The Chamber Music Network

My Papa Haydn, The Ultimate Therapist

A story of healing and recovery 

Read Basil Porter's incredible story of healing and recovery.

I had actually worked on myself. Not crying, not depressed, just repeating like a mantra, “You were really lucky to survive, you managed to play the first and second violin and viola parts for a lot of the chamber music repertoire over thirty years of chamber music playing. From now on, you will just enjoy listening.” It felt okay, not even very sad. I had suffered a spinal cord injury, had major surgery to remove a broken vertebra in my neck and fixate the remaining ones, and looking at some of the other survivors of the train accident who were either dead, paralyzed or with other major injuries, I really was wondering how I was still around to even think about music. In the first days after the accident my right arm had been completely paralyzed, a flaccid piece of meat hanging at my side, my left arm weak and moving weakly.

Now some weeks later, as my brain began to function again, I started to read a little, listen to a little music and think about the rest of my life that lay ahead. I was beginning to walk and use my arms, with terrible posture due to various pains all over my body. My right arm was still very weak, my hand muscles were wasted and I had chronic pains in my arms, not responding to any known treatment. I started the slow process of trying to return to my previous world, starting with eating with a knife and fork, showering and shaving without help and then returning to part time work. Playing the violin or viola was not on the agenda.

Then a cellist friend, who herself had suffered a stroke and returned to playing, suggested I start playing again. Try, ten minutes at a time, no more. I lifted the violin out of the case, went through the familiar routines of placing the shoulder rest, putting rosin on the bow, tuned the strings and launched into some Mazas scales. The noise was awful, a whining thin tone, no vibrato, with fingers moving like lumps of lead, the brain and fingers in supreme dissonance. Then came the invitation to try playing some Haydn quartets, leisurely, just a movement or two. I said I would try  –  my chamber music friends knew that using my passion and addiction to the Haydn quartets was like a piece of steak in front of a greyhound. I lasted through one quartet, allegros played as adagios, my body aching, my arm feeling as though it was holding a double bass, my bow refusing to produce any sound that resembled music. There was a limit to the support that I could expect from my friends.

I returned to persuading myself that I had entered “listening mode” for my remaining years.

But I kept squeezing rubber balls and doing the occasional ten-minute practicing of some scales and a little slow, unaccompanied Bach. Then some sounds started to emanate, resembling those from my past. Suddenly, one day, a passage from the Opus 20 #2, the operatic period of Haydn, emerged as “almost music.” I took the plunge and went to some longer sessions, finding the viola less taxing for finger dexterity at first, then finding the fingers moving well enough to return to the violin. My body still ached in a lot of places, playing spiccato on the lower strings was hell, but I was staying the pace.

And then it happened. At the end of a long day of playing quartets and quintets on the viola, I grabbed a late night threesome and launched into Haydn Opus 76 #1, followed by Opus 33 #1 with its pleading, recurring theme in the slow movement. It was not the standard of the pre-accident years, there was quite a bit of cheating in the Presto, but it was working  –  I was embracing the master again, my ultimate rehabilitation goal. My Papa Haydn, the ultimate therapist.

Basil Porter (Vn/Va) is a pediatrician practicing in Tel Aviv, Israel. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a train wreck in 2005, on a train journey from Tel Aviv to Beersheva in the south of the country.

His story was first published in the 2009-3 ACMP Autumn Newsletter.