It’s hard to believe a high achiever such as Montel Williams would ever need to follow his own advice, but when he contemplates music making and the role it once played—and could still play—in his life, it occurs to him that he could use a little inspiration and impetus, to start playing bass and piano again as therapy for body and soul.
Inevitably, Williams talks about music making in the context of his well-documented illness. He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1999. For many, that news would spell the end of an active lifestyle, as the effects of the disease slowly and cruelly rob the body of motor control and muscle mass.
Williams, however, is a fighter. Although his memoirs—Climbing Higher and Mountain Get Out of My Way—chronicle a period of despair and depression after the diagnosis, the same energy that propelled him from a standout US Navy officer to Emmy winning TV host eventually led him to tackle MS head on.
As a result of his aggressive physical, not to mention psychological, therapy, Williams took up snowboarding and stepped up his passion for working out, eventually writing the book BodyChange with fitness expert Wini Linguvic.
But Williams felt he had to give up playing bass. “I lost dexterity in my hand, so I couldn’t play the way I used to,” he admits. Yet, although it’s clear that music making may be gone from his life for now, it’s not forgotten. He gave away one of his guitars, a bass signed by superstar Sting, to a boy who survived the Columbine school attack, but in Williams’ Manhattan office, acting more as reminders than elements of a shrine, are a baby grand piano, a guitar signed by BB King, and a string bass.
“Everywhere I’ve lived I’ve had a keyboard,” explains Williams, “but they just sit there as decoration. The baby grand is just a prop right now, but I want to turn it into an exercise machine!”
Giving up music was difficult for Williams because it has been part of his life for a long time. Memories of his early musical experiences are still strong. “The first song I ever sang was Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ in a second grade talent contest,” he recalls. He sat on a barrel and sang along with a Minus One machine, an early version of what we now call a Karaoke machine, that played Redding’s music and cut out the soul singer’s vocals. “I also strummed a bass guitar because I didn’t know how to play it properly yet!”
Bass guitar wasn’t the first instrument Williams learned to play. Like many kids, his parents had steered him away from rock ‘n’ roll and toward more traditional instruments. “I had been playing trumpet for a year or two, and my interest in bass ticked my parents off because they’d spent money on a trumpet and lessons.”
Williams’ parents couldn’t complain too much—his father played bass (and still does, recently borrowing a bass from his son to take on a jazz cruise), and young Montel was just following in his dad’s footsteps.
Besides, Montel kept playing the trumpet. “Eventually I learned to read notes and picked up some music theory. My high school yearbook has pictures of me playing in the stage band, and I did marching band for 12 years.”
These days, Williams is trying to pass lessons his parents taught him onto his son. “I’m trying my best to make my son understand the importance of making music,” he says, although he understands that children sometimes are compelled to ignore their parents’ advice. “Originally, my parents wanted me to play piano,” he remembers, “but I thought real men play trumpet and trombone.”
The key to getting his son interested in music, Williams believes, is to be a good role model. It’s here that he identifies a link between the benefits of music making for a child’s education and the benefits playing can have for someone suffering, like him, from a chronic illness.
The link is “neuroplasticity,” the idea that the brain can be “rewired” at any time of life, with new neural pathways forming the way a child’s do as he or she grows up and learns new things. It’s the concept that has helped debunk the idea that if you don’t learn a musical instrument as a child, you can’t learn as an adult. It’s also a concept that has been embraced by MS patients or those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Thinking of the way music making could benefit his son, Williams says, “Music training is the key to math skills, but many parents don’t understand this. When you teach a child how to understand an instrument and read notes, it opens up the area of the brain where math problems are solved. Most kids who learn an instrument do better in math. I know I did.”
Then Williams confesses that physical therapists and others have already told him it’s time to dust off his baby grand piano and bass guitar, because the intricate exercise and neuroplastic potential of music making will help his symptoms. “As soon as I get back from my latest crazy media tour, I’m going to start piano lessons. It may help rewire the left side of my body. I know that music making therapy works for Alzheimer patients, and that I should have been making music all along.”
“As soon as I start learning, my son will also,” asserts Williams, giving himself one of the pep talks he’s become famous for. “I need to play piano and bass to keep my fingers moving. It’s hard to say I used to play the bass, but, honestly, I should stop complaining about what I can’t do and just go back and take it slow. I could probably do it. If I could make these fingers play one scale, it would be a form of therapy.”
Williams began his post-Navy career as a motivational speaker, and the Living Well with Montel series is a return to those days. “It’s a great project for me,” he says “The message in the series is ‘Stop talking about change and start doing it.’ I should apply that to my music making—stop talking about playing and do it!”
However, as someone who has spent his career guiding and advising people, Williams realizes his new music making goals will have to be manageable ones. “I know I will never play music again professionally, but it is definitely something I can do for fun,” he muses. “It will help me shut down for a couple of hours and sit around with people, interacting and having fun.” Judging by the high-octane way Williams approaches his life and career, the fact that music will help him relax might be as much a benefit as overcoming the symptoms of MS.
On the other hand, one day you may see Williams take the stage again. He still sings occasionally, and admits he gets a thrill from performing music in front of a crowd. “Last year I sang at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas to a packed house. The energy was over the top!” he recalls, adding wistfully, “You know, right now I wish could have my whole band with me again.”
Williams’ complete DVD series is available at
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