From Suffering to Beauty - A Musican's Journey

This month, the Applause blog will feature Associate Professor of music Ryan Nielsen, whose work as a musician and music instructor has been instrumental in the department.

My brother, Justin Nielsen, is a brilliant pianist and teacher. He often teaches, “There are really only two reasons to do music. 1) To compare yourself to others. 2) To transform suffering into beauty through sound. Those who chose #1 will fail a dozen, or maybe even a hundred times, and then they will quit. Those who choose #2 will fail a thousand times. But they will never quit. Because they know what music can do.”

I had an experience with this that would be unbelievable to me if I hadn’t lived it. A few years ago, I heard in my mind the beginning of a tune. I would play that tune-beginning every day; and every time, I would search for an ending. I tried dozens and dozens of “endings,” but they were all wrong. Day after day, for more than a year, I went through this ritual. I simply could not hear what was supposed to come next.

Then, just last year, I went through an excruciating experience in my life. Grief erupted inside me in a way that felt unbearable. I honestly wondered if my feelings might break me. Not knowing what to do, I sat down at the piano in my office, and something inside seemed to say, “Play the tune. We wrote it for today.” It was as if, somehow, some part of me had known that this experience would come. And that part of me had been preparing.

So I started playing the tune. Grief started to pour out of me. And when I got to the part where, day after day, I could not hear what was supposed to come next, it finally came. For hours, I searched for the right notes. And each time that I found the them, I knew they were right because some new emotion would find voice. Sometimes a note would help me sob; other times, it would make me laugh. Guiding me through my grief, the music walked with me into places I had not previously known inside myself.

Music can do that for all of us, I think. It can connect us to the parts of our inner life that we didn’t even know were there. And when it does, it is transformative. It can even transform suffering into beauty.