure that. 

I also remember when I was young, and a whole category of emotions were either inaccessible or verboten, (mostly on the rage and anger spectrum!) my music helped me to access and, if not process, at least safely discharge some of that. I loved the angriest Rolling Stones albums, and I remember scrubbing floors on my hands and knees alone in the house, blasting my music even louder than Dad’s MMO. I am sure it helped.

I also believe that music registers, even resonates powerfully energetically in the interpersonal field, even when it is quietly contained in my busy head. It is not uncommon that when I am sitting with a neglect survivor client who often has very few words or lacks a coherent story, the song that pops up spontaneously in my head inspires the question that might unlock an upwelling or even a flood of sensory, emotional, or visual somatic memory or association. It is as if some sensibility in my brain is connecting with an age-old communication in theirs. This may sound a little “woo woo,” but I want to learn more about this. The more I learn about energy and frequencies, the less “far out” it seems.


After my brief but memorable meeting with the ingenious musician Bobby McFerrin, I was all over YouTube watching videos of him. He is uniquely able to create such a vast universe and variety of sound with only his voice and body, it is hard to fathom. I even heard him talking about how he trained himself to sing two different notes at once. Imagine being able to create harmony singlehandedly. And what a great metaphor! I discovered that Bobby currently offers workshops called Circlesongs, which are a protracted capella call and response that may extend for hours, even days. Watching a Circlesong video, I was mesmerized and quieted even by merely 54 minutes on a screen. 

 Recently in a book I read about frequencies, I learned that “Research has shown that the low-frequency vibrations produced by a cat’s purring can have therapeutic benefits for the cat and its owner. These vibrations can help promote the healing of soft tissue injuries in humans, including muscle strains, sprains, and other connective tissue injuries!”* Imagine the healing that might come from the unison of dozens, even hundreds of voices resounding for hours on end together, not to mention the energetic connection between participants. I hope to get in on one of those, perhaps this summer, and see what sort of healing is possible that way for this old body. 

Many cultures, of course, have known this for centuries and have rituals and extended chants and ceremonies that surely have those effects. Bobby certainly does not claim to have re-invented the wheel. I have a client whose Buddhist community had group chants that would extend through the nights and for days on end. I never understood that. But I think I am beginning to. I’d like to understand much more about how music can help us grow and heal. Meanwhile, I’ll keep ending each blog with a song!

*What the Ear Hears (and Doesn’t): Inside the Extraordinary Everyday World of Frequency by  Richard Mainwaring  

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