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How Learning to Play Jazz Piano Kept Me Sane

After an emotional breakdown, a boomer discovers the keys to mental health on a Baldwin upright

By Jim Gerard | May 8, 2013
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Jim Gerard is a journalist and author of four books, including Who Moved My Secret and Beam Me Up, Jesus. He lives in New York City. His website is www.gangof60.com.

The love of my life is sitting cozily in my living room. She’s not young or particularly attractive. At times she gets testy and intractable. Youth isn’t on her side, either. She’s close to 60 and shows it. She’s hardly svelte, my usual preference. She weighs about 600 pounds. I call her — with great affection — “the Beast.”
 
But my Baldwin upright piano — with her grimy keys, battle ax of a lower register and handleless drawer — is beautiful to me. Why? Because it has helped haul me back from the precipice of insanity.

Waking Up to a Nightmare
 
A brief back story: About five years ago, one morning, with no forewarning and before I’d even fully awakened, a rapid-fire montage of nightmarish images whiplashed my mind.
 
Poverty, unemployment, bankruptcy, rejection, loneliness, mental illness, physical deterioration, estrangement from friends, the death of loved ones. A cruel inventory siphoned from my past and present and projected into the future, sometimes in rapid-fire, Eisensteinian shards, other times in lone images floating from out of nowhere, like those skeletons in an amusement park haunted house.
 
Adrenaline flooded my central nervous system, paralyzing me with fear, dread and hopelessness.
 
Suddenly, I became terrified by, well, everything: solitude and company, work and idleness, fear and fear of fear. Just being conscious often was too painful to bear.
 
Call it what you will: emotional implosion, nervous breakdown or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s term — crack-up.
 
This onslaught wasn’t momentary. It lasted for many months.

Many Remedies but No Relief
 
I knew I had to take some action, but I’d spent my entire adult life seeking a remedy for my depression and anxiety — of which this was both the nadir and the apex, a kind of masterpiece of destruction by my nervous system — to no avail. I’d so exhausted the psycho-pharmacopeia that my doctors had thrown up their hands in frustration and returned to the top of the list, presumably under the assumption that Prozac, like love, was better the second time around.
 
I’d also undergone every kind of analysis: individual, group, Freudian, Jungian, cognitive behavioral, even eye movement therapy. The results (or lack thereof) had convinced me that I was therapy-proof.

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Religion was another straw and along the way I’d grasped at born-again Christianity, Sufism, Taoism and several varieties of Buddhism, but those forays had only led to disillusionment. The blue devils wouldn’t budge.
 
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay asleep as much as possible, popping tranquilizers the minute I awoke. Friends were alarmed, and several strongly advocated electroshock therapy, the treatment of choice for those who have run out of choices. This I resisted: I couldn’t trust Con Edison to keep my lights on; how could I trust them with my neurotransmitters?

Can a Lifelong Dream Be the Cure?
 
Finally, driven by desperation, I decided to learn jazz piano. You might think this was an unlikely, even implausible, choice, given my situation. And you’d be right. But that musical impulse came from that same near-inaccessible part of my mind that had made me a nervous wreck.
 
While I’d hoped it would serve a therapeutic purpose, so would any number of analogous choices, like art therapy. What cinched it was that I’d carried a lifelong dream of playing piano, albeit one that, until the smash-up had flitted, infrequent and vaporous, across my thoughts. I’d never taken steps to pursue it seriously.
 
Ever since my teens, jazz had played a crucial role in my life — it not only provided me with countless hours of aesthetic pleasure, but many of its greatest players were role models for me, African-Americans who, despite living in a segregated society that had deemed them second-class citizens, responded by creating America’s greatest contribution to the arts and world culture. They had done so while retaining their dignity and, often, without succumbing to bitterness. (I knew this because not only had I read widely on the subject, but also because I’d been lucky to have met some of them.)
 
Jazz also was one of the only interests I could share with my otherwise distant, sullen (and, yes, depressed) father. Jazz was about freedom, musical and otherwise. Perhaps that’s why the deeply inhibited or those suffering abrasions from rubbing too hard against society’s grain are drawn to it.
 
The music also had in the mid-1980s steered me into the swing dancing world, which provided many of the most exalted moments of my life. I met so many fascinating people, some of whom remain my friends 25 years later.

(MORE: Singing the Praises of a More Satisfying Life)

The Only Option Left
 
Jazz had become such an integral part of my being that I memorized solos by my heroes — Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown — and regularly improvised in my head, whether or not music was playing outside it. Some of these solos “sounded” good and I fancied that, at the very least, I could develop and notate some of that inner soundstripe (after I’d learned to read and write music, that is).
 
I figured the piano might give me a creative outlet to counterbalance that unrelenting mental horror show. Playing great music, however awkwardly, might even relieve my loneliness, vis-a-vis Harold Bloom’s statement that when he was reading Shakespeare, he was never alone. Also, I’d read that learning to play helped generate new brain cells and improve cognitive function and that it could even stave off Alzheimer’s. Yes, I worried about that, too, though I was only 50.
 
Of course, looking at it realistically, this ivory-tickling endeavor was foolhardy. I had very little formal musical training — a year of saxophone in college — and knew almost no music theory. Oh, and I’d never touched a piano in my life. It would be like learning a new language and a new way to move simultaneously, like studying French and t'ai chi.
 
