Home About Us Features Write Now! Submit Resources

Music Therapy

by Linda Underhill

You sit in a green upholstered lazy boy recliner with a needle in your hand, getting your first dose of chemotherapy, listening to the Toccata in C Minor that you have loaded onto your portable CD player. It is only the music that can keep you from thinking about the chemicals that are being loaded into your veins-toxic heavy metals with multiple side effects like nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, joint pain, nerve damage, mouth sores, hair loss, and hearing loss. No one really knows if the treatment will help you. You have already had surgery to remove a malignant tumor in your kidney. No one knows if there is any more cancer in you now. No one knows how much longer you have to live. The chemicals going into your veins are designed to hunt down any cancer cells that may or may not still be somewhere in your bloodstream.

It doesn't seem like a very good bet, this shot in the dark going through your bloodstream.

The four people sitting across from you in their own lazy boy recliners are all just passively sleeping-two men and two other women like you. All together, you are five of the 1.5 million other people in the United States who have been diagnosed with cancer this year. You don't know what kind of cancer the other four people in the room with you have, or what their chances are, either.

You don't want to think about what your chances are. You just want to listen to the music. It is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived three hundred years before you were born, that gives you hope and the will to continue living, not the toxic chemicals racing through your veins on the off chance that they might find one tiny remaining cancer cell somewhere in your body and kill it before it can kill you.

The Toccata in C Minor is performed by Martha Argerich, a pianist from Argentina known more for her interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but you like the way she plays Bach. Her Bach is not bloodless. As mathematically intricate as baroque counterpoint is, there is no reason to play it without emotion. Bach experienced so many emotional states in his life-grief, love-and lust--joy, and anger, to name a few. He was an orphan by the age of ten. He had twenty children; only ten of them lived to adulthood. His first wife Maria died unexpectedly, while he was away from home, and she was buried by the time he had returned. He could mourn her only by visiting her grave-and by composing the Chaconne for solo violin, a piece of music which sounds like a gut-wrenching wail. Bach was known for defying authority; he was competitive, he was driven, and he was intensely devout. He was a man who experienced great losses, and great suffering. He had a fiery temper!

He loved God. You think that his music should be played with great passion, always.

Argerich can do that. And Argerich, a woman like you, over sixty, who has had a tumultuous life and her own battle with cancer, is a kind of hero to you. You are thrilled that after centuries of struggle, a woman has finally achieved this kind of status: many people consider her to be the world's greatest living pianist.

The theme of eight descending notes in this toccata-from an Italian word, toccare, meaning to touch-is repeated obsessively, and the challenge for Argerich is to play it each time somehow differently. Each time, her touch is different. Sometimes she touches the keys fiercely, as if she is angry with the world, and sometimes she touches them tenderly, as if she is comforting a child, sometimes her touch achieves a delicate tone, and sometimes a bright tone, sometimes a dancing tone, and sometimes she plays the repetitive notes of the theme as if they are a haunting. Sometimes she plays them as if they are a prayer. Her pace is unrelenting, her trills are brilliant and her embellishments richly colored. She is in full command of this music, and at the same time, she plays it as if she is well aware that she, too, is dying.

There is no time to waste, this music tells you, and there is no sense in holding back what you want to say. You may as well say it all right now, with feeling.

The embellishments of counterpoint are like jazz, and jazz is like counterpoint, with its improvisations played against the melody, always in the back of the listener's mind as the contrapuntal movement of two different voices creating harmony out of argument. Bach didn't invent counterpoint, but he perfected it, and with the force of his own life experiences poured into his compositions, he brought counterpoint to its greatest achievement. And even as the Baroque period passed, the Romantics, like Mendelssohn and Chopin, revered Bach both for the intricacies of his compositions and for the range of emotions he expressed.

So, it seems, does Martha Argerich.

It's like a long jam session, the intricacy of a toccata, and each time the theme appears again there is a different improvisational invention. Argerich attacks the piece with her characteristic passion, and it gives you courage, especially because after the flourish of lightening quick notes in the final, showy phrases--a passage worthy of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, played in a minor key, like the blues--the music ends abruptly in a luminous, shimmering major chord. Out of the darkness, it says, comes light. Always. Sometimes it happens, the music is saying, at the very last moment, but it always happens. The sun also rises. The spring returns. The two energies of darkness and light meet. Somewhere, something is dying. And somewhere, out of pain and suffering, something is being born.

Linda Underhill has published two books of creative non-fiction: The Unequal Hours: Moments of Being in the Natural World, and The Way of the Woods: Journeys Through American Forests. She lives in Wellsville, New York with her husband Bill Underhill, a sculptor, and she teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Chatham University. She is inspired by the power of music to heal.