Music Heals

“Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”
The Mourning Bride, Act 1, Scene 1
William Congreve

For the past five weeks, as I’ve recovered from surgery and a nasty case of bronchitis (which hasn’t entirely faded), I’ve been the oft-misquoted being of the above quote–a savage beast. I’ve engaged in numerous online arguments, something I normally don’t do. I’ve snapped at baristas, strangers, family, and friends. I hate being sick, and I hate what being sick does to my mood. I’ve hated every word I’ve managed to write during this time. I’ve decided I’m a hack author who’ll never get more than three reviews.

Yeah, good thing I live alone, because living with me the past month would be a ginormous self-pity party.


My social engagements have been limited in the past month as well. As an extrovert I do better when surrounded by people, but one of my early excursions after feeling halfway human again to a Starbucks for some #coffeeshopwriting resulted in people leaving the tables near me to sit somewhere else because of the coughing.

(No need to suggest home remedies or a visit to the doctor. The former don’t work, and I did the latter. This is a result of my usually well-controlled asthma, and there’s not much to be done but endure until it runs its course in five or six weeks.)

So, I hibernated. I didn’t even join my regular Google Hangout sessions because coughing. But one series of events I’ve always looked forward to since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley is the annual Heifetz Institute Summer Concert Series. (For more information on this incredible series, click here. If you ever needed a reason to visit the Valley, this should be at the top of your list.) How could I go, knowing the urge to cough comes on suddenly and lasts until I’ve coughed a lung up? (That’s called hyperbole used for dramatic effect.)

Music has always been important to me. I sing. I listen to many genres of music, depending on my mood: classical to soft rock to acid rock to opera to rap to… You get it. Music inspires me, calms me, excites me, thrills me, heals me. Music is always at my fingertips when I want it.

I skipped the opening Heifetz events but bought a ticket for “Stars of Tomorrow: PianoPalooza!” Piano performances are one of my favorite concerts. I looked forward to this, but my trepidation was there. Heifetz records all the performances. What if a coughing jag came on in the middle of the performance?

I picked a seat on the aisle so if it did, I could make a conspicuous escape.

Hath Charms

The first performance was a contemporary piece by Petr Wajsar for harpsichord, Harpsycho. The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument which produces amazing sounds, but this piece consisted of a lot of slamming of the keyboard, beating on the sides and bottom of the instrument.

I’m not a fan of contemporary classical aka “experimental” music. Sorry.

Next was a Brahms piece, Romance in F major, Opus 118 No. 5, a piano solo played with technical precision but with little passion.

“Musick” wasn’t soothing anything in me it seemed, and I kept expecting the tickle in my throat to manifest.

And then there was Stravinsky. Three movements from Petrushka: Danse russe (Russian Dance), Chez Petrouchka (Petrushka’s Room), and La semaine grasse (The Shrovetide Fair). Played by a Russian without the sheet music. When he closed his eyes and played with the controlled passion that’s very Russian, my spirit and my mood lifted with every chord.

As if that weren’t enough, next came Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor by Liszt, played by four hands and with some wonderfully timed and performed comic mugging by the pianists.

I felt better than I had in weeks.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, M. 60 followed by his La Valse, M. 72 had me floating on air.

I had to clear my throat a couple of times, but no coughing.

To Soothe A Savage Breast

I was so uplifted after this concert, I had trouble getting to sleep, the chords still running through my head. I slept through the night. No coughing, and I’ve yet to cough today.

Music heals.

As I said to a friend at the end of the concert, “I so needed this.”

This morning, my writing looks and feels better to me. I’m not a hack. I’m an author. I’m a novelist working on the next novel. I’m writing, and it’s good because “musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast” of its coughing.

Must be endorphins or something. 🎼😎

Staunton Jams

There are many positives to living in a small city, chiefly you have all the amenities you had in a larger one, just on a more manageable scale. I loved living in Alexandria, VA, where I was minutes away from all the dining and activities in Old Town and, when the traffic wasn’t a bitch, twenty minutes away from work and the Capital of the United States. Washington, DC, always invigorated me–still does–but the years of mismanaging traffic and growth made me seek something less complex for retirement.

Staunton, VA, fit the bill: a relatively stable population, a good local economy, magnificent views of the mountains, farmers markets where the food really is local, and plenty of cultural amenities. Several weeks ago, I decided on a whim one Thursday to go see “Hamlet” at the American Shakespeare Theatre right in downtown Staunton. I got a remarkable seat, within arm’s reach of the stage, which would not have been the case had I attempted the same at the Kennedy Center or even Arena Stage.

The area is also proud of its “roots music,” in fact, music of any kind. Staunton’s “main” street, which is really Beverly St., boasts many restaurants that feature excellent music. One restaurant has an outdoor concert area, which backs on condominiums in the old YMCA building. A few residents have complained, but I say they need to lighten up and enjoy the music. (Interestingly, the people complaining about the music, which is mostly bluegrass or folk, are “immigrants” to the area like myself. The difference is, I like loud music.) In the summer, in an area of the city called “The Wharf” because, I believe, there used to be a somewhat navigable river there, Staunton hosts “Shakin'” on Thursday evenings. These are all local bands or from nearby, and they always draw a crowd. Why, there are even carriage rides around Staunton–just like Old Town.

The unofficial end of the outside music scene in Staunton is “Staunton Jams.” Local officials cordon off a block of Beverly street, and from noon until ten at night bands rock the downtown. They range from headbangers (yes!) to new age to cover bands, and they are all good. Imagine blocking off a similar space in Old Town. When that is done for parades in Alexandria, the gridlock backs up miles on the Capital Beltway. In Staunton, that block was easy to circumnavigate, and there was no gridlock. I was able to park a block away, which wouldn’t have been the case in Old Town or DC.

I love my new city, and I hope I don’t turn into an anti-growth NIMBY, but all the things that appealed to me about living in Alexandria and near DC are here, but I can actually enjoy them without battling traffic and crowds. I’d just like it to stay that way, so if that makes me a NIMBY, I’ll deal.

Here are some pictures from Staunton Jams.

This is the extent of blocking off the street. In Old Town or DC
this would mean saw horses, jersey barriers, police tape,
and SWAT.
The stage is ground level, easy for the acts to move in and
out, but also great for interacting with the bands, who didn’t
mind if you shouted requests at them.
Yes, you could get this close to the stage, and in
this picture you can see some of the great downtown architecture.
The children had fun with sidewalk chalk, in this case,
road chalk. The children had lots of activities, and in
addition to taking a seat on the curb, you could bring your
own chairs to sit on–that would never go over in security-
conscious DC.