Psycho-therapy often is a ten-year commitment, surgery needs a couple of months recovery, aspirin takes an hour or so to kick in, but today I witnessed a cure that took about 10 minutes total. My Tuesday visit to Mom began with her yelling at passing nurses and throwing food at someone. She scowled at me when I started playing the ukelele and generally was in her “I’m not too pleased to be alive at this moment and nothing you are doing or saying is helping” state.
I wheeled her over to the piano and started playing some Scarlatti sonatas and by the end of the first one, she was transformed. Smiling, calm, animated, happy, her body chemistry changed from vibrations from strings inside a wooden frame artfully arranged to bring pleasure to those who understand the language. Not those trained or formally educated, but those, like my Mom, who have eavesdropped on enough conversations in this style to recognize the points of tension and release, understand the ebb and flow of the musical soundwaves so that they can ride them like surfers in the zone. I’ve always known that music is a powerful healing force and therapeutic tool, but it is simply extraordinary to see how thoroughly and quickly it can transform one’s mood, immediately re-balance brain waves and heart rhythms out of whack and bring them into harmony. No accident that harmony was both Scarlatti’s structural scaffolding and the word that describes a balanced emotional state.
And of course, so pleasing that this is no experiment in a lab, but a real life situation and means of connection between a son and his aging mother. This is my payback for the early years of breast-feeding. She fed me and soothed me with her milk and now I feed and soothe her with the musical milk flowing from my fingers. And not only am I thrilled that the “therapeutic subject” is my flesh-and-blood mother, but I know that she is thrilled that the musical doctor is her son. My wife suggested that maybe I gift her with an i-Pod filled with Scarlatti so she can listen at will, but besides the differences between the sound waves coming from the three-dimensional piano, the ambiance of the room and the community of others listening, I think it means something special to her that her offspring is producing the sounds. Today she called me a champ and raised my arm in the air like I had just won the heavyweight boxing titled when I knocked down the last note of Sonata No. 18.
For the moment, Scarlatti and Haydn seem to be her favorites. She loves the constant motion of the 16th notes, the forward momentum reaching little peaks of climax before gathering all their energy to head for the final chord. The tempos range from Allegro to Presto, vibrant, alive with energy, charging the air and our nervous system with an ordered exuberance. It’s a very different feeling than playing the old jazz standards I usually play when I visit. No one is humming along or remembering a bygone era captured in an old familiar song. Instead, they are dancing to the pure energy of musical tones.
As for Domenico Scarlatti, he was a contemporary of Bach and Handel (all three born in 1685) who lived in Italy, moved to Portugal and then spent much of his later life in Spain. His energetic keyboard works often revolve around repetitive figures that hover briefly like a hummingbird sipping nectar before flitting to the next flower. He shows a masterful command of quickly shifting harmonies and was an expert in the short Sonata form. In fact, he wrote 555 of them. (My book has 30).
That’s good news for my Mom and her neighbors. 555 roads to healing. I better get practicing.