I used to look forward to the long months of winter.
Long evenings meant more time to build with LEGOs, to read, to stay indoors. Growing up, that was an idyllic situation for me, as I would rather be inside with my little brother and sister (although I was a bully of an older brother to her) than outside in the cold Northern Michigan winter.
Somewhere back there, as a kid, I spent five or six years studying piano.
My teacher was a woman of my grandparents’ generation, a child prodigy in England who married a trumpeter many years her senior. This chain-smoking couple taught hundreds of students out of their modest home, he in the basement, she in the living room.
How I ended up learning the piano under her tutelage is not clear to me, and it honestly wasn’t a perfect fit. I hated practicing, I did not like most classical music and my asthma made lesson in their home a physical challenge. But she was kind to me and persisted in teaching me, despite my occasional protestations.
My obstinance reached a head as I entered my teenage years.
Despite my teacher’s petitions, even offering to let me skate by without practicing, my pleading eventually pressured my parents into letting me quit. Music had become a chore for me and I needed out. I walked away, big time, but I had more time to go through the normal teenage experiences.
In college I fell in love with an aspiring opera singer and I ended up joining the choir and minoring in music. It was a pragmatic decision to spend time with her while taking music history classes. But I didn’t understand the power and purpose of the music I was studying. It was an academic study but it didn’t resonate inside of me in the way that it did with the girl I was pursuing.
Now we’ve been married six years and I’m spending most nights at home alone —
while she is away working toward her graduate degree in voice. The depression and anxiety that I have been diagnosed with in adulthood make the long winter nights rather miserable, a long way from the joy of basement games in January’s past.
Some nights are nearly crippling.
One recent night, I sat thinking in our dining room, which happens to house my wife’s grandfather’s keyboard. I sat down at the bench on a whim and discovered some old sheet music left by my best friend several summers ago when he roomed with us. As I struggled through the introductory chords of Ben Fold’s Wandering, a change took place.
Lost in the music, the anxiety calmed and my mood lightened.
It was therapeutic and unexpected. No medication, no breathing exercises. Just music.
I think it was because music is a language, and language is the vehicle used to express every emotion comprehensible. In that moment, the language of peace, of comfort, of the familiar resonated through the chords of a ten year old pop song. They helped pull me through the moments of crushing, irrational fear.
Nietzsche once wrote “without music, life would be a mistake.” Music is making the long nights easier, less empty. When the anxiety or depression creep in, I know that I can sit down at the piano, plunk out a few notes, and eventually lose myself in the music.
Music isn’t a cure all for me and I don’t expect it to be.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel right and I try to turn to other things to calm the stress. But right now I’m relearning what my teacher tried to teach me in her smoked-filled living room. Music is beautiful. Music conveys emotions. Music speaks to the soul.
And for me, and maybe for you, music is helping me reshape my story of cold, lonely, dark winter nights into something bright and beautiful.
[Photo: Louise Lemettais, Creative Commons]