Almost exactly three years ago, MtMn and I played a concert at Independence Village in Oxford, Michigan. His parents Don and Rosemary had recently moved there. Don, recently turned 90, was increasingly frail, and Rosie was leaning on us hard to play some music while he was still up for it.
My husband has played every kind of music and easily moves from style to style – me, not so much. So we went with a bunch of Great American Songbook rep: Gershwin, Porter, etc. I played slow, easy, lush chords in the background as MtMn soared on his saxophones, laying out those classic tunes.
The people loved his playing (um, duh). And afterwards, conversations happened that I’ll never forget. See, we knew these people. We’d enjoyed meals with them and chatted with them in the halls. We thought we knew my in-laws’ friends. But after we played, they came up to us full of fire and energy and detail.
“You played ‘Embraceable You!’ That was our song. We danced to it at all our kids’ weddings.”
“You sound just like the sax player who used to play at our favorite club down on Nine Mile. We used to go every Friday after work. The bandstands were lime green! We danced the Lindy – I bet you’ve never heard of it.”
”You’re too young to know Detroit back in those days. There were live bands everywhere! You would have had a following, let me tell you.”
People told us how much they spent on dinner, the color of the dresses they wore, the size of the cars they drove, the price of gas in 1961. They told us the names of their kids, the names of their streets.
And they sang to us.
Several people sang to me the lyrics of their favorite songs, songs MtMn had played. Mostly it was just a phrase or two, but one luminous lady held my hands and sang:
“Just one look at you, my heart grew tipsy in me,
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me”
I can’t forget this afternoon, people crowded around clamoring to tell us about the meaning in their lives of the music we’d played. I remembered it last fall as I helped some of my students take part in a workshop with Cincinnati Opera. We were working on Tobias Picker’s new piece on the work of Oliver Sacks, ”Awakenings.” I’ve read everything of Sacks I could get my hands on, obsessed on an amateur level with the workings of the human brain, and (like Sacks) especially with music’s effect on our minds. I knew from his writing about how music can have profound healing effects. Of course it can relax and calm us. But there’s more – music engages so many different parts of the brain that it seems to have profound implications on memory and healing. Music has come to be an important part of rehabilitation after brain injury, and it’s now seen as a major component of healing and palliative care.
I’ve been interested from the sidelines, as I’m sure many of us are, for years. But three years ago, I saw it for myself. My in-laws’ frail dinner companions, in their eighties and nineties, in assisted living – after the music they were energetic, loquacious, detailed in their memories.
We buried Don, who slept through that concert, just a few months later. Rosie followed him after less than a year. We said goodbye to Michigan and moved to Ohio, and MtMn decided to stop playing music on cruise ships (not very sad about that decision right now). And eventually, life found its footing again. So I can tell y’all this at last:
I’m going back to school.
Oh, I’m still going to be a professor and freelance piano pounder and hand waver and word writer! My jobs stay the same. But in addition, in about four years, I will also have my bachelor’s degree in music therapy.
Honestly, I feel a little leery publicizIng this news. I mean, people in classical music still tend to be weird about what we’re now calling the “portfolio” career (spoiler alert – this term refers to what has been a typical artist’s career as it’s existed for basically forever). But I love doing all the things, and so do lots of you. MOST people I know are doing all the things. It’s an enormous privilege to pursue what you care about. And I’m privileged to join the distance learners at Saint Mary of the Woods.
I’ll keep you posted here on what it’s like to be a professor and a student all at the same time. I am sure every teacher will agree with me – the more you learn, the more you realize there is yet to learn. Let’s celebrate that endless road of learning together! ]
Thank goodness, it is never complete.