The Beat Goes On

25 May


Photo Credit: Anne Francey

Music, as the saying commonly goes, can soothe even the savage beast. What about the frail beast? The sad one?

My parents started me on the piano at the age of 4, but it wasn’t until the fourth grade that I chose music for myself. The music teacher at Lake Avenue Elementary School stood in front of the class with a dozen stringed instruments lined up at the front of the room. Choose your instrument, she invited us.

The thought that I could choose my instrument was a revelation. Violins, violas and cellos were the hot items — and there were more of them than any other instruments — but I was curious about the big wooden object at the end of the row, leaning up against the the chalkboard. The double bass. It was taller than I was — taller than the tallest boy in my class — and what’s more, my teacher told me I was one of the only girls in her memory who’d expressed interest in playing it. I had to try it. That afternoon I took it home and gave it a name: Charlie Brown. I was going to be a double bassist.

By age 16, I was a student in the precollege program at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Every week I commuted from upstate New York — a four-hour ride on Amtrak — often barely making it on time to my 9 a.m. music theory class. Everywhere I went, my bass came with me. It was cumbersome. It attracted stares — and sometimes unwanted offers of help from strange men. Lugging it around the subways and buses and sidewalks of New York City was a chore — especially for a teenage girl who insisted on wearing heels — but it was worth it. When I showed up somewhere to play, I felt like I had already warmed up.

Last spring, one year out of college, I found myself once again commuting from upstate to the big city. Same train, same route. But this time I was on my way to see an oncologist. I was 22 and I had just been given a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. My relationship with music changed abruptly. I no longer had the stamina or the interest in playing the bass. And once I entered the hospital to begin my intensive chemotherapy treatments, I stopped listening to music altogether.

Between the hospital walls, hearing my favorite songs filled me with a deep, unbearable ache. Music, and the memories attached to them, reminded me of all that was no longer. Where had that feisty, fresh-faced music student with long auburn hair gone?

Continue reading, here.

Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter and on her Facebook Page.


11 Responses to “The Beat Goes On”

  1. Laurence Svirchev May 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Lovely article. Maybe you know the name Steve Lacy, master of the soprano sax, inspiration for John Coltrane to pick up that axe. Lacy’s drummer, John Betsch, told me a story. Betsch had some form of cancer. Betsch could hardly move. Lacy called him up and said, “John, get your sticks. My replacement drummer just copped out.” Betsch said, “no way man, I’m too sick…can’t play.” Lacy is a persuasive guy and soon had Betsch clunking on the kit, a fatigued man who hadn’t practiced in months. Lacy pulled the same stunt on him several times and gradually Betsch improved on both the kit and in health. John’s story was filled with cusses about Steve Lacy torturing him until he pulled the punch line out: “Music is the healing force of the universe.” Betsch is still playing, Lacy lives on in the music. All the best in your struggle! -Laurence Svirchev

    • Alicia May 26, 2012 at 1:35 am #

      I love this story! Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Stephen Quinto May 25, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    if you can take a moment we would like to share with you – and what we are trying to do at Love and blessings to you, sweet child….

    • suleikajaouad June 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      I love this story about the bald eagle. Taking care of animals can have such a therapeutic affect on the sick. As soon as my doctors allow it, I plan to adopt a rescue dog. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. Robert Lakos May 26, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    great article in the Times. have courage and hope and keep writing.

  4. Wiliam Reed May 27, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    The information/insights/advice you have shared are extremely useful. Thank you for the time and effort put into writing your column. Best wishes to you.

  5. endoed May 27, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Lovely story, thanks. I could never play any instruments, but when I was stuck in hospital for a while with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia I had a hifi in with me and playing a lot of the time. I remember trying to keep the volume down a bit on songs with more swearing, to avoid offending the other patients 🙂

    There’s still a couple of tunes I find hard to listen to – remind me of some rough times. But, equally, I found the music comforting – I’ve always had music playing most of the time when I’m working, and exercising to loud-ish music when I was well enough to do so gave me a bit more of a sense of normality even if I was stuck in a hospital side room.

    Hope that all is going as well as it can with you.

  6. Chris Trecaso May 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story (and video)! I’ve seen Jon live a few times, and although I’ve never spoken to him, I felt that he emanated joy, warmth and compassion. I’m glad to learn that this is actually the case, in this age of carefully manufactured public personas.

    After reading this, I was inspired to get in a productive practice session on my drum set, so thank you for that as well. I hope that you will soon regain the strength to lug around your bass again.

  7. Melanie May 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm #


    It wasn’t until I saw your photo with the bass that I realized we’d played together on the Horace Mann tour to France a few years ago. (I was the ringer cellist.) Your brilliant writing and account of your life’s experience has drawn me into following you and to fervently hoping that you’ll be schlepping that bass of yours around again in the near future.

    All my best,


    • suleikajaouad June 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

      Melanie — great to hear from you and thank you for following! Wishing you well xx

  8. The Bone Marrow Foundation June 5, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Reblogged this on The Bone Marrow Foundation and commented:
    Suleika Jaouad talks about the role music played in her life before leukemia, the impact of her illness had on her passion, and the energizing power of reconnecting with a lost love.

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