A couple of weeks ago, while visiting family in New Orleans, I had an opportunity to visit The Presbytère, a former monastery residence, which is now a museum, located adjacent to the Louis XIV Cathedral facing Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The museum houses two large exhibits dedicated to the events and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and an extensive exploration of every cultural facet surrounding Mardi Gras.
Within the Katrina exhibit there is a display midway before the exit celebrating the city's resilience and ability to weather fires, natural disasters, wars and epidemics, while retaining its culture through the adaptations and innovations made along the way. The featured message also made note of the unlikelihood of the people of New Orleans being able to have their lives returned to exactly as experienced before Katrina, but that restoration required reinvention--that in the end, nothing is ever the same as it was, in such cases: “You can’t go home again.”
Life has a way of presenting change with unmatched force without permission, and sometimes without forewarning. In the aftermath, you are forced to change keys and modulate into a new tonality. Even in the case that the life change encountered is a desirable one, the new key will always necessitate a new level of growth, understanding and language. You will have to modulate your thoughts, your aspirations, your experience, your faith—your signature motif—into a new key of conditions.
There is an anecdote of Charlie Parker, at just sixteen years old, awaiting an opportunity to play a jam session at the Kansas City Reno Club. He had been working on developing his improvisational technique, which incorporated modulation and expanded phrasing. Midway through, he lost his place in his solo and froze on stage. Drummer Jo Jones of Count Basie’s Orchestra, who was serving as special guest during the jam, threw a cymbal at him, and Bird was laughed off stage that night. Despite the humiliation, Bird continued forward, developing the tenets and curriculum of what would later become known as bebop.
Encountering life traumas such as death, divorce, economic loss, or chronic health challenges will force you into a new key. Human nature carries a natural aversion to change, with the inclination to stop in the middle and freeze in confusion and fear at the bars headed your way. Taking the time to listen to your intuition and play through modulations, even while stumbling will always serve you better in the end versus standing in resistance and waiting for a turnaround to an old key that you are familiar playing in. While you are waiting for that turnaround to the familiar, you will lose your place and sink in silence and stagnancy.
Playing through modulations is a lesson that I am working through in the present. Three years ago, my life was disrupted by domestic violence. The worst day of my life was living out the actuality of filing a police report and being interrogated (versus interviewed) by a lead detective. The second worst day of my life was being told that my case was being dropped due to a lack of corroborating witnesses. Coupled with the professional rejections, disappointments and personal challenges I had encountered, the aftermath of the filing multiplied the level of devaluation I had experienced over a lifetime overnight. My whole belief system and faith were shattered. In moving forward and getting the recovery help needed, I have had to learn how to play over a set of chord changes of an unresolved reality that I hate, all the while, having to map out the connector notes to form a new melody altogether, given that the previous melody is now dissonant. Playing through the life changes that you are presented with is painful but necessary in order to achieve some type of momentum in life, even in the face of injustice. If you’re ever going to be able to salvage, rebuild and experience anything reminiscent of the good that you believed in previously, you have to change with the key. You can’t go back to a life experience that no longer exists. You have to change.
Sometimes in adapting to life’s modulations and taking risks in new keys, life will return us to a confidence and completion reminiscent of what we remember or yearned for initially with a new language, cognitive ability, strength and emotional IQ that will inform our gifts and talents, helping us to be of better service to others. At other times, we will be forced in new directions, navigating through one new key after the next, without ever being able to return to the calm and assurance of a C Major signature. In the end, we have to trust in the goodness and purpose of where each modulation is taking us—as we learn how to spot and maximize the opportunities in every new key encountered. Over time, we will eventually learn to embrace each tonality and recognize the need for new melodic themes, while cultivating the strength, creativity and dexterity of improvisation.