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.

Julia says she lay very still on the couch, pretending to be asleep so as not to disturb Joseph. She says she felt some sort of presence in the room, although she's shy to discuss it.

"It's really hard for me to talk about it," says Julia, choosing her words slowly. "A lot of people could take you very strangely, but something definitely went on that night."

As for Joseph, he says what happened was that Tina's spirit channeled through him and helped him play the piano. As for how he moved his hands across the keys, he says it all came to him with no thought as to what he was actually doing.

Marsha Weiss, Memorial Hermann's director of volunteer services, thinks Joseph has a special gift.
Deron Neblett
Marsha Weiss, Memorial Hermann's director of volunteer services, thinks Joseph has a special gift.

"I didn't even hear it; it just came to me natural," he says in an earnest voice, used to the look of disbelief that accompanies his story.

"As I progressed with my playing, I felt as though there was a presence or spirit from the old century guiding me through," writes Joseph in the short essay he wrote explaining what happened to him. "The music I was playing brought tears of joy."

Now Joseph had what every good inspirational story needs: the unbelievable miracle.

What might be even more crucial for a good miracle is a couple of believers to give it credence, and Joseph would soon run into more than he expected. But first he had to believe himself. After the night he composed "Entre tormentas," Joseph found himself drawn to the piano, composing music and recording it onto audiocassette tapes. He had no idea how to write music, so he couldn't transpose the songs into notes. But he felt compelled to keep playing and recording.

"I started developing at such a rapid pace I started scaring myself," says Joseph.

But the rough times were not over after his sister died. A few months after the funeral, Joseph developed phlebitis, inflammation of the veins, in his leg. His calf swelled up to the size of a bowling ball, and he spent nights in the ICU receiving blood thinners with Julia at his side. It took almost six months to recover from the incident, and his body was in tremendous pain.

"I was both physically and emotionally distraught, so I played the instrument almost every day," he says.

As soon as he was well, Joseph began playing in clubs and renting halls at places such as Stages Repertory Theatre and Ovations in the Rice Village. He'd also play wherever he could find a piano, at restaurants like La Colombe d'Or. People would stop and watch him play, and Joseph would often start talking with them and sharing his miracle story. Soon they would start sharing with him.

"I'd get their life story in five minutes," he says. Joseph thinks it's the people who've had grief in their lives who are drawn to him -- as if they can somehow feel his pain in the music and connect with their own. One man in particular, Gil del Castillo, was having family problems when he ran into Joseph playing at Jack's, a club on Memorial Drive. He thought Joseph's music was coming from the soul, and that it evoked a "neo-gothic" feeling in him. Del Castillo, an anesthesiologist, heard Joseph's story and decided to fund his album, which Joseph named in honor of the doctor.

But because he could not write down the music, he had to hire someone to help him. He found Don Elam, a local musician and professor who had done work with the Houston Symphony. Elam charged Joseph $25 an hour to listen to his cassette tapes and then score the music so Joseph could hire Houston Symphony members to play strings and horns on the CD.

"It's a little difficult since he doesn't understand anything about music," says Elam. "You can't compare it to a schooled musician or a classically trained musician, because he's not using any of those forms."

Elam says Joseph's music "might loosely be called New Age." It's trancelike, without any developing melodies. Sometimes it's difficult for Elam to tell exactly where Joseph begins and ends, so he has to go back and score the song all over again. But Elam figures Joseph has "a sense of mission" about him.

"He's no stranger than most," says Elam. "He's very concerned with helping people and healing."

But Joseph knew he was meant for more than just recording and renting halls to play for people he knew. He believed his music was supposed to reach out to people who needed him. When his mother was hospitalized a few months ago at Memorial Hermann with a stroke, Joseph started taking her down to the hospital piano to play for her. Soon Marsha Weiss, the hospital's director of volunteer services, saw Joseph and asked him if he would consider playing on a volunteer basis. Joseph quickly agreed.

"He was very interested in trying to share," says Weiss. "He doesn't do it to promote himself, he's just got this need to share it." Weiss says it's common for Joseph to give his CDs away to anyone who expresses interest.

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