Matthew Zachary: The Underlying Theme


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—Matthew Zachary
”What can give you closure when there is no answer?” The music of Matthew Zachary chronicles the emotions and experiences of facing death, conquering it and looking forward to life. Cancer changed Matt and he now uses his restored musical abilities to change others.

The story began as it does for millions of musicians around the world. Matt had been classically trained on piano from the age of 11. He began performing at the age of 16 and he decided to pursue music in college. It looked as though Matt would play music for life.

The essence of this musical story began when 21-year-old Matthew Zachary was diagnosed with a malignant form of brain cancer (usually found in kids under 12). Zachary, then a senior in the music program at SUNY Binghamton, had returned home to Staten Island, NY. He was passing out and had lost the use of his left hand. Doctors first suspected carpel tunnel syndrome because Zachary had been practicing for 80 hours a week. A Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) pictured the catastrophic news: medulloblastoma.

It seems almost fitting that Matthew Zachary’s cancer would be rare, like the victim it almost claimed. Doctors usually have the agony of telling parents about the grim futures of kids with this cancer; here, they had to inform a budding concert pianist that he might never walk or play piano again. Uncommon challenges demand extraordinary responses.

“I never asked why,” says Zachary. “I don’t believe in why. I believe in where; as in, where are you going to take this?”

After eight hours of surgery, Matt was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with a highly questionable future. The tumour was as big as a golf ball. When Matthew awoke, a priest was poised to read the last rites. Zachary survived. Doctors suggested further treatment and Matt faced another philosophical choice: a year of chemotherapy that might prolong his life at the expense of his music.

“I’d rather live to age 26 and die being able to play the piano for the next five years, than live to 26-and-a-half and not be able to play,” he decided. Matt Zachary recovered, restored motor coordination in his left hand and played piano. In 2004, Matthew will release his third solo piano record through a self-owned music publishing company .

Dr. Marcia Greenleaf, Health Psychologist with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says music was key in Matthew’s survival. “Matt's focus on his music helped him stay connected to a personal sense of identity and self-respect,” she says, adding, “His perspective - keeping his values paramount over his symptoms - helped him overcome many of the difficulties he experienced.”

It was a long road.

Zachary’s first record was aptly entitled, Scribblings . Matt composed the songs in the ten or 20 minutes he had to play during his daily chemo treatments. His left hand, ravaged by the effects of the tumour, could not perform as he wished. So Matthew played, waited, and wrote down any ideas that he could not memorize. This is a record of those scribblings.

“I wanted to legitimize my identity as a musician with a commercial record,” said Zachary at the time, “...and I wanted to be able to offer it as tangible hope to cancer survivors and hospital workers with whom I had built friendships.”

Matt began his mission of helping those on the other end of a cancer diagnosis as best he could. Zachary’s first recorded music, written from 1996 to 1998, reflects his life: Scribblings is a little raw, a bit unrefined and emotionally saturated. Over 70,000 copies have been distributed to non-profit groups dedicated to easing the suffering of cancer patients and their families.

In an exclusive interview with AAJ, Matt revealed how much he has personally grown since the first album. “The more I listen to Scribblings, the more I realize what a dark and different life that I was living," said Matt. "It almost begged to be understood by the listener when I’m the only one who understood what it meant.”

Cancer unites us like few other challenges. On April Fools Day, Zachary appeared with actress Fran Drescher (a survivor of uterine cancer) at a National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) event in Washington DC. Matt called it a very politically powerful gathering. Zachary is also considering releasing a new version of Scribblings to push for awareness and donations to the people and families who now fight the disease. Matt continues to affiliate with dozens of non-profit groups working for a cure. Zachary is busy these days.

“That’s where I see my music heading. I finally hired a PR company and their efforts are to get me a little more mainstream notoriety,” says Matt.

In 2001, Matthew Zachary released his second album, ...every Step of the Way. It is a continuation of Matt’s catharsis and it helped to focus him on a longer-term goal: gaining recognition as a legitimate artist within the music industry — something that Zachary admits is a tough sell.

Matt Zachary believes he has spent enough time contemplating cancer. On July 10, 2003, Zachary celebrated seven-and-a-half years of remission from the day that doctors told him he might not survive. He wants to move forward – musically, personally and socially – and put his cancer experience in a subservient place. Matt's forthcoming record will conclude his trilogy through suffering, survival and redemption.

Absolving Destiny has already been titled although none of the music for it has yet been recorded. Matt is already writing songs with new instrumentation, ideas that reflect his expanded outlook. The album comes with a message from Matthew Zachary: “I forgive life for doing this to me. I am absolving destiny for sealing my fate. This album is a trinity.”

In this case, cover art tells us how Matt Zachary has emerged into a less stressed, more cognizant perspective. Scribblings pictures an imaginary piano; ...every Step of the Way portrays piano keys as symbols of measurable progress; Absolving Destiny bathes us in the contrasting optimism of white – a visual depiction of the joy that appears to have enveloped Matthew Zachary’s nature.

If that is true, one might be compelled to ask: is there a way to understand cancer and what it does to our lives?

Matthew Zachary paused.

“I don’t think there’s a need to understand it. You shouldn’t have to understand it from the ‘going through it’ perspective. It’s almost to your benefit to not understand it. You don’t know what the answer is. You just have to be a support structure...”

Matthew Zachary Discography:
Scribblings , 1998 (Mission Possible Music)
Every Step of the Way, 2001 (Mission Possible Music)

Web Site: www.matthewzachary.com

Gregory J. Robb dedicates this article to the loving memory of his aunt, Elizabeth LaBonte, who died of lung cancer on June 30, 2003.

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