Finding Solace in Music: How One Practice Session Helped Me Process Grief
What started as a regular piano practice session, turned into a tool for grieving and a musical tribute to a recently passed loved one.
My sweet 92-year-old grandfather left this earth yesterday. Brain cancer took his life one year and 5 months after my grandmother, his wife of 68 years, unexpectedly passed. He was never the same once she was gone. His memory declined rapidly after he lost his life's anchor.
They were a pair - loving each other deeply all through life - fully supportive of each other and caring for each other in their own unique way. Poppa always protected Grandma, holding her hand for moral and physical support on outings and excursions. She worried about him and gave strict instructions not to use power tools if she wasn't home. They laughed, smiled, rolled their eyes at each other, and sighed when exasperated with each other, as all great couples do. They never lost their tenderness for each other.
Her passing was unexpected; his wasn't. Despite knowing the end was near for him, I grieve.
My last visit with my grandfather was tough as his short-term memory was beginning to fade. He wore an invisible cloak of sorrow and grief in the wake of Grandma's passing. It was Christmas time and with no other gifts to give, I shared a self-recorded performance of an arrangement of Carol of the Bells by George Winston. The gift of music never fails. I turn to it whenever I desire to share my heart and soul with those I love. He took great delight in the performance, commenting on the agility of my fingers while slightly mocking the minimalistic repetitive nature of the arrangement. ("How many times are you going to play that pattern?")
He had been a musician himself with a history of playing the bugle and the tuba and singing in the church choir with a beautiful baritone voice. Perhaps my musical abilities came from him, or that side of the family. I'll never know, but his love of music created a legacy that continues to be passed down today.
He and Grandma always seemed to enjoy and take pride in my musical abilities. They often drove to Virginia from their northern New York home to attend my childhood year-end piano recitals. They even caught a few of my performances when I was a music major at James Madison University. From marching band performances, where I also played the tuba (sousaphone), to my junior and senior recitals and band and orchestral concerts, they found a way to travel to support my musical endeavors whenever possible.
My brother also went on to study music, becoming one of the top trombonists in the nation. Knowing how much they enjoyed our playing, one summer we performed a mini-recital at their local Methodist church just for them and our parents. I accompanied my brother. That was the last time I performed for both of them. The next time we performed together, we found ourselves in the same sanctuary, playing in honor of Grandma at her funeral. Somehow we made it through the performance of Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1. My brother's performance was moving.
It is natural then, that as I processed Poppa's passing, I again turned to the piano.
What started as a regular piano practice session, turned into a musical tribute to my grandfather and a tool in my personal grieving process.
First, I sat and worked on Tchaikovsky's Opus 37, No. 2 "The Carnival: February," one of twelve short character pieces representing the months of the year. I've been learning this song since the beginning of the year. Today as I played, I remembered that the month of February now contains both Poppa's birth and death dates. "The Carnival" is a bombastic, quick, and clever piece. It contains moments of fire, passion, sensitivity, jovialness, lightness, energy, and mystery all rolled into one.
I couldn't help but think I was playing bits of his life as I practiced today; the playful bits of childhood, the passion of his love for Grandma, the mystery of life, the light-heartedness he carried about with him, as well as his demand for precision in his carefully curated handmade items. (He was a talented woodworker).
Today, the song became about him. Playing it for him gave the piece new life, purpose, and meaning.
Then I turned to Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 - a fitting tribute to the second half of a beautiful partnership. I wept as I played and allowed my fingers to express the sorrow in my soul. Finally, I moved on to another Tchaikovsky piece, Triste Chanson. This one, though somber, also holds moments of life and hope - sentiments I sorely needed at that moment. Playing this piece gave me the space to grieve with hope. It was as if Papa was telling me to keep pressing into joy, love and being myself.
“You are a people now,” he said to me during our first reunion after my divorce. He saw me. He validated my growth and ability to rise up.
“You are a people now,” - fully restored, with life, joy, freedom, energy, and love to give in part because those were the things he gave me.
The forty-two years of his presence in my life contained numerous precious moments, both big and small. From his insistence on good table manners to passing on his knowledge of plants, from wood carving together to learning how to properly sharpen a knife, from camping, hiking, and canoeing together, to hearing his whistling from afar, from feeling his tight all-encompassing warm hugs to being captivated by his recitation of Robert W. Service poems - his life continues through me in all aspects of my being, including my own musicianship and piano teaching.
I closed my music and walked away from the piano satisfied, having expressed through my playing what I can never seem to fully express in words. Music always meets me where I am. In the highs and lows of life, I find healing in the performing of music. When hard times hit, I turn inward and toward my music. Music helps me feel seen, understood, and able to express and process my emotions. My best "performances" have been those with tears rolling down my face during solitary late-night practice sessions when I am my most vulnerable.
I am a people now. Poppa saw it and said it, so it must be true. His belief in me propels me to keep dreaming, believing in myself, and pursuing those dreams.
So, I will keep playing, teaching, and writing..... for him, for them, for me, and for those who will receive a bit of his legacy through me.
Feb. 23, 2023
I hesitate to add more to this essay about my grandfather and his passing, as writing and editing this piece was as healing to me as the practice session turned tribute to him.
However, I will say this.
I am grateful to have these two art forms, music and writing, through which I can express my heart and my soul. They have been ever-present tools for healing as I have navigated some challenging waters over the past few years.
Art has the power to heal. If you don't consider yourself to be an artist, the good news is that you don’t have to be an art creator to benefit from the arts. By being an art experiencer, you can also find solace in the art surrounding you.
Not sure where to begin? Art can be found in some of the most unexpected places; nature, math, science, food, architecture, movement, language, relationships, our own humanity, and so much more. When we see it, acknowledge it, and are touched by it, our hearts mend, even if just a little.
If you don’t yet have a way to experience or particulate in some art form, I encourage you to begin to do so. Start small, by observing through your senses, whatever bits of nature are outside your doorstep. Perhaps as your senses awaken to the art around you, you’ll find additional tools that can help you connect to the art around you, as music and writing did for me.
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