How a homeless man just taught me the value of music

How a homeless man just taught me the value of music


norman lebrecht

January 16, 2014

Curtis graduate Pavel Ilyashov, now playing in the Virginia Symphony, shares this revelatory moment with his friends and ours:

pavel ilyashov

True story that just happened tonight.

I was leaving GSA after a day of teaching. As I pulled out of the parking garage, I saw a tall, very slender man who was holding a sign “Homeless, Anything Helps”. He was dressed very well, but the clothing had clearly seen better days. We inadvertently made eye contact. There was such sadness and sincerity in his eyes, I couldn’t stop myself.

I pulled out my wallet. The only cash I had was a $5 bill and I handed it to him. He took it with great appreciation and looked at me again. Homeless man: “Did you play the violin at Cafe Stella on NYE by any chance?”

Me: “Yes, I play there quite often. What a great place to bring music to the community. Been a while… I’ve struggled with an injury…”

HM: “I was there. I was on my way to a shelter, but when I saw you and your guitar friend, I snuck in. I used to be a regular there when I had money, but it has been a tough year. I made two horrible decisions. As result, I lost everything. My family, home, and business. I have nothing now, but hearing your music (he proceeded to name all the pieces we played, including the ones that I have long forgotten. After all, we just sight-read them for fun) made me forget the cold and the hunger.”

Suddenly he handed me the $5 bill I gave him and pulled every other dollar out of his pocket and shoved it to me through the car window. H.M. “Thank you… you gave me peace that night and made me forget that I’m lost. I am in your debt. I wish I could give you more.” I was speechless. The green arrow turned, the cars behind me honked like mad and I had to move it… with a homeless man’s money. His, was perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever gotten and a reminder that music can heal just about all. I will never forget this evening.


  • Tor Fromyhr says:

    I hope you can find him again, you have a chance to help him turn his life around – my sense from your story is that he deserves it

  • Lisa Fogler says:

    Oh my gosh that is so beautiful.What an uplifting experience. I wonder what became of the man.

  • richardcarlisle says:

    Is that unique to the Nth… and inspiring and unforgettable and……thank you Norman– a treasured gift to all your readers.

  • pianessa says:

    Tears. Music absolutely heals the soul but while it can keep you warm inside, it cannot keep you from the cold outside. I hope he can find shelter soon. Thank you for sharing.

  • Joy Bechtler says:

    This is an Amazing moment. Thank you for posting this for us to share.

  • Doug says:

    How kind of you! Hope you can find him again and maybe do another good deed and help the man turn his life around! The gift of music making is precious indeed!

  • archer says:

    i struggle mightily to resist cynicism, but failed in this case. when you consider all the elements that had to fall seamlessly into place for this to have happened as related, it’s just too much to buy. a pleasant story though

    • richardcarlisle says:

      This is a first-person account following a direct experience on the part of the author… I would hesitate to accuse him of false representation.

    • squirrel says:

      I’m with you, I thought this was silly and not quite believable.

    • Robert Fraser says:

      archer: I understand why you would be cynical.

      However — The world of orchestral musicians is quite small, and I have two close friends who went to school with the author, and others who have commented on this piece on Orchestra-L, a list which includes musicians from all over the US, including the orchestra that the author plays with. Based on the testimony of these people alone, I trust that this piece is 100% genuine. In fact, a colleague of the author’s reported on Orchestra-L that he plans to donate the $16 (the total given to him by the homeless man) back to a local shelter.

      The only reasons I can think of that a person would fabricate something like this would be a) they have a pathology that requires attention, or b) they are fabricating a story that can potentially “go viral” to cash in on it somehow. I have discounted both of these possibilities, based on the testimony of friends, and on the fact that the author doesn’t appear to have any connection to websites which “mine for clicks” as they say in the Internet biz.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Most people crave attention and most people have a tendency to make up stories or at least “tweak” them. One doesn’t need to have “a pathology” to do that – it is very common and very human. Can we be a little less dramatic, please?

    • Doug says:

      Interesting-didn’t think of that!

  • Some of us grew up unsatisfied to the soul by the music that surrounded our daily lives, but then there were those moments when we heard melodies and depths in music that truly transformed our lives. This man knew the fulfillment that only music can bring; dollars alone do not suffice to reward such meaning in life. I think this is what we call grace.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    May I take this occasion to recall to our readers the story of my friend, Gordon Sherwood, the homeless, beggar composer who died recently. He got a lot of exposure on “Slipped Disc” at the time of his death and I will continue promoting his music. In its own right, it deserves playing and being listened to.

  • R says:

    Whoever he is, I really hope his life take a turn for the better.

  • richardcarlisle says:

    With the character he displayed he’s much better off than most… material fortune may well return but it would be trivial in contrast to the treasure of character.

  • Stephen says:

    In this cynical age with all its attendant “problems” mostly having to do with material wherewithal or lack thereof, all of us could benefit from erring on the side of compassion. The key note for me was the clothing and the look in his eye. Discernment is very important but so is compassion. “I made a couple of bad decisions.” How many bad decisions do we get before any one of us is in that same spot?

    I feel sad for the cynics who posted above.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I feel sad for people who feel the need to feel sad for other people just because those people are a little less naive and a little less easily impressed. And that doesn’t have anything to do with not feeling “compassion” or not feeling “the power of music”. Just with being a little more grown up.

      • richardcarlisle says:

        I feel sad for people who feel sad for people who feel sad for…. I mean gosh — why should anyone feel sad?

