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Why Music Reminds Us We Are Human, Even in the Darkest Places

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

There was a gang member who had been in prison all his life, who said he’d never once cried in all his years. He’d buried his mother, he’d buried his father, and he saw the door to his future close when he was sentenced to be locked up for decades, maybe the rest of his life. But then, in prison, he heard a chamber music concert, and he cried.

Pianist and composer Eric Genuis (Kirsten Butler Photography)

“This one man stood up after the show, covered in tattoos, the whole nine yards, and he said: ‘I’m overcome with emotion. I’ve had no control over my tears for the last two hours during the show. I’ve never cried in my life. Never. My mom died, my father died, I was sad but I never cried. What is it?'” said Eric Genuis, the composer of the music that man heard.

“I remember being really taken by this,” said Genuis, a pianist and composer. “Here’s a man who spent his whole life in prison, tried and convicted as a teen, and is now close to 60. Well, what is it? It’s the human heart.”

Genuis has seen countless such reactions. In Massachusetts, another prisoner said: “I’ve killed a lot of people in my life. After hearing this, I’ve had a higher encounter with my humanity. I’ll never hurt another person again.”

“Now, that was really beautiful, but why did a prisoner stand up in front of other prisoners and demonstrate a certain vulnerability? That’s a no-no, right? He comes up after the show and he starts talking about it: ‘This is how cold I became in life, I was able to do this and it didn’t affect me, I was able to do that,'” Genuis said.

“There was another man, 90 years old, in a walker. He said, ‘I’ve lived with the pain and suffering that I’ve caused when I was a 19-year-old man.”

“My concert invites deep emotion,” Genuis said. “But it’s the music that invites that. It’s not just me walking in and talking to them, and they feel comfortable with me. You’ve broken down a barrier—music is very disarming. It allows them to have an encounter with their own humanity, maybe things that have been buried forever that they’ve been invited to sort of resurrect and rethink and ponder and heal from.”

Early in his career, Genuis decided he would go wherever there was a demand for his music. He’s played private concerts for movie stars, and he’s played under a bridge for homeless veterans. His guiding philosophy is to write beautiful music, music that communicates hope, and he works tirelessly to bring it to other people because he has seen the need.

“There is something mysterious about beauty, and it’s why everybody should be immersed in beauty,” he said.

Eric Genuis (Kirsten Butler Photography)

Starved of Beauty

For nearly three decades, Genuis brought his music to places without hope—rehab centers, prisons, inner-city schools—on his own time and out of his own pocket, using the proceeds from his regular concerts. A few years ago, Genuis realized that wouldn’t be enough and started his foundation Concerts for Hope to further the mission.

Genuis says he’s played nearly 1,000 concerts in prisons since he started. This meant he’s also played in hundreds of youth prisons.

In one room of 300 prisoners, all tried and convicted as teens with sentences of several decades, Genuis remembered a young gang leader who sat right up front. He wasn’t interested in being required to attend a classical concert, but when the music began, he became entranced by the violin.

“He put his hand over his heart, threw his head back, and said, ‘That is the most beautiful thing,'” Genuis said. “He said: ‘Why have I never heard that before?'”

“Now, we live in the age of the internet so this boy can hear anything he wants, whenever he wants. We as parents, and as adults, and as schoolteachers and educators, as church leaders—all the leaders of the community have access to this boy, and what did we give him? He knows everything about gangster rap,” he said. “But never did anyone introduce him to something that goes in and moves his heart and uplifts his humanity, and stirs the awe and wonder and creativity in life and elevates him, and realizes the beautiful dignity he has as a person. And that’s the effect of beauty.”

In the United States, there are about 2.3 million people in prison. Across the country, there are pockets of culture that revolve around prison. These young people tell Genuis no one would care if they went to prison; one told Genuis if he ever landed in prison, people would only ask him why it hadn’t happened earlier. He’s spoken to young adults about to get out of prison, asking about their plans, and they’ve told him that they’ll be back in prison in no time. And if they do some serious damage to a rival gang, maybe kill one of their members, it’ll elevate their status once they do get sent back to prison.

“They’re not cared for, nobody cares for this person,” Genuis said. “There’s this whole population that is forgotten, that is abandoned, that has no mentorship, no love, no guidance, nothing.”

He once met a 23-year-old who joked about getting sentenced to three lifetimes. Genuis asked, “Are you OK?” But the young man wasn’t at all bothered.

“It was so familiar to him, so non-devastating, so nonchalant, that I thought, a good part of the population doesn’t look at throwing their life away as devastating, because maybe emotionally and internally, they’ve thrown theirs away a long time ago,” he said. In these places of forgotten people and of no hope, people have forgotten their humanity, and it has little worth for them.

“So what I want to do is elevate, I want to go and bring them hope,” Genuis said. In December 2019, a young woman in South Carolina stood up after one of his prison concerts and said: ‘I’m at the lowest point in my life, I was here, I forgot what it was like to feel human. I feel human right now.’ So yes, beauty can uplift humanity.”

After she got out of prison, she wrote him a letter about her renewed hope and added, “This is a turning point.”

He said, “That’s what I want, I want to go and elevate people’s humanity, remind them of their humanity.”

After the pandemic, Genuis plans to focus more of his work on playing in schools and to set up a program called Project Detour for children, in hopes of changing the culture.

