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The Night I Met Beethoven

I was about 7 years old.  When I got home from school, it was raining and I couldn’t play outside.  I could hear the sound of the piano in the great room and so I quietly opened the door.  My older brother Peter was sitting at his Steinway baby grand, his eyes fixed squarely on the music sheets in front of him.  He did not look up or say anything, and so I sat down on the couch nearby.

I closed my eyes.  I could feel in the tones of the piano keys a mystical quality, something deeply soulful. The emotions I began to feel were very deep – and new.  It was as if the notes of the piano echoed a longing inside myself.  I was transported to a timeless space, and I stayed there until the song was finished.

After he played the final notes, Peter said, “That’s called Moonlight Sonata.  It’s by Beethoven.”  He said, “You can imagine moonlight playing on the waves of the ocean.”  Then he started playing it again.  I closed my eyes and returned to the same deep place, but now I was watching the waves roll toward the shore and crash, illumined by the moon.


he great room became a refuge for me, and these listening sessions with my brother Peter became meditations, though it was many years later that I recognized them as such.  It was in this way that I became aware that I had inside me an internal world.  Within that world lived all kinds of deeper emotions, which brought with them new insights about myself and about my daily experiences.  Whatever challenges I may have faced during the day at school or on the playground, by listening to my brother’s playing I was able feel again the beauty and goodness of life.

I had begun to encounter the meanness and ugliness of the world.  It affected me deeply to see how roughly kids would treat each other on the playground and it upset me terribly to see boys get into fights after school.  After dismissal, some older boys would follow me off the school grounds and would tease me, tell me to give them money or gum and sometimes beat me up.  I befriended some other tough boys (and girls) and these new “friends” looked out for me and protected me, but then I was horrified at the way they treated the boys that were teasing me.

My only refuge was home.  Once I was at home I would feel safe, and I found great solace in going into the great room to listen to my brother Peter play his piano.  The experience of sitting on that couch and hearing pieces like Moonlight Sonata was a gateway for me to my own inner world.  The place I entered inside could not be damaged or hurt by the meanness of the world outside. It was a beautiful place and this helped me to keep a belief that despite all the ugliness there was beauty in world.

As I sat in these solitary moments I gained an ever-deeper sense of the variations of feeling I could experience. I am so grateful to my brother Peter for putting me in touch with my own soul with the exquisite beauty of his playing and for the gentle patience he showed me.  He never once questioned why I would want to spend so much time in that great room, just listening.  Peter seemed to sense what an impact these musical pieces were having on me – and how important it was to me to have this time where I could let my spirit fly free I feel so fortunate to have had a safe home, loving parents and my brother Peter’s music to heal me on a regular basis.  But I know many people have not been as lucky – and who may have had many terrible things happen to them as children.  They did not have a peaceful home, let alone an older brother or sister who could help them to tap into a more exalted realm of experience.  Regardless of our circumstances, however, each of us at some point must come to grips with the harsh realities and cruelty of the world.  Finding our way through the darkness of the world into the light of well-being is perhaps the primary task of childhood, and for many of us this process is still ongoing.

Because of the enormity of this task and the emotional residue it leaves inside us all, we as parents would very much like to inure and protect our children from the darker sides of the world.  Like the king who kept his son Siddhartha sequestered in the castle,  where he had every comfort imaginable and was totally sheltered from the sorrows of the world, we would do anything so our children would not have to experience anything bad or hurtful.  Yet in the case of Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha, it was BECAUSE of the suffering he experienced outside the castle walls that he set off into the forest to discover his own meaning and purpose.

How do we help our children pass through “this dark night of the soul” – this realization of the sometime brutal realities of the world – and come out the other side as whole and strong human beings?  We don’t want them to lose their hope, their innocence, their unabashed embrace of life as they journey through childhood.  We are afraid they will lose the unique and special personalities that we have watched unfold since they day they were born.  And we need nurturing ourselves to find the energy, perspective and commitment to support our children along the way. In my case, beyond having loving parents and a peaceful home, the key ingredient for me to survive those harsh early years of school was the discovery of my interior world.  The realization that I had a space inside myself that I could go where nobody could bother me – a place of deep peace and inspiration – was without a doubt the key.  The experience of that inviolable place within, where I could preserve a sense of beauty and peace in the face of the outside world, was my saving grace.  And ultimately that can be the pathway for our children too.

