“Ring the bells that still can ring
There is no perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
I started playing the piano when I was 5 years old. I remember seeing this strange object with white and black keys on it, and my fingers were drawn to it, by some inexplicable power. I sensed somehow that it would reveal something to me.
Little did I know that this object with black and white keys would reveal a world that would awaken my whole life with beauty, wonder, and Grace. It would create a portal into my heart that awakened me to looking at the world through the eyes of Beauty. I would tune my nervous system, and influenced the whole perspective through which I would look at everything and everyone for the rest of my life. It would enable me to feel safe in the realm of feelings, and would help me feel comfortable to experience life directly experiencing a full gamut of the human emotional spectrum, as only music could do. This object was the piano, and it was the portal to the magic of music.
From the very beginning, I could play whatever I heard on television, on the radio, wherever strains of music drifted into my young life. My ear was somehow tuned to the contours of melody, to the shape of rhythm, to the aesthetics of tone and timbres, and to a realm of soulfulness that opened up my heart every time I was exposed to music that moved me – the more passionate, vulnerable, tender, and sensitive, – the better.
From that very tender age of five years old, music became the most abiding and powerful force in my life . In some ways, one could even say that music raised me. In many ways, it taught me how to feel, and how to live my life transparently, vulnerably, without a filter to hide my feelings. Music showed me that it was not only acceptable to experience feelings deeply in the midst of others, but it somehow made me feel more alive, more connected to the Source of life itself. So, when renowned Ted Talk speaker Brene Brown came onto the scene a few years ago, with her social researcher’s emphatic endorsements of living life with greater vulnerability, you can imagine my delight. Brown’s research revealed that that people who live their lives with greater vulnerability end up being happier, more fulfilled, and more relationally successful. She talks about living life “wholeheartedly” as a character asset, rather than it being the detriment most young boys are taught during their formative years.
Allowing myself to be fully influenced through the emotional power of music taught me about that incredible rush of energy when I’m experiencing the heart of my emotional truth in the present moment. Music’s power galvanized my heart to feel unabashedly deeply – without embarrassment or apology – with full permission to allow a natural response of tears, chills and gasps of awe from being moved, touched, and inspired by the very preciousness and magic of life itself.
As a boy in our culture, it wasn’t easy being that comfortable with feeling that deeply. Growing up in the fifties, there was always great pressures to act like the boy my war hero Father wanted me to behave. More often than not, I felt like the odd man out among all my friends, due to this key distinction. My emotions were my friends that I engaged with on a regular basis. But that’s not the world I grew up in. In fact, sometimes the only times I felt truly at home was when I was either playing music, or going to a Broadway musical or film.
However I’m reminded of the famous quote by Oscar Wilde, who said,
“Be Yourself, everyone else is already taken”.
From that moment I touched the piano, I was shown in the most direct and passionate way possible what it felt like to be myself. To be open to hear these sounds coming forth from my fingers for the first time, to magically play music instantly , to listen to the sounds and allow them to touch my heart…. was the revelation that never ended. This is why I often say that music truly saved my life.
I remember when I realized that I wanted to be a film composer, as if it were yesterday.
I was living in my home in the suburbs of New York, on Long Island. I was about 11 years old, staying at home due to a slight fever and cold. I grew up in the New York suburbs, in a place called Long Island. During those days, they used to have only three or four stations, and one of them, the public television station, had this weekly morning movie called “The Million Dollar Movie”, where they played the same movie every morning. That week I was home sick the station was featuring a movie about Helen Keller starring Patty Duke and Ann Bancroft, entitled The Miracle Worker.
There I was, watching a movie about a woman who for the whole first half of the film, was imprisoned by her inability to communicate with anyone in the outside world. Her blindness, her deafness, and her deep alienation with life was made worse by a resolute unwillingness to learn Braille, something that could potentially could pierce a hole in her bottomless self pity and isolation. It could potentially open herself to being in connection in real and direct ways. Her mentor, Annie Sullivan was desperately attempting to create an opening so that she could finally feel her humanness, defined by an ability to feel, to be in contact in some meaningful way.
And then came the moment of the now famous “water pump” scene, when the breakthrough finally happened. There they were, Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, at the water pump, with exhausted Annie in profound despair that Helen would never open to what she had to teach her. You could see in the expression on her face that she was near giving up all hope that Helen would ever open to learning anything. They were outside, where Annie repeated for the thousandth time her instructions on how to engage in sign language, expecting the same wall of stubbornness and resistance.
At the moment when Helen had yet another opportunity to respond, a light string tone entered the soundtrack, subliminally, quietly, unobtrusively. I had been playing piano for 6 years by then, familiar with the full canon of Broadway Musicals. By that time I was deeply sensitive to how a subtle moment with any musical information could shift the emotional tonality of the moment. Somehow that string tone told me, ‘uh oh’, something’s going to happen, something surprising, something potent, the way you know when something dangerous is about to happen when a deep low tone comes into the film.
Then, before I could even realize it, I was off and running, fully engaged Like being on a raft on the river, heading quickly towards Niagara Falls, I was swirling, accelerating, and riding the waves of musical emotion. The deft musical score by Lawrence Rosenthal told the whole story, so much so, you could close your eyes and get an even better sense of what was happening to Helen at this seminal moment.
This is what it sounds like when a heart that had never been opened to the outside light of the world finally opens up to drink the nourishment of pure presence, pure humanity, pure connection. It was glorious. It was ecstatic. It was all consuming. And in that extraordinary moment, the 11 year old boy just burst into tears. Cleansing tears. Healing Tears. Tears of finally allowing myself to feel how often I felt cut off, different than the other boys who were so different than I was, isolated by feeling so emotional and sensitive compared to all the other children who had learned how to keep a lid on things. At this moment, nothing else mattered to me other than the thought, “That ‘s what I want to do when I grow up – create music that helps people to feel deeply, to crack open their hearts so they can feel the beauty of being alive!”
That was the moment that I decided I wanted to be a flm composer. That was the moment I decided I wanted to live my life with an open heart. And ultimately, it was a moment when on some level, I decided to look forward to hopefully becoming someone who could open other people’s hearts, like Annie Sullivan, or even like the composer of that score, or like the creators of that extraordinary film, The Miracle Worker. That was the moment when I decided that I had to be open to the power of vulnerability that music asks of me every moment I embark on creating or playing music, so that I could create music that opened people’s hearts. That’s when I received my life’s calling, and it was never the same after that.
Over the many years that ensued, I learned that music was a language of the soul, a direct way I could remember that nothing is impossible when we can fully open our hearts to feel the depth of the miracle that is life itself.