"Music Today?" by Stephen Policoff

Master Teacher, NYU Global Liberal Studies

Winner of the 2012 Fish Short Memoir Prize


“Music today?”  Anna asks me.

            It is only the second time this morning she has asked so I do not sigh as I occasionally do after a fourth or fifth time of asking.

            “Not today, Sweets, This is Tuesday.  Music is Wednesday.  Tomorrow.”

            “Tomorrow,” she murmurs.  But she is not convinced and somewhere between the huge fistful of pills she must consume every morning and our anxious ritual of staring out the window at Bleecker St., willing her school bus to appear, she is almost certain to ask again, “Music today?”

            It is not that she doesn’t remember my previous answer nor that she does not believe what I say.  It is that, in the blur of Anna’s life, music is the single distant star by which she steers.  Her school, her sister Jane, her cat Ruby Bridges, her beloved Mom (Kate), her beloved Dad (me), these are the parameters of her constricted life.  But music alone seems to lift her over the wall.  In her mind, music should be every day…so why isn’t it today?

            Anna, now 16, was adopted from China, the loveliest and sweetest 6-month old anyone had ever seen.  Though she was slow to walk and talk, she was always beguiled by music. She could sing along with Beatle songs before she could speak sentences.  At 5, after a fluke accident landed her in the emergency room (followed by seven stressful visits to seven doctors in seven months), she was diagnosed with Niemann-Pick C, an extremely rare, extremely terrible,  progressive neurogenetic disorder. More than a decade later, there is still no cure for NPC, and no real treatment.  It will almost certainly snuff out her little light before she reaches adulthood.

            Even at the Mayo Clinic, where we dragged her in 2001, hoping that diagnosis might be proved wrong, Anna’s love of music ameliorated the overwhelming sadness my wife and I felt.  On the bus from the hotel to the neurology center, Anna belted out one of her favorite songs. Oh, Susanna! Susanna don’t you cry! she sang, unselfconsciously, over and over.  Even the stricken men and women who rode the bus with us smiled that morning.

            Though she struggled in school—and with simple, everyday tasks—Anna never struggled to sing.  She would make up little songs about her life—My hands are soap, my hands are soap, I don’t know what to do because my hands are soap—and once, on a visit to Florida, she amused and amazed her grandmother and aunts by picking up a ukulele, strumming and blaring a collage of song lyrics and nonsense words for over an hour.

            When she was 7, we signed her up for the Children’s Chorus at NYU, where I teach.  For 4 years, she proudly performed in their annual Winter Concert, even if the intricate words to “Sleigh Ride” occasionally slurred into insensibility. As her walking and standing became increasingly shaky, she still managed to teeter onto the stage and sing her beautiful heart out, causing her little sister to bounce up and down in her seat, shouting, “Yay! Anna!”

            But when Anna turned 12, as in some disturbing fairytale, the black cloud of seizures descended on her, pushing her already precarious life closer to the edge.  We decided she could not perform that December, shuddering at the imagined image of her seizure-stiff body toppling off the stage.  The following spring she went down like a tree in our apartment hallway, her face skidding on the floor, giving her 2 black eyes and rug burns on one porcelain cheek.

            She was supposed to be the lead in a “Singing in the Rain” ensemble in her special ed school’s end-of-the-year talent show.  Did she feel embarrassed by looking like a piece of bruised meat? Hesitate to show her wounds to the audience? No way.  Her theater teacher simply pulled a yellow rain hat down over one of Anna’s swollen eyes to minimize the impact. Anna sat in a chair while her classmates did their dance, and she was singing, just singing in the rain.

            But once she began having seizures, Anna’s school—which, in theory, welcomed children with neurological conditions—could barely contain its eagerness for Anna to be gone.  We spent much of that dismal year slogging around New York trying to find an appropriate school for Anna. 

            At the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Brooklyn—a school I was pretty sure was inappropriate for my Chinese Catholic daughter—I watched a woman distribute bells, drums, and horns to a class of severely impacted special needs students. 

            “Music therapy,” she told me, when she saw me staring.  “Our children love it. You know the old saying, music has charms…

            Anna did end up attending HASC (she triples their diversity just by showing up), where she is content and appreciated. And the idea of music therapy stuck with me.  Anna, once a giggling happy child, often was quiet and sad now. Was this merely a side-effect of her many meds? A recognition that the busy social life she had always savored—after school Girls’ Club, play dates and sleep-overs with her more neurotypical buddies—was slipping away?  She seemed to crave a companion, or an activity that would lift her spirits and act as a doorway into more hopeful possibility.

            So, when a neighbor of ours noted that his autistic son was doing music therapy “right here at NYU,” I flinched, as if he had just transmitted an electric shock.      

            “Why didn’t I know about this?” I demanded.

            “It’s a big place,” he shrugged.

            At NYU’s Nordoff-Robbins Center, Anna was given an assessment session, where she banged on gongs and a keyboard, strummed a guitar and a harp, blew a horn, responded to questions and mimicked the therapist’s movements.  “We think she’s a natural,” the therapist told us.  “We think we can help her.”

            For the past 3 years, Anna has gone once a week to the Nordoff-Robbins Center, a few blocks from our apartment.  For the past 3 years, she has looked forward every day to that one day.  There, nudged and nurtured by one therapist on the piano and one who sits next to her to facilitate therapy, Anna listens, moves her often immovable body, plays and sings, and lights up like a firefly.

