Last week, I saw an amazing article in the New York Times, describing the creative relationship between an experienced and adventurous choreographer and a young and talented actor with cerebral palsy. Tamar Rogoff, the choreographer, saw the actor, Gregg Mozgala, in a Shakespeare play and immediately knew that she wanted to work with him to create a dance piece. He, understandably, with muscular and neurological challenges, particularly in his legs, had not considered himself a dancer until this point, but was intrigued by her offer and agreed to the challenge.
The miraculous part of this experiment has been the changes they have wrought together in Gregg’s body- more dramatic changes in eight months than he had achieved in twelve years of physical therapy. For example, after walking on his toes his entire life, his heels now touch the ground, allowing him to walk normally. He is now aware of, and using, parts of his body that he had no relationship with before. And, most wonderfully, he is becoming a dancer, creating a piece called “Diagnosis of a Faun”. The first performance takes place on Dec. 3 at La MaMa Annex in the East Village, New York City.
I wrote to Gregg to congratulate him on this incredible achievement, and to ask whether he considered the creation of art to be part of the healing process, to which he replied emphatically, “Yes.” And this “yes” makes me curious about my own healing process. What if I could heal some of the old patterns of tension, contraction and pain, which prevent me from leading an active life and playing my beloved piano? What if I could do this through movement, through a creative process, so that rather than just repeating a series of mindless physical exercises, each movement had a purpose I believed in? It’s an intoxicating idea, one that speaks to me on a deep level. My next step is to contact the choreographer. Wish me luck!
He knows what’s important— the purity, the essence of the music. There’s nothing like not being able to play the piano for forty years to make one appreciate each sound. Each opportunity to create beauty. There’s no excuse, no need for artifice. Each moment has purpose.
Years of absence and silence have refined the desire to create sound. Decades of trying and failing to regain health, prestige, career have bruised and beaten the ego to a pulp. Only the heart of the music remains, as only the soul of man survives.
Now he wants to play Bach, Chopin, Schubert. Why play music that is purely virtuosic? He learned long ago that maximum notes per second are not where it’s at.
“Before, I was just a two-handed piano player,” he says. “What happened to me has expanded my life, my awareness, my humanity.”
Choir was never like this when I was a child. I always loved singing and developed an affection for a wide variety of repertoire, so choir was an enjoyable experience as long as the teacher wasn’t too boring or bad-tempered. Yet I also remember stony stares from the other children if I sang too heartily or showed too much enthusiasm.
Performances were about rows of uniformed children standing straight, arms at their sides, enunciating clearly and watching the conductor like a hawk. And I loved it– Christmas carols in the freezing local church (invariably followed by a throat infection), anthems in the university chapel, and choir tours encompassing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sacre-Coeur in Paris.
But I’ve never before seen a choir connecting so deeply with music. As an appreciative You Tube viewer so aptly put it,”The sound produced from these kids is so pure and beautiful because it comes straight from their hearts.”
The choir is made up of fifth-graders from PS 22, an elementary school on Staten Island, New York composed of students from many ethnic backgrounds, many of whom come from difficult and deprived backgrounds, but thanks to their inspirational teacher, Mr. Breinberg, they are being enriched for life. And I know that watching and listening to them make music has changed me irrevocably too.
The other day I saw a marvelous television program in which Bill Moyers interviewed Pema Chödrön, an elderly American lady, now Buddhist nun, who has become famous for her wisdom mixed with common sense.
One of the subjects she dealt with that struck me with great force was the difference between pain and suffering. The interpretation she chose to differentiate between those words was powerful. She described pain as being for example, an unwelcome event, an injury, a disappointment, and so on. And suffering is what we then do inside ourselves in response to that event. Continue reading…
I’ve been finding Michelle Bennett’s recent posts on her blog very thought-provoking. She’s been extremely courageous in revealing her inner challenges as a student and a professional singer, and how these have led her to psychotherapy and inner work alongside her musical life. So often musicians, like any professionals, are extremely hesitant to reveal anything less than perfection. Yet, the reality is that we are all dealing with inner challenges every day. And, as Michelle says:
“There is no doubt that the process of facing one?s self is hugely difficult, especially if, like many artists, you have been hurt badly or are very sensitive. I would wager that most people will never do it because of the enormous effort required and pain of the task. It is an odyssey.”
I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Hough‘s article in today’s Guardian about the relatively recent separation of the roles of composer and performer.
It is only since starting to improvise and compose over the last ten years that I realize how my education was so separatist in that regard, both at school and university– “composing was for the prodigy and the rest of us probably wouldn’t write anything worth listening to” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.
Stephen writes: “…there is a modesty that is snobbery and one that is laziness, but a much more common form is just plain timidity. Anyone who can read music can write it too – and should. It doesn’t have to be performed, and it may not be very inspired, but to be totally divorced from the act of creation risks making us neighbours rather than relatives to the works we play. And, by the same token, composers who never perform risk writing music that is impractical and even unplayable.”
Looking back, I think I was a ‘neighbour’ to some extent. However much I was taught to analyse the works of others, it never seemed feasible that I might actually write something myself– certainly not sitting at a desk with manuscript paper and pencil. My liberation eventually came through discovering that improvisation (forbidden when I was a child) produced much more satisfying results. It also freed me to play the standard repertoire with greater vitality and insight. Experimenting myself with harmonic or motivic building blocks, I could then understand more deeply from the inside how Bach or Beethoven were composing.
My forthcoming article in American Music Teacher, “Intuitive Improvisation”, lays out in greater detail some good places for the budding improviser to start. Until then, I would just encourage any of you to ‘have a go’ and have fun!