In my early adolescence, I remember struggling to learn to play George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the piano. How perfect for a budding manic-depressive, years before psychiatrists branded me that way. Back then, my diagnosis was schizophrenia, though I didn't know it. Nor did my family.
OBSESSED WITH "RHAPSODY IN BLUE"
I was different. And difficult. Histrionic. My nickname was Sarah Bernhardt. I was also taking drama classes, then. My mother considered drama to be a "good outlet" for me, and those classes kindled a lifelong love of the theatre.
But at home, I was obsessed with "Rhapsody in Blue." Mysteriously it whispered to me, deep down. I couldn't explain it. I tingled with exhilaration. Its manic rhythms resonated emotionally. Not rationally or intellectually or verbally. It calmed and excited me simultaneously. Not only listening to our Oscar Levant recording with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra – but attempting to play this complicated jazz concerto on the piano, myself.
I have no musical talent whatsoever, but my persistent pounding on the keyboard of our baby grand demanded concentration and focus. It transported me far from my anxieties at that time. Was I making music? I wouldn't call it that, but whatever I was doing was transforming. Tranquilizing. For me.
I felt a little guilty about the way I was mangling Gershwin's masterpiece. He was probably twirling in his grave, but that didn't seem to matter because his music and my attempt at playing it were magical. It had to be therapeutic, though this was years before music therapy was as prevalent as it is today. It felt good. Liberating. It was a healthier emotional release than my acting out.
Until someone in my family, driven mad by my painful practising, demanded I stop. I did. My lessons were stopped, too, I'm sad to say, though I never lost my love of Gershwin and his music.
THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF MUSIC AND THE ARTS
I was very lucky. My parents were vigilant. My mother could see early on that I was struggling in school and needed other more artistic outlets beyond what was offered there. Not all kids are so blessed.
That's why am I talking about the transformative power of music and the arts.
Last Thursday evening, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Cabbagetown Community Arts Centre where I was elected to the volunteer board. I'm so excited about this.
For me, helping this small, grassroots organization in any way I can, transports me back to my youth and, in a curious way, to my unfinished performance of Gershwin's piano concerto.
The CCAC was founded in 1979 by a local Cabbagetown resident, the late David Blackmore, to offer arts programming to children in nearby Regent Park. In 1985, it became a registered charity and now serves all Toronto inner city children.
"The bulk of our children come from single parent families earning incomes of less than $20,000 per year," CCAC Board President Peggy Weir said. "They have to register with us and we have a sliding scale of fees."
Individual lessons are offered in instrumental music, and classes in vocal music, drama, visual arts, photography and karate. Homework tutouring is available, as well as pre-school art, reading circles and creative movement classes for moms and tots.
"We focus on individual music lessons and we have qualified teachers who are more than role models and mentors. For many of our children, meeting with their music teacher is the only chance they have each week to engage with an adult, one on one," Weir said.
AN OASIS OF LEARNING WHERE CHILDREN ACQUIRE AN EXTRAORDINARY SENSE OF SELF
"Our vision," according to a one-page overview of the CCAC's mandate, "is to be an oasis of learning where children acquire an extraordinary sense of self, of a world where all children and young people have a sense of belonging and are loved and valued. A world where they can fulfill their potential, shape their destiny and experience the joy of life."
Its mission is to do this by "providing them with arts and music lessons focused on building character, discipline and skill."
One woman at the meeting, clearly passionate about the work of the CCAC, sent her son there when he was a child. She talked about how she used to clean the Centre to earn extra money so she could take him to concerts to "see and hear" the music he was learning, being played by the Toronto Symphony or other professional musicians.
Though he's now 29, he did not follow his musical muse professionally, his mother reported. Instead, he became a medical doctor and he's now studying in Florida.
"But he went through the University of Toronto," she said, stressing that the values, skills, disciplines of his musical training and the sense of community at the CCAC equipped him to carry on with his higher education. It changed the course of his life.
Other students have gone on to study music at the Royal Conservatory of Music and funds raised by the CCAC can cover the costs of their entrance examinations.
MUSIC MAKES EVERYONE FEEL GOOD
"Children who take music lessons often become quite enamoured and end up practicing. We give them instruments to take home – violins and keyboards. They have the responsibility of taking care of them. Also, if you're practicing, you're less likely to be hanging out at the corner with friends who may be offering you illegal substances."
Weir has been involved actively with the CCAC for six years and has lived in Cabbagetown for 25 years.
"I know this community and through my personal experience, I know that music is the great leveler," she said. "It doesn't matter where you come from, it's the international language. I moved to Canada from Brussels. Listening to music or playing an instrument, it no longer matters what language you speak or what your dad does or where you live. It makes everyone feel good. It lifts you up and takes you out of whatever closet you find yourself in."
My music making days are long gone and with my hearing loss, even listening to music is not what it used to be, but I have another source of pleasure that's even more rewarding.
Volunteering. I grew up with a mother who was always active in the community and I've been volunteering for years.
GETTING OUT INTO THE COMMUNITY AND GIVING A HELPING HAND
There's tons of research proving how volunteering is beneficial for your physical and mental health. I believe in preventative health. Who knows what problems the CCAC may be preventing down the road for its children?
And everybody has something to give.
That's why I'm so thrilled about joining the CCAC board. Meetings take place in the centre, a newly renovated, brightly-lit space in an old red brick house on Parliament Street. During our meetings, which take place there, we can watch young people bustling to and from their classes.
You have no idea how exciting it is to watch how your efforts are transforming lives right before your eyes. I can't wait for the Spring Recital.
Not long ago, I met a woman who was struggling with depression. She decided to drive patients to and from their chemotherapy treatments for the Canadian Cancer Society. Her mother had died of cancer and she found that a meaningful way to give back. She admitted that it made her feel better.
"I still have my dark days, but it gets me out and out of myself," she said.
You cannot buy these gifts of time and care that you're giving. No store carries them. They are priceless. As priceless and rewarding as the way giving them makes you feel.