How Music Soothes the Troubled Soul
What an extraordinary gift music has given us besides its beauty. It has a scientifically proven ability to help heal both physical and psychological problems. Listening to your favorite music does help, but playing an instrument has a greater success. Playing well or badly doesn’t matter; just using one finger to plunk out a tune is sufficient—you can come away with a feeling of well-being. Music’s healing powers, which Pythagoras called “musical medicine,” have been the leitmotif of my career.
To an outsider it might seem that playing the same works repeatedly over many years could become a rote exercise. To me, any musician who feel this way has lost what I call his or her “inner child,” the force that enables the artist’s music to sound spontaneous. In the rare instances when my inner child has begun “misbehaving,” when a piece has started feeling stale to me, I have immediately stopped performing the score until I could look at it with fresh eyes again. It is music’s unstoppable ability to uplift and inspire that makes a career in music so greatly rewarding.
When I was 14, I followed my piano teacher, Adele Marcus, to Dallas, where I encountered segregation for the first time. It was the 1940s, and the feeling of injustice affected me deeply. Some 22 years later, I was in New Orleans getting ready to travel to my next concert in Mobile, Ala., when I turned on the television and saw the terrible confrontation in Selma between the peaceful marchers and the police with their vicious dogs. It so horrified me that I canceled the Alabama concert and returned to New York.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Still upset, I asked myself if there was a piece of music that could help me express my feelings and shake my somber mood. Chopin’s G Minor Ballade came to mind, and I immediately sat down at my piano and immersed myself in it and its many voices. I played it again and again. In the several weeks to follow, it became my companion. The opening starts with a declamatory musical statement, the last 3 notes of which indicate some of the sadness to come. I felt the courageous “We will never give up” attitude of the protesters was captured by the Ballade.
In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, I was asked by the State Department to open the first formal Cultural Exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As I walked onto the stage for my opening recital in Moscow, there was no applause, only hostile shouts of “U-2, U-2, U-2” and “Kleeburn, Kleeburn, Kleeburn!” from the audience. It didn’t take long to know what that meant. The Soviets had just shot down our U-2 spy plane, and anti-American propaganda was rampant. “Kleeburn” referred to Van Cliburn, who two years before had won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, in the process becoming “their boy”—in their eyes there was only one great American pianist and they had discovered him.
Somehow I steeled myself while waiting for the shouts to subside. Then I began playing, first performing Mozart’s Sonata in G major K.283, then Robert Schumann’s “Arabeske” and the great Chopin Funeral March Sonata. By the intermission, I sensed that I was having a great success. When the recital was over, I was overwhelmed by the deafening applause. People were crowding to the edge of the stage and many were weeping. To see how music changed the atmosphere from hostility to tears showed me how music’s magnetism can quickly affect the human psyche. And so it went for four exhilarating weeks of concertizing.
Music has also helped me conquer physical challenges. From an accident at age 11 that left me with a permanently numb little finger to living with arthritis for 40-plus years, music has been a constant healing force. In the late 1980s after a botched operation on my arthritic left thumb, I fell into a devastating depression lasting many months. Then one day my wife, Maria, asked me to compose a theme for a film documentary on her father entitled “Gary Cooper: American Life, American Legend” (1989). I didn’t feel up to it, but as it was “family” I wanted to try.
After a few days I came up with a theme and played it for her. She suddenly began crying. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Because your music totally captures my father’s spirit.” It also recaptured me! That wonderful feeling of hope was coming back, and my depression slowly began to lift. Music had started working its magic.
Mr. Janis is a world-renowned concert pianist particularly known for his interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.