“No Mud, No Lotus”
by Christopher Bono
One crisp spring day my father, determined to introduce his three-year-old son to the national pastime, led me out to our small yard in an industrial suburb of St. Louis. Dad handed me a long red stick over half the length of my body and commanded, “Hold it like this, keep it off your shoulder. Now pick a side of the plate.” With a big goofy grin on my face I pranced up to the left side of the cardboard square he had placed in the dust and listened to his guidance: “Now keep your eye on the ball.”
I watched, mesmerized, as he floated a gleaming white globe full of Swiss cheese holes towards the center of the plate. “Now--SWING!” Instinctively, my skinny arms flung the red stick through the air towards that glowing planet of plastic cheese. I made contact! Vibration ran through my fingers and down my spine, and I heard that tight crack of collision as the ball met the bat and sent the pitch right back to my father’s hands. I laughed. I was in love. I had found my home for the next 18 years.
The thrill of hitting captivated me from the beginning. The body twisting through space, a graceful yet violent action, a critical combination of power and speed designed to make a small ball defy the laws of physics.
From that point on, my goal was to become a Big League hitter. Night after night I lay in bed, sleeping with a bat and glove, dreaming of winning the World Series for my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. I lived and breathed baseball.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t breathe air very well. In these early years I was often confined to a bedroom, a nebulizer mask strapped to my face, gassing my lungs with medicine. Chronic asthma and allergies from birth gave me pneumonia every year. My parents, convinced I would not survive the cold Midwestern winters, decided to relocate the family to Florida when I was five. There, the warm air blew in off the Gulf of Mexico salty, moist, and clean. My obsession with that small white ball came with me.
I was never the best player on the field, but there were few who wanted it more. My greatest strength lay in hitting from the left side of the plate with power in all directions. I eventually became a catcher, fascinated with the chess-like dynamics of calling a game from behind the plate. As I moved from T-Ball to Little League to Babe Ruth to High School to Junior College, and then to the top team in College Ball (The University of South Carolina, USC) on to being drafted by the Seattle Mariners, I somehow managed to excel enough at each level to move up to the next.
My father had instilled in me the idea that in order to do great things you had to outwork everyone else. So I meticulously practiced and studied every aspect of the game—hitting in particular. I learned to play through pain, tutored by collisions at home plate and body-blocking wild pitches. My teammates nicknamed me "The Professor", or sometimes "Dr. Psycho", and later, when I got too big for my own good through weight training, “Robocop.” It was this relentless—and eventually reckless—dedication that over time took a toll on my body.
In the year I was drafted by the Seattle Mariners, I tore my rotator cuff and unknowingly broke my foot within the same month. I continued to play for six months. That summer, in a wooden bat league for college prospects (as opposed to the lighter Aluminum alloy bats used in youth leagues, high school and college), I left early to receive surgery on my shoulder from the tear. When I told the Doctor that my foot had been aching, he set up an appointment with a foot specialist. The X-Rays came back with bad news. A small bone underneath the sole of my foot had been shattered and would need to be removed. It was possible to recover, but it would be difficult.
At the first day of USC practice, my arm in a sling and my foot in a cast, my teammates thought I had been in a car accident. To the surprise of the therapists and doctors, by the end of the fall I was working out at about 80% capacity. I continued to work tirelessly that winter to prepare for the upcoming season, and I was able to start on opening day.
But as the season progressed, I quickly became aware of my limitations. The bone removed from my foot had taken with it the strength in my big toe. As a left-handed power hitter, proper balance is crucial. Without it, you cannot be prepared for a 98-mph fastball, the twisting trick of a curveball or slider,
or the magical illusion of a slow change up. I was off-kilter at home plate, and my hitting showed it. My childhood dreams of a career in the Big Leagues began to fade out into a hazy nebulous of despair.
Up until that point in my life, I had never imagined a life without the crack of the bat, the smell of the pine tar, the glove, bases, fresh cut grass, and getting filthy in the reddish orange dirt of the diamond. My identity was completely defined through baseball. The loss of this central passion and aspect of myself meant a life without purpose. And a life without purpose is hard to maintain. After classes, I would return to my apartment and stare blankly at a white wall for hours, lost in a black hole of heartache, confusion, and worthlessness.
There, at the lowest point of my life, the spirit of music entered.
My relationship to music had been passive in my early years. The idea of being a 'professional' musician or a 'composer' was not even a flicker in my mind. At the same time, music had always been integral to the fabric of my family.
Late nights in our home were filled with the sounds of my mother playing piano in the back room. A piano prodigy, she performed, taught lessons, and was a church organist herself by the age of ten. As a music educator and choral conductor, she filled our ears with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, Broadway show-tunes, and her own compositions. Still, I had no real interest in playing or studying music at the time. I was more interested in breakdancing with my sisters to late 80's Electro-Pop.
I did have brief affairs with two instruments. At ten years old I was given a drum set. I tried it for a few months, and though I loved making mountains of noise to annoy my sisters, it wasn’t long before I missed the outdoors and my daily broomstick and bottle cap campaign of home run highlights in the backyard. In high school I was given an electric guitar. I played for a year and a half, picking out classic rock songs and the newest heavy metal hits from tablature notation in guitar magazines. However, before my senior year of high school I was persuaded to give it up. Being a college and pro prospect, I had to be sure nothing would hurt my chances of getting to the Big Leagues.
These early flirtations with the musical muses must have been the faint flickers of light that flashed in my mind as I dwelt in those tunnels of despair at 21 years old.
