Guitar Strings

Once there was a kid. He was a middle child growing up in the Midwest at a time when some of the greatest musical influences in the world were at large. But while music was at one of its peaks, education wasn’t.

This kid was not particularly stellar in school. Sometimes letters swam around and didn’t do what they did in the brains of other kids; it was almost like his brain didn’t fit. That made school into a place where maybe this kid didn’t really want to be. Why read what feels like a foreign language when you could go home and listen to records?

One day the kid’s 8th grade science teacher told him to stay after class. The teacher sat the kid down, and he pulled out a guitar.

And that was his life.

Maybe the letters still swam around, but now they made chords, and those chords made music. And all of the stuff inside him that wasn’t right for school was right for this.

He wasn’t dumb. He wasn’t bad. His brain was made for music.

How lucky my dad was to have this kind of educator in his life: an educator who looks at a student and sees not his deficits but his potential. What if we all looked at the people in our lives that way? What if we all stopped judging people on what we think they should be good at and instead searched for the thing that they may not have yet discovered about themselves that could change the course of their life?

I believe we all have the same amount of intelligence, and all it really boils down to is how that intelligence is distributed and whether or not someone has made us believe that we are special enough to do something about it. It’s kind of like we’re all guitar strings: we all have the same importance, the same length, we just have the ability to play different notes. Maybe your intelligence is with words. Maybe it’s with sound. Maybe it’s with movement or people or plants or computers or colors. There is something at which you are so excellent and nobody in the world can do it like you. I promise you that this is true.

My dad didn’t like to read, but as a cousin once put it, he probably forgot more about guitar than any of us will ever know. To watch my dad pick up a guitar was to watch him find the other half of himself. He would draw it to himself like a magnet, tune it with no reference but his mind, and pluck away little nothings that just came from his brain, no matter how long it had been, because his brain could create music.

We all have that thing that, when we do it, it’s like a sigh. It’s a thing that comes from inside and makes its way out and maybe we don’t even realize how special we are at it but, truly, we are. The trouble is we have to be lucky enough to discover it. Otherwise it could stay hidden and we could live out one of the greatest personal tragedies, which is a life lived not knowing that we are special.

Do me and my dad a favor. Try to help the people around you to find their thing. Help them to recognize what it is that they can do that actually nobody else can: the thing inside them that changes the world. The thing that makes them feel like they are special, like they have a reason. Like they fit. How different might life be if we all discovered what it is that makes us feel that way? If we all felt like my dad’s guitar strings, tightened or loosened in exactly the way we needed in order to make the sweetest sounds and the most beautiful harmonies?

I’ll leave us all with that challenge. And to that 8th grade science teacher, thank you for doing what nobody said you had to do. Thank you for transforming a life. Rock on.

guitar-strings

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Music is my Religion

PSA: This post is inspired by Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music in reuniting people suffering from dementia with their memories.


For the whole movie I watched people come alive as headphones were placed onto their ears and the sounds of their past came rushing in, touching the places that had not been affected by dementia. I heard big band, gospel, Louis Armstrong, and I cried along with the people whose lives had been momentarily regifted to them. I felt so moved and inspired and lucky to bear witness to what I think can be considered a miracle: memories that were gone now came back.

But the beauty of these moments is not just in remembering the past. The fact that music can help us to recover memories is certainly something, but it also serves as an indicator that music is far more essential to humanity than we may realize. Pick whatever pop bubblegum artist you hate and marvel at how what they do could be considered essential to humanity, but then think about it this way: music is so essential to humanity that we will accept it in just about any form coming from just about any person. Our hearts beat. Our voices have tones. Even people as rhythmically challenged as my dear mother still feel the urge to tap or dance along to the beat of a song.

Music is a part of every culture. It is a part of every religion. It easily accompanies any physical, artistic, academic, or emotional endeavor. I have met people who generally dislike television, movies, and all kinds of additions to life that can range from undiscovered to life-consuming depending on the person. But I have never met somebody who, on the whole, dislikes music. Just like I’ve never met somebody who dislikes food, water, or breathing.

So I watched the film, touched to see these people touched by music, fascinated to see how universal and yet how personal music can be. But I wasn’t prepared for a moment that came at the very end.

