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The healing power of a perfect song

Essay | 11 minute read
'Is there a song that changed your life? I have spent many hours trying to think of the right one, but I realised pretty quickly that there was only one song I could choose because it had already chosen me.'

When I was four, I played the violin. I started at a young enough age to get good pretty quickly. I could play by ear so I knew instinctively if a note was wrong. I had a teacher called Mr Chittock who I would have done anything for. He taught the Suzuki method, which – as any of you who have come across it will know – is all about intuition and fun. He told me things like, ‘You don’t play with your fingers, you play with your heart,’ which almost makes me weep to remember, thirty-seven years on. If I have a life philosophy, that is where it came from.

I’m not sure how good I was, but I do know I loved it and playing music was something that seemed to flow out of me. I can still recite the notes of Allegro, the first piece I learned: ‘A, A, E, E, F, G, A, F, E, E, D, D, C, C, B, A, B, C, A.’ My mum says I got a scholarship to Wells Cathedral School because I had perfect pitch but she and Dad didn’t want me to board so I didn’t go. Playing the violin gave me a way to communicate how I felt before I really knew that was what I was doing. It was the first time I felt the power of expressing myself through art. I got lost playing my violin. I also know that I loved Mr Chittock. It was the first time I loved someone who was not a member of my family. I loved him as you can only love a teacher who opens up your conscious experience of the world.

I started doing yoga because he said it would be good for my music. So, at four years old, I was dropped off at the local sports centre by my mum and did yoga on a Wednesday night, wearing my SuperTed leg warmers and carrying a scratchy towel, performing the positions with a room full of what I recall as old ladies who were probably in their twenties and thirties. More than once I fell asleep in the lotus position because my spot on the thickly woven yellow carpet was in front of a radiator. I remember lipstick smiles and my hair being stroked to wake me up. I was out of place, which I’ve learned over the years is the only place I’ve ever truly felt at home.

I think everyone has a special power. Something they can do without thinking. And when you are in tune with this part of yourself, everything else makes sense. Music was it for me. It was bliss. I worked hard at playing because it wasn’t work at all. But my music lessons, and my use of music to express what I felt in my head and my heart, came to a very abrupt end. Mr Chittock died.

He used to teach me in this little building in my primary school that had lots of windows so it was always very warm inside, with sunbeams darting through the branches and panes of glass like the sticks in Kerplunk. I still remember the Christmas-morning feeling washing over me whenever the blinds were up and I knew he was in there, teaching. I was so excited walking up the steps for my lessons with my little case.

But one day I was told he had gone and our lessons were over. The blinds were down, that day and every day after. I remember looking at the closed blinds during playtime each day, wondering where he’d gone and why hadn’t said goodbye. I didn’t realise I was too heartbroken to be cross and it has taken years to fathom the emptiness it created inside me. You see, no one told me he had died. I suppose they wanted to protect me, so they just said he had gone.

I found out years later his son had committed suicide and, unable to cope with the grief, he had killed himself too. I say I found this out – I’m not actually sure how but it’s an explanation that is in my mind and has been there long enough for me not to question it. I knew none of this then, of course. I just knew he left and that without him I couldn’t seem to play any more. So I stopped. New music teachers came and went but the music in my heart had left with him. I had no explanation for the absence and I grew to hate my quarter-size violin. Holding it felt like cradling something rotten and dead. I remember crying and twisting the bow until it splintered, hiding the pieces under my bed.

I struggled with music after that. It was like I couldn’t let it ‘in’ without intense effort. I still can’t lose myself in music as easily as other people can. Or at least I couldn’t until I discovered the music of the person who wrote and performed this song. Even now, if I’m at a party, it takes a lot to get me to dance. Unless his music comes on. And then, even if no one else is dancing, I do.

I know. That’s a little strong. What do we ever know? I suppose the narrative I have told myself and that I have come to believe and use to define who I am is that I will never capture the ability to use artistic expression in my writing in the way I used to play my violin. That chance is gone. I’ll spend my life writing in the hope that I might be able to use words one day in the way I used music back then. But I also know I have the ability to spot it in the music, and other kinds of craft, of other people, which is now what excites and motivates me. I guess that’s where Unbound comes in.

But ten years after I stopped playing, I found a song that not only came from the state of mind, or perhaps artistic connection, I had felt playing music but also – and this is why I found it so astonishing – reached from the mind of the artist into mine with seemingly no interference or friction.

I’m convinced that we all know who we are, what matters to us, what excites us and what moves us. We know it in our minds and in our bones with frustrating clarity. I say frustrating because in our minds we are alone. Cut off from the world we inhabit emotionally and literally. The great opportunity and tragedy of being alive is that we are unable to communicate this self-knowing to ourselves and other people in a way they, and we, can understand. So we translate our feelings into thoughts using words, which can be clumsy and rarely reflect what we feel inside. We show it in our life choices, which can be even more mystifying. And in the friendships we cultivate. We try and reflect it, or experience it wordlessly, in the work and art of others and ourselves. Our lives are spent attempting to be known. In my own life when I feel I have failed, that failure is always rooted in a failure to be understood.

