Music could do two things for a great musician – either bring him millions of money or move millions of his audience to tears & bring him a sense of having woven a great poetry out of thin air and beautiful soul. Which one would you prefer as a musician? Had I known how to be a musician, I would have gone for the second one for sure!
Like Mr. Robert Vijay Gupta, the founder of Street Symphony in LA. World known violinist with the LA Philharmonic and having played with stalwarts like Zubin Mehta on his first stage performance, this man surely has some beautiful notes and accolades to his credit. Trained in music at the Juilliard School, Manhattan, he has also studied neuroscience especially the effects of music on brain. He has done a research internship at Harvard Medical School studying the Parkinson’s Disease.
But, when music resides in your soul, you cannot really do anything else in life without it, can you? So, he listened to his true calling, his violin and learned music for 2 years after medicine, auditioned for LA Philharmonic, got selected and landed up on the dream job in Hollywood. And that is how he met Nathaniel Ayers, the well known musician who was featured in the movie ‘The Soloist’. Nathaniel, as he puts it, was also a student of Juilliard school but didn’t have a very glorious life as he was diagnosed with paranoid Schizophrenia during his early twenties & had to live the next 30 years of his life as a homeless wanderer on the streets of Skidrow.
Skidrow is said to be the homeless capital of LA. It is a place where dreams, hopes, journeys have taken a wrong turn, gone haywire and lives have ended up being forgotten. Two thirds of the Skidrow residents are mentally disabled and a large percentage of them are veterans of American War. All forgotten. All islolated. All ignored.
On his 22nd birthday, Vijay was playing for Nathaniel at his homeless home in Skidrow in a dingy trash littered courtyard and that’s when he had this profound realization. As he witnessed the extreme power in music that was bringing back Nathaniel to life from his illness, his darkness, from the brink of his maniac schizophrenic episodes, Vijay realized that more than the star studded stage, Beethoven, Mozart & Bach’s music had meaning in the bylanes of Skidrow because here it echoed from his heart and reached Nathaniel’s soul & psyche. Amidst all the trash and stench, music was more about communication than about just listening. It was a like a bridge that reduced the gap between him and the people of Skidrow. Nathaniel and those homeless and mentally ill people taught him that
‘Music can speak when words fail’.
Thus, Street Symphony was born. It is an ensemble of great musicians who believe that charity is not done through money. It is done through the heart. Their music is their charity. The musicians who are part of Street Symphony play for the communities without access to their kind of music but who are equally deserving or perhaps even more because of the therapeutic quality of music. It is a musical service that caters to the homeless, mentally ill, veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, children with Down’s syndrome and the incarcerated. They bring the light and joy of music to the darkest of places. And to send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, such is the duty of an artist, as great German music composer Robert Schumann believes. What is most beautiful behind the idea of Street Symphony is that it makes those ‘not so privileged’ people believe that they are still an important part of this world for some, that they are not forgotten, that they are loved and cared for, that they do carry the beauty in themselves perhaps in much more quantity than others can even imagine.
His trysts with music and souls took him to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino where he played for the criminally insane inmates. One of the inmates walked up to him, and to the utter surprise of the prison people, he not only thanked Vijay for coming but also sang for him. It was something they had never seen before. The inmates never used to speak with anyone! Now they didn’t even need medication for sedation. Isn’t that amazing? Such is the sheer power of music! And the passion, with which Vijay gives away the lyrics of the song the inmate sang, is a hallmark of the beautiful musician in him. It is worth watching the talk, if not for anything else then for those few beautiful lines. He also met a lady whose story was very similar to that of Nathaniel’s albeit a completely forgotten one. And that’s when he realized that all musicians in this world are united in Bach’s universe and in Beethoven’s soul. The connection that binds them is inexplicable through words. Only music can explain it!
They say love is the best medicine. Vijay proves it to be true. You may not be able to change the whole world alone. But you can love and you can be good at what you do. That would be enough to create a dent in the universe!