  • Rick B says:

    The author is a former colleague and roommate. He is very colorful, but doesn’t make stuff up. If those were indeed his words, I would believe every one of them. He’s also a fantastic musician, so the idea that his performance could effect a random stranger like that is little surprise.

  • Pavel Ilyashov says:

    Dear Norman,

    Thank you for sharing this moving, important, and true story. It is an honor for me that you put it on your reputable blog. I was contacted recently by a leading musician who had read it on this page. The musician wrote that she was moved to tears by “my essay on your page”, but was dismayed that some of the comments on the “article” were negative.

    Please let me clarify. This was NOT an essay I wrote to publish on this site, or any other. It was simply a Facebook status update. Completely unexpectedly to me, it became quite popular and got many comments, likes and “shares”. I assume at some point Norman must have come upon it and decided to share it with his broad reader base. Thank you, Norman! At a time when most musical news has to do with the “demise” of our industry, the misfortune and difficulties that await today’s most successful performers, lockouts, and countless other maladies, this story reminds us that what we do as musicians do, is not in vain. If we truly reach out, we just might touch someone.

    The homeless man in question had clearly at a time, and obviously still is, a music lover. I humbly state that in the minute I spoke to him, he displayed a greater knowledge of the violin/guitar duo repertoire than I have. This was a deeply cultured man, eloquently spoken, who probably can’t wait to turn things around, get back his CD collection, and return to the concert hall.

    Someone blindly commented that the sequence of events simply could’t have truthfully occurred as I wrote it. Well, let me say that it most certainly did and in fact, was almost likely. My “two encounters” with the homeless man took place less than a mile apart, in an affluent, but urban part of town. It is the only place here where churches, synagogues, and shelters provide help for those in need.

    For someone to suggest that I have a “pathology that requires attention”, seems to accuse pretty much every Facebook user that posts a status update from now and then that they are afflicted with the same disease. Frankly, I think this applies far more to the folks that can’t resist posting statuses about what they had for breakfast, than someone like me, who enjoys sharing rare recordings for the benefit of my wonderful students and the occasional funny anecdote. This story obviously fits neither category. It was just something that moved me and I felt my Facebook friends (all of which I happen to actually know!) deserved to know about it.

    Another suggestion was that I tried to “cash in on this story” by it somehow going viral. Again, this was no more than a Facebook post. How does one cash in on it, or even suspect that it go “viral”? I intend to try to find this man and give back every penny he gave me and much more. If I can’t find him, I’ll give forward in another way. Surely, there are better ways to cash in on the internet than to take money from a homeless man and share it on Facebook.

    It’s actually rather amusing to me that folks completely unfamiliar with me, or the situation, decided to doubt me, my character, and ability to tell the truth, before getting to know what really happened. A simple jump to conclusion with absolutely no real education on the subject.

    The homeless man I tried to help was hungry, but not nearly as hungry as others that music has fed. How about the people that heard the Shostakovich 7th symphony in Leningrad while it was under siege? They had nothing. A morbid, hopeless existence amongst starved corpses. But the orchestra and audience filled the hall. The music made them forget the bombs and sirens outside, and the hunger in their bellies. My grandmother, a wonderful soprano was a “concert brigade” performer during WWII. She traveled and sang for the troops. Sometimes appearing in her brigade was a certain violinist by the name of David Oistrakh. She often told me that when he played, especially the slow movement of Bach’s E major concerto, it was as if the war was over (while the bombs fell overhead). And she received the same ration as everyone else… a piece of bread, a cube of sugar, and 100 grams of vodka per day. Such was Soviet protocol at the time.

    This post has been too long and I apologize. To those who think this story is fabricated, I can only give my word that it is true to a fault and was never intended to get “famous”. Music is a language that can transcend all else. Maybe our cynical friends should spend less time worrying about the “true” logistics of my Facebook post and spend more time listening, playing, and enriching. I can’t wait to return the extraordinary favor sent my way and give forward 10 fold! Let’s stop doubting, get our priorities straight, and use the power of music for good.

    • Dear Pavel
      Thank you very much for sharing this inspiring story. I had no doubts whatsoever about its validity and nor have almost all who have read it. Unfortunately, music attracts a small breed of cynics and know-alls who fear they’re being cheated with every word and note. We cannot change them. We can, however, ignore them. all best wishes, Norman

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        That reaction surprises me, Norman. After all, you yourself are well known for being critical of, and sometimes also refreshingly cynical about the many myths and legends of the classical musical world, the many anecdotes and unquestioned truths, some of which you challenged in your writings (e.g. “The Maestro Myth”).

        Those here who are a little skeptical about the whole story aren’t necessarily heartless cynical bastards, just people who are, well, a little skeptical when they hear such stories.

        I don’t think here anybody questions in general that music can enrichen people’s lives and that it can help them through difficult times. We don’t have to drag in WWII yet again to prove that. I think most of us have experienced it ourselves. I know I have.

    • richardcarlisle says:

      @ Pavel Ilyashov

      Thanks kindly for capping this off so well … an unforgettable, enriching thread — credit to you, to Norman and above all to an unknown man of indelible character.

      What a better world with events like this more frequent.

  • Allan Green says:

    This post made a great impression on me and I thought it a most moving and truthful account.

    I very much regretted not having saved it, and I emailed Norman today to ask if he could identify it for me, and he has done so. I am most grateful. The essayist Addison said “…music, the greatest gift that mortals know, and all we have of Heaven below”.

  • Allan Green says:

    I misquoted Addison. What he wrote was “Music, the greatest good that mortals know, and all of heaven we have below.” Apologies!