The Harold Washington Library rehearsal rooms offer DIY music therapy

An amateur pianist finds peace and quiet inside the practice spaces of Chicago’s central library.

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Inside a snug, spartan room at the Harold Washington Library Center, Shimon Marcucci had fine-tuned what probably amounted to several albums' worth of music before I'd ever played a note there. For four years, the middle-aged bureaucrat turned amateur composer had spent his lunch break on the eighth floor of Chicago's mammoth central library, soprano saxophone in tow. Standing in one of the six first-come, first-served rehearsal rooms—each outfitted with an upright piano and available for an hour at a time to anyone with a library card—Marcucci had been dreaming up and polishing a range of world-jazz fusion material that would eventually become a self-released record.

I first met Marcucci randomly on the street one day as he walked back to work from one of his practice sessions. Who, I wondered, was this bearded man in a yarmulke carrying a sax through the Loop?

Once we got to talking, I wasn't especially interested in his music, but I was intrigued by someone using free, public facilities to fuel a personal creative endeavor. What really roused my curiosity was the image of an individual embedded deep in such a mammoth institution, honing his craft while insulated by the world's bound knowledge. It seemed like something out of Florence during the late Renaissance, the city serving, albeit indirectly, as patron of the arts, the Daleys in place of the Medicis.

Soon after my short piece on Marcucci was published, I followed the musician's lead and began frequenting the library's rehearsal rooms; I've made use of them periodically during the eight years since. At first I stopped by incidentally, while checking out a book or doing research for a story. Eventually the visits became more intentional: an hour after work when the stresses of the day had accumulated like unread e-mails; a shorter morning session to clear a nagging case of writer's block as a deadline loomed. Pawing at the piano, I soon realized, had become a sort of DIY music therapy.

This improvised treatment for the tension of daily life thankfully requires no mastery of the instrument. Beyond a basic knowledge of the locations of notes and the construction of a limited assortment of chords, I have only the vaguest grasp of what I'm doing when my fingers hit the keys. But luckily I'm playing for an audience of one. No one would mistake my free-form style for Rubinstein, but to my ears, I don't sound half bad. Occasionally I'll cue up YouTube instructional videos, which have taught me how to noodle my way through a limited but eclectic repertoire that includes Adele's "Hello" and "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" by Phil Collins. Sometimes I close the thick double doors that keep the rehearsal room relatively soundproof, take a seat on the bench in front of a Yamaha or a Baldwin, and do a pitch-perfect cover of John Cage's silent masterwork "4'33"." I'll just sit and listen to the muffled resonance of people in adjacent rooms, running through scales on piano, violin, or trumpet. If the rehearsal spaces are all empty, I'll take in the steady hum of the library air conditioner or heater. This counts as meditation in a city where searching for peace and quiet often seems as futile as attempting to dodge gravity.

Back when I was writing about Marcucci's lunchtime practice sessions, I wondered if it was difficult for the 57-year-old to forgo food for music. "Don't you ever get hungry or weak?" I asked. His answer echoed in my head like a Zen koan: "When a person has music in their blood," he said, "it's the most basic need in their life. It's precious." v