The magic and the power of music

March 31, 2010 | By | Reply More

Back in the 1970’s, when I was 17, I assumed the role of co-leader of a St. Louis 8-piece jazz-rock bank we called “Ego.” It was great fun (you’ll find a photo here). We learned a lot about performing music and we learned even more about people. I loved playing music back then—it unleashed something in me, something ineffable. Five years later, though, I was fully absorbed with law school, because I had come to the conclusion that I needed to have a stable career. I made this choice assuming that I could always play music on the side. But then I became a lawyer, a career that is a demanding mistress. Over the years, there was always something else that had to get done, much of it law-related, so I haven’t played much music for the past few decades, not until this past year. During the past year, I’ve been working hard at becoming a better guitarist, and there’s no better way to do that than by practicing an hour every day. That’s what I used to tell hundreds of guitar students during the nine years that I taught lessons. I told them to practice every day and that they would see dramatic results, guaranteed. It’s absolutely true. I’ve also worked hard to improve my singing over the past year. I never considered myself to be a singer, though I occasionally sang. Over the past six months, I’ve received a few voice lessons from local musician Leslie Sanazaro, and more recently a lesson from Charles Glenn, the other co-leader of Ego, whose talents are well-recognized in Saint Louis. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the result of putting time into music again. My guitar chops have improved dramatically. I am now a better jazz player than ever before. My voice is now something that no longer embarrasses me; I now see my voice as an instrument that has the ability to command at least as much attention as my guitar playing, and I’ve worked hard to shape my voice to mesh with various types of tunes.

Image by clearviewstock at (with permission)

Image by clearviewstock at (with permission)

Last week was a benchmark of sorts. I performed at the Culinaria, a downtown grocery store for three hours. I was joined for thirty-minutes by an excellent violinist named Stephanie To, but the remainder of the three-hour session consisted of me playing the guitar and singing (pop, jazz and folk). Since that performance, I was invited to sign up to perform two additional gigs, and there are several others in the works at local Saint Louis establishments. I am now feeling that once again I can honestly and proudly claim that I am a “musician.” It was ironic that after making music a significant part of my life again, I came across Yusuf Islam’s DVD, Yusuf’s Café. Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, is an extraordinary musician (songwriter, guitarist, pianist and vocalist) who rebelled against the pace, the superficiality and the artificiality of life (his lyrics were autobiographical in these regards). As a result of this mismatch back in the late 70’s, he jumped from his then-hectic world into a much simpler world permeated by the Islamic faith, a world where his family and his God were priorities. For almost thirty years, Yusuf Islam had been under the belief that the Islamic faith did not allow the performance of his type of music, so he totally gave it up. He didn’t even own a guitar. A few years ago, however, his teenage son brought home a guitar, and Islam literally picked it up and tried to strum it. His DVD interviews on this moment is well worth viewing. He had been away from music so long that he wondered whether he would even remember how to play basic chords. Well, he did remember, and he’s making music again. As you might anticipate, he also satisfied himself that his God did (and his religion) did not disapprove of music. I’m not claiming that I’m a musician of the caliber of Yusuf Islam. But I mention his story because of the parallels. I found it compelling that someone I admired so very much (I play quite a few of the Cat Stevens’ tunes) would be so willing to give up music for so long, before finding his way back to it. I found my way back to music over the past year, but in a way that goes further than anything I’ve described above. Now that I’m working hard at it, I find that even when I am not actually playing music, my mind seems calmer than before. It seems that I am thinking “rhythmically,” even when I’m thinking about something other than music. The effect of playing music seems to be melded with everything else I think or do, and this is all for the good. I seem more focused and more energized, in addition to being calmer. All of these affects seem to be the result of taking serious time and effort to get “inside” of the music I’m making, both technically and emotionally. Over the past year, it has repeatedly occurred to me that music is extremely powerful medicine. But I should put this claim into full context: Performing music is twenty times more powerful than listening to the music created by others, and this claim is not to disparage the significant power of listening to music created by others. My own experiences over the past year set the table for this six-minute TED talk by Robert Gupta, a violinist with the LA Philharmonic. You’ll hear Gupta describe the power of music based on an encounter he had with an unusual musician, a man who is schizophrenic. Admittedly, music is “escape,” but it really is “medicine,” and it is “sanity.” These words come close to describing what I’ve been feeling. It seems as though music has put its magic seal upon the things of my life, making them seem intuitively meaningful. If this calmness and focus are delusions, they are not delusions that I would be easily be willing to part with again. Not after putting music on the shelf for decades once before.


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Category: Health, music, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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