I imagine you’re familiar with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” though it’s been nearly 50 years since it topped music charts and took home a handful of Grammys. The song’s message of devoted friendship has a way of resurfacing when it’s most needed. People found comfort when it was played over news reports of the 9/11 rescue efforts. Singers recorded new versions of the song to raise money for hurricane and earthquake victims. And in smaller, more personal, ways, it’s been a soundtrack for challenging times. Here’s my “Bridge Over Troubled Water” story.
In 2007 I was on a bus, gritting my teeth with each shift of the engine’s gears. If we could just get up to cruising speed, I prayed, this bus’s painful cries could end. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not when it was stopping every few minutes, picking up commuters as we made our way to the railway station in Stamford, Connecticut. There I would board a jarring train for Grand Central Station and then endure a couple stop-and-start subway rides before reaching my New York City destination. This is all worth it, I kept reminding myself.
That unsettling ride to the City was due to a much-needed vacation I’d planned for myself. An out-of-control work schedule and ongoing difficulties accepting my failed marriage had my mind, body and spirit in search of some joy. Music has always been my answer for tough times, and in a moment of creative dreaming I pictured piano lessons as my savior. Not ordinary lessons; New York City piano lessons.
I’d been playing piano off and on since the sixth grade, when I first became aware that music magically made life better. I wanted to learn how to replicate my favorite songs and after a year or so of lessons, I was doing so. Life was good until my peers—I hesitate to call them friends—made it clear that playing piano was for sissies. Despite my enjoyment, I wasn’t ready for that kind of social pressure. I quit playing.
I returned to piano when my daughter was in her tween years and showed an interest in playing. We signed up for classes and I found that keyboard basics quickly returned. After my daughter moved on to other hobbies, I continued, and in 2007, along with looking for a respite from my troubles, I was ready to take piano to the next step. A magazine ad for a “New England Piano Camp” looked appealing until I found out it ran during summer, my job’s busiest season. But the idea was too good to dismiss, so I called the camp’s director, who pitched an idea. He lived in New York City and if I could get myself there, find lodging and show up at his studio each day, he promised me my own week-long piano camp. Sold.
My vacation plans came together without a hitch. A friend who lived an hour outside New York offered me his place. I’d do the daily bus/train/subway into the city, then walk the dozen blocks to my teacher’s studio. After a day immersed in piano, I’d do the reverse. A packed lunch, a week’s worth of train passes and subway tokens, and I was on my way to music nirvana. Halfway through this dream camp, though, my high hopes were heading for a crash landing.
What I hadn’t accounted for—actually, what I couldn’t account for since I didn’t yet know this about myself—was my difficulty coping with noise and confusion. Having lived most my life in a small town, aside from a rowdy pep rally or a crowded Woolworth’s at Christmastime, I’d never known much other than quiet. It wasn’t until I’d returned home from New York City that a few counseling sessions helped me realize how time in the Big Apple had triggered my anxiety. But even while in the thick of it, I knew something wasn’t right.
I managed to survive the daily commute for the first few days, using self-talk to convince myself that any unease was due to a radically new schedule. I ignored the discomfort, focusing on the fact that I was learning so much, but when my alarm went off Wednesday morning, I was ready to admit defeat. Only the thought of wasting money got me out the door. I arrived at the studio, where my teacher, who’d informed me he always ran a few minutes late, had the studio unlocked.
I walked in, shut the door to the street’s noise, tossed my backpack on a chair, and collapsed at the piano. Hands on keys, I began searching for a song that my teacher hadn’t assigned, but had been playing in my mind since setting off on that morning’s commute.
When you’re weary,
It was Art Garfunkel’s choirboy tenor on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that had offered a healing contrast to my troubled morning. If you’ve forgotten how beautiful Garfunkel’s voice is, take a listen. (Enjoy the whole song if you’d like, but to understand my story you only need its first 30 seconds.) “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
It was “Bridge”’s first two lines I kept hearing on my way into the City. But I didn’t just need to hear them, I had to feel them. Though I’d never attempted to play the song before and without sheet music, I wasn’t sure where to begin. But I knew how to play chords and through the process of elimination, I managed to find ones that sounded right:
E flat: When you’re weary…
A flat: Feeling small…
I played those two chords over and over until they became a meditation. There was no need to venture into the rest of the song; with the tiniest shift of my hands I’d swept away the morning’s stress. Later, I would have to again face what was tearing me up inside. But in that moment, I was okay. I’d taught myself to play peace.
When times are tough, what song brings you peace?