As Maria Montessori would say, the pathway depends on the child.  Providing our children with opportunities for deeper experiences is easy once we ourselves make the decision that we too need and enjoy those experiences.  Sitting together and listening to a great piece of music - or better still going and hearing the symphony in person – is the kind of activity that allows us all, adults and children alike, to let go of the ordinary world for a while and enter a place of beauty and inspiration.  We all need these soul-nourishing experiences on a regular basis.  Otherwise the heaviness and routine of the world can weigh us down and we can lose sight of the meaning of our lives.  And our children especially need this kind of soul-nourishment.

The power of music – and art in general – is that it is a communication from heart to heart.  When we listen deeply to a piece of music, we can feel the emotions the composer put into the music.  He or she has lived an experience, channeled the feelings of that reality into a musical creation, and then documented that creation in musical notation. The composer's music is the expression of their own journey and the place where they found refuge for their spirit.

Musicians (like my brother Peter) then bring the composer’s experiences back to life by reading the musical notes and playing those notes on their instruments, intuiting the feelings the composer meant to express,  enabling us to magically feel what the artist had felt.  In this way, the process of art transcends time and space and puts us in touch with realities that are ever enduring.  The invisible feelings, images and ideas that are conveyed in this way can become sustenance for our lives and for those of our children. In this way, I feel like I met Beethoven when I sat in our great room and listened to my brother play Moonlight Sonata for the first time.  I cannot imagine growing up without those precious times, carried inward by the melodies resounding from my brother’s piano.  Later, I realized that I could return to that inner space even if Peter was not there to play.  I return to that space even today as diligently as I can  - for the same reasons I did as a child – to connect to the stillness, light and peaceful energy of my own soul.

“What seems so far from you is most your own.” - Rainer Maria Rilke


Set aside time to listen to a great piece of music with your child.  Be sure there are no other distractions around – such as a television playing in a neighboring room -  and maybe inform others as needed that you don’t wish to be disturbed during this time.  This exercise is envisioned for one parent and one child – though variations are of course entirely up to you.  

Remember that, because it is so rare to pause in this world of ours, you are modeling for your child how to actually listen.  Get yourselves comfortable in chairs, on the couch or lying on the floor.  Take a deep breath or two.  Close your eyes if that feels appropriate.  As needed you can say, “Let’s listen to this music together.  Let’s spend a few minutes just letting go of the world outside.”   

Trying listening in silence till the end.  After listening together, you can talk about how that felt – or not.  You can share any images that may have come to mind – or any feelings that may have come up for either of you.  As a follow up activity, you can have journals or sketchbooks ready to write, draw or paint expressions of the experience you just had.  This can be a continuation of silence or a vehicle for a conversation. Listen the piece again if the spirit moves you.  

Though not necessary, it’s nice if the first piece of music you listen to is somehow meaningful to you.  Of course, later your child may also have a piece of music to suggest.  The caveat for this exercise is that it be a piece of music that lends itself to reflection and promotes a soothing, positive vibration.  While this might be open to interpretation and debate, this usually means music in the classical, jazz or “spa” genres.  If this exercise is meaningful – why not make it a tradition at a certain time of the week?  This positive habit will build self-awareness and feelings of serenity and security in your child.  In the big picture, it can be a pathway for your child to contact their own inner world.  And of course, the activity can also be so beneficial for you as a parent as well.




And so, listening to my Peter play the piano became a ritual for me.  Whenever I could, I would go into the great room, close the glass doors behind me, sit on the couch and just listen.  I would close my eyes and just let the music take me away. Each piece would flow into the next and it was like I was on my own secret journey.  Over time I was able to recognize the different composers, and the emotional qualities of the various pieces.  There was Chopin’s Mazurka # 13 and his Waltz in C# minor.  There were Shubert’s Impromptus, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Schuman’s Scenes from Childhood.  And then there was Beethoven’s Sonata #7 and Rachmaninoff Concerto #2 and so many others. But still today, I am always transported still by the very first piece I heard my brother play – Moonlight Sonata.

Full moon over the ocean