Looking down on himself, Cicoria recalls thinking "Oh, *beep* - I'm dead!"
You're never too old to start playing piano, at least for your own pleasure.
But as the remarkable story of Tony Cicoria shows, you can begin as late as 42
and, within a few years, be performing and composing music to a
near-professional standard, writes Frank McNally.
There is one slight drawback to the Cicoria method, however. It involves being struck by lightning.
His case is one of those featured in Musicophilia, the new book by neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks, who was interviewed elsewhere in this paper recently.
Sacks specializes in explaining complex neurological conditions to a general readership, and his previous writing on the subject includes a candidate for catchiest book title of all time: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. But he had his work cut out to demystify his latest subject - the relationship between music and the human brain - and in particular the strange case of Dr Cicoria.
The story began one day in 1994 when the man in question, an orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York, called his mother from a pay-phone. As their conversation ended, a storm was closing in. And he was still holding the phone, about to hang up, when a bolt of lighting came through the receiver and hit him in the face.
What followed was a classic near-death experience, with extras. First he saw his own body from above. This is straight from the textbooks, according to Sacks. Near-death experiencers typically find themselves observing events from "eight or nine feet" up. Neurologists call it "autoscopy".
Looking down on himself, Cicoria recalls thinking "Oh, *beep* - I'm dead!" Then he watched as a woman who had been queuing for the phone (a trained nurse, as luck would have it) attempted to revive him. He also saw his children and felt certain that they would be all right without him.
He was surrounded by "bluish-white" light. He watched an edited version of his life - highlights and lowlights only - in blissful calm. He felt "pure ecstasy". And then - "Slam!" - he was back in his body, with a burning pain in his face and left foot, where the lightning had entered and left. He was not quite filled with gratitude for the nurse.
Part of the mystery about his later condition was the apparent lack of brain damage in the immediate aftermath. He felt sluggish for a time and had some memory lapses. But an MRI scan and other tests revealed nothing amiss and within weeks he was back working as a surgeon, all his skills intact. Soon his memory was fully restored too.
Cicoria developed strong spiritual feelings in the wake of the incident. But perhaps more surprisingly, two months later, he suddenly experienced "an insatiable desire to listen to piano music". First he took to buying Chopin records. Around the same time, in a happy coincidence, a regular baby-sitter asked if she could store an upright piano in his house, so he also started teaching himself to play. And then he began hearing music - original music - in his head.
It should be noted that Cicoria was raised both as a Catholic and a pianist. But he lapsed from piano lessons early and had never practiced religion much either. Now, he believed his life had been saved for a purpose, namely music. He played and wrote obsessively, in all the hours work allowed, starting at 4am and resuming in the evening as soon as he came home.
His wife did not share his enthusiasm. In 2004 he suffered two further traumas - divorce and a motorbike accident - the second of which left him with serious injuries. But neither stopped the "torrents" of music he heard and which he was tempted to say, as Mozart did, came "from heaven".
Whether the critics would agree about its source is a moot point. Until recently, Cicoria's music remained - according to Sacks - "a solitary pursuit, between himself and his muse". But last spring, he made his semi-public debut during a musical retreat for students, gifted amateurs, and young professionals, playing a piece by Chopin and his own composition: Rhapsody Opus I. The author quotes a concert pianist who attended praising the "great passion, great brio" of Cicoria's performance, and adds that he played "if not with supernatural genius, at least with creditable skill, an astounding feat for someone with virtually no musical background who had taught himself to play at 42."
Sacks keeps a professional distance from the case throughout, with the help of such sentences as this: "There is some evidence that both the visuospatial and vestibular aspects of out-of-body experiences are related to disturbed function in the cerebral cortex, especially at the junctional region between the temporal and proprietal lobes." Respecting Dr Cicoria's right to regard his inspiration as spiritual, he nevertheless holds to his own belief that even exalted states of mind must have "some physiological correlate in neural activity". He also notes that there are much subtler tests of brain function now than there were in 1994. But although his subject initially agreed that it might be worth investigating the condition anew, he changed his mind, preferring to accept his gift, however mysterious, for what it is.
His is a fascinating story, by any standards. It may or may not inspire those of you starting out on the piano. I would just say one important thing in conclusion, however. Please don't try it at home.