But I also realized I had no other survival options. If I were ever to learn to play music, I had better start now.
 
I purchased an electronic keyboard, a starter piano that would fit in my small yet labyrinthine one-bedroom apartment, bought a bunch of beginner music books and taught myself the basics. After a year, I ratcheted down my expectations, telling myself that at the very least, I might one day be able to fumble through some Gershwin and Ellington tunes.

Finding the Real Thing
 
Then I got really lucky: After a year or so, realizing that I needed a teacher to make further progress, I got the name of a pianist named Tardo Hammer from a soprano friend of mine who lived down the block.
 
I signed up for a group class at a Juilliard-affiliated school where Richard taught, but after five minutes I realized I was a toy piano player among Horowitzes. I didn’t know a G7 from a G string and my left hand felt like a claw or a spare part hastily sewn on by Dr. Frankenstein as outraged townspeople stormed his lab.
 
That same day I enrolled in private lessons with Richard, a world-class player and, more important, an even better person — a thoughtful, compassionate man with whom I share a sensibility, values and humor. We even loved the same musicians.
 
I was struck by how truly at home I felt strolling the corridors of the school, listening to cellists tuning up, mezzos doing vocal exercises and even small jazz groups jamming. I wished I could quit my life and move in — be a music school squatter.
 
Not long after starting my lessons, Richard persuaded me to buy the real thing — an acoustic piano — citing many reasons, not the least of which was sound quality. I agreed. My only trepidation was how I’d crowbar even a small spinet through my Manhattan apartment’s threadlike doorway.

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A few weeks after I began looking for potential instruments on Craigslist, each of which Richard summarily rejected, he called me and said, “I’ve found it.” The Beast was sitting forlornly in a young woman’s apartment in the Bronx. Richard had driven from Manhattan, checked out the instrument and guaranteed that it was well worth the owner’s asking price of $300. “Get up here ASAP,” he told me.
 
Magically, the movers maneuvered the Beast into my living room. I then had it tuned — for the first and only time in three subsequent years —  and immediately understood why Richard had been so determined for me to buy this piano. It had a clear, singing sound, especially in the middle register, and smooth action. It was well-made and sturdy. And it came with wheels.

Being Older Proves the Best Time to Learn
 
I began taking the lessons more seriously. Something Richard told me soon thereafter astonished me: “You know, you’re the opposite of every other student I have. You really know the music; you just need the fundamentals.”
 
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Don’t all your other students come to you to learn jazz?”
 
“Yeah, but they haven’t listened,” he said. “They don’t know the music. You do. You’ve done the hardest part, the heavy lifting.” Richard decided I would be his “guinea pig,” a test case in which he would compare my efforts to become a competent player to those whose knowledge of fundamentals resulted from the kind of childhood training I’d never received.
 
Heartened by Richard’s respect for my jazz wisdom, I promised myself I’d practice two hours a day. Then, slowly but definitely, the instrument became just what I'd hoped: an oasis from my troubles. No matter how anxious or depressed I was, those torments often disappeared as soon as I sat down at the Beast. And it wasn’t because I was some sort of prodigy — on the contrary, each succeeding practice drove home the scope of my undertaking and the depths of my ineptitude, the yawning abyss between the ideal music in my head and the limitations of my mind, memory and dexterity.
 
No, trying to play required every brain cell and nerve ending I had. I felt a special, tactile delight in applying my fingers to the keys and sometimes, usually by accident, producing pleasing sounds.

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Learning to Say You Can Do It
 
I suffered from an excess of fear. But to be a good jazz musician I had to be fearless.
 
Maybe not every day, but often enough, I delighted in playing, even scales, common voicings and repetitive exercises that taught intervals and other aspects of music theory. In a short time, I preferred listening to my own clunky cacophony than to the records that initially had inspired me.
 
Richard, a prodigy who’d been playing professionally since he was 16, imparted to me the wisdom of the elders with whom he’d studied, revealed the inner workings of a particularly euphonious phrase and conveyed “inside baseball” knowledge of playing piano jazz, like the use of “shells” in the left hand. (Shells are hollowed out chords; for example, if the music called for an F7, instead of playing all the notes of the chord — F, A, C, E flat — with your left hand, you’d play just the F and the E flat.) Fascinating and delightful, all.
 
Not that there aren’t drawbacks: The lessons aren’t cheap. The hours of practice needed to improve are done in solitude, which isn’t exactly a boon to my social life. And I admit that there have been times when I felt the whole endeavor was a Czerny exercise in futility. I recall one point when I was ready to throw in the towel — until I remembered what Benny Carter, the masterful multi-instrumentalist and arranger (acknowledged by his peer as the king of the musicians) told me years ago, at the end of an interview. Benny had asked if I played an instrument and I said I’d always wanted to play piano. “It’s never too late to start,” he replied. (He was 80 at the time and still playing at the top of his game).

A Friend Who Always Inspires
 
So now, after yet another lonely night at the movies, a dispiriting date with a totally incompatible woman or a jolt from my jangling nerves, I know that when I return to my living room, the Beast will be waiting, finding no faults, making no demands and posing no challenges except those among the most important: how to transcend your limits, turn sadness into joy and create if not the gold of art, at least its base materials.