Music Did This – Nathaniel Ayers

The story of Nathaniel Ayers, the Julliard double-bassist whose training was cut short due to a mental breakdown caused by schizophrenia, has become quite well known in both the music and non-music worlds. Whether you read the columns or book written by Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez or you saw the heart-breaking drama unfold in the film “The Soloist,” chances are Mr. Ayers’s name rings a bell. More importantly, the message behind this story was vividly clear – Music has the power to transform lives, to heal, to reach us when the spoken word fails, to bring us back to our center when turmoil clouds our minds.

Robert Gupta, violinist with the LA Philharmonic, experienced this phenomenon first hand when Nathaniel came to him for a lesson. During a TED Talk in 2010, Gupta relays how inspiring this story is to him and how incredible it is that it was music that brought Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers together, and ultimately, is what took this brilliant, homeless man off the streets of Los Angeles.

Robert first met Nathaniel backstage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2008 and shortly thereafter received an e-mail from Steve Lopez inquiring on the lesson. Nathaniel arrived at the lesson with what Robert describes as a “manic glint in his eyes;” he appeared lost and spoke of invisible demons and how someone had been poisoning him in his sleep. Afraid that saying the wrong thing could trigger a negative response, and possibly even ruin Nathaniel’s relationship with the violin, Robert began to run the bow across the violin strings in a rendition of the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He immediately noticed a difference in Nathanial’s demeanor and a distinct clarity forming in his eyes. They began trading snippets of various violin concertos back and forth and an in-depth discussion about various composers ensued. It was then that Robert realized the “encyclopedic knowledge” of music that the man before him possessed. A man in which he had just witnessed the incredible transformation from a paranoid, disturbed individual, to a cognitive, passionate, brilliant Julliard-trained musician.

Robert’s astute observations are right on the money. It is only in music that Nathaniel was able to find an escape from his own mind, which otherwise tormented him. In music, Nathaniel found a way to communicate and interact on a level comparable to that of Robert’s LA Philharmonic colleagues, who actually understand and show him the respect he deserves. In music, Nathaniel found sanity. For Robert’s part, he found a renewed affirmation as to why he has chosen to be a musician.