A pianist’s point of view: The marvelous possibilities of music

Music is one of the most powerful and beautiful forces in the world.

Schertzman’s grandson, Eli Schertzman, playing the piano in Efrat (photo credit: Courtesy)
Schertzman’s grandson, Eli Schertzman, playing the piano in Efrat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whenever I’m playing a piece of music on the piano like a good jazz arrangement of Autumn Leaves or a Brahms Intermezzo, it takes me to a place of pure joy and allows me to let loose of whatever bothers me. It’s such a high.

Music is one of the most powerful and beautiful forces in the world. It can accomplish countless wonders for those who tap into the marvelous possibilities if offers. As a professional woman – a musician, teacher and composer for more than 40 years – music is truly one of my great loves. Whether it be the personal thrill of performing a beautiful piece of music on the piano, for entertainment, healing, or spiritual enlightenment, the ever arising applications of music never cease to amaze me.

As I start most days with exercise, I realize how much more difficult exercise classes would be without music! It makes us move, makes us more graceful, and helps us maintain our balance as we move to the rhythm. The music affects our physiology. The fast rhythm of a song can get the heartbeat going stronger, energize us, or have the opposite effect of calming us down, slowing the heartbeat with slow beats, soft music, or meditative music. It can even reduce our blood pressure! Just listen to a nice slow melodic piece of music.

The Torah teaches that the Gate of Music is located next to the Gate of Torah. Music is such an important spiritual tool as commanded by God to include it in the Temple. When we listen to the prayers or Torah reading being sung, it uplifts us to a higher place and makes it so much more inspiring to pray. The Tribe of Levi received instrumental and vocal training in order to be able to play music and sing the Psalms of David in the Temple that created an atmosphere of great beauty and joy, drawing in people spiritually and helping them get closer to God.

Their magnificent music was an integral part of the spiritual experience. Also, the Levities played music as part of the korbanot because it was required by God. The Mishna recounts the joyous music and singing during Simhat Beit HaShoaveh. King David played music on his harp so that he would make himself happy and thereby achieve prophesy.

Although I never trained formally as a music therapist, I think that every good and caring music teacher is doing music therapy whether they know it or not.

Music lessons can have a very positive impact on students. I once gave piano lessons to an 11-year-old boy with ADD who was thrown out of school for not doing well. He was crushed from his failures at school, and I could see the pain in his eyes. I, however, saw him as an intelligent, sweet and loving child, so I used the music lesson to help him see this too. Fortunately, he loved playing the piano. Now as a teacher, I notice that there is always something each student is better at, and I focus on this strength in order to help the student enjoy the learning experience as well as succeed at the lessons.

For instance, one student has a great ear for music, another student imitates very well, another may have a good feel for performing, or maybe even composing music, but hardly ever does a student come to me with a gift for sight-reading music. Well, this boy had a special gift to be able to read music so easily, so I was sure to tell him how very amazing he is and really rubbed it in. This did the trick for his self-esteem, and he loved practicing and playing for me. Not only was it so enjoyable for him to play, but it was obvious that music became a way for him to finally feel good about himself and gain confidence.

The magic of beautiful melodic music combined with powerful words is a winning combination to influence people and change their whole mindset.

When I was younger, living in Betar Illit with my husband and five children, I wrote many original songs which I performed on a keyboard- synthesizer- which had all sorts of drum styles, many instrumental sounds, and of course, lots of “thrills and frills,” sound effects that I used to make my performance more enjoyable and sometimes, humorous. I sang harmony to the songs with another woman named Aviva Karpel of Bat Ayin who was the main singer and very personable “MC” as well as a mother of eight children! Our music for women/girls only duo was known as “Riva & Aviva.” We would perform all over Israel, including the yishuvim in Judea, Samaria and Gush Katif, often wearing heavy bulletproof vests to get there in one piece since we traveled at the times when there were “intifadas” going on. We were sometimes escorted to our concerts which took place in isolated areas by soldiers in their bulletproof fully enclosed armored vehicle jeeps, the IDF Sufa.