In a montage of people hearing the music that touched them- a feeling that I had thought I was feeling with them- a new song came on: Blackbird. Reliving the memory, I don’t even know that I had a visual; the instant that I heard the first two notes, my body took in an involuntary gasp and I was sobbing, wailing, before the next note came out. I had thought that I understood before, but when I heard Blackbird I truly knew how music affects us so much more deeply and viscerally than we can comprehend.

I turn my iPod to shuffle when I’m lost and I want another power to decide for me what I need to hear. Often, the right song can touch me much more strongly than parts of my own religion. Could music, in fact, be like a religion to me? The thing in life that gives me hope and peace and connection and the belief that there is something more? I think so.

I got an angel to teach me Beatles and beat, to drive me to dance and to make the car move with the songs. I wrote him the music for You Are My Sunshine; he wrote me music for We Are The World. And when my angel knew that I understood, not long after I made “and in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me” a part of body, and very shortly after we recorded our own memories of and feelings about The Beatles into an archive (at which I said that I trusted that a person’s opinions about The Beatles would tell me all I needed to know about their character), he left me on my own.

But not really. Because my heart still has a beat, my voice still has sound, my iPod still sends me his music, my tattoo reminds me that he is always right in front of me. And when I hear Blackbird he is there to block out everything else and give me a moment alone with my heart. He is my angel, and music is my religion.

“The lord came to me, made me holy. I’m a holy man. So, he gave me these sounds.”
-Henry

 

Love and Death: The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

In 2014, Robin Williams and Mila Kunis starred in a film called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. This movie tells the story of a man named Henry who discovers one day that he’s dying of a brain aneurysm, and his freaked-out, pill popping, affair-having, crazy cat lady doctor (Mila Kunis) ends up telling him that he has 90 minutes to live. What does one do with just 90 short minutes left?

Henry drops by the office to ask his colleagues, one of whom is his brother. Brother doesn’t really give a crap about this deep and thought-provoking question, and he shoos Henry out the door. Henry decides that he needs to sleep with his wife one last time, but his advances are met with a declaration that she’s in love with the neighbor and that Henry no longer means anything to her. Meanwhile, Henry has called his assistant and listed off the names of every important acquaintance in his life and requested that they attend an emergency party. It’s pretty incredible that a man who’s so angry at the world all the time (hence the movie’s title) can just tick off the names of 25 people who feel important to him. But sadly, only one shows up.

Even worse than the dismissive brother, the cheating wife, and the absent friends, though, is the reaction from Henry’s son. It turns out that Henry shunned his son, Tommy, for pursuing the life of a dancer rather than going into business with his father and uncle. It also turns out that Henry is the one who instilled in Tommy a love of dancing; there was a time when Henry was constantly affectionate and happy, and the two would dance together. After his son- Tommy’s brother- died, Henry reacted with pure and utter anger and hatred toward the entire world. And now, when Henry just wants to call Tommy to say that he loves him one more time before he dies, Tommy won’t pick up.

angriestman

Henry gets himself a video camera in a last-ditch attempt to get the message to Tommy. Now, keep in mind, it’s been almost an hour at this point. This guy thinks he has very little time left, and he could be spending it going somewhere special, eating great food, or doing anything else to make himself happy. He could even be in a hospital trying to extend his time. Instead, he’s spending his last moments completely alone, having been rejected by every person he loves, trying to let them know one last time that he loves them in spite of it all. His love is bigger than himself but not big enough to be seen by those whom it touches. But despite Henry’s anger and his tragedy, all he wants to do is show it.

This is what he says (see the whole speech here):

They say that love is pure and generous. It’s not. It’s small and selfish.

You know, I wanted you at the office because I couldn’t envision anything finer than having you next to me… What you wanted, what you dreamed, I didn’t want to hear it.

We’ve all heard the popular song and dance: love is patient, love is kind, love is letting someone go, love is caring for someone else more than you care for yourself. It goes on and on. What doesn’t get said, but which is just as true, if not more, is the other side of the coin. Love causes us to care about somebody so much that all we want is to have him or her around. It might mean sitting with us at our office; it might mean keeping them home when they really want to leave. Maybe it means pushing them toward what we do because, really, what we want is for them to be just a little bit more like us. Love causes people to make stupid decisions all the time. When you think about it, that is pretty selfish.

