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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 10, 2009

We should listen to live music and unlock the shackles that limit us

A reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World changed the way people with mental illness were perceived of and treated. Elizabeth Cochrane, who wrote under the pen name of Nellie Bly, feigned madness so she could report, from the inside, what life was like in an asylum.

Bly writes in her 1887 book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, of cruel beatings, of women considered violent who are roped together, of food she found inedible, of intolerable cold, and of endless tedium.

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she asks. “Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

But one thing in the institution on Blackwell’s Island that Bly gives scant attention to is a piano. It seems so much a part of her 19th-Century world that she does not see it as unusual. While, as a journalist, she goes on in great detail, describing her surroundings — the long bare room, with the straight-backed benches, and the barred windows — the piano is just “an old-fashioned square,” a passing reference.

She describes being in the madhouse sitting room when her companions, patients there, ask, “You play the piano?”

Here is Bly’s account of what happened next:

“ ‘Oh, yes; ever since I was a child,’ I replied.

“Then they insisted that I should play, and they seated me on a wooden chair before an old-fashioned square. I struck a few notes, and the untuned response sent a grinding chill through me.

“ ‘How horrible,’ I exclaimed, turning to a nurse, Miss McCarten, who stood at my side. ‘I never touched a piano as much out of tune.’

“ ‘It’s a pity of you,”’ she said, spitefully; ‘we’ll have to get one made to order for you.’

“I began to play the variations of  ‘Home Sweet Home.’ The talking ceased and every patient sat silent, while my cold fingers moved slowly and stiffly over the keyboard. I finished in an aimless fashion and refused all requests to play more. Not seeing an available place to sit, I still occupied the chair in the front of the piano while I ‘sized up’ my surroundings….

“When they found I would not play any more, Miss McCarten came up to me saying, roughly: ‘Get away from here,’ and closed the piano with a bang.”

Later, after trying yet again to eat an unpalatable meal, Bly continues her account.

“You must force the food down,” a patient tells her, “else you will be sick, and who knows but what, with these surroundings, you may go crazy. To have a good brain the stomach must be cared for.’

“ ‘It is impossible for me to eat that stuff,’ I replied, and, despite all her urging, I ate nothing that night.

“It did not require much time for the patients to consume all that was eatable on the table, and then we got our orders to form in line in the hall. When this was done the doors before us were unlocked and we were ordered to proceed back to the sitting-room. Many of the patients crowded near us, and I was again urged to play, both by them and by the nurses. To please the patients I promised to play and Miss Tillie Mayard was to sing. The first thing she asked me to play was ‘Rock-a-bye Baby,’ and I did so. She sang it beautifully.”

The next scene describes a tortuously cold bath, roughly administered. But, there, in the midst of the agony, is a song of comfort and warmth, “Rock-a-bye Baby.”

Every patient had sat silent at the first sounds of the piano. It brought together the hated nurses with the patients they were supposed to be caring for. While Bly comments only on how out of tune the piano was, the music itself was healing.

Later, when she stays in another ward, she describes the nightly gathering around the piano as the center of the day, what the patients most look forward to.

Live music is rare these days. Pianos are no longer ubiquitous. How many modern psychiatric centers have pianos for patients to play?

So many of us listen to recordings. Often we see people out running or jogging or even in the midst of a crowd, plugged into only their own sounds.

Learning to play an instrument takes time and practice, and, if it is to be done well, dedication and passion. We were struck this week when visiting a classroom at Lynnwood Elementary where the 9- and 10-year-olds had written to a soldier stationed in Iraq about who they were, what most defined them. Cheryl Blank wrote in her letter to the soldier that she plays the clarinet; she proudly announced that her first concert is on Dec.14.

We parents remember the years of going to student concerts and recitals, sitting happily on folding chairs, stretched out in rows in the gym. Pride shone bright on the faces of the young performers, and the audience, admittedly a biased crowd of family members, always seemed engulfed in the warmth.

Our columnist for the Altamont Seniors, Eileen McKenney, writes every year about how the elders look forward to hearing the youngsters at Altamont Elementary School perform. “One of our very favorite programs will be the visit from Altamont Elementary fourth- and fifth-graders, brought to us by music teacher Deb DiGrado,” writes McKenney this week. “We look forward to their delightful young voices entertaining us with holiday carols. What a special treat this is, and we always enjoy and appreciate Deb for providing us with this musical opportunity to welcome the season.”

We thought about the power of live song last week as we wrote about a remarkable young musician from Guilderland, Brendan Blendell, who has listened to folk music for as long as he can remember. Blendell started by playing the piano, and then added the trombone, the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, and the bass.

At 17, he is tuned into an earlier era. He admires Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and has made documentaries about them. This year, he won national and state recognition for his careful research on one of the great field collectors of folk music. Much of the research for his documentary, Alan Lomax: Saga of a Folksong Hunter, was done online.

“He was an influential figure,” explained Blendell, “because he was passionate about collecting folk songs and preserving culture in general…Alan Lomax tried to say, ‘We need to preserve these songs...In the future, we’ll get sick of the commercial stuff and say, ‘Where is the good stuff? Where are our roots?” ’ ”

The Lomax collection is now in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. “Throughout the world, folksong collectors tend to dig up old bones from one graveyard and put them into another graveyard — their filing cabinets,” comments Pete Seeger on the Library of Congress website. “But Alan Lomax and his father, John, wanted the American people to once again sing the wonderful old songs of this country, which they never heard on the radio. So you who can read this should know where you can get them — the American Folklife Center — and they will live again.”

They will live again only if we liberate them. If we play the tunes and sing them. In the computer age, folk music may be taken out of the filing cabinets, but it is still divorced from its roots.

Blendell believes the digital age will help preserve the old songs. They may, indeed, take on new forms, but only if people are willing to perform, and to listen.

Perhaps you have no piano at home. Perhaps you feel shy about singing or feel you don’t know any songs. Let us burst out of our metaphorical straightjackets and join together in creating, experiencing, and appreciating music — live music. We urge our readers to find a concert to go to. Our schools this holiday season are filled with them. They’re free; our taxes are paying for them. Let’s fill the halls.

Guilderland’s annual masterworks concert will be held on Dec. 21. Over 300 voices will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. So many are singing — alumni as well as students — that they won’t fit on the high school stage, and so will perform at the Voorheesville Performing Arts Center.

Orff, working in Germany, composed the cantata in the 1930s based largely on medieval poems. He drew his inspiration not from filing cabinets, but from the medieval equivalent, monks’ manuscripts. Folk music from centuries before lives through his work and will rivet a modern audience half a world away from the place of its origin.

Let’s join in the chorus.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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