Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Power of Music

In this post, rather than discuss specifics of learning and playing the piano, I want to share two inspirational stories with you. Both illustrate the extraordinary power music plays in our lives.

I recently read the book entitled The Secret Piano, by Zhu Xiao-Mei. It is the true story of a young woman's life in China during the 1970s and 1980s. Zhu Xiao-Mei touched her first piano at the age of three. Her mother played and they had a piano in their tiny apartment in Beijing. The family was already experiencing adversity due to the regime of Mao. It was thought to be bourgeois to own a piano and the family kept the piano a secret. Nevertheless, Western music was still allowed, and Zhu attended the Beijing Conservatory. But soon after, the Cultural Revolution swung into full force. Gradually they were no longer permitted to play Western music. Musical scores were burned. Professors were humiliated, beaten, forced to clean toilets. Some committed suicide. The students, including Zhu, were sent to labor camps far away from their families. At these camps they endured brutal conditions, deprivation, disease, and brainwashing. They were forced to spy and inform on fellow students who did not conform to the Communist ideas. Zhu describes how the lack of any music in their lives was one of the worst forms of deprivation. She and other students tried to find ways to secretly bring music back into their lives. At one point, amazingly, she was able to smuggle her piano, sent from Beijing, into the camp, and hid it in a freezing room, where she would go to play whenever she could. They risked punishment and death, but the need for music to fill the soul-crushing routine of the camps was stronger than their fear. Zhu was in the camps for over five years. Although she survived, her youth had been stolen from her.
As the Cultural Revolution thawed, she was able to return home to her family and found her way back to playing the piano. Eventually she was able to emigrate to the U.S., where she had to clean houses and babysit to make her way. She did whatever she needed, including a marriage of convenience, to allow her to stay in the U.S. and study piano. She longed to see Paris, and decided to move there. Eventually she found friends and influential musicians there who believed in her. She was able to make her first recording, of Bach's Goldberg Variations, to concertize, and to buy her own piano. She still resides in Paris.
The book is a moving account of how her deep love of music and her desire to play, against all odds, kept her alive and sane.

The second story is from a film, for which I have only seen the trailer, entitled Landfill Harmonic.

Cateura, Paraguay, is essentially a city built on top of a landfill. Many residents work as recyclers and scavenge through the landfill in search of sellable goods. In an area where musical instruments would cost more than a house and would be out of reach for all who live there, one man uses his carpentry skills to make full-size cellos and violins from scrap metal and wood. Orchestra director, Luis Szaran, and music teacher, Favio Chavez, have taken these recycled instruments and created The Recycled Orchestra, an entire orchestra made from trash. The film shows how trash can be transformed into beautiful-sounding instruments, but more importantly, it shows how music has transformed the lives of human beings. Music brings hope to the lives of children whose future might otherwise be spiritless. Landfill Harmonic is subtitled "The World Sends Us Garbage. We Send Back Music." It releases in 2014.

Please watch the trailer here:

Both these stories make me reflect on the times when I don't feel like practicing, or I choose to watch TV instead. Or the times when I grumble that I don't play as well as I would like to, or that the pieces are so difficult! I hope I never take for granted the presence of music in my life and the freedom to pursue my life as a musician.

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