By Matt Marn
Bob Iriana has always been a passionate musician, from when he was seven and first picked up a saxophone to graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston. But today, his love for music and performing is more than a passion – music helped him survive a trauma that changed his life forever.
What’s more, he uses his talents to help others going through the same.
Music Right from the Start
Iriana said music has always been a part of his life. He said he started playing saxophone at seven, since he was lucky enough to live in a town with a decent music program. He started playing on the alto sax, but later they switched him to tenor sax.
“I was a big kid, and they thought tenor may be better for me,” he said with a smile.
As the years went on, music remained a strong passion. He has learned to play on four types of saxophone, including the alto and tenor, clarinet, flute, and various other wind instruments from cultures and regions around the world. And his love for music only continued skyward.
“I’ve always played in bands as a teenager, through my whole life,” he said. “But out of college, I got cancer, so I thought I’d better have a day career – one with health insurance – and I could play at night. I didn’t want to travel the country, I didn’t do it for the money; it’s about playing the music. That’s why I go to all these jam sessions in the area, and I can play with different people in different genres… It’s just so much fun.”
All the while, Iriana has also carried both the burden and blessing of a condition known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined as “a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.” In Iriana’s case, when he hears sounds, he also sees colors (and vise versa), which varies in color and intensity based on the frequency of the sound.
“I’ve always had an association with sounds and colors,” he said. “It always got stronger with music.”
Iriana didn’t know anyone else that had synesthesia until I went to Berklee, where he met five.
“It’s actually more common in the musical community. It’s not the same between any two of us. For me, lower notes on the scale appear as violets and blues. Middle notes appear as yellows and greens, upper notes are orange and red. Some people I’ve met, these colors are exactly reversed. There are always variances between us.”
Iriana said the condition is difficult to explain to others, and the fact that it is an ever-changing condition doesn’t help. He also said not only does he see different colors based on the notes, but those same notes can also manifest as different colors or shades, based on the instrument.
A Life-Changing Trauma
But the music came to a sudden stop in January 2008, when Iriana suffered a severe stroke, leaving the entire left half of his body paralyzed. Over the next few years, he was forced to re-learn how to walk, talk, eat – re-learn to do everything we now take for granted. He had to start over.
“For the first year, I couldn’t play at all,” Iriana said. “I barely tried. For the first few months, I had trouble even eating, walking, and basics like that. Later, I could barely play; I couldn’t blow, couldn’t hold air in my left cheek. When I told my left side to hold a note, the wrong finger went down.”
He said once he started practicing again, he knew the basic notes, but had to re-learn the rest. He hears the sounds, but still has trouble controlling his left hand.
Even today, the stroke continues to have a strong impact on his daily life.
“A lot of what I used to do, I can’t do anymore,” Iriana said. “I battle mental fatigue… My day consists of alternating activity periods and rest periods. My brain gets tired, and then my left side is affected. The longer I stay active, I have to rest or sleep that much longer. I try and manage this, but I’ve done stupid stuff before, I have overdone it and wound up in the ER.”
Iriana said he feels like he can play at about 25 percent of what he could before.
“The frustration you go through with a stroke… it changes a lot of things,” he said. “You have to re-learn things a new way, or just avoid some things entirely.
Iriana estimated he only gains about five minutes per year of extra energy. The first year after his stroke, he only had about 15 minutes of energy before he grew too fatigued. The year after that, his energy grew to 30 minutes, then 45 the third year. While he used to play for four, even eight straight hours, now he can only practice for around 30 minutes at a time.
“Under ideal conditions, no distractions, I can stay focused and alert for about an hour,” he said. “When I get up, I have to plan out my day. For every hour I am active during the day, I usually need about three hours of rest. I have to plan my life around this problem of mental fatigue. It can get really frustrating.”
Iriana remembered earlier in his adult life, when he was always active, he used to work 10 or 12 hours straight, then sit in with a band as they performed that night.
“Now, I have to schedule everything out. That’s the dilemma I face; I have things I’d like to do, that would make me happy, but I’m going to pay for it. As with all things in life, I have to find a balance.”
Another thing he learned from the stroke was to learn to adapt, to work with what you have. Whether it’s using the instrument a musician has instead of complaining and wishing for a better one, or his inability to go long periods of time playing without taking rest breaks, Iriana learned to make the best of what he has been given.