Out of sheer boredom, I picked up an acoustic guitar a few months after my surgeries. No longer able to hone my baseball skills, I was desperate to fill my time. Amidst the surrounding darkness, the only thing that kept me afloat was the therapeutic sound of the guitar strings, and the support of my family. As the baseball season progressed in my junior collegiate year, I was moved to the bench because of my injuries and poor performance. Falling further and further away from the world I knew, I found refuge in late nights of learning to sing and play my favorite songs. Soon, I found myself writing my own.
As if I had awakened some dormant, natural instinct, writing music felt liberating and strangely familiar. I had tapped the well of musical creativity for the first time, and discovered a sensation inside of me that had seemed long lost on the Baseball diamond -- joy. For the second time in my life, I felt home. The satisfaction I received from writing those first pieces helped to make the crumbling world of sports appear a little less heavy, and eventually, trivial.
This exciting, new passion led to much contemplation. I thought of the gifts of music that ran in my family and began to wonder what might happen if I transferred the same focus I had placed on baseball into the world of music. Suddenly, I had a new lens of possibility with which to see the world.
When I first told my mother I planned to pursue a career as a composer, fear and disbelief ran across her face. A professional musician herself, she had been training since age 7, and it seemed impossible that a 21-year-old could find a way on that path. But I had made up my mind.
I started out in the world of Rock music. Focusing the intense daily
disciplines I had grown accustomed to as an athlete, I superimposed this same approach onto musical practice. But, with no former experience or training, it often felt as if I was swinging in the dark. Coming from the field of the physical, particularly baseball, where you could measure progress or success with mathematical statistics and tangible wins or losses, the abstract world of music was completely foreign to me.
Fortunately, I soon met Robert Newton. Robert was a beautiful human being and skilled teacher in the Jazz and Blues style. His warm, engaging personality and presence drew crowds of people in for hugs as we stood on the street corner after a lesson. He was, to me, a modern day Sage. Robert expounded musical possibilities, esotericism, and concepts about the world and relationships within it that a young muscle-head like me had no idea existed. Amongst the many exercises he would assign, Robert encouraged me to listen to new music on a daily basis. One of these assignments was to check out a composer with a strange Russian name, ‘Stravinsky’. I eagerly went out and purchased a copy of Pierre Boulez conducting “Le Sacre de Printemps”and “Petrouchka”.
That night, I went home and listened, and became enchanted. As if under the spell of an ancient Wizard or indigenous Shaman, an extraordinary mélange of anger, love, sadness, violence, and other un-definable emotions collided and burst through every level of my mind like a mad set of psychedelic fireworks. I slept that night with my headphones and the CD player on repeat. I will never forget the resulting dreams. Surreal visions of mysteriously shaped architecture surrounded by swirling strings of colors and forms at once organic, and then inorganic, familiar and bizarre danced through the deepest stages of my sleep. This Music was transporting, leading me down a rabbit hole of wonder. Now, more than ever, I swore to be an apostle of Apollo .
Under Robert’s guidance and with much determination, I dedicated myself to the guitar, ear training, transcribing, reading and other disciplinary practices for 10 to 16 hours a day. I imitated all the guitar greats, learned all the songs I loved, and listened to as much new music as I could find.
When Robert thought I had learned enough, he pushed me off into the world.
I went to Boston in search of answers and began working on my first publicly issued record, “Ten Senators and the Rebel Son.” After I completed this album, I took off to New York and, at 24, quickly discovered how hard it
was to actually ‘make it’ as a musician. I played shows in the City, toured the east coast and parts of the Midwest, but soon became burnt out of the Alternative Roots style of music I was exploring, as well as the lifestyle of a singer-songwriter. Something was missing.
During this period I repeatedly considered classical study but shrugged the idea off—content with the roar of screaming guitars and the gestures and chord progressions of which I had become familiar. As time passed, I experimented with an assortment of musical styles from Rock, to Metal, to Folk to Country to Electronic. Still, the visions and feelings I experienced when listening to Classical and New Music styles, along with the memories of my Mother proselytizing the Classics through her extraordinary musicianship led to a natural desire to learn the “secrets” I believed the great composers were initiated in.
Was there a method that could lead the composer to a place of incantations, spells and magic, allowing him or her to be steeped in some vast, esoteric knowledge of how to manipulate the moods, thoughts and emotions of an audience?
I looked for a guide to show me the way.
After some sleuthing, I found the person I was looking for in the guise of the brilliant composer and pedagogue Dr. Kendall Briggs, of the Juilliard School. Together, we began an intense study of harmony, counterpoint and analysis based on the work of Nadia Boulanger and the French system. For three years I buried myself in this study, though I had quickly discovered it was not as mystical as I initially thought. Instead, it consisted of intense, dedicated hard work, which over time began to open my field of acoustic depth and awareness. This awareness lead to a vibrant and exciting mental space where independent musical voices and rhythms became building blocks for a new, alien sphere of musical ideas.
It’s been twelve years since I chose to pursue a musical life. The more musical stones I overturn, the more I realize the beautiful endlessness of my own education. Along the way, I’ve met several other wonderful musicians and teachers both alive and passed, from whom I have learned so much. I
have written, rewritten, trashed and begun several pieces in that time, leading eventually to the music on my recent release, Invocations.
As the Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud, No Lotus.” Without the deep suffering I experienced in losing my first passion and dream I would never have fertilized the possibility of this new, deeper passion that has become my current path. The vast scope of potential in music is a thrilling cosmos that inspires me each day. Being able to share inner thoughts, feelings and intentions with others through the miracle of sound keeps me grateful, grounded, inspired and devoted on a daily basis. Through the journey from baseball to music, I’ve learned that if we trust in life, if we stay open to the possibilities of change, we never know what heights can be reached, what new things can be begun—at absolutely any time of our lives.