Viral Days

Bliss and Melancholy

Playing music can pull you through the tough times

By Diane Cole | May 29, 2021
Rick Harris (Flickr/rickharris)
Rick Harris (Flickr/rickharris)

What did I learn from the pandemic? It was what I relearned: that measure by measure, day by day, it would be music that would console, sustain, and propel me through, as it has through every trauma and tragedy I have ever experienced.

In music, resilience is always part of the score. We each possess a personal songbook, a lifelong soundtrack that begins at birth, with the oohing and cooing of lullabies that soothe us as we awaken into the world and comfort us as we adjust to the rhythms of life around us. And over time we learn to hum and sing our own tunes, crafting an inner montage of remembered refrains that become our mantras and anthems for coping, thriving, and surviving.

Indeed, I often see my own life as having unfolded one sheet of music after another. I began piano lessons at the age of eight, not a moment too soon to help me drown out my father’s discordant flights of imaginary accusations, mostly against my mother, and by extension sometimes me. Whenever I needed a release from the tensions that surrounded me, I merely had to sit at the keyboard and create a musical wall of sound, on the other side of which my emotions, however troubled, could freely metamorphose into whatever tune, or mood, I chose. And when friends came over to visit, we could sing out loud together, in our own mutually supportive musical bubble, as I improvised accompaniments to the folk, pop, and Broadway favorites of the day.

All those lessons served me well through the emotional turmoil of high school. And in college, especially after I met Peter, the man I would later marry, I expanded my range, brightening my tone, adding a lighter, sweeter, touch and a long melodic line.

Yet the stormy variations of adolescent angst had not completely faded when a darker theme arose. My mother was dying; she had no more than a year before the cancer would kill her. Words rang dully. But music, as it always had, gave us a mutual language of love and concern. When she was still well enough, we attended concerts together, often more attentive to each other than the pieces played. One still haunts me, though: the Brahms Horn Trio, blissful and melancholy all at once; I did not learn until years later that Brahms had composed it in remembrance of his mother.

Then, as Mom’s condition worsened, I would run upstairs and down, between her bedroom and the living room piano. Day after day until the very end, I took her requests for what to play next, hoping to eke out yet another musical moment together, and then another, perhaps into infinity.

After Mom’s death, I moved into an apartment too small to house a piano, leaving me doubly bereft of both my mother and my musical lifeline. Alone in the silence, I took up the flute, an instrument with a sound that had always reminded me of the human voice. But though the tones I produced were less soothing than squeaky, learning to fashion music out of breath taught me how to breathe anew in the wake of grief. In this way, I also reawakened to all life’s possibilities. Peter and I married. We adopted a son, Edward. As an infant, he would belly-flop across our living room floor in wonder whenever I began to tickle the ivories. He was soon accompanying me, banging on the tiny toy piano that tinkled like an ice cream truck. Music soon became his passion, too; he took lessons first at the piano, then on the drums.

When Edward was 10, his father spent five long months in the hospital. Each day after we returned home from visiting Peter, Edward would grab his sticks and begin pounding the electronic drum pads so hard that the neighbors strained their throats attempting to complain above the din. Too bad. Soon I started taking drumming lessons, too.

In that spirit I bought a U-shaped steel agogo bell. Its echoing sound reverberated throughout my body with every strike of its compact wooden mallet. Our duets were as deafening as they were revivifying—at least to us. Edward began working on a grand drum roll with which to welcome his father home. But Peter would never hear the performance his son had prepared for him. He died at 49, just weeks before Edward’s 11th birthday.

In the years that followed, Edward abandoned drums to concentrate on bass guitar. He is now a professional musician, making music whenever he can. I took up piano lessons again, proud of expanding my repertoire, improving my technique.

With no longer a need for the drum set, we sold it. But I kept the agogo bell. And when Covid-19 hit, I took it out once more, leaning outside my Manhattan window and banging on it every night in cathartic cacophony with my fellow New Yorkers. Amid so much illness and pain, that hollow gong still reminded me of hope.

As did the viral videos of musicians who added new technological skills that would allow them to perform remotely. My own piano lessons continued via FaceTime. I was surprised—and delighted—when various friends also began asking me to play for them on Zoom. The streaming sound from my upright was anything but grand, but as I toggled between Bach and Debussy and the American songbook, I mused that we are just the latest historical cohort to benefit from music’s exceptional capacity to create community and hope, even against the most tragic backdrop of grief and misfortune.

The communal pulse of music gave us strength, I thought, assuring us that even through the lonely quiet and isolation of the pandemic, we could still hear each other—we were also still here for each other. Music is what connects us to the spirit of resilience, to each other, to ourselves. Which is why, now that the intensity of the pandemic is abating, it is also time for me to tune my piano and play on, attuned to what comes next.

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