Fireflies, Chopin teach harmonic lessons

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to leave until I was 20 miles away on the interstate and headed to the airport. As we careened down the highway, the fog rose above the blue mountains and into the hazy sky like a beard of cotton. My head drooped against the window and I closed my eyes, stirring my memories of North Carolina.

After eight weeks at the Brevard Music Center, “home” meant the five-star wooden cabin I shared with 16 students, “food” meant potatoes at every meal and “weekend” meant performing or attending concerts. The music world grew closer with the humidity. At first we tried to out-play one another, to show off and gain approval, and it became commonplace to overhear an ambitious cellist or competitive pianist sigh: “I only practiced six hours today ...”

My friends and I found respite from the demanding rehearsals: We swam the lake and explored the countryside. On weekends we flocked the auditorium to attend concerts.

The first performance of the season, Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4,” was held in Brevard’s outdoor concert hall. My distracted eyes peered into the dimming sky — pinpoints of flickering light. Fireflies — buzzing like violin trills, oscillating amid the deep resonance of the trombones — they blinked like miracles.

In the following weeks, my hours became a series of classes and a succession of practice rooms. At meals, conversation turned to Tchaikovsky, Mendelsohn and Shostakovich. I fell into a community where at night we would have bonfires behind the trumpet studios and discuss not just college and the future, but counterpoint and composition.

On those warm evenings, the impenetrable darkness was broken only by the occasional glow of a cellphone, the screech of a wailing violin.

One night, a 17-year-old violinist gave an impromptu lecture about Nietzsche. He explained that music was bound by the duality of Apollo and Dionysus — whose continual strife gave voice to the divine world of art. Dionysus, god of wine and dancing, embodied dreams and illusion, while his competitor, Apollo — god of prophecy and light — relied on truth and morals. Together, Apollo and Dionysus form Pulse, what the violinist explained as “the universal gravitation toward point and time.” This backbone of musical composition exists in classical, rap, jazz, tango — even country.

During my last week, I attended a class about J.S. Bach. Forty high school pianists sat patiently with pens raised for battle, laptops poised. The professor we all hoped to impress walked to the piano, sat down and began to play. Wrists bent slightly lower than the keybed, fingers lifting reflexively, she paused to speak. “Listen,” she told us, “life is tough.”

There we sat, ambitious, competitive, steamrolling through our lives to get to college, to win competitions, to apply for scholarships, to get ahead. One solitary chord transformed the audience, made us hold our breath.

My summer at Brevard allowed me to forgo “perfection” and strive for something tangible. Instead of a math class or desk job, I learned the harmonic language of Chopin. His startling melodies explained more than what any internship could teach me.

At Brevard, I lived beneath the trees with a community of 400 musicians. I grew up a bit; my goals changed. I learned that intricate structure creates simple beauty, that good music avoids closure. As the car pulled up to the airport and my homebound journey began, my eyes stung. Like the fireflies, summer glances quickly by, the days flickering on and off like dreams, slipping out of our palms.

— Celeste Nahas is a senior at Lakeridge High School and writes a monthly column for the Lake Oswego Review. To contact her email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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