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The Healing Powers of Music

William Harvey (’02, violin, composition; M.M. ’06, violin) was a freshman when he wrote this editorial, which appeared in slightly longer form in the October 2001 issue of The Juilliard Journal, with the title “Playing for the Fighting 69th.” In large part as a response to the experiences he recounted in this editorial, in 2005 he founded culturesinharmony.org, a nonprofit that promotes cultural understanding through music. Since 2009, he has lived in Afghanistan, where he teaches violin and viola for the ministry of education. 

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On Sunday, September 16, I had probably the most incredible and moving experience of my life. Juilliard organized a quartet to go play at the armory [at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street], the huge military building where families of people missing from Tuesday’s disaster [went] to wait for news of their loved ones. Entering the building was very difficult emotionally, because the entire building (the size of a city block) was covered with posters of the missing. Thousands of posters spread out, up to eight feet above the ground, each featuring a different, smiling, face. I made my way into the huge central room and found my Juilliard buddies. For two hours we sight-read quartets (with only three people!), and I don’t think I will soon forget the grief counselor from the Connecticut State Police who listened the entire time, or the woman who listened only to “Memory” from Cats, crying the whole time.

At 7 p.m., the other two players had to leave; they had been playing at the armory since 1 o’clock and simply couldn’t play any more. I volunteered to stay and play solo, since I had just gotten there. I soon realized that the evening had just begun for me: a man in fatigues who introduced himself as the sergeant major asked me if I’d mind playing for his soldiers as they came back from digging through the rubble at ground zero. Masseuses had volunteered to give his men massages, he said, and he didn’t think anything would be more soothing than getting a massage and listening to violin music at the same time. So at 9 p.m., I headed up to the second floor as the first men were arriving. From then until 11:30, I played everything I could do for memory: the Bach B-Minor Partita, Tchaikovsky Concerto, Dvorak Concerto, Paganini Caprices 1 and 17, “Winter” and “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Theme from Schindler’s List, Tchaikovsky Melodie, “Meditation” from Thaïs, “Amazing Grace,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Bile Them Cabbages Down.” Never have I played for a more grateful audience. Somehow it didn’t matter that, by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn’t matter. The men would come up the stairs in full gear, remove their helmets, look at me, and smile.

At 11:20, I was introduced to Col. Slack, head of the division. After thanking me, he said to his friends, “Boy, today was the toughest day yet. I made the mistake of going back into the pit, and I’ll never do that again.” Eager to hear a firsthand account, I asked, “What did you see?” He stopped, swallowed hard, and said, “What you’d expect to see.” The colonel stood there as I played a lengthy rendition of Amazing Grace that he claimed was the best he’d ever heard. By this time it was 11:30, and I didn’t think I could play anymore. I asked the sergeant major if it would be appropriate if I played the national anthem. He shouted above the chaos of the milling soldiers to call them to attention, and I played the national anthem as the 300 men of the 69th Division saluted an invisible flag. …

As I rode the taxi back to Juilliard—free, of course, since taxi service was free in New York at that point—I was numb. Not only was this evening the proudest I’ve ever felt to be an American, but it was my most meaningful as a musician and a person, as well. At Juilliard, kids can be hypercritical of each other and very competitive. The teachers expect—and in most cases get—technical perfection. But this wasn’t about that. The soldiers didn’t care that I had so many memory slips I lost count. They didn’t care that, when I forgot how the second movement of the Tchaikovsky went, I had to come up with my own insipid improvisation until I somehow (and I still don’t know how) got to a cadence. I’ve never seen a more appreciative audience, and I’ve never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people. And how did it change me as a person? Let’s just say that, next time I want to get into a petty argument about whether Richter or Horowitz was better, I’ll remember that, when I asked the colonel to describe the pit formed by the tumbling of the Twin Towers, he couldn’t. Words only go so far, and even music can only go a little further from there.

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