Playing by Heart

Joseph Samuels never had any musical training. But five years ago he sat down at a piano, and people have been listening ever since.

When Joseph Samuels first sits down at the black Yamaha piano in the main atrium of the Texas Medical Center's Memorial Hermann Hospital, the man and the instrument seem incongruous. The piano is a sleek, simple piece full of lines that curve just so. Joseph, a dark-haired 38-year-old with olive skin, is slightly beefy and dressed in a gray suit that doesn't hang quite right. He looks like an ex-frat boy, or one of those men who -- if you were to meet him at a party -- would shoot his index finger at you like a gun and then wink.

He takes off his suit jacket and hangs it over the sign next to the piano that invites those who can play to feel free to sit down, and then he sits down himself. Just above Joseph's head hangs a fake old-fashioned-looking street lamp with arrows pointing the way to the gift shop and the cath lab. It's noon on a Friday, and the hospital is busy. Orderlies and nurses and doctors dart this way and that, zooming around Joseph and the piano. There is a strong smell of popcorn in the air; a nearby volunteer sells it for $1 a bag.

In the lounge just a few steps away from the piano, one woman dressed in green scrubs is curled up in a ball fast asleep with her head propped up on her fist. An older woman with gray curly hair sits bored in one of the lounge's maroon pleather chairs.

Then Joseph begins to play. The curly-haired older woman perks up and looks over. People pushing trash cans and patients in wheelchairs pause and stare. One elderly man missing both legs zooms over in his electric wheelchair and rolls right next to Joseph's bench to watch his fingers on the keyboard.

The music does not reflect tremendous skill, nor is it necessarily very pretty in the way that the standard classical fare piped into elevators and hotels is pretty. It is dirgelike, plodding and not very melodic. Joseph plays lots of scales, pounds lots of chords. But as he plays, a look of calm washes over his face. There is no clear line of demarcation between pieces, and most sound rather similar. But the people at the hospital don't care. They think what comes out of Joseph's piano is relaxing and soothing. In fact, a regular crowd flocks to him each Friday when he plays during the lunch hour.

Joseph says the fact that he plays the piano is something of a miracle. He swears that five years ago he was just a regular guy who sold real estate, and the best he could bang out was "Chopsticks." He never had any musical training, unless you counted being a fan of the Doobie Brothers and KISS as a teenager. But then, on the night of his older sister's funeral, he sat down and composed a piece of music on a borrowed piano completely out of the blue. An old girlfriend, asleep on the couch that night, swears she woke up to Joseph's playing and felt a presence in the room. She's almost embarrassed to admit it, like people will think she's crazy if she talks about the experience out loud.

Joseph doesn't think she's crazy, and he doesn't think he's nuts either. But he does think he has some kind of special gift. He also thinks he's very talented.

"If I wanted to, I could be in L.A. right now, creating music for movies," he says. But he claims he doesn't want to create music for movies, or for money. He only wants to try to help people with what he calls his gift.

"It's not for the common music industry," says Joseph of his music. "It's sharing a gift for other people that have lost loved ones."

Joseph's face glows when he talks about how much his music means to other people -- how he's just an instrument himself. He believes he has been chosen by something or perhaps someone to bring peace and happiness to others by composing music on the piano.

At 38, Joseph has re-created himself and written his own legend -- his musical miracle. It's the very thing that keeps him going.

Joseph is seated at a table in Brasil, a Montrose cafe, taking sips from a mug of coffee. The muted television in the corner is tuned to CNN, and the only images being shown on the screen are of those two sleek airplanes slicing into the World Trade Center towers, over and over again. Joseph stares at the television, shakes his head sadly and says he knows about tragedy. He knows about pain. Pain is what got him here.

"I cannot make sense of it, and I'm not supposed to make sense of it," he says of his story.

He's one of those people who instantly acts relaxed around anyone he meets. Joseph pops off endearments like "sweetheart" and "kiddo" to those to whom he has just been introduced. He's a natural at being natural.

Tucked into his briefcase are many sheets of paper he's eager to share. Several are letters and cards from people who have heard his music and have been "touched," they write. He has written a one-page story titled "God Plays Miracles," all about what he claims to have experienced. One sheet holds his musical résumé, printed on a piece of paper bordered with music notes. It has several impressive entries, including a March 1999 "performance date at Carnegie Hall." But after being asked to elaborate, Joseph explains that he paid to rent out the smaller Weill Recital Hall next to the larger, legendary Isaac Stern Hall.

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