How music and beauty heal in dark times

Parked cars, asphalt, street lights--everything shimmered like a field of diamonds. That’s what I remember of that afternoon decades ago when I, split wide-open with grief, left the hospital after the death of my best friend and walked into a world glistening with light—a small gift of beauty given to me when for a brief moment, rain clouds parted and a shaft of light illuminated everything. And as the sunlight and shimmer poured into all the broken-open parts of me, I learned in one breathless second the healing power of beauty.  

It’s a lesson I never forgot. In every time of grief or stress, beauty waits for me to remember to look, listen, and open up. Beauty is everywhere—we’re swimming in it every second of our lives. Beauty reminds us what’s eternal and noble. And while some dismiss a quest for beauty as escapism, I see it as an essential search for truth and sanity. Beauty gives, it doesn’t take.  Wildflowers bloom for the sheer exuberance of it, not for any gain. Sunlight warms a windowsill even if we don’t notice it. All we’re required to do is pay attention. But we have to remember that beauty is the child of wonder. And wonder is up to us. We can’t slouch our way into this; we have to be ready to receive. On the deepest level, we must agree to be enchanted.  

Most musicians know the power of beauty or we wouldn’t be drawn to making music. After all, isn’t music a form of organized beauty—a sound snapshot that allows us to grasp something bigger than ourselves? But we forget. I forget. When family members are diagnosed with Covid-19, or when loved ones lose jobs, I forget that I can offer others nothing if I don’t take care of myself, and that one of the best ways to do this is through the notes of a beautiful piece of music. 

Pianists are the luckiest of instrumentalists—we’re self-contained and we can travel to different countries and times through the notes of the enormous repertoire at our fingertips. In one day we can visit 19th century Paris or 20th century New York. We can dabble in jazz or perfect a Bach fugue. We can explore brand new repertoire by living composers from countries all over the worldIn these musical escapes we find solace, rest, beauty, and (hopefully) the strength to face whatever is waiting for us when we walk away from the piano.  

These are dark times. But in turning away from all the bad things I can’t control and sinking my hands and my heart into the notes of a beautiful piece of music, I am rewarded with moments like these: 

I’m playing Chopin’s Barcarolle on a warm day and all the windows are open. In one magical moment, Chopin’s notes blend with the sounds of the river, multiple species of bird songs, and the whistle of a passing train. It is an invitation to celebrate the present, to hear Chopin freed from the stuffiness of the studio and blended with the symphony of real life. And for this magic, shimmering moment I’m given a glimpse of the great cosmic dance that connects us all.  

What does it mean to be embraced by beauty? It’s surrender to sensual delight, a willingness to drop our thoughts and be nourished by life. It’s welcoming beauty and letting it seep into all the split-open parts of our lives. Beauty gets us back into our bodies when everything else conspires to pull us into panic and despair. Beauty invites us to be creators not just receivers and offer the rest we find to others in a world that feels out of control. It reminds us that when we look beyond pain and grief and ugliness, there are still eternal and gracious things to celebrate—even in the darkest of times.