Friday, November 18, 2011

Here in My Heart - A Story of Music, Faith and Love

The following article was printed in The Advocate, North Adams, MA - October 19, 2011

Over the past 30 years, as a musician, composer and teacher, I have taught piano to hundreds of students of every age and background. And yet, what probably comes to mind when you think of "piano lessons" has little to do with what happens for people when they sit with me at the keyboard.

Imagine yourself discovering that you can create music of disarming beauty -- even if you have little or no musical background. Imagine finding a confidence that defies any preconceptions you may have about yourself or life. Imagine experiencing reality in a new way as a result of creating music together with another person, where limitation and fear are replaced by positivity and love.

From the outset, I was drawn to playing in duet with my students, and I developed a unique approach to piano duet improvisation. The result is that a person with no musical background or "ability," and even with a disability, is able to create beautiful, original music. In the process, I've been transformed, finding a deep faith in life and in our innate human capacities that often extend far beyond what we (or others) may have imagined.

Here's one inspiring example: Stephen Lepotakis has studied with me for two years. Stephen was diagnosed with autism early in his life. His mother, Sheila, explained how the first clue was in his verbal expression, which stopped developing at 18 months. Stephen is now 22. In our lessons,he communicates more through music than through language. Sheila has said, "If we could put to music everything he needs to learn, he would absorb it all quickly. He would surpass so many of his deficiencies."

Stephen enjoys my Steinway grand, which gives him 88 keys, as compared to his small, electronic keyboard at home. At his lesson, he glides his hands up and down the piano in long glissandos and gleefully plays fast sequences of notes in the bass. It's those exuberant, percussive sounds that lead his mother, Sheila, to lovingly refer to him as "her little Chopin."

Stephen loves music and numbers and telling time. Appropriately, among his favorite songs is the Chicago classic "Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is." As he performs this song in duet with me, he will look at his watch in the midst of it and call out the time: "3:42 p.m.!"

Another song Stephen loves is the Chicago hit "Here in My Heart." The theme of that song perfectly expresses the effect my working with Stephen and my other students has had on me. Sheila and her husband, Neil, were advised early on that they should resist changing their lives to accommodate their son's, and yet their love for Stephen comes from a place that's deep and natural. I've been inspired and touched by this wonderful family.

Stephen expresses through music some of what he can't convey through language. He has a wonderful sense of rhythm and is capable of subtlety and nuance. I only need to give simple suggestions and he's right there with me. It truly is a collaboration. Stephen and I performed at the 2009 Jolly Jaunt fundraiser, for which he received the "Most Spirited" Award. We chose our duet version of "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" to play for 350 people at the Community Resources for People with Autism fundraiser in 2011, receiving a standing ovation.

My work with Stephen and all of my students has been a revelation. It has allowed me to recast the traditional piano duet into a model that can be applied to any human relationship -- at home, school and work. The elements are unconditional listening and presence, faith in another's potential, a spirit of exploration, trust that an extraordinary outcome is possible and curiosity to see what happens. In day-to-day interactions, when you create these conditions for another person, or you are blessed to be given them, joy, creativity and love will flow forth.

No comments: