Michael was small for his age—a five which he displayed proudly on one tiny raised hand the first time we met. He had dark hair, large expressive eyes, and an endearing lisp. His mind was open and creative, and unable to decide effectively how much information to allow in. The world would often get too big without warning, and grief and joy would swell to tempest-like proportions—sometimes something from the day would catch up to him, and fat tears would start running down his cheeks mid-song and the lesson would devolve into sobs until they had run their course; and sometimes, he would laugh so hard at his own jokes that he would fall off the “pah-nah-no” bench.
He had a lot of love in his little soul and attached firmly to his people. The first thing he would do when he got to the studio, was make sure the blinds were opened enough that his mom’s Escalade was easily viewed when he looked over his left shoulder. It caused him no end of distress if she left that spot to run an errand, and he would become distracted, asking every few minutes if his mom was back yet, till she returned and he relaxed again.
I adored Michael. His struggle to understand the world and his place in it was near to my heart, and I tried to help him navigate those emotions as best I could.
One day, he came to lessons very subdued. No smiles, no hugs. This usually happened when he'd was bullied that day. Sometimes he would want to talk about it; other times, no. So I waited. He sat quietly on the bench and glanced out the window to make sure he could see his mom's car, then looked dejectedly at the keyboard.
“What’s up, Michael? You ok?”
He didn’t look up. “I don’t know...” The bottom lip began its tell-tale tremble.
“Do you feel like making a song?” I waited.
He nodded slowly without looking up, and I got up to sit on the left side of the bench. He checked around me nervously to make sure I wasn’t blocking his view of the Escalade, and then relaxed, and exhaled again slowly.
“So…what should our song be about?” We’d been doing this since the first lesson. I did some form of this open-improv with all my students, especially the ones who were a little too young to read music. It was an awesome way to get creativity flowing and energy moving, and I found that they all felt better after.
“It’s gonna be sad…like winter.” He placed his hands on the keys, just barely able to reach a fifth.
I swallowed. “Ok. What does winter sound like?”
“Cold.” He replied, and counted himself off solemnly, “One. Two. Three—” and began, playing a single note that he let die away before sounding the next. I let his melody develop, and then joined in the bass, following his lead. Sparse notes. Light pedaling. Atonal wanderings. Unsettled open fifths.
“This feels pretty cold, Michael,” I whispered as we played.
“Yep,” he responded, all business, and raised his head slightly. The notes in his melody started drifting down from the top of the keyboard until he reached my side of the keyboard. Then they started from the top and fell my way again.
“Are those snowflakes?” I whispered as the notes drifted down.
He giggled, “I’m not telling you,” and the notes fell faster as the storm came, and I finished letting them fall all the way to the ground in the bass. He laughed at the effect. “More pedal,” he instructed, and I complied, suspending our notes in the air and swirling arpeggios below. The chords began to lose their ache, and shake their bleakness as he smiled—an excitement and energy, built and unfolded and it started to feel like winter feels when it is cold outside, but there is a fire inside. After a few minutes of flurry, the storm began to abate, and the snowflakes thinned, until there were five, then four, then one. One. One—fading in the air, until all was still.
We looked at each other. He was beaming.
“I think that was our best song yet, Michael.”
He nodded, and grinned impishly, “Probably.” then instantly became serious. “One more time?”—his eyes pleaded, and I laughed and nodded—“but this time record it so I can show my mom.” I set my phone on the piano and pressing record. He placed his small hands back on the keyboard and counted us off.
And Michael made it snow.