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The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Musicby Steve Lopez
Synopses & Reviews
A moving story of the remarkable bond between a journalist in search of a story and a homeless, classically trained musicianĀ—destined to be a major motion picture from DreamWorks, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
When Steve Lopez saw Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angele‛ skid row, he found it impossible to walk away. More than thirty years earlier, Ayers had been a promising classical bass student at JuilliardĀ—ambitious, charming, and also one of the few African-AmericansĀ—until he gradually lost his ability to function, overcome by schizophrenia. When Lopez finds him, Ayers is homeless, paranoid, and deeply troubled, but glimmers of that brilliance are still there.
Over time, Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers form a bond, and Lopez imagines that he might be able to change Ayer‛s life. Lopez collects donated violins, a cello, even a stand-up bass and a piano; he takes Ayers to Walt Disney Concert Hall and helps him move indoors. For each triumph, there is a crashing disappointment, yet neither man gives up. In the process of trying to save Ayers, Lopez finds that his own life is changing, and his sense of what one man can accomplish in the lives of others begins to expand in new ways.
Poignant and ultimately hopeful, The Soloist is a beautifully told story of friendship and the redeeming power of music.
"Scurrying back to his office one day, Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, is stopped short by the ethereal strains of a violin. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Juilliard, but that various pressures — including being one of a few African-American students and mounting schizophrenia — caused him to drop out. Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop his musical talent and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia (at one point, Lopez arranges to have Ayers take cello lessons with a cellist from the L.A. Symphony). Throughout, Lopez endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel's case, questions his own motives for helping his friend and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity. With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In 1980 I entered the Berklee College of Music, a fiercely competitive and, I soon discovered, disorienting program for musicians. The disorienting part was this: Although I had been the best saxophone player in my high school, I was barely average in music school. On the commute home every evening I found no consolation. In every doorway, tunnel and subway station in Boston, there... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) were great musicians: Even the bums were virtuosi. As Steve Lopez wryly observes in "The Soloist," in music there is always someone better than you, someone with more time to practice, more willing to do without a meal, an extra hour of sleep, even a bed if that will get him closer to his dreams. Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, first happened upon Nathaniel Ayers "dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it's been pulled from a dumpster." The guy sounded "pretty good." Later Lopez found out that Ayers had been a classmate of cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Julliard in the 1970s until he suffered a schizophrenic breakdown. Forced to leave school, Ayers ended up performing on Skid Row in Los Angeles, all but oblivious to the surrounding muggers, drug addicts, prostitutes and sewer rats. "The Soloist" begins as "the tale of a man, stunned by a blow thirty years earlier, who carries on with courage and dignity, spirit intact." But it delivers far more as we follow Lopez's attempts to help Ayers bring a modicum of discipline to his life and music. Several readers of Lopez's column send musical instruments for Ayers, but Lopez becomes haunted by the idea that he may be doing the musician more harm than good, that the new bounty will increase the chances of his getting mugged or beaten to death. Lopez struggles with questions of how much autonomy should be accorded the mentally ill. To be sure, Ayers doesn't handle his life the way Lopez would (or wants him to), but the issue keeps coming up: To what extent does one individual have the right to try to influence another? When we try to help someone "for their own good," do we really know better than they what will ultimately make them happy? Lopez arranges for a room in a nearby shelter to be designated as a de facto instrument locker, so that Ayers doesn't have to lug everything around in an easy-to-rob shopping cart. He tries to get Ayers into therapy and to spend at least one night a week in a homeless shelter. Ayers' own suspicions (some of them well-justified) and fierce independence thwart attempts to "mainstream" him. Lopez arranges for Ayers' estranged sister to visit from another state. The reunion is not without disappointment for all concerned. Each small victory toward bringing the homeless genius closer to normalcy is met with a backlash or a downward slide, paranoia and gratitude living in an uneasy alternation. Lopez hangs on, driven by the conviction that one more kind word, one more small intervention, will finally snap Ayers back into the real world. Lopez is a natural storyteller, giving us a close-up view of the improbable intersection of musicianship, schizophrenia, homelessness and dignity. The result is a surprisingly lively page-turner, propelled by the close friendship developing between these two men and filled with eloquent passages: "Nathaniel isn't alone. Music is an anchor, a connection to great artists, to history and to himself. His head is filled with mixed signals, a frightening jumble of fractured meaning, but in music there is balance and permanence." Scientists are just beginning to discover how music heals, through its boosting of immunoglobulin (IgA) levels and regulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Although this is not Lopez's focus, he beautifully conveys the effect that music can have on the battered soul of a true musician, a soul fighting to be heard through the din of dementia that crowds out the most perfect of human languages. Ayers, Lopez writes, "tucks the violin under his chin, blocks out the roar of traffic and leaves the known world. He scratches around a bit, chasing after ideas that aren't quite coming together, but then, as always, he finds a passage that works like a drug and the music pushes him free of all distraction. Eyes closed, head tilted to the heavens, he's gone." The connection between the comfortable middle-class writer and the Skid Row musician is one of mutual respect and, to some extent, healthy suspicion. A new theory on the durability of music in our species helps explain their relationship: Called the honest signal hypothesis, it argues that music is a form of pure emotional expression and that it exists because it is a more honest signal than speech. In other words, it is more difficult to fake sincerity in music than in language. Lopez writes that he deals "too often with people who are programmed, or have an agenda, or guard their feelings. Nathaniel is a man unmasked, his life a public display. We connect in part because there is nothing false about him." Perhaps the reason there is nothing false about Nathaniel is that his mind, his heart, his life are music. Nathaniel's honest signal ends up touching all who hear him play, culminating in a much anticipated and beautifully rendered meeting with Yo-Yo Ma, his famous Julliard classmate. "The Soloist" goes a long way toward explaining the workings of the musical mind, albeit one tragically touched by madness. It doesn't shy away from exploring the failures of governmental programs and mental health services for the needy, but it does so without preaching and finger-pointing. It doesn't editorialize; like good music, it just is. Daniel J. Levitin is a professor of psychology and music at McGill University in Montreal and the author of "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession." Reviewed by Daniel J. Levitin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Soon to be a major motion picture from DreamWorks, "The Soloist" is a beautifully told story of friendship and the redeeming power of music.
A moving story of a remarkable bond between a journalist in search of a story and a homeless, classically trained musician, "The Soloist" is soon to be a major motion picture from DreamWorks, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.
The New York Times bestselling, "unforgettable tale of hope, heart and humanity" (People)
The true story of journalist Steve Lopez's discovery of Nathanial Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy's life-only to find that their relationship would have a profound change on his own life.
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Now a major motion picture-"An intimate portrait of mental illness, of atrocious social neglect, and the struggle to resurrect a fallen prodigy." (Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down)
This is the true story of journalist Steve Lopez's discovery of Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles' Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers's music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy's life-only to find that their relationship has had a profound change on his own life.
About the Author
Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where he first wrote a series of enormously popular columns about Nathaniel Ayers.
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