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Common App: "Chord Changes"


Elliott Eglash

Admitted: Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell

I breathe. I blow. I play. The solo section is coming up, and my pulse rises, slightly, in anticipation. I stand, the muscles in my quadriceps contracting. The music on the page is full of letters, numbers, symbols. A triangle is the symbol for a major chord, the undeniably pleasing triad of notes, 1-3-5. The calculus student within me knows it is also the symbol for delta, for change. This chord cannot exist by itself, static. It needs somewhere to go. A major chord is a typical place for a solo section to start, because it opens up so many possibilities.

Letting go a roaring series of triplet-sixteenth notes, I ascend the staff, reaching a peak on the high tonic, and holding there. The chord shifts. The dash is the symbol for a minor chord, a major chord tweaked by one half-step, to produce something sad and pensive. As a writer, I also see it as the symbol for connection, between words (as in half-step). It allows for combinations that may otherwise be impossible. It leads somewhere, promises that something more is coming.

I play a descending eighth note run, cooling down, experimenting with the chord. I bend one note, physically. Most saxophone techniques like that are just extensions of raw muscle movement. Scoops and bends come from unhinging the jaw, snakelike. Altissimo is achieved by forcing air through the tiniest possible opening between tongue and palate. The growl is a product of hummed dissonance, which creates interference waves that can make a note rough and tender.

I come up to a slower, more lyrical section. I add vibrato to the notes, a function of the forced quivering of my lips. It is sadness, concentrated and controlled, that adds the extra color to the notes. Maybe that’s how it is with all art. A book is that much more touching with the author’s soul bared. But the physicality is more apparent in music. Great, gulping breaths, fingers shaking, lips trembling, head pounding, eyes closed. This is how music is made.

But more than that, emotional response to music is so innate to humans that one might expect to find it hidden somewhere in our DNA, among the genes for height and hair color. There are sequences of notes and inflections of tone that can unwrap the double helix from the histones, make us feel without necessitating understanding. The music runs through me, like water through coffee grounds, becoming an extract of me.

The music shifts back to the joyous, frantic tempo of before. We are back to the major chord, at the starting point. What has changed? My lungs contract, slowly, steadily, my diaphragm pushing air past a sliver of wood to make it vibrate. My fingers make the keys clack, sending out unknowable Morse code messages. I am noise corporeal, if only for a moment. With a final, pounding run, my solo finishes, and I sit down lightly and quietly, breathless and fulfilled.

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