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Making music is about healing people

By Robert Gupta, Special to CNN
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Music is medicine, music is sanity
  • Robert Gupta gave up a career in medicine to play violin for the Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • He says homeless street musician Nathaniel Ayers asked for a violin lesson with him
  • Through music, Gupta says, the two men were able to communicate and help heal Ayers
  • Gupta says music has a powerful ability to connect people and treat mental illness

Editor's note: Robert Gupta gave up a pre-med career path to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 19. In his TEDTalk video, recorded in February, and in the essay below, Gupta writes about meeting Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless musician depicted in "The Soloist." TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading," hosts talks on many subjects and makes them available through its website.

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- For me, music is about joy -- the complete release of emotion, exhilaration and all-encompassing freedom. It's so easy for us, especially as classical musicians who lock ourselves away from the world for hours at a time to perfect our craft, to forget that this music is really about others. It's about conveying a message.

For me, music is about communication that goes beyond our spoken language and rests deeper in our collective human psyche. Music brings us together. Music equalizes us.

In college, I fell in love with biology, especially neurobiology. I was even lucky enough to land a few internships at amazing labs -- one at CUNY Hunter in New York City studying spinal chord regeneration and another at Harvard studying Parkinson's disease.

I was fascinated by the brain, and I wanted to become a doctor. But my heart cried out for music. And on a total whim (more like a last chance, really), I took an audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic a few years later, and I won the job.

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I was totally and utterly crazy about making music, but I confronted myself a few months into the job.

What solid proof did I have, besides the ovations I received, that this music was affecting my audiences the way it affected me? Was I just playing the fiddle because it was something I did well and because I was, well, in love? I felt like I was neglecting a calling as a doctor and a neuroscientist.

And then I met Nathaniel Ayers. And I saw a miraculous transformation in a man who was delusional, lost and paranoid. I had witnessed (and conducted) a therapy where the dosage wasn't measured or administered under sedation or struggle, where the treatment opened a channel for human communication and understanding.

Music communicated where words had failed; I found a moment in which music transcended medicine. It caused a change, immediate and visceral, in a man who was on the brink of a schizophrenic episode.

The music ultimately revealed Nathaniel's brilliance -- as if the music opened the floodgates of a previous life and allowed him to face memories and emotions that may have been either too painful or distant to remember.

Nathaniel began to recite Beethoven opuses and Schubert and Haydn catalog numbers. He displayed an intuitive understanding of the violin though he'd never taken a real lesson on in his life. He seemed happy and calm. He was a totally different person than when he had walked into the room.

And the way that Nathaniel changed also changed me, as a classical musician, as a voice for mental illness and as a human being. I realized that what really mattered here wasn't the venue or even the type of music or any other type of external factor, but relation.

The music equalized Nathaniel and myself. It allowed us to behold each other at our most human level and relate to each other. The music allowed us to communicate at a profoundly honest level, and I understood that this was why I made music. To communicate. To heal. To relate to people at their level through the expression of common, simple human emotion manifested as redemption.

Music as medicine.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Gupta.