Michael makes it Snow

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 suddenly get too big, and grief and joy would swell to tempest-like proportions without warning—sometimes he would laugh so hard that he would fall off the “pah-nah-no” bench, and 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 its course and he was calm again and his swollen eyes were smiling.

He had a lot of love in his little soul, and attached strongly to his people. First thing he would do when he got to the studio, is make sure the blinds were opened enough that he could see his mom’s Escalade in the parking lot whenever he turned his head. It caused him no end of distress if she left that spot to run an errand, and he would be distracted, asking every few minutes if his mom was back, 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 happened sometimes when he was bullied that day. Sometimes he would 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 the Escalade and looked at the keyboard, bottom lip always out a little further than the top lip.

“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 begin to transcribe their music. It was a good 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, barely able to reach a fifth.

I swallowed. “Sure. 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 the next followed. I let his melody develop and then joined in the bass, following his lead. Sparse notes. Light pedaling. Atonal wanderings. Unsettled open fifths. It did feel sad, like a barren tree in a vast field.

“This feels pretty cold, Michael,” I half-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 asked 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 affect. “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 atonal bleakness as he smiled—an excitement and energy, built and unfolded and it began to feel like winter feels when it is cold outside but there is a fire inside and a Christmas tree glowing in one corner and everyone is curled up and Home Alone. 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.” and set my phone on the piano, pressing record. He set his small hands back on the keyboard and counted us off.

“One. Two—“

And he made it snow.

Willa Grey