We see more examples of love’s selfishness and stupidity as the movie goes on. Thinking about his dad, Tommy shares a random memory: “When I was seven, he taught me how to play gin rummy. And I hated it, because I could never beat him…” Now, here’s where logic comes in and says, okay, you’re seven. Of course you can’t beat him. This is a great time for a teaching moment about perseverance or something. Instead: “…so he taught me how to cheat.”

Love is more profound than right or wrong. It’s more selfish than caring. Sometimes, you can love someone so much that it’s not good for either of you. (It can cause you to cheat at cards, push them away, or even skip out on the hospital when you have minutes left to live and a broken ankle from jumping off a bridge because, damn it, you are going to dance with your son.) Quite honestly, we humans can’t understand love. We’re clearly not capable of handling it, and we make mistakes with it all the time. Maybe we haven’t evolved enough yet. But what I know for sure- what even the Angriest Man in Brooklyn knew in his last moments- is that there’s no way we can live without it.

Love tears through our lives, and death doesn’t stop it either. We learned that in The Princess Bride. We learned it in Titanic. We learned it from Glee’s Quarterback. Recently, Fast & Furious 7 paid a beautiful tribute to fallen star Paul Walker with a Wiz Khalifa song called See You Again:

It’s been a long day without you, my friend

And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again

We’ve come a long way from where we began

And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again

All of these stories, and many more, have something in common. It’s this idea that love doesn’t stop when life does. To me, that seems like a universal message from every time humans deal with death. There seems to be an understanding that dead doesn’t mean unloved, and it most certainly doesn’t mean gone. Why else would we have these notions of praying for people after they die, or joining them again one day?

It seems that, sometimes, it may even take someone dying for the rest of us to realize or to celebrate the love that we have for them. Again, this isn’t love being kind. This is love waiting until we’re at our worst and taking that moment to hit us brutally hard. And yet we always embrace that hit. Sometimes, love speaks even louder in silence.

A final note: in the end, Henry doesn’t die after 90 minutes. He lives a miraculous 8 days, and those 8 days are filled with love and family. He asks Mila Kunis (remember, the depressed pill-popper) what she would do if she knew how long she had. Her response? “I would try and figure out how to be happy.”

I leave you with Robin Williams’ answer, and his final words of the film: “Then why don’t you?”

The End of Glee: Part One

Brace yourselves, this is going to be sappy. It deserves to be. This is important.

I’ll say this right away- I know that a lot of people feel like Glee fell off the deep end for the last year or two or three. Those feelings are allowed. But, as I’ve mentioned before, Glee means a lot to me. Because I care about the characters. Because I love music. Because it has changed the course of my life, and the lives of so many others. Because it has changed the world, for the better. But maybe mostly because- and I didn’t realize it until now- Glee is, at its core, about being true to yourself and about finding someone or something that understands you, even when you can’t understand yourself. It’s about feeling something so strongly and intensely and not knowing whether it’s okay or how to express it, and then finding a way not only to come to terms with it yourself but to use it to connect with others through a shared passion. Whether that something is your sexuality, your past, or the fact that nobody around you accepts that you’re a dreamer, there will always be a song that understands you and a home where your feelings are accepted and you are celebrated for being brave enough to have them. That is a world-changing concept, and it deserves to be celebrated.

After six seasons, Glee came to an end with a double episode this past Friday. After a weekend of anxiety, I was finally able to watch the finale today. My thoughts before viewing the episode:

Here I am, in bed on a Sunday, about to watch my last episode of Glee. There’s so much anticipation. I think about how much I used to look forward to new episodes- watching with friends in high school or college, discussing them in depth after. Some season finales stick out more than others. I remember most season 3: I biked to a friend’s empty apartment to watch it on her TV. I sat alone on her floor, nobody to watch with me. I watched Finn break Rachel’s heart, and I rocked back and forth on that floor crying. I’ll never forget that. Every time there was so much hope, so much anticipation for what would happen next. Finn’s smile just after he confesses his love to Rachel in the finale of season 1 is enough to give me hope for the rest of my life. To be so happy just to know that you’re in love, and to tell it, and to be looking ahead to nothing but possibility.

And now here we are for the last time. I’m about to watch the first part of the finale, entitled “2009.” It’s hard to believe that it’s actually going to be over, and I’m going to have to deal with whatever emotions it brings on my own. No more episodes to change my feelings. This is it. Here goes.

