Music is one of the profound pleasures in my life, and has been since my early childhood. My brother and I shared a small, red record player. We had ten or so of our very own records. Our two favorite ones were LP-album-sized, bright yellow, vinyl records. They were storybook records, songs and spoken words, and the titles were The Carrot and Babar the Elephant. We listened to them over and over again, especially enjoying the carrot song, “I won’t grow up, I won’t grow up,” about a carrot that refused to grow unless watered by a little boy, the hero of the story.
Momma purchased an old upright piano in 1957 for $50. All 88 keys worked on this “plain Jane” instrument, and all three pedals worked. It had been a church piano at a little country chapel. It needed tuning, so we hired a local piano tuner. He was blind and had perfect pitch, and he got the piano into playing tone for $2.
The piano’s frame and casing were dark walnut wood, and there were lots of scratches and splintery spots on the frame. Momma had some very old music books and sheet music she had inherited from her Grandma Wallace. Momma pulled out the sheet music to the gospel hymn called “Mansion, Over the Hilltop.” She said it was one of her favorite hymns. I made a promise to myself that one day I would learn that piece of music, and play it just for Momma.
Momma always said Grandma Hall insisted we children have piano lessons. We started our lessons shortly after the piano was moved into our farmhouse in Lisbon, Ohio. I began to play by learning to read music, and taught myself from a special children’s note-reading book. The book had a fold-out page that had an oversized musical staff, with both treble and bass clefs. I cut out oversized line notes and space notes, and placed each on its proper clef. I had memorized the positions with mnemonic phrases.
I practiced the phrases and paper-note placements on the paper staff many times. Soon I was reading music notes as readily as I read the letters and words of my first grade schoolbooks. That old, $50 piano was what I learned on, from piano instruction series commonly used in children’s 1950s piano lessons. These lessons series were designed to introduce young piano students to “culture, and social piano playing.” My two brothers took lessons as well.
Advised by our piano teacher, Momma decided to allow my oldest brother to drop his lessons. In six months he had mastered one tune, “Corporal Tim,” a catchy four-note, right hand piece for very young beginners. Momma had been told that he had no talent for playing the piano. She decided that there was no point in making him take the lessons. My younger brother and I continued the lessons into our teens, with the same piano teacher for almost that entire time.
The cartoons of my childhood used classical compositions as action and background music. When I began to play some of the great composers, many of the melodies were familiar to me from watching Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry on the television. The many years of piano lessons gave me a solid, basic introduction to classical music, and my mother instilled in me my lifelong love for music, especially classical.
How my mother loved music, especially Strauss waltzes! Johann Strauss was her favorite composer. She was introduced to classical music in her one-room schoolhouse in 1936 when she was 8 years old. Her teacher played a recording of the beautiful Strauss waltz “The Blue Danube.” Momma always remembered the awe she felt, she later told me, when she first heard those “beautiful sounds.” She said the only music she had known was “hillbilly” country-western on the Wheeling, West Virginia radio station.
Many years later, I asked Momma what she thought of when she heard “The Blue Danube Waltz.” She said she imagined a huge, shining-clean ballroom with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling … a shiny dance floor filled with smiling women and men, gracefully swirling to the Waltz … she imagined the dancing couples were in fancy, long dresses and elegant suits. She said the music lifted her into a grander world, out of her dreary everyday life.
In 1969, I joined the Columbia Record Club, The Classical Music Division. For only a penny, I was able to purchase any 10 albums from the hundreds of titles available. That one-cent bargain had conditions that were easily managed, and I became a lifetime member. I was thrilled and overwhelmed when the box of 10 albums arrived in my dorm room in Oxford, Ohio. Ten recordings of musical geniuses, the shining stars of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, Haydn, Brahms and more—the greatest music of all time was now at my fingertips.
I supplemented my Columbia Record Club acquisitions with classical albums purchased from the local music store, often buying the 99-cent label, Vox. Vox produced recordings of both well-known and lesser-known classical music performed by lesser-known artists. I was able to expand my knowledge of several great composers’ bodies of work with these cheaper albums.
I did buy the complete George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies. I had heard that it was the best collection of Beethoven’s “Nine.” Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell was a great orchestra. I spent about $27 on those symphonies, which put a small dent in my student budget. I listened to each of the nine works, at least several different times.
When I listened, I gave each note, each phrasing, each instrumental solo—everything my brain could hear—my full attention. I listened to the third symphony often. Its nickname is Eroica, and supposedly, the “Eroica Symphony” was inspired by Napoleon. Some critics think Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 is not as grand as Beethoven’s Ninth. However, it is all the grandeur I am comfortably able to appreciate. I feel the nobility and magnitude of the human spirit when I listen to certain parts of the “Eroica Symphony.”
I kept most of my Columbia Record collection in a handmade, plywood storage cube. I made the cube specifically to fit the albums, and it held 50 or so albums. It was very heavy and for four years, as I moved around from one dorm to another dorm, then off campus, the cube moved with me. One of my college roommates, and dear friend to this day, knew what an important piece of my life was in that storage cube.
In Spring of 1973, I left college due to illness. I left some of my belongings behind in Oxford, including my precious music cube. My friend rescued that cube and carried it with her for nearly eight years. Wherever she moved in her graduate schooling, the cube was moved. It travelled from Ohio, to Illinois, to California, and then to Morgantown, West Virginia.
My friend had that heavy cube of records shipped to Colorado in 1981. I remember the day it arrived at my home. Memories flooded my senses, and I felt like I was back in college again. It was my past, and it was becoming more and more distant. I had changed my beliefs about what was important. Now, once again, I had my cherished classical music with me.
My appreciation for music, all music, had deepened, in large part because of the new perspective my illness presented. I am forever grateful for my friend’s thoughtfulness, for her memorable and tenacious rescue of my classical records.
I have struggled with mental illness all my life. Music has been medicine for my emotions, soul, and body. When I am overwhelmed, feeling lost and full of doubt, or even when I have the flu or a bad bronchitis, music makes me feel better.
Music has the power to bring forth, into my consciousness, emotions that lie hidden to me. I become aware of my own humanity and don’t feel the alienation of my illness. For example, when I listen to some of Bach’s music, such as his Chorales, “heavenly” harmonies help me realize my desire for more than this material life. I feel the impermanence of this earth plane, in contrast to the timelessness of the music.
The complex simplicity of Bach’s fugal counterpoint, two themes moving with and against each other, has always transported me out of my daily awareness of the bleakness of living with a mental illness, severe and persistent.
Calm and peace flood my being when I listen to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The “Goldberg Variations” were allegedly written for a royal someone to overcome his majestic insomnia. Some historic figure, or maybe it was a famous artist, said that “Beethoven knocked on Heaven’s door, and Bach was already there.” I need Bach’s celestial uplift just to make it through my small, daily life.
The universal language of classical music is able to give me the hope I need to create meaning from my internal chaos.
Donna is 63 years old and lives in Denver, CO. She is a writer and has a BA in Liberal Arts from Miami University of Ohio. Donna has been on a long and adventurous recovery journey for most of her life. She is working on a memoir, tentatively titled Bits and Pieces: A Schizophrenic’s Journey. She has been a Peer Specialist II since 2006 at Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Wheat Ridge, CO, and works part time.
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