            If, as Walter Pater once observed, all art aspires to the state of music, perhaps all therapy should aspire to the state of music therapy. Although her therapists are trained professionals and make use of skills akin to those of psychologists and MSWs, music therapy embraces an improvisational component which allies the therapists more closely with jazz musicians and artists.  It is, in every sense, action therapy, in which both therapist and client respond to the mood, emotion, and ambience to create a musical moment, a collaboration which enables the client to express emotions or transcend a difficult experience.

            Considerable research exists to suggest that music therapy is especially effective in helping autistic and emotionally troubled children push their way out of the cell of the imprisoned self, and touch upon feelings and thoughts they may not have been aware they had.  “Each child is urged through music to become an active partner in a musical relationship,” observes Michele Ritholz, who works with Anna and is one of thesenior music therapists at the Nordoff-Robbins Center. “Because of this relationship, developmental goals emerge, and are worked through over the course of many months. In my experience, it is a therapy that clients love to be involved with, even as they are working hard.”

         For Anna, working hard at something has often led to frustration and discouragement. Music therapy allows her to accomplish, to create, to complete simple experiences which most of us take for granted but which the cruelty of her enervated condition often does not allow her.

            Watching her sessions, I have been struck by how strongly Anna responds to musical suggestions.  This is a kid whose disease makes her speech clumsy, at times all but inaudible, but provide her with a song to sing and suddenly she is belting it out like a nightclub chanteuse.  When she enters the studio, and her therapist begins to sing and play the piano, Anna will join right in, even if she was nodding out seconds before.  She gets the beat, she bobs along, sometimes rhythmically moving her body in the wheelchair where she is often slumped for most of the day.  Despite the serious weakness of all her muscles, she will even try pounding the piano keys, banging a drum, shaking bells.  She nearly always senses the next note and approximates it.

            Anna loves to sing. I should be clear here that her voice is downright weird.  Sometimes, she sounds like she has smoked too many cigarettes (her whiskey voice, Kate calls it).  Sometimes she sounds like she’s deaf, has never heard normal speech; other times, she lapses into an almost falsetto chant.  Yet there are few sweeter sounds to us--especially if we have spent the past half hour trying to extract from her even a single phrase about her day. 

            Ask her a direct question and you will get a stammered word or two at most.  Play a song and she’ll begin to shout out the words—even if she has never heard them before.

            Occasionally, this creates a cognitively dissonant moment, as when I recently put on Amy Winehouse for background music while I assembled dinner, only to hear Anna bellowing, I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good!  Sometimes, I even have to ask her to stop singing—when she’s taking her many pills, for instance, or desultorily trying to chew her dinner (which can take an hour).  If it’s a song she especially loves, she gives me such a look; she is a teenager, after all.

              Surreal and occasionally disconcerting, Anna’s passion for singing is also clearly therapeutic in a variety of ways. “She becomes motivated to use her intact physical skills, to use her voice more dynamically, and to push past challenges,” her therapist points out.

            And sometimes when she sings, it is so clear to me that music is the one true balm to the sorrow of her life, a way to express that which she cannot express—has never been able to express—in any other way.  Not once in all of her life has Anna said she didn’t feel good; rarely has she even said that she felt upset or angry.  Is this just her stoic personality? An inability to find the right words?  A neurological deficit which keeps her from feeling pain?  We have never been sure.  Now that her disease is nibbling away at all of her functioning and she is less able to speak at length, we will probably never know. Yet music therapy sometimes acts as a slender bridge into Anna’s inner life.

            A few months ago, I met her school bus as I do most days, and pushed her wheelchair the few blocks to the NYU building which houses the Nordoff-Robbins Center.  She seemed grumpy, though, and did not say Yay! as she often does when I tell her we’re heading to music

             It was a day on which her mother was away. Kate travels on business and has since Anna was a baby.  Anna is used to this.  When her sister Jane was younger and whimpered for Mommy, it gave Anna a big sister thrill to say, Don’t cry, Jane, Mommy is just in Minneapolis. But something about her mood that day made me wonder.  As we rode up in the elevator, I offhandedly asked, “Are you sad about Mommy not being home tonight? ”

            Suddenly, just as we arrived at the Center, Anna’s face contorted, turned red; tears began streaming down her lovely face. “She misses her mom,” I sighed, as she was wheeled off to the studio for her session.

            Taking their cue from Anna’s tears, her therapist played a few mournful notes. “Are you sad today?” she sang.

             Anna nodded, bobbing her head to the music.  “Sad. I miss my Mom,” she said, voice rising a little in song.

             “I miss my Mom,” the therapist played, “I miss my Mom.”  As she played the simple but melancholy notes on the piano, she sang the words that Anna had just spoken.  Anna replied in song too, “I miss my Mom/I miss my Mom,” she sang out, louder, fuller, more passionately.

            And then—and this is one of those musical moments it is so hard to put into words—the therapist ever so slightly altered the tune.  The chords changed from minor to major.  She sang, “But it’s OK, she’ll be back soon, she’ll be back soon…”

            Anna lifted her head.  The faint suggestion of a smile seemed to cross her face. As the song continued to build, she sang, clearly, strongly. “She’ll be back soon, it’s OK, it’s OK.”

            When she came out of the studio, the tears were gone, and she was still singing, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

            Later that evening, I put on a cd; it was a Beach Boys compilation, one of Anna’s old favorites.  Music/When you’re alone/is like a companion/to your lonely soul, the Beach Boys warbled. 

            “That’s true, isn’t it?” I said.  “Is music your friend?”

            She nodded.  “My buddy and pal,” she managed.

            So, for now, as long as we can, as long as she can, the answer to Anna’s question is:  Music today!