by Graeme Sacks

2.1 Graeme Guitar


Seven years of my life were punctuated by cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, a stem cell transplant, immunotherapy and numerous lengthy hospital stays. At first my internal clocks all ground to a halt. Dials and numbers synced to silence. After some months the gears began to slowly scrape and turn their rusty cogs. All the while the world outside sped past. My illness repeatedly interrupted the act of living; just as I was regaining my strength and starting to gig, teach music and return to my old habits and ways of being, cancer would once again remind me of my mortality and take away my independence. 

“…cancer would once again remind me of my mortality and take away my independence. ”

Music has always played an important role in my life and my cancer years triggered a strange relationship with sound. At times during this period, I couldn’t listen to music, as it reminded me of all that I had lost. Pieces that had calmed and soothed me before now triggered profound irritation and anger. Once-sweet-melodies became a cacophony of pots and pans reverberating through an already noisy mind. The beeping of the medical equipment was the anti-music. Its rigid, unmoving electronic tempo was a reminder of where I was and that I was not living but rather being kept alive. The sounds in hospitals serve to warn, the clatter of metal on hard surfaces tell us that nothing in this place is meant to soothe the mind and heal the soul. It’s all cold, hard science meant to save bodies on the edge of life.

“I listened to Billie Holiday and Lester Young on repeat, feeling the pure emotion without analysing the chord progressions or twists and turns in the melody notes”

It was during a long period in isolation that music started creeping back into my world. I had neither the energy nor the brain capacity to read; the strong drugs I was on saw to that. But I began to listen again. It was all I could do. A much more passive act, it required nothing of me but to receive the sound in whatever state I was in. I revisited music I had loved years ago and heard it in a different way. I listened to Billie Holiday and Lester Young on repeat, feeling the pure emotion without analysing the chord progressions or twists and turns in the melody notes. I listened to the playfulness of Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, and the deep, moving sounds of Coltrane, Ellington, and Monk.

One morning a rabbi popped his head through the door and asked me if he could play the shofar, a ram’s horn used for religious ceremonies. Maimonides, the influential Jewish scholar from the Middle Ages wrote that the blowing of the shofar is a symbolic wake-up call, rousing Jews to mend their ways and atone for their sins. I told the rabbi in no uncertain terms that unless he could play some Gershwin, he was not welcome. On another day I heard a loud screeching sound down the corridor and instantly knew that my Scottish friend John had come to visit, waking up the entire floor with his bagpipe battle-cry. A joyous noise, that energised and roused my fighting spirit. At a particularly vulnerable time in my journey a man named Howard moved into the ward and we instantly connected over our shared love of music and chatted for hours about our lives. Our relationship was cut short when Howard succumbed to his illness, leaving me both depressed by this loss and inspired by the life that he had led. And I kept on listening. As I healed, the music crept back into my life.

In music therapy we learn that the voice is the most personal instrument. Many people are shy or scared of public speaking and even more so of singing in public. Perhaps we are scared of making mistakes, of being judged, of allowing others to ostensibly see into our deepest souls. Or maybe there are moments when our utterances are shushed, we are told to be “seen and not heard”, laughed at and scorned, that we carry throughout our lives. There are so many ways that we are silenced and it’s not always clear if it’s the words or the actual sounds that carry them that are being shut down. Perhaps they are one and the same?

“There are so many ways that we are silenced and it’s not always clear if it’s the words or the actual sounds that carry them that are being shut down.”

I too carried a fear of singing in public. I believed my voice was awful and when as a young music student, I got to play at a nightclub with my band this was confirmed. It all came to a head during a song where I had plucked up the courage to sing. In the middle of the song, the owner of the club gave the universal throat-cutting gesture for us to get off the stage and never return, and that fear of singing was forever imprinted in my brain. It took nearly 30 years to make me face that fear (a rather insignificant fear now that I’ve faced so many others). When music began to return to my life the idea came to me that I needed to sing. I contacted my talented friend and colleague Ziza Muftic and asked her for singing lessons. This was yet another life-changing (or perhaps life-affirming) moment for me. Singing was no longer off limits, and I gave myself permission to just sing without judgement. I embraced the fact that I was like a child learning to talk – with all the mistakes inherent in the process. In some ways I was angry that this joyous and meaningful experience had been stolen from me and that it had taken so much to realise that music belongs to all of us. To lose self-judgement and to embrace the mistakes that are so necessary in learning and growing as humans is a profound and liberating experience. And it just felt so damn good to sing!

