An article about her experience with a Musical Soul Portrait
Sweet Soul Music
by Dr. Judith Schlesinger
Topia Magazine, Spring 1997
His studio is embraced by woods and nestled up against a mountain. It’s a chill November day, but warm sun streams through the skylight and a honeybee dances over the glass. Richard Shulman, who calls himself a “spiritual musician,”invites me to relax in a soft chair as he settles behind his three synthesizers. He meditates for a moment, then begins to play. Thirtyminutes later he hands me a cassette of my life translated into music – a “soul portrait” painted in sound, a concept he developed to “tune into the vibrations of a person’s soul” and create personalized soundtracks for inner exploration.
As strange as this may sound, it actually flows from two ancient traditions: helping people understand themselves better and using music for healing. The target is always the deepest essence of a person, whether it’s called the personality, the self, or the soul. In fact, the Greek word for soul – “psychi” (psee-HEE) – lies at the root of both psychic hot lines and psychotherapy. Why shouldn’t it be accessible through music, which reaches places words can never go?
Everyone knows that music can change moods and kick up images and memories. The Emperors of China acknowledged its power by maintaining Bureaus of Music to regulate its impact on society. The Biblical David used his harp to alleviate King Saul’s depression. Today, music therapy reaches schizophrenics and autistic children when nothing else can.
Shulman lives in Woodstock, New York, famous for its rock festivals, artists, and dumplings made by local Tibetan monks. A slender, quiet man with curly hair and a warm smile, he meditates daily and studies with various Masters “to reach a higher level of awareness, calm, and love.” He radiates genuine humility and wonder about his abilities, believing that his talent was given to him for the purpose of helping others. And his gifts are considerable: he holds a Master’s in composition from the prestigious Eastman School of Music, made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1994, and has released ten albums to date. He’s played with jazz legends Frank Foster and Ron Carter, but veered off the expected track onto a more spiritual path.
Like all detours, Shulman’s was created by an obstacle. In 1976, his career was gaining steam in his native upstate New York when he badly injured both arms during a performance. Too shy to complain when other musicians’ amplifiers drowned out his piano, he just kept playing louder and louder. “By the end of the night, I had hurt myself,” he says. “Suddenly I’m in with all these great players – who am I to ask for what I need?”
Shulman’s arms were so painful that he could barely pick up a knife and fork for six months, and didn’t perform in public for two years. “It looked like tendonitis, but it was really emotional,” he says. To make things worse, his girlfriend left him at the same time. “My heart was broken and I’d thrown away the opportunity to really get my music out there. Losing the
two loves of my life, I went down and down and eventually ended up back at my parents’ house, watching Hee Haw.”
Shulman’s father put an electronic piano on the floor so he could play with his toes, and suggested he write something for his grandfather’s 95th birthday. “I realized that if I didn’t write something happy, I’d really lose it. So I wrote ‘Still Young at 95’ with my toes. I had to show my father how to write the music down for me.”
Inspired, he began using his hands again, adding five seconds a day until he got up to ten minutes; in another month, he’d moved out of the house. “My recovery started me into spirituality,” he says. “It seems like whenever I’ve given myself a hard time, I come out discovering more of myself.”
This discovery guided him away from jazz, though he still loves it and plays occasionally with a swing band. “What I say with my jazz is almost the same thing I say with my meditative music, but I can’t deal with the bar scene anymore. When I played in New York City, the bars would get the admissions, but not the drinks. What I do takes people to a very beautiful place, but it doesn’t sell drinks.”
Perhaps it’s because his music is intoxicating all by itself. In fact, his albums carry a warning label: “Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while listening to this music.” Shulman’s orchestral colors create lush, relaxing imagery, making it difficult to concentrate on routine tasks – which is, after all, the point. “I knew someone who chose to disregard the label and
was picked up by a cop – not for speeding, but for weaving and going too slowly,” he says, grinning.
The soul portrait idea began in 1986. Shulman was working with a healer who had a baby grand piano. One day he said, “There’s someone named Lydia in the other room. I want you to play for her soul.”
“I looked at him like, huh?” Shulman remembers. “But I sat down at the piano, tuned my thought to the name ‘Lydia,’ and suddenly started doing a melody. My jazz group does it – it’s a great tune. That was the beginning. It took me until 1993 to really say I have this gift – to put it on a sheet of paper, and say this is what I do.”
Shulman began going to psychic fairs and creating soul portraits. “One woman was so excited about hers that she brought a friend over, who was very introverted and self-effacing – she’d take care of everybody else before she thought of herself. I had a hell of a time trying to find her music. Finally, I latched onto it – it started to gradually come out, to take flight – and suddenly I’m hearing this other theme, which I recognized as the music of the friend who’d brought her there.
