Music Lessons for the Overwhelmed


I am having coffee outside of a little cafe in Astoria with a Dear Friend with a heavy heart who says,

The world is filled with so many things to do,

lovely people to work magic with,

to create music and the kind of sound that can fill our daily darkness.

Oh, but I am so crushed by these demanding things and what can I do about it?


I am stuck at a crossroads and I can’t see my way out of my problem which in a nutshell is, how do I engage people who don’t want to be engaged in what I am doing?

What else can I do besides everything I am already killing myself doing?

How can I get people to support my work?

Dear Friend, when I learned how to play the piano, I loved knowing that each note on a page could be made into a sound. A specific sound. When I learned how to create harmony on the piano, I discovered that it was crucial to choose the right note, for the right sound. Picture this: a classroom in the Mozarteum in Salzburg filled with first year piano students – me included – struggling through a figured bass problem, a kind of musical shorthand, to fill in the melody and harmonies. In German. Gott in Himmel!

Add this note, or maybe repeat that in the right hand, how about an embellishment of rippling notes… all of this should make that lonely bass note fuller and well, more musical. More will sound better.


My teacher was not impressed by my scrawling or anyone else’s frantic attempt to create masterpiece out of an 8 measure exercise. With his red pencil, he hacked away everything I had added, tacked on, lumped into a chord that resembled overgrown caterpillars and snorted, “Double the root whenever you can.”

Double the root? You mean just repeat what the bass note is? But what about all those other notes? How interesting is just the bass note going to sound?

Now here’s the crazy thing about what he said: the music was simpler. It was something I could sing. It rang true.

I am actually humming that little melody in my head as I am sipping my coffee.

Dear Friend, it is a rare thing for anyone to watch another person working like a dog, eating lunch after lunch glued to a desk, buried under the weight of the world and still struggling to scratch out a precarious existence and say, “Hey, I want to be part of that!”

Do less. Do what my Aunt Lillian advised my Jewish mother-in-law, “Mildred dear, the era of not killing yourself has just begun.”

More arguments, impassioned pleas, pictures of art starved children will give you what you need to appeal to a person’s sense of doing the right thing, like eating more vegetables. Guilt, shame and embarrassment come in handy.

But most people, as a rule, will not eat their vegetables because they know they should, a function of human nature. However, all people will happily drag 10 of their best friends to table if they themselves grew, chopped, boiled, grilled or sauteed the vegetables.

My figured bass problem had a simple solution. I doubled the bass note. I reinforced the tone that grounded every other note and opened up a place for other harmonies to be part of. It became music, something for people to sing and to own.

What if you created a space where another person might see themselves making a difference? Or become part of the work, like a string of harmony?

What could happen if you gave people things? A voice to their passions? An invitation create a bigger life through your work? A gift of making music for themselves and a gift to anybody longing to hear it.

Altruism will not keep the lights on.

But paying attention and attending to that one human need common to all of us, to create meaning of this life we share together, we can make a kind of music that belongs to all of us.


Music is the shorthand of emotion

Leo Tolstoy



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