I played piano in the dark.
“She’s weird,” my mother would always say before turning on the light, closing the door, and heading back to the kitchen. Then I waited a few moments, turned the light off, and continued playing in the dark. I would be feeling it and making it up, so I didn’t need to see the keys or notes. It did sink in that perhaps I was weird — with all its negative connotations — but I had always felt different and I really loved to play in the dark. I could play for a half hour, or sing my heart out with one of the fifty songs I had written by seventh grade. Usually the door to the kitchen and the rest of the family was closed; this time was my own.
Although I have two sisters, one of whom I shared a room with for ten years, and my schedule was always packed with school, sports, and music, I have also always loved writing, singing, reading, and wandering (I used to meander in the ravine behind our house for hours). These activities required solo time, and outside the crowded classrooms, team sports, and family time, I found solace and happiness in my solitude. By grade nine, I was really into jazz, playing tunes in my spare time at home and singing in Vocal Jazz at school. On a five-state US tour, I bought my first Billie Holiday cassette (yep, it was the 90s). I put on my headphones, pressed play, and for the next two days, tuned the bus and the rest of the world out, listening exclusively to Billie. After performing, our group was judged by Western Michigan University’s “Gold Company” Vocal Jazz instructor. Apparently I impressed him with my ability to improvise, and my instructor said he had noted a bit of Billie inflections during my solo. Thanks to Billie’s inspiration, I walked away with the Outstanding Musicianship Award, despite being three years younger than all the other soloists, and singing happy lilts such as “S’Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm.”
When I think of Billie, I think of songs like “(In My) Solitude,” “Good Morning Heartache,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” These pieces usually narrate lonesomeness, broken-hearted pining, and forlorn love; other times, they describe low self-worth and surrender, and someone who didn’t treat you right, but you loved just the same, because it was better than being alone. There seemed no end to Billie’s blues, but she sang so beautifully and honestly that you knew she had felt your pain; listening to Billie made you feel less alone.
I soon found Ella, Miles, and Chet. Ella’s incomparably smooth renditions of “Good Morning Heartache,” “Blue Moon,” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” floored me every time. Miles, without even singing, could be heart-wrenchingly blue — just try listening to Blue in Green on a dark grey afternoon, or with the lights off before bed. Chet was soft yet commanding in his resignation to life and love. No one can discount these singers’ translation of deep, dark lows and relentless hopelessness into absolute sonic beauty — here was pure heart and soul in music form.
Although I am often considered extroverted, my close friends know me as more introverted, needing more solo time than most. Yet it is music that has been my most steadfast, unfailing, and unfaltering friend. From a young age, I was honest, serious and sensitive, and perhaps this is why jazz artists, more than others, sang out to me. We had all loved and lost, found solace and a lifeline in music, and so I was not alone, in my solitude or agony — the jazz greats got it, and their empathy and understanding turned the unbearable into enduring musical perfection.
Maybe my love affair with solitude is due to my love affair with jazz. Solitude is frequently associated with unhappiness, loneliness, and lost love. Definitely, the jazz lyrics highlight these aspects. And now popular health and culture are touting the negative impacts of not enough social contact and ties. But according to Leo Babauta of zenhabits.net, it is also commonly thought that solitude is the number one “creativity habit.” And according to award-winning author Dorothy Nors, “It’s not drugs, wild lovers or poverty that make a great writer. It’s discipline and time alone.” Psychologist Rollo May concurs, stating that “In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.”
I think there is a general fear of being alone, a belief that darkness and loneliness follow from solitude. I think there is also a general idea of how social we human beings should be. But how much social time is enough? How much social contact do we need? How much solitude is acceptable? It depends entirely on who we are and what we love to do. Perhaps artists, writers, and those pursuing creative paths require more solitude than others. Find your bliss in whatever amount of solitude works best for you.
words by Sandy Powlic, photos by Ilijc Albanese
originally published in analogue magazine’s May 2014 issue