I started at a very young age. Maybe five. Possibly earlier. It was just what we did in my family. The first lessons came from my mother. My sister had started them a couple years before me. My brother would follow a few after. Once we outgrew my mother’s ability to push us any further, or was too busy due to outside employment, or the drive to mold us into mad over achievers overcame her teaching skills my parents passed us on to a professional. A very rigid, classical instructor. I can still picture him.
So from a very early age until my junior high years I would give hours each week to sitting down on the bench, in front of the ebony and ivory keys and practicing my piano. And I became quite good. Was even what many would call a bit of a natural. Purely classical in training and repertoire. Rigid in posture and structure. Bred to succeed.
At some point we each picked up a secondary instrument. As memory serves me, this was also mandatory. Not a choice. The choice was the instrument. For my older sister, flute…though later replaced by the saxophone. Or visa-versa. For my younger brother, the drums. Always, the drums. For me, the trumpet.
School bands, and private lessons. To commend my parents, no expense was spared for either instrument. Though the expense came with a price. We would perform whenever, where ever, and for whomever they required it. Often against my will. Often kicking and screaming. Often ending in my humiliation.
However, again, I was good. Even better than at piano. All Northern California Honor Band good by my senior year of high school. United States Naval Academy good my freshman year of college. A little more diverse this time. Classical. Jazz. Spiritual. Marching.
Music was in my blood. To the point of serving as drum major of the high school marching band. I had no trouble reading music. Playing it. Transposing it. Fully engaging in it. And practicing it for hours on end between the two instruments daily.
My senior year of high school also launched another creative part of my life. Acting. With no previous experience and no participation in the drama department, I auditioned for the school play and was awarded a leading part. This paired with debate and public speaking right into my college years. Intercollegiate competitions across the western states winning awards in impromptu speaking, extemporaneous, and with the drama background…reader’s theater.
Believe me, I do not tell you all this to brag. Rather, to confess a regret.
The piano was surrendered in almost its entirety by high school. Allowed by my parents having put in my obligatory number of years to earn the freedom of choice. The trumpet passed during college, and my instrument was formally donated to a young man in need of a better one just a few years later (it was a beautiful, silver, Bach Stradivarius…musicians out there will know what that means!). Acting? Theater? Never again.
The connectivity between arts. Music. Drama. And mental illness. Bipolar. They aren’t hard to find. They are not challenging to locate throughout history.
From Robert Schumann to Demi Lovato. Vivien Leigh to Carrie Fisher. Van Gogh to Virginia Woolf.
How did these people get famous while battling a mental illness? My theory? Their creativity helped provide an outlet for their mental illness. Rather than the illness stifling their lives, it placed within them the type of mind, that while often maddening, spurred the ability for creative greatness.
Back to my regret, which potentially has nothing to do with the previous three paragraphs, I regret that my creativity died. That my ability to make music passed.
Last year I attempted to re-engage with the piano. The struggle was too great. The frustration. The reality of playing worse, much worse, at 47 than I was able to at 12 or 13. The fact that what used to flow so easily now seemed nearly impossible.
Since leaving the hospital last September I have been aware of what a shell of a person I am compared to what I used to be and/or what I could have been. I think this has a lot to do with it. I was created…or born…or wired…or whatever philosophy and/or theology works for you…to be creative. It was in me. It was a gift. And it is gone. Not taken away. It has died.
And with it, a piece of me. A large, vibrant, positive reinforcing piece of me.
I have returned to listening to a lot of music lately. A large variety of music. With a massive dose of classical mixed in. It has stirred something in me.
Not something that can fill that void. But something alive. Something better than dead.