“I want to detour them from the idea that prison is just part of life,” Genuis said.

To Elevate the Soul

Confucius said if one wants to know the morals of a nation, “the quality of its music will furnish the answer.” And Plato said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

“I believe these men were right,” Genuis said. “I believe music is a language that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul in ways words will never touch. Music and beauty have the ability—it is a language, it communicates—to elevate the mystery behind the person, to elevate that essence, to elevate that which animates them—the soul, if you will—but to elevate them and move them.”

“Music can create such awe and wonder in the imagination of people, so I think it is critical in the formation of our young to immerse them in beauty,” he said. There’s a place for fun music, too, Genuis added, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of beauty, which so many in our civilization are starved for.

In another life, Genuis might have stayed a physics teacher, happily on his way to retirement with a good pension by now.

“But when I was in class, I’d often be writing melodies, and then after class, I’d be in the library listening to Beethoven,” he said. Genuis is a talented pianist, but unlike most musicians who pursue music, he was driven to compose.

“I would just write and write and write,” he said. “I never thought I’d do this for a living, or that anyone would ever hear a performance, I’d just write for the sheer love of writing music.”

Genuis knew it was a gift. He believed he had been given this great thing, and it was meant to be shared, so he followed the audience. He found there was such a need for beautiful music and felt compelled to do it full time.

“It’s not about fame or any of that, it’s just about connecting with people. I started to play everywhere,” he said. Then he got invited to a prison, and thought, why not?

“And then when I saw broken people react so strongly, I thought, wow.”

Genuis has gone through a lot of trouble to bring his music to people.

A day’s schedule might begin with packing up from the evening concert at midnight, driving three hours to the next city over, where a prison has invited Genuis to perform, taking a nap mid-trip at a rest stop, going through prison security early in the morning to get all of his equipment in, playing three concerts at the prison and wrapping up by late afternoon, and then getting prepared for his evening concert in that city almost straight away.

Pianist and composer Eric Genuis on his world tour.

“I’m in a lot of dark places in the world,” he said. “It’s very tough, I cannot tell you how many times at 3 a.m. in the morning I’m driving from one location to another, and I’m exhausted, and I think: ‘What am I doing? I should be home sleeping!’ And you start questioning everything. Is there purpose? What is this?”

But Genuis is positive by intention, and he says it really does come down to the music. He believes in it wholly.

“This is the greatest thing I have to offer, and I am going to move mountains to offer it.”

“Through this music, I was able to live what I really believe,” he said. “I feel like it has been a gift to me and my humanity to provide this, I feel very lucky. Life is short, and for a short window, I can share this music.”

When Genuis composes, he reaches for hope. It’s this combination of awe and wonder, like a child picking up a block and seeing a castle, he explained. “That’s hope, because the awe and wonder for life, ‘Oh I wonder what I can build with this Lego,’ leads to ‘Oh, I wonder what life has in store for me.”

“All this awe and wonder and hope, it’s humanity, it’s life. When that gets squashed in someone at 10 years old and nothing matters, like this 23-year-old [talking about his three life sentences], his hope was dead a long time ago,” Genuis said. But if you can show people hope, you can remind them of their humanity, and music—just ephemeral wavelengths—does it in a way words can’t.

“You bring them hope and you help them realize, you are human,” he said. “And even if you have to spend the rest of your life in prison, you can read books, you can discover things, you can always elevate your humanity. It may not turn into a big paying job but it can challenge you intellectually, it can challenge you spiritually, emotionally.”

“We all recognize beauty when we see it, and it’s not something you can discuss or you can describe or you can comment on. Really it’s a language beyond,” he said. “A language beyond words that reaches and connects with us and we know it.”

“When we’re in a vulnerable situation like suffering and pain and we have an encounter with something beautiful, and we’re not distracted with other things—if we’re happy and joyful and running around busy with other things, maybe beauty doesn’t really knock us between the eyes—but when we’re poised and we’re reflective and it sort of elevates us, we know it, and it’s sort of involuntary,” he said. “It’s not even controllable.”

“Like this boy [moved by the violin], if he is starved for beauty so much, so is everybody else. The question is, why aren’t we giving it to them? I go in and play at universities, they don’t even know what a cello is,” he said. “[Music] has always had an entertainment quality but it’s never just been what it’s supposed to be.”

“There is this whole world, like a cave full of diamonds, a whole world that we’ve not explored, in our children’s education … and the result of that is this boy puts his hand over his heart and says, ‘Why have I never been exposed to that?’ It’s like he was begging for his humanity. ‘Why have I not been able to feel like who I am?'”

After a concert Genuis gave at a PTSD clinic, a man who went from running fearlessly into battle to not being able to even set foot in a drugstore came up to Genuis and hugged him fiercely.

“He said: ‘I’ve done a lot of terrible things in war that I fear I’m going to have to pay for. I don’t feel like I can ever be forgiven or I can forgive myself. I don’t even remember what it’s like to feel human or to feel myself,'” Genuis said. “And then he says: ‘I remember who I am right now. I don’t want to let go. I fear if I let go, I’ll forget who I am again.'”

“It’s a story of suffering, but it’s a story of redemption. And who’s not in need of redemption? We all are, and we all should seek truth to do all we can to bring hope and to bring redemption to other people’s lives,” Genuis said.

Contributed by Catherine Yang


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