Triumph of the Amygdala

I find myself in a curious predicament.

I am unreasonably and somewhat pathologically addicted to a musical that I’ve seen 6 times in 10 days, traveling over 700 miles to do so.

Now, perhaps you have been where I am. Maybe there was/is a performer, a show, a piece of music that you couldn’t get enough of. Where perhaps distance or even cost simply couldn’t keep you away. But you have to understand that I’ve never been like that. Always the somewhat sanguine professional musician, I’ve been aware of the value of these things but have almost always (by default, not by choice) kept my emotional distance. I’m a compassionate audience member and a supportive colleague, and I never intend to be a harsh critic. I am ever mindful of why musicians do what they do, and how critical it is to stay focused on what’s really important. But I never stop being analytical.

But suddenly I’m like a crazy woman, unable to get enough of it, and laughing and crying out loud every time I relive it.

Full disclosure – I have some idea how I ended up in this mess. Someone near and dear to me is in the show. The music of this particular composer somehow always hits me deep in my gut. And the subject material of the show in question resonates loud and clear with my own life at this moment. But after all, it’s just a musical (ah, snobbery showing through?…), and an amateur one at that. And all of these factors have come into play before without this much of a punch.

My life in music has consisted of playing opera, oratorios, concertos, chamber music, jazz (not very well), piano bar entertainment, summer stock theatre, solo recitals, community concerts… well, let’s say I’ve been around lots of bends. And I’ve supported both of my kids, as many parents do, through cello recitals, plays, chorus concerts, dance recitals, and basketball games. I’ve adored watching them play their hearts out in every possible way, and although their efforts never failed to touch me, I was always realistic. I didn’t feel affection for the music, but for their courage in sharing their efforts with others, and the way they grew a little taller every time they did so.

So it’s perplexing why now, this mild-mannered, detached musician is having a visceral, near-violent reaction to two hours in the theatre.

God knows I can always see the faults. Almost always to a fault. And this one has its warts, too, when viewed from a purely professional perspective. How many times have I sat in the theatre or concert hall and cursed the fact that I couldn’t ignore the damn intonation or tempo or pacing or production values and just enjoy the experience? So why all of a sudden do these things not matter?

Of course, my left brain tells me that my amygdala has taken over.

The amygdala: a crazy little part of the human limbic system that rules our emotions. It plays a surprising part in our attachment to certain music – even certain performers. If you know someone who goes on and on about the golden age of opera singers (or jazz singers… or rockers… or actors… or athletes), chances are he became acquainted with his favorite performers at an exciting and emotional time in his life. His active amygdala imprinted this discovery with a big old emotional aura, so that the experience is remembered and re-experienced so intensely that it overshadows anything that comes after it. Hence, “they don’t really sing like they used to.”

I’m not knocking this, for it’s an important part of why we love the arts at all. Neither am I diminishing it by acknowledged that there is probably a dry, clinical explanation for it. Although my son would be terribly proud of me for seeing through my emotion clearly enough to realize that everything has a biochemical cause. (Ha. What does he know? He’s only 17.)

So I’ll stop trying to sort it out. I may even stop worrying about it. Maybe it means I’m growing up. That if the message is clear enough, I have learned to listen to it in the right way.

There were oceans to cross
There were mountains to conquer
And I stood on the shore
And I stood on the cliff
And the second before I jumped I knew where I needed to be



If it is Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” as the lyrics at the end of your pots would suggest, who could blame you? It’s a fabulous musical. And if you haven’t already, you should check out Jason Robert Brown’s “Last Five Years.” While seeing it live may be a bit tricky, I think there are clips of it on youtube, and if nothing else the cast recording is amazing.


As a singer, I wish I could shut up my inner monologue and let that amygdala take over more often. These days I find it difficult to be moved by anything excpet musical theatre – everything else feels too close to work. I’m so glad you love this show – I love it too.

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