Then I watched the episode, which takes a look back at the pilot of the show from a different angle. The episode fills in some story, but all I could think about the entire time was when I would see Finn. Ever since learning the title, I knew that this episode would be a special one, and I anticipated the thrill of seeing fresh footage of Cory Monteith, saved from years ago. To my great disappointment, there was none. However, the episode ended with the same song that the pilot ended with six years ago, even using the same Cory Monteith-centered footage, the song that has defined this show and an era. Don’t Stop Believing.

Glee has performed Don’t Stop Believing many a time. Never once has it been repetitive or out of place; every time has been more meaningful than the last, because of the history and the feelings that this song brings. Maybe I didn’t love this episode as much as I thought I would, but it taught me an important lesson: once something is a part of you, it’s a part of you. It can be the pilot, the finale, Rachel’s season 4 audition (which also happened to be the last scene Lea Michele and Cory Monteith ever appeared in together), or using season 1 again in the show’s finale. It’s never old. Don’t Stop Believing is Glee. Finn and Rachel dancing around in red t-shirts and jeans and converse is Glee. In life things may go a million different directions and you may have tragedy or annoyances or any number of things that change you. But there will always be something that makes you you. And Glee will always help you to celebrate that.

Don’t Stop Believing, Season 4 Episode 19 “Sweet Dreams”

How Glee Taught Me to Grow Up

Sometimes when I’m feeling melancholy I like to watch Glee.

At the end of high school but mostly through college, this show was an inspiration to me. I loved it dearly and, as strange as it seems, the characters and the music got me through some extremely trying times. Sometimes people can’t understand that, but we all have something that touches us and for me this was it. I identified with the character of Rachel, and I absolutely loved Finn. And because I already connect so deeply with music, the pairing of life events with music magnified their meaning for me that much more. For a long time, Glee for me was truly a source of comfort and happiness.

thequarterbackOf course, the show certainly has its difficult moments. In my opinion, some of the most powerful episodes are the ones that deal with something hard: when Sue loses her sister, the only person who brings out her humanity. When Rachel and Finn or Blaine and Kurt break up. And of course, The Quarterback. This episode, the show’s tribute to Cory Monteith three months after his sudden death in July of 2013, is painful to see. But I have watched it many a time, because my mission isn’t to avoid pain; it’s to feel something powerful. And that’s certainly what The Quarterback achieves.

Due to a combination of Cory Monteith’s death and simply getting older, I have become less of a rabid Glee fan than I once was. But there have been a few times this year when I needed something that felt familiar, something that would bring me out of a funk and put the feeling back in me full force. At those times, I turn to a few choice episodes of Glee- from the old days, seasons 2 and 3 when I was in my first years of college.

For each episode I see, I have a memory of the first time I watched it. Today I threw it back to season 2; I remembered watching First Kiss while on the ellipticals in my freshman dorm where everybody else was watching the same thing, and we all gasped at the same moment. Next I watched The Substitute, which I viewed on a Friday with a friend right before band practice. And then I turned to Furt, a personal favorite that I watched the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving with a group of friends, suitcase in tow, before running off to catch my shuttle to the airport to go home.

For me Glee is more than a show. It’s a way to remember and to measure a past life. As I watched today, overcome with emotion at seeing Cory Monteith (ever since his death, I have in some ways avoided his performances), I wondered whether it was time to let Glee go. What was the point of watching something that was supposed to make me feel better, if it only brought up overwhelming sadness? I watched and I saw characters who I knew would later die, and I remembered how different I was years ago when I first saw them and how much I’ve grown up since then.

Certainly the show will never bring me the same pure joy that it once did; I will probably never be able to watch without feeling at least a little bit of grief. Realistically, Glee may not always pick up my mood. Sometimes it may bring me down with memories and thoughts of what could have been. But perhaps that’s just part of getting older- realizing that the good rarely comes without even just a little bit of the bad. Taking in the memories and trying to be happy about them, even if things didn’t turn out well later down the line. In fact, that may even be one of the hardest parts: appreciating what happened in the past without resenting the fact that I may not have it anymore.

