Musician finds peace, God in the notes (video)

Oct. 22, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.

Darryl Leonard moves his fingers deftly method across the keyboard of his electric piano, playing an upbeat Pentacostal song.

Darryl Leonard moves his fingers deftly method across the keyboard of his electric piano, playing an upbeat Pentacostal song.

YOAKUM - The keyboard took up most of his tiny living room. Darryl Leonard flexed his fingers as he settled into a folding chair, turned a few knobs and switches to get the settings right.

He is a slight, wiry man, and you don't notice his fingers at first - long, knotted and full of latent strength - until they are hovering over the keys, about to strike.

The fingers seem to be moving of their own volition, creating a thumping bass in the left hand, while clusters of chords outline a spiritual in the right. As the melody gets going, Leonard begins to sing in a thin, reedy voice. Within moments of putting his fingers to the keys, he is lost in the music.

Leonard has been playing since he was 14 years old. Growing up, he had always been caught by the piano and the church organ. He would peck out the melodies of songs whenever he got the chance. The church pianist let him mess with the instrument and gradually Leonard taught himself to play. His family had always been musical, but they didn't have a piano at home, so he practiced at church.

"I was pecking and pecking and then the Lord finally gave it to me," he said.

He had always been religious, but sitting behind the piano, it just felt right. Playing music was his way of being with God. Growing up in Port Lavaca, Leonard was the middle child in a family of six. He had never played sports in high school. He knew he didn't belong out on the shrimp boats with his father, but when he was making music he finally had a place to be, somewhere he belonged. He would sit behind the instrument and listen to the sermon, always listening, sure of his role in the church and ready to share his music.

One Sunday, a pastor from Atlanta heard him play and asked whether Leonard would be interested in coming to play for his church in Atlanta.

Leonard had never been out of the state until then. He jumped at the chance and suddenly he was living in Atlanta, being introduced to a whole church full of people as the new church musician.

Somewhere in that crowd, he met Lois, the woman who would become his wife. She worked on the maintenance staff at the Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta. Whether he was playing music in church or just talking to her, with Lois, Leonard always had an audience.

"When I thought no one else was listening, she was listening," he said.

They married and began trying to have a baby. They lost the first two and Lois was pregnant with their third when she died of a pulmonary embolism.

Leonard sat at the funeral, numb with shock and grief. He was turning it over in his head, reminding himself that God must know what He was doing, even if Leonard couldn't understand it. Then he noticed the music, that the musician wasn't playing the way he would do it. He couldn't express what he was feeling any other way. He was playing one last time for her.

Leonard played even more after that. Music was where he felt at peace. Since then, through the ups and downs of life, music has always been there for him. When he was diagnosed with glaucoma two years ago, he took solace in the music, playing tunes that he would know even if he went blind from the disease.

When he became a father, he made sure to encourage his children to enjoy music. When his relationships didn't work out, he always went back to his piano, back to the music that was his connection to something bigger than himself and his own problems.

The muscles in his arms twist and ripple as he pounds the keys. His eyes close for a moment as he finishes a song and the room grows still. He opens them and smiles, glancing at the autumn sunlight pouring in through the front window.

"This was the calling of my life," Leonard said.



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