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The Hope of Music
Spirituality Column #11

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

April 30, 1996

In an on-going search for ways to create or maintain hope while living with HIV/AIDS, one of the most immediately effective methods I've found is music. There have been times in my life with HIV and AIDS when it was music that helped me feel God's healing presence just when I needed it most.

I have always loved music; I've always felt bewitched by the rhythms, transformed by the harmonies, and comforted by the melodies. Music has always enchanted me, inspired me, and calmed me. To this day, a hot bubble bath with Mozart or Gregorian chants is the perfect setting for the most healing meditations.

It's not just listening to music that helps. Performing music has always helped pull me out of despair or depression. Feeling the power of the pipe organ, or singing a soaring high note can be a better expression of difficult feelings than hours with a therapist.

A friend of mine in the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles has speculated that singing actually improves immune function. As a physician's assistant in an AIDS clinic, he wanted to do a study, comparing blood values of members living with HIV/AIDS, before and after a Chorus rehearsal. Although he never got the funding, there are a lot of singers and musicians with HIV/AIDS who would offer personal testimony to the healing power of performing music.

I tend to see life as a series of song cues. Some have seen this as a flaw. One friend of mine, after being cooped up with me for 15 hours on a flight to Australia, crankily accused me of "reacting to life with show tunes." My similarity to the priest in "Jeffrey" is frightening: I had to check to see if the playwright was a former parishioner. To the best of my knowledge he's not, but how did he know?

So I'm a musical theater nut. If there's a feeling that needs expressing, there's a show tune somewhere that will express it as no mere words can. You can often tell what I'm feeling by what show tune I'm singing or humming or whistling.

I don't know how I got to be this way. Was it nurture or nature? Would I be this way if my parents had not exposed me to those albums of "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady" in my earliest years? Maybe it's genetic. There's a cousin on my father's side who is also into musical theater. Come to think of it, he's the other gay man in the family. I've even tried to change my Broadway orientation through intensive therapy, but it's no use: first it starts with humming just one little show tune, and the next thing you know I'm tap dancing in church.

Whatever the origin of this apparently irreversible condition, I have always faced the challenges in my life as if I were in a musical... when words no longer suffice, I burst into song. And HIV/AIDS did nothing to change that.

When I was diagnosed as terminal with AIDS, I remember driving around the freeways of Los Angeles singing along with Sally Bowles in Cabaret. "Maybe This Time" and the title song both seemed to express some of my feelings just right. And I couldn't resist singing along with Judy at a time like this: "The road gets rougher..."

In moments of desperate emotion, I listened to the album of A Chorus Line over and over. There was something about the desperation, the ambition, and the struggle of those young dancers to get the job that articulated much of what I was feeling, and also inspired me to fight harder for life. I always have felt an odd parallel between those dancers laying their lives on the line to get in the show, and all the people living with AIDS laying their lives on the line to save their lives.

I really resonated with Joe Gideon in the film All That Jazz, when he's dying and turns to God and says, "Whattsa matter? Don't you like musical comedy?" And there were times I used music to bargain with God. I'd be driving along the freeway, singing along with Judy at Carnegie Hall, "When I get to that Swannee... (If I can just hold this note as long as Judy did, I know I'll live!) ...Shore!"

When I started on the suramin drug trials, once again Broadway music saw me through. The first night of the experiment, the doctor kept me in the hospital to watch for toxic side effects. It was a dramatic scene, with a nurse watching me every minute, a crash cart ready right outside the room, and a parade of medical students coming in and out to look at the new "guinea pig."

After they administered the drug, nothing happened. There were no immediate side effects (although there were plenty that happened after a few months on the drug). With no TV, radio, or telephone for entertainment, I started singing show tunes like "Everything's Coming Up Roses." After awhile, the nurse, who was pretty bored with the lack of side effects, wrote in my chart, "The only significant side effect with suramin is singing like Ethel Merman."

When my Kaposi's Sarcoma and lymphoma went into complete remission and the city didn't hold a fireworks celebration, I sang "It's a Quiet Thing" with Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace. And now that I've survived AIDS for well over a decade, when I'm feeling jaded, you might hear me singing, "AIDS, KS, lymphoma, I've had 'em all, and my dear, I'm Still Here!" Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.

Broadway is particularly good at hopeful songs, songs that can really cheer a person up. Many Broadway song-writers love to write music which starts with great vulnerability, then builds to a triumphant fortissimo climax. One of my favorites is "Sing Happy," again sung by Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a number of songs filled with triumphant hope, such as "You'll Never Walk Alone," a kind of hymn to hope.

One of the songs I sing a lot to give myself hope is not from Broadway. It's a hymn I learned from my chaplain, Rev. Nancy Radclyffe, right after I was diagnosed. It's a great antidote to sadness and fear. Even though it's not from a Broadway musical, it has the same effect on my heart and spirit. It's a hymn of thanksgiving that I sing directly to Christ:

"Because You live, I can face tomorrow.
Because You live, all fear is gone,
Because I know You hold the future;
And life is worth the living just because You live."

As I sing this song, I can feel the Spirit of God transforming my heart, giving me strength, courage, energy, and joy. This music gives me life!

It's no coincidence that one of the secrets of church growth is to have great music in worship. Music can transcend ordinary speech in conveying the transforming and healing power of God. Music can work wonders on people's souls.

Whatever kind of music lifts your spirit, let music be a vehicle of God's grace in your life with HIV/AIDS. Through the music, let God's Spirit soar in your soul, transform your despair or your fear, and give you hope.

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