So, to answer my own question, I will not stop watching Glee. I will never watch it with the same unadulterated exuberance, and it may not ever make me feel the same way it used to. But it will always represent a dearly special time in my life, and I will always keep with me the lessons that I learned. I’m viewing it now with different eyes, eyes that are older and wiser. Things look a little different through them. Maybe not as bright, maybe a little more clear. Definitely more appreciative of the gifts that we can all get from whatever it is that touches us and brings us peace.

But even though its place in my life is different, what brings me peace is this: I no longer need Glee to make me feel better. I am tougher and stronger and smarter than I was back when I used to fanatically watch it. Now the experience may be less exciting, but Glee shows me how far I’ve come. It doesn’t give me the same feeling that it used to. But when I watch it and think about where I was in life the first time, I can see how many incredible strides I’ve made and how different of a person I have become. Like the characters I love so much, I have grown up. That’s not something that everybody gets to do, as I’m reminded every time I watch The Quarterback. So it may not be easy, and it may come with a bit of confusion or nostalgia, but it is most certainly a beautiful thing.

dontstopbelieving

Imagine

In the days after Cory Monteith died, I spent a lot of time on Twitter and Tumblr looking through Cory-inspired posts. I saw many a Glee quote, many a picture of him with angel wings photoshopped in, and many a prayer, but the one thing that made me stop was this:

Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman will live the rest of his life in protective custody to keep from being murdered. Cory Monteith overdosed at age 31. When will we step up, conquer our fears, overcome our demons, and live courageously, love lavishly and live self-sacrificially so that this pattern ends? I may be a dreamer, but I’m not the only f***ing one.”

-Brandt Russo

This thought got to me for a lot of reasons, but the Imagine quote was the biggest one. Something invisible hit me right in the gut when I read that last sentence.

Let me stop right here and say this: This is not a post about a hot-button news issue. This is not a post about death and loss and the tragic state of our world. This is a post about music.

Music is probably the only thing I have loved for my entire life, and The Beatles are an enormous part of that. I remember so clearly writing in my 3rd grade diary something to the effect of, “I’m home sick today and I have the stomach flu. But I just listened to Let It Be, and now I feel better.”

How powerful is that? Forty years after the Beatles stop making music, some random nine-year-old girl in Texas still uses their songs as a cure for physical pain. That nine-year-old is now twenty-two, and a few weeks ago at school after breaking up her third or fourth fight of the day, she sat herself down at a table and wrote slowly, deliberately.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
Let it be
Let it be
Let it be
Let it be
There will be an answer
Let it be

And after reminding herself of those words she believed them, not only because of the message that they send but because of all of the feelings and memories that a song can carry.

We all have them. Maybe it’s a song that reminds you of a happy memory, or a certain period in your life, or a particular person. But how incredible is it that just hearing the opening moments to one of your special songs can invoke such instant and powerful emotion?

As a musician myself I know that playing is emotionally cathartic and mentally and creatively stimulating. As a listener I know that music has a perfect way of communicating universal experience in a way that all kinds of people can digest. As a dancer I know that music can help us to express emotions that we may not have even known we had. Music allows us to share our passions, our thoughts, our dreams. And it’s part of being human. Did you know that people were making music before they could talk?

Yesterday a friend and I walked through Central Park. I wanted to see the Imagine mosaic, a tribute to John Lennon that now exists in the place where he was shot.

imaginemosaic

Of course when we arrived there were dozens of people milling around, taking in the mosaic and getting pictures of themselves sitting in the middle. But they were also doing something else that I didn’t expect. They were singing.

Now, I know that street performers are a dime a dozen in New York, and I’m not surprised that there was a guy with a guitar sitting on a bench next to the mosaic and playing Imagine. But what did surprise me was that he was encouraging people to sing along with him. And after he finished playing, this man told his listeners that it was a tradition for somebody to be at the memorial playing at all times.

Somehow, somewhere, someone organizes shifts for performers so that John Lennon’s memory will never exist in silence, and will always be surrounded by music. And more than 30 years after his death, more than enough artists are willing to do it.

Our country is going through a rough time right now, and arguably it always will be.

But on any given day at any given hour, you can go to Strawberry Fields to remember and pay tribute to a man who understood that music speaks louder, lasts longer, and hits harder than gunshots.

imagine

“…and the world will live as one.”