Playing by Heart

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.

"It's no big deal," he says of the performance. "I just got lucky and got in."

Joseph also owns a large vintage scrapbook where he has carefully pasted letters from fans. He's also saved the programs from some of his local concerts in halls that, like Carnegie, he rented out himself to be able to perform in. His résumé also includes notice of two self-produced CDs, To Heaven and del Castillo. Included in all this is a videocassette of a five-minute segment that appeared on the local PBS program Weeknight Edition in April 1998. He is quick to note the name of the short piece: "One Man's Miracle."

"It comes from my heart and my soul," says Joseph. "I think God is using me to get to people."

Joseph was born in Louisiana, but when his parents divorced he ended up splitting his childhood in half, spending summers with his mother in Houston and the school year with his father in Vancouver. His family was in the commercial and residential real estate business. Joseph's given name is Joseph Samuels Messina, but he uses Joseph Samuels for "the music."

"I was very quiet as a child," he says, although he admits one of his earliest memories is of cutting up all the screens in the house when he got angry with his mother. He played Pony League baseball and liked collecting antique toys. In addition to KISS and the Doobie Brothers, Joseph places U2, Annie Lennox and Adam Ant on his list of musical favorites. "Anybody with creativity," he says.

After getting a degree in marketing from a junior college in Canada, Joseph ended up in the family real estate business in Houston. Those were the years when he liked to party, he admits, and he was a bit of a rebel. He often threw lavish themed dinner parties where he would cook items like angel-hair pasta with scallops and raspberry crème brûlée. A connoisseur of good wine, Joseph also would serve bottle after bottle of the best stuff he had.

"By the time everyone eats, everybody is so polluted they don't know if the food is good enough," he says with a laugh.

Bruce Wolfe, a friend of Joseph's for almost 12 years, cops a California surf bum accent to describe Joseph's years before the music.

"Dude, party animal," he says, laughing. "Fast living, fast cars…he was more wild. He was in a pretty hip crowd."

Joseph dated members of that crowd too, and at the end of 1995 one woman he was seeing asked him if he would mind keeping her Steinway grand piano while she went to Europe on business for several months.

"She said it was too pretty to keep in storage," remembers Joseph. Joseph agreed to look after the instrument, and the mint-condition Steinway was moved into his living room in December 1995.

The piano looked nice enough, Joseph figured. Made of a rich cured mahogany, the piece looked pretty just sitting in his house like a piece of furniture. Joseph didn't even touch it until a few months later when he took both index fingers and played a few notes. He didn't know what he was doing, he says, but he thought he heard a resonance that sounded warm and peaceful to him.

He decided to go to a local Brook Mays piano store for lessons. At his first lesson, he asked the instructor to play "Moonlight Sonata" so that he might learn it too. After she showed him, he began to fiddle around on the keys. Nothing in particular, just what felt natural to him, he says. He claims the instructor, who no longer works at that store, told him that he didn't need to be taking lessons and that they might even stifle what she thought was a strong creative potential.

Joseph didn't think much of it then, he says. Although he was raised Roman Catholic, Joseph says, he's not particularly religious. But he thinks that something he chooses to call God was "preparing me for the impending tragedy."

The tragedy came unexpectedly a few months later in the middle of the night and in the form of a phone call informing Joseph that his older sister Tina had just died in a car crash in Brownsville. Tina, 15 months older than Joseph and the owner of a hair salon, came around a corner too fast, hit a steel mailbox, and her car flipped over several times.

"She was four foot nothing," says Joseph. "But she was like an angel on earth. A clown. Always baking cookies for people. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. She was full of life."

Joseph was devastated. He had always been close with Tina, and he couldn't believe she had died so suddenly, at the impossibly young age of 33.

On the night of her funeral in June, Joseph and his then-girlfriend (and now good friend), Julia Simpson, were resting in the living room. Eventually Julia fell asleep on the couch, only to awaken to the sound of Joseph playing the piano.

"When I first met him, he was just playing with two index fingers," she says. But that night it was an actual song of sorts, a sweeping piece Joseph would later name "Entre tormentas" (meaning "between storms" in Spanish) that he said described the phases of death.

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.

"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.

If there's one thing that makes Joseph a favored piano volunteer, says Weiss, it's that his music doesn't remind anyone of anything in particular. If someone sits down to play "Memories" or "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," the words or music are likely to evoke bittersweet feelings in the patients and caregivers who hear it. But Joseph's music doesn't have an automatic emotional attachment for anyone.

"It's uplifting, but it doesn't have any memories associated with it," she says.

Joseph loves playing at the hospital. Some folks show up on a regular basis, like pediatric occupational therapist Andrea Mettler, who spends each Friday lunch hour listening to Joseph.

"This is my downtime," she says. After the recent terrorist attacks, Mettler came to listen to Joseph. She was finally able to cry, she says, and release the tension inside her.

Joseph knows people in pain reach out to his music. He talks about people trying to tip him, but he won't accept their money. All he wants, he says, is to help heal grief.

"It's been an interesting journey," he says. "It's made me very humble."

Joseph is seated in a booth in Memorial Hermann's cafeteria, scarfing down a shrimp poor boy. He says he's sure he could go out to L.A. and make it big. He's sent out some letters to Oprah Winfrey and to A&R people at record labels. But he hasn't heard anything positive just yet. And anyway, that's not the point. The point is taking care of people. And taking care of people means he's taking care of himself.

"So long as I am in the music, it's good for me," he says. "It keeps me in a very good space."

A few days later he calls to play a recording of a new composition over the phone. The piano is backed up with several string instruments.

"It takes on a whole new meaning when the strings are behind it," he says, very excited.

Then he asks if he can share a quote he says he wrote a few years back.

"To be a great creative, there is tremendous pain," he says in a breathless, important voice. "But when the creative mind creates in his own element, he will continue to live forever. Without it, he will die."

Joseph Samuels is no Beethoven. Whether he knows that is not certain. But it is probably not important. He has his miracle story and he has his believers, and that's enough.


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