By Richard Shulman
I made two decisions, in 1967, that shaped my life’s course for the next 20 years. My decisions were not fully conscious, but from the inertia of who I thought I was. I was living in Buffalo, New York, studying musical composition at the University of Buffalo, and devoting most of my energies to playing and learning jazz piano. One evening, I was listening to Tommy Schuman, then Buffalo’s wonder child of jazz piano and a member of the band Spyro Gyra, in a solo performance. I thought to myself, I could do this. I could be on stage successfully making incredible music. But with my next thought—people will be jealous—I decided that the pain of their negative feelings was too high a price for fulfilling my vision. A hopeful part of me retreated into a safe, but sad place that night.
A few weeks later, I was on that stage playing with the house band for a jam session, the town’s best venue. I was happy to be there, and all went well until two conga players sat in. The leader miked their drums in such a way that I could hardly hear my piano but, since this was my first night, I kept quiet and played harder. I was quickly playing at my strength’s peak limit and speed, which stressed my tendons. Next, an electric guitarist set his amp right in front of my piano microphone. To hear myself at all, I had to use all my strength on each note so that, by the set’s end, my pain continually increased. Though my friends in the audience, with no idea of what was happening, were extremely impressed by my playing, I went home in great pain.
My second decision was to rejoin a band in Evansville, Indiana, because the bass player lived and worked there. I was reluctant, since opportunities were happening in Buffalo, but the guys pleaded, so I agreed. The bass player’s job pressures left him little time to practice, so our one-night-a-week gig ended with bad feelings all around. The pain in my arms recurred when I lifted heavy objects, including my keyboards.
Back home in Buffalo, my girlfriend left for Boston to study jazz piano at the Berkley School of Music, so I moved in with my parents in Niagara Falls. Fear of other people’s judgments had brought me to such a place of pain that I took a leave of absence from performing for two years. I continued to spiral downwards. My girlfriend, following her heart, found a new boyfriend. I was so immobilized by grief that my only consolations were walking, which helped me feel a little better, and my daily doses of Star Trek and Hee Haw.
My parents, taking all this in stride, attended to my physical needs. When I could no longer drive, my father drove me once weekly to a psychologist at the University of Buffalo. Dad had just retired and, always the scientist, created an elaborate checklist to monitor my progress. When the phone became too heavy for me to hold, he rigged the handset on a cupboard door, eliminating my need to lift. My mother intuitively knew that I had been following everybody’s heart except my own, but I was too closed down to understand, so she simply did her best to care for me as she had her arthritic mother.
By December, life was bleak. I had contemplated suicide during November, but my psychologist turned me around by reminding me of my love for nature. My father reminded me of music, my other love. Since playing the piano for more than a minute caused pain, he set up my keyboard on the floor so I could pick out melodies with my feet. He also volunteered to write down my music. Even with all their help, I was still bitter about my girlfriend leaving and my inability to perform.
My father provided an opportunity to overcome my self-pity by suggesting that I compose a song for his father’s 95th birthday party. I loved the stories that feisty Grampop told about selling $100 worth of newspapers on a street corner in Baltimore the day the Spanish-American War started. I had never wanted him to see my condition, but I loved my grandfather and realized that I could make both of us happy. As I picked out the notes on the keyboard with my feet, a happy little jazz tune emerged. The first phrase fit perfectly with the words “He’s still young at 95 / It’s a miracle for heaven sakes alive.” My favorite part was the bridge: “He walks, he talks, and acts like he’s only seventy.”
Composing and singing “He’s Still Young at 95” was my turning point because I learned that I could make myself and other people happy as opposed to focusing on someone being unhappy about me doing what I love. I cannot, nor do I want to, control other people’s moods or actions. I give myself permission to follow my heart and to speak my truth; I welcome people sharing and meeting me in joy, whether through my music, personally, or in spirit.
When I played again in Buffalo, in 1978, the jazz community warmly welcomed my return. I recorded “Still Young at 95” in 1980; on Solo Flight, a solo piano album in 1985; and again in 2008 on Sky Jazz, a jazz trio album. To this day, I produce recordings, following my heart to the best of my ability.
With performances ranging from Carnegie Hall to the United Nations and the Armenia World Peace Festival to his credit, Richard Shulman has dedicated his music to Spirit and the awakening of inner joy. He is best known for his albums Light From Assisi, which expresses his experiences at the birthplace of St. Francis, and Light Music: to Clear and Align the Chakras recorded in the Light Room of the UR Light Center in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
Richard give concerts and composes, lives and performs in the Asheville area. His new album entitled Bliss of Being, the Pure Heart Ensemble, is available from stores and at RichHeartMusic.com. Telephone: 888-699-3682. To reach Richard directly, email firstname.lastname@example.org.