This song was the first time a work of art bridged the gap between my mind and another. My Roberta Flack, ‘Killing Me Softly’ moment. The fact that the song also tackles the nature of mortality – and I heard it at the time I was first grappling with my own – meant I couldn’t actually listen to it all the way through. I had to lift the needle off the record and take a deep breath because it was too intense to cope with. He sings with a whisper at the start of the song but to me, those first few times, it was deafening.

The philosopher Boethius wrote that there are moments of perfection you experience in life and in these moments of perfection you glimpse eternity. In those moments you see with the eyes of God. And you gasp. This is what I think Boethius meant. Moments of perfect sight. Perhaps, even, truth. It was as though I had stumbled on a secret that horrified and reassured me to know I could never explain.

You know the moment when you realise you have forgotten a dream but the feeling it gave you is still there in your mind? You try and pull the memory of the dream back to be able to feel the feeling more deeply but the words you need to remember the dream have gone. Then, agonisingly, the feeling goes too and all you remember is its absence. That’s not quite what I mean but it’s the closest the words I have will let me get to. This song makes me feel like that anyway. Sort of.

Prince, who wrote and performed the song, became my way back into music when I was about fourteen. His Nude Tour at Wembley Arena was my first ever live concert. I went with my friend Henry who was a member of the fan club, so we got seats a few rows from the front. Seeing Prince as your first live gig is the literal definition of the phrase ‘a tough act to follow’. That concert was the first time since I played the violin that I’d been able to completely lose myself in music. It was the first time I ever danced as a self-conscious teenager too.

Prince performing at Madison Square Garden in the Parade Tour (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

When Prince died last year, friends I hadn’t seen in years texted to see if I was OK. Henry and I had a not-very-manly chat on the phone. It took me multiple plays listens of the Purple Rain album over the next few weeks to be able to listen to it without getting upset. I’m not trying to hoist myself onto the league table of most upset Prince fans. I mention this because I think I was crying for Mr Chittock and myself too. All over the world people like me were weeping for the fractured mosaic of their life experiences that his music had played a part in. Because music wasn’t something he did. It was something he was and it is something in all of us too. He was a master at communicating the human condition, crossing the bridge from his consciousness to our own. We’re all artists, you see. Playing life. Not with our bodies, but with our hearts.

I saw Prince lots of times over the years and even when he was a bit odd, and he was odd a lot, he was better than everyone else I’ve seen. One gig I saw in Hammersmith had the drummer in a glass box for reasons I never could ascertain and Prince refused to play any hits, much to the disgust of the man next to me, who refused to stand up for the entire performance. Well, not quite the whole performance. At one point Prince played ‘The Ladder’, which was quite unusual, and my neighbour stood up and whooped for that. But immediately sat down again.

Watching Prince play over the years was always like checking in with my fourteen-year-old self. Reminding me who I was and who I had become. I got older. He didn’t seem to. I learned in the time since I first heard this song that the closer you get to facing your mortality, the less frightening it is. I’m less daunted now than I was at fourteen anyway, which takes the edge off the beautiful panic this song drew from me when I first listened to it back then. Listening to it now is like that moment when you try and remember a dream. I can’t remember how I felt those first few times I heard it, but I can remember the delicious, life-affirming absence of the feeling it created inside me.

Performing at Wembley Arena in March 1995

If Prince played in the UK, I usually went. But he had never played this song. Not for me anyway. Then he announced the O2 shows performed in the round in London. They were typically astonishing, and one night – the last of seven nights – I went, having bought a ticket near the stage that had been returned at the last minute. Long after most people had gone home and the lights were up – a sign in every other live show I’ve been to that the night is over – he came out and did an encore. I was on my own that time. Everyone around me moved to empty seats closer to the stage but I didn’t want to break the spell. I wasn’t in a great place in my life at the time. Dragging a chasm of sadness around me like a shadow no one else could see. I really needed something. Could he? Would he?

He sat at the piano, twinkled with the impish grin I’d seen the first time and every time after, which I will have in my mind as long as I live, and played the song that chose me. It was the one and only time I ever saw him play it.

Rather poignantly, and appropriately, for me, he didn’t play it all. But he played enough for me to experience a lump in my throat that morphed into cathartic glee.

This song. His song. My song: ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’.

This piece originally appeared on OneTrackMinds, a live event in which six guests speak about the song that changed their lives

Dan Kieran is CEO of Unbound. His new book, ‘The Surfboard’, is currently crowd-funding