Iriana’s synesthesia was also affected. It disappeared for a few years after the stroke. That was when the weight of the stroke truly took its toll, and Iriana fell into depression. After a few years, the synesthesia returned, though different – not as sharp as before.
“For me, I’ve always had the advantage of the colors,” Iriana said. “I’ve lost some of that, but I’m still working on getting it back. Sometimes, re-associating music with colors is like re-learning the sax. I can get overwhelmed.”
Iriana said just taking it step by step, but never giving up, helped him recover from the stroke.
“Unfortunately, some stroke survivors just sit there and watch TV,” he said. “And they wonder why they don’t get better. They need to do something, to learn something. When they tried to get me to walk again, they told me to just put one foot in front of the other. Or when they tried to help me speak: just say one word. Then say two. Repetition was the key.”
Iriana is making progress to this day. There are things he can do this month he couldn’t do before.
“Dealing with this in the early stages after the stroke, I didn’t handle it so well,” he said. “That’s why I was also diagnosed with depression. But they taught me not to sweat the small stuff. The biggest thing that bothers me is the unreliability. I want to do something, but then I’m too worn out, and I miss a jam, or two, or all of them this week. It’s frustrating.”
Inspiring Others by Inspiring Yourself
Iriana occasionally reminds himself of other examples of similar adversity. Iriana said he admires Melody Gardot, who was hit by a car on her bicycle, and was paralyzed and suffered brain damage. Music began to play a large part in her recovery, and soon she began to learn to play guitar and write her own songs.
Today, she is a Grammy Award winner.
“She’s like an inspiration to me,” Iriana said of Gardot. “She had right side brain damage, like me, so she couldn’t move her left side. And like me, she is hypersensitive to sound, but unlike me, she is also light sensitive. She has to wear sunglasses all the time. When I have down days, I just go listen to her stuff.”
Iriana is also an example of perseverance to others in his situation. He has begun visiting clinics in his area and performing for their recovery groups, often for others who have suffered brain trauma.
“I have learned I’m good at helping people,” he said. “I also like to play for others recovering. Again, I’d love to do more, but some places are out of safe driving range. I’ve played at a stroke recovery center or group, veterans with war injuries, or motorcycle accidents.”
He likes to do this for support groups of brain trauma patients, as he knows what they’ve been through.
“There’s always that fear if I’ll never be able to do what I used to,” Iriana said. “I know what it feels like to be really down. And, I know the secret to not feel down: just take the first step. Then the second. I know, you can’t help everyone, but I’ve met some people who hadn’t, who were afraid to take the first steps, then they started to help themselves. When I met them, some were in a wheelchair. Now, they are walking. Helping people helps me.”
Another way Iriana helps others is utilizing his synesthesia to enhance the work of local artists. He has collaborated with numerous artists in the community, playing his music along with the artwork, relaying to others what sounds the pieces trigger in his mind. He has played these complimentary music scores at exhibitions and releases of the artist’s work, always with impressive feedback.
Iriana often writes the piece inspired by the art in advance, but leaves plenty of room in the beginning and end open for improvisation. Because improvisation, he said, is one of the best parts of music.
“Once improvising gets into your bloodstream, it becomes something you’ll always want to do,” he said. “Talk about addictive… It’s a form of discovery. With composing, you have the luxury of going back and making changes. But with improvisation, you don’t. If your music was good, that’s good. If not, that’s still good… you can learn from it.”
Iriana said he loves to do this type of project to help other artists he can identify with. In fact, he said he’d love to someday work on an even bigger project for an art piece. His dream would be to start with a piece of music he had written for the artwork, then take that music and create a light show in the room to help others see what he sees, to help them get that same feeling when he hears music.
“I’d love to do more, but I only have so much energy, so I have to divvy it up,” he said. “It would take some pretty advanced lighting systems triggered by different frequencies. I don’t have that experience, not to mention the mental energy that would require.”
Advice to Live and to Play By
Bob Iriana doesn’t think of himself as an inspiration; he just plays music for love of playing music.
In addition to learning to adapt to what situation you have been dealt, he also urges musicians to always push themselves to improve, to raise the bar. That’s the only way you learn, he said.
“No matter where you’re at in your development as a musician, you always have to push yourself,” Iriana said. “Never make it a competition. In fact, always play with people who are ‘better than you.’ That’s how you grow and learn. At some point, those players had someone help them the same way.”