“I opened my eyes and there she was, standing at the other end of the table, looking to see if her friend was OK. She’d stuck her head in and I heard it – I heard her melody. This showed me that there are other levels operating, and that I’m accessing a level of truth that we don’t normally see and accept.”
To Shulman, even angry music has the potential for healing. “There’s a place in music for every type of being,” he explains. “Rap music and some of the seemingly angry jazz serve the function of getting those issues out there to the world. Once they’re in consciousness, people can choose what to do with them – continue the same pattern, or let [the anger and pain]
come to the surface to be healed and let go of.”
Soul portraits are not created by interviewing someone and then expressing their details in music. It’s not even necessary to be in the same room, which is why Shulman can do portraits from photographs or over the phone. The process is more like channeling, beginning with a prayer for music to benefit the person being portrayed; once it starts, it blooms into a
coherent, original composition.
Shulman has “painted” many portraits in the past four years. “We don’t keep track of them,” says Lauren Gdovin, his promotions manager, “but it’s probably in the hundreds by now.” Insomniacs report it helps them sleep; others use theirs to discover and vent buried emotions. “What people need is what it becomes – whether you need to be inspired, healed, or just to rest, your portrait seems to do that for you.”
Given the serene quality of Shulman’s albums, I wonder whether all the portraits have that feeling as well. “No,” says Gdovin. “He’s written some that sound very dark and dramatic.” One emerged from a session with a young German woman who was so angry and ashamed about the Holocaust, she couldn’t go back home.
“What I understood is that she had some forgiving to do,” Shulman says, his normally quiet voice becoming even softer. “Her music came out like intense Beethoven – all sturm und drang and full of banging on the piano. It stayed that way for a long time as she was resisting, but she finally moved through it. As soon as she let go and was able to see [the Holocaust] as a learning experience for so many souls, she found understanding and compassion within herself. That’s when her music shifted to the sweetness of her inner being.”
Another difficult client was referred to him by her massage therapist, who couldn’t alleviate the stubborn tension in her body. Shulman encountered the same walls: “Every time I tried to get under her armor, she could take about thirty seconds of it before I bumped up against her resistance again.”
“What does resistance sound like in music?” I ask him. “Like pap New Age stuff – the kind that doesn’t penetrate,” he explains. “Imagine what Hamlet’s soul portrait would sound like: wanting to make a decision, but not knowing what to do. You get to a certain point, and then stop. So I was only able to record a rather superficial tape. It was pretty, but without any deep beauty – she wasn’t allowing me to touch her through her layers of self-created misery.”
He touched me, however, and with astonishing effect. I was relaxed and curious as I waited for my portrait to begin, but as soon as he started to play, I began to weep. It was shocking – I wasn’t feeling the least bit sad – but the tears kept pouring down. They streamed for ten minutes, while Shulman played on; after another twenty, the portrait was done.
The music was beautiful, but was it truly my soul I was hearing? Shulman said yes, that the weeping signified my recognition of it. “When you cried at the beginning of your session, a doorway opened so we could go into higher levels. Since we started at such an emotional level, the recognition went deeper and deeper.” He warned me not to play the tape on my ride home, saying, with a twinkle in his eye: “You might transcend right out of the car.”
Listening safely at home, I believed the music did evoke specific struggles and triumphs in my life – and in the proper sequence. Perhaps I projected meaning into it, but even friends declared “it sounds like you,” though they couldn’t explain how or why. Soul or not, it’s lovely music that collects and comforts me whenever I feel overwhelmed. To be fair, anything that gets me to sit still for half an hour would be refreshing – but whatever it is, it works.
This is even more remarkable considering that we live in a New Age of scams and schemes. Every day brings another claim, another miracle cure, another instant remedy for stress, whether it’s an herb or a crystal, potpourri or Prozac. Shulman makes no such claims – he just gives people their own individual music. How they use it, and what they learn from it, is entirely up to them.
These days Shulman continues to record, tour, and perform in concert halls, churches, healing workshops, and private homes. In 1991 he scored his “May Peace Prevail on Earth” for two singers, a full orchestra, his jazz group, and three choirs – “the performance was wonderful, but unfortunately, the recording wasn’t good enough to be out there.” While he hopes to compose again for synthesizer and orchestra, he’s reluctant to get too specific about his goals: “The most important thing to me is my spirituality, as a practical, day-to-day way of being. From this will come what I will do.”
He pauses, then continues, with the same serene hopefulness that fills his music: “I don’t know what my spirits have in store for me.” Whatever it is, we know he’ll be listening for it – heart and soul.