The Lightning Sonata

A man struck by lightning is moved to write a piece of music. Was it divine inspiration?

Posted in , Sep 25, 2014

Tony Cicoria at the piano

The concert hall is dark and still, all eyes on the lone figure at the center of the stage. The piano player. I creep up behind him, careful not to disturb the soft plink-plink of the keys. This melody he’s’s beautiful. Unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.

The closer I get, the more familiar the man becomes. I recognize him. The piano player is me. The music? It’s mine.

The same melody echoed in my head nearly 15 years later as I took my seat at the grand piano in front of hundreds at the Goodrich Theater in Oneonta, New York, my hometown. I could remember the notes as if I’d dreamed them up yesterday.

I had dreamed them up, in the dream that haunted me to this day. As did the literal bolt from the blue that started it all.

It was just an ordinary summer day. Not a cloud in the sky. I’d driven up to a lake in Athens, New York, that morning for my wife’s family reunion. The kids were splashing in the lake and I was grilling up burgers and hot dogs. What could be better?

My medical practice was booming, the family was happy. Life was good.

I slipped away to make a call to my mom on a pay phone by a lakeside pavilion, oblivious of the storm clouds on the horizon. The phone rang six, eight times. The wind kicked up. A woman and her daughter waited behind me.

I was about to hang up when boom! A bolt of lightning struck the pavilion, coursed through the receiver and shocked me square in the face with terrifying force, sending me flying 15 feet.

What happened next is a blur. It sounds nuts, but I was submerged in this hazy blue-white light. Like I’d fallen into a peaceful river. I could sense something overwhelming, powerful but loving. God? I wasn’t sure, but I never wanted to leave.

Fifteen minutes later, though, I awoke to a woman pumping my chest, jolting me back to life. The same woman who’d been standing behind me at the pay phone. She was an ICU nurse.

Three weeks later, I was back at work. My doctors had conducted all the routine neurological exams and concluded I was fine. Only something was off—way off.

I had this strange compulsion to listen to classical piano music. The kind that had put me to sleep as a kid the year my mom forced me to take piano lessons.

“I can’t explain it,” I confided to a doctor friend. “It’s like I crave it.”

This from a guy who’d spent the previous two decades roaring around on a Harley and blasting out the Rolling Stones. I bought a Chopin CD just to test the waters, feeling like an imposter in the classical section of the music store. But as soon as I played it, I was hooked.

I hummed to Chopin in the car, at work, even at the dinner table. When I wasn’t listening to the music, I was thinking about it. Obsessively. I was a practical guy, a doctor, not some New Age hippie who spent his time chasing ooey-ooey feelings from the great unknown.

Was I going crazy? Is that what the bolt of lightning had done?

It only got weirder. A week later, our babysitter stopped by. She was moving and needed a favor. “Dr. Cicoria, I have this old piano,” she said. “I can’t take it with me. Can you keep it for a while? A year, tops?”

As soon as we moved the piano into our house, the dream came—me in a concert hall, performing a sonata I’d somehow composed. Me, who had virtually no musical training.

It jolted me awake, the music still ringing in my head. I could hear whole chunks of it, like someone had downloaded a file directly into my brain. This was getting ridiculous. I buried my head in my pillow, but the notes begged and pleaded to come out.

Enough was enough. I tiptoed downstairs, sat at the creaky piano bench and tried to mimic the melody. The moment I plucked out a few soft notes it hit me. That same powerful sense of love and peace.

The lightning bolt had coursed through my body with a force that should have killed me, but instead, it had left something beautiful behind. That beauty wasn’t meant to stay inside my head. I knew nothing about composing, but I knew exactly what I had to do—follow that music.

That’s how I’d ended up in a real concert hall, after years of piano lessons and practicing into the wee hours of the night to release the music within.

A hush fell over the crowd. I couldn’t stop trembling—until my fingers finally found the keys and the music took over.

When I finished, I took a bow as the audience erupted into thunderous applause. All in response to the piece I’d composed—“The Lightning Sonata.”

Listen to Tony performing his music!

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