Cancer did strange things with my concept of time. It made me realise that it is possible to pause a busy life and to begin again. More than once. There was no picking up where I left off. Every relapse and recovery meant a slow climb to get back to where I was before the illness. But I also realised that the slow climb to recovery could be along a different path. I didn’t have to climb the same mountain every time. These experiences all led me to begin an investigation into the field of music therapy. Many phone calls, emails, two years of studying psychology and a bout of tennis elbow from practising piano led me to the audition at Pretoria University’s Department of Music Therapy. The audition was terrifying – it involved improvising on a variety of instruments, including voice, which was still nerve-wracking and brought back all of my fears, but I was now a little more certain of my ability and took the leap. I was surprised and elated to receive an acceptance email a few days later.

“To listen carefully and curiously. “

In 2019 I began the intense Master’s program that profoundly changed my worldview and gave me experiences I could not have dreamed possible. I have had to question many heuristics and biases around religion, tradition, race and gender and have, more importantly, learned to listen. To listen carefully and curiously. My teachers and my student cohort have taught me so much and have shown me that the dissonance and discomfort is often where the path to learning and growth is found.

My second academic year began with a study block in Cape Town in 2020 with the NGO Music Works. Our close-knit group of ten students spent time in the townships of Cape Town, observing, learning, and working with musicians and children from these communities. Again, the dissonance reared its head: Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with the always-present mountain, the world-class restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries, pristine beaches and designer homes, all a stone’s throw away from gang violence and extreme poverty. The visit to Cape Town showed me people that I read about occasionally in news stories that dehumanise them, turning them into gangsters and victims. I could return to my neat and safe B&B every evening, leaving the turmoil of the township behind, with only a feeling of discomfort and guilt as I thought about my experience.

And then the pandemic hit. Once again, my life was put on pause without my consent. I was angry and depressed. Angry that it had taken me so long to get to this point and angry that a disease once again played a central part in my life. I stopped playing music. My guitars became mute and I sank into a deep depression, fuelled by polarising arguments on social media.

Slowly but surely, I began to play again. An encounter with a music therapist on social media led me to some freely improvised duets, playing in response to his saxophone melodies.

The freedom let me lose the need for control – when playing freely I had to stop trying to compose, stop trying to find the musically correct notes and to rather simply play where my fingers and mind would lead me, responding to the saxophone in my own, broken voice. And so I began to do more and more improvisations. I tried playing a soundtrack to news broadcasts showing Covid deaths, police violence, Black Lives Matter protests and dangerous presidents wielding their power. The music was ugly, dissonant, atonal, with machine-gun barrages of notes. I sat with that dissonance. There was no way to prettify what was going on in the world or in my head. And I continued playing, sometimes for hours at a time. Where before I had recoiled from a “wrong” note I now dug into it, repeated it, played it louder. I reached out to a few people to try some improvised duets and a friend sent me a piece of piano music that I responded to and sent back to her, both of us moved by the experience.

All of this musicking was changing me and my relationship to music. I had recorded many of my improvisations but was nervous of uploading them publicly for others to hear. The music was so personal, and I worried that posting them publicly might have negative consequences for me. I released them as a series called “Broken Pieces” and even became brave enough to record myself singing.

I have come to realise that my relationship to music is an important measure of my current state of mind. When music irritates me or causes me discomfort, I need to investigate what is going on. Usually, it is something significant and it leads me to some form of healing through introspection. Sometimes I still can’t listen, and that is all right. Other times I need to play harsh and ugly sounds to express difficult emotions. And sometimes gentleness and beauty emerge and a peacefulness envelopes me. It is all equally important. As a music therapist I am able to share these insights with my clients through the intimacy of musicking. I try to offer them a safe space to express themselves without judgement through the music. I have incorporated these concepts in my therapy work and try to help clients understand the importance of making mistakes as a path to personal growth and understanding. Music is a wonderful and safe way to explore uncomfortable feelings and I’ve learned to embrace the dissonances and to play with the knowledge that there is meaning and value in all of the notes.

“Music is a wonderful and safe way to explore uncomfortable feelings and I’ve learned to embrace the dissonances and to play with the knowledge that there is meaning and value in all of the notes. “

The author acknowledges that without his privilege he probably would not be alive today to tell this story.

Graeme Sacks


Graeme is a Music Therapist based in Johannesburg. With a primary focus on children and young adults, he operates a private practice and also contributes his expertise to the Johannesburg Children’s Home. With over three decades of experience as a professional musician and music educator, Graeme’s accomplishments include winning a South African Music Award (SAMA) for one of his children’s CDs.