On one such occasion, we were taking a “night ride” in one of these jeeps through the winding roads of Samaria on route to a yishuv while wearing our official IDF “vests.” Our bodies were pushed from side to side unto the metal walls as we drove through the darkness. I remember that I’d have to recover from the “jeep sickness” after we arrived, but it was absolutely worth it because it was really “cool.” Anyway, on route to the yishuv, we learned that a woman from this yishuv was recently murdered in a terror attack. As we arrived to perform in a garden area, we observed the women of the yishuv sitting around waiting for us looking very, very sad. We understood they were grieving, and yet, we were invited to entertain! How were we going to do this? It took some ingenuity, but we decided to perform a slow melodic song I had written about Rachel Imenu (Rachel our mother), including the words written on her grave in which she cries for the return of her children to Israel (and Hashem assures her that they will return).

Fortunately, the song was very meaningful to the women because the lyrics expressed hope for the redemption. It’s not only the music, but the use of the words added to music which creates a powerful experience. Music brings words to life, adding a whole new dimension of color which helps to touch a person’s heart. After that song, we gradually increased the “tempo” in the songs that followed, until, after a few songs, the whole mood of gloom lifted to a joyous one! Aviva liked to invent dances for the groups we entertained. We even managed to get them up and dancing. It was important to get these women out of their gloom. Music, especially with meaningful lyrics, did the trick.

While I was serving as a piano accompanist for “Mikveh the Musical,” we were on tour in the US last year and asked to conduct a few Shabbaton workshops. The topic assigned to me was “music for healing. “I had to think of something to do with the group on a Shabbos. An idea occurred to me as I was driving while listening to an old familiar song playing on the radio.

It brought me back to bygone days as a carefree girl in my youth and, for a few minutes as the music played, I was back there (“BPT,” before paying taxes). Always inspired by songs like “Chicago’s “You Are My Inspiration,” (or any of Carole King’s songs), the activity I did with the group was to tell everyone to close their eyes and think of the earliest song they can remember.

Then I went around the room asking participates about their memory. It was interesting to see that focusing on a song from the past not only brought the song to mind but with it, all sorts of old feelings and some things long forgotten. Some participants remembered childhood songs and one woman remembered a very sad song and experience. She wanted to tell us about it which was healing for her to do. Therefore, I was able to demonstrate that hearing music helps to recall old memories and sensations as well as helps to resolve old conflicts.

There’s another neat application of music which music therapist do. Music therapy can help people who are recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury. When the left side of the brain is injured, it can damage the area responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates on the right side of the brain, music therapists have found that they can help injured people work around the speech injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thought and gradually letting go of the melody. Having studied singing, I have learned that speaking is an extension of singing because we are actually speaking on a tone. If we practice saying sentences on different pitches, we can exercise the voice.

Is it ever too late to learn an instrument? If that’s what you’ve always wanted to do, I say, do it! As a music teacher, my favorite students are adults because they have a greater capacity to sit through the lessons than children, and they generally really enjoy the lesson. Of course, adults catch on to the concepts quicker than children. It is true, though, that adults do not memorize as well as children can or may not able to develop the physical hand dexterity as well as a young person can for playing piano, for instance. Yet it will be enough to have fun and learn a few things. Research shows that music engages not only your auditory system but many other parts of the brain as well, including areas responsible for movement, language, attention, memory, and emotion.

So many different parts of the brain are stimulated that listening and playing or singing music is a good way to “exercise” your brain. The transcendent power of music brings us joy, inspiration, healing, spiritual connection, and even connects us to people as we sing, dance, and partake of the wondrous beauty it offers. 

You can download the author’s melodic relaxation CDs, Gentle Waves and Gentle Waves 2, on CDBABY, Spotify or Amazon, or contact her at rivasmusic@gmail.com