In 2017, Berklee College of Music received a student application that contained a new symphony titled Under Master’s Guidance. The composer was a young Chinese music teacher named Joseph Ma who wanted to make a new start for himself and find artistic freedom in America.
Ma gained acceptance to Berklee’s competitive Music Film Scoring program, and a few months later, he arrived at the world-renowned school where he was tearfully greeted by professors who had been moved by his symphony. One of them told him, “This piece sounds like it came from heaven. You need to compose more.”
Miracles between life and death
Nine years ago, Joseph Ma was studying music education in China, and he was so stressed that he smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. The pressures from school and the constant chase for creative inspiration wore him down. One day, Ma developed a high fever along with a severe cough. Simple medicine failed to help, and he slid further downhill, until his roommate finally reached out to his family.
“My parents took me to the hospital. The result of the examination was lobar pneumonia, with 75 percent of my lungs affected.” The doctor told him there was no definitive treatment for his condition, which kills 60 percent of patients. All he could do was sustain his life through intravenous glucose infusions, while his own immune system fought.
The diagnosis filled Ma with despair. Even breathing softly caused severe pain in his lungs. It felt like he was dying. “My girlfriend, who later became my wife, came to the hospital to visit me with her mother. She quietly told me to recite ‘Falun Dafa is good, Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance is good.’”
Falun Dafa is persecuted in communist China, but Ma’s girlfriend and her family still practiced the forbidden faith. Though it’s not a practice used explicitly for healing, there’s no shortage of testimonies from practitioners attesting to health miracles as a result of embracing the exercises and teachings. In his desperate condition, Ma decided to follow his girlfriend’s advice and recited “Falun Dafa is good, Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance is good” day and night.
“One night, when I was nearly asleep, I had so much pain that I was paralyzed. Suddenly, I felt full of energy. I saw small flickers of light, then a giant wheel as tall as a two-story building was spinning in the air. It made a deep sound while rotating. Later on, I learned that it was the Falun,” he said, referring to a spiritual concept in Falun Dafa that can be translated as Law-Wheel.”
Ma felt compelled to reach towards the giant wheel and found that his hand actually passed through it. His entire body then passed through it. “I felt unprecedented warmth, like the sensation of life coming back to all things in spring. My body was totally comfortable and calm.” Suddenly, the Falun disappeared, and Ma woke up. He slowly opened his eyes and found that his lungs no longer ached. He could breathe again.
A week later, Joseph Ma was discharged from the hospital. He took up the practice of Falun Dafa in earnest, and when he returned to the hospital for a follow-up visit, the doctor couldn’t believe what he saw. Ma’s lungs had completely regenerated. The doctor said, “You have milky white, healthy lungs. This is truly amazing!”
The Music of Joseph Ma
Before practicing Falun Dafa, Joseph Ma, like many born in the 1980s, loved pop music. He started a band in junior high school and wrote cheesy love songs, he says. After his brush with death, however, Ma’s tastes opened up to classical music. “I listened to Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, as well as classical Chinese instruments like the pipa and guzheng. I found that classical music can educate people and convey deep messages. My tastes just changed naturally.”
The people who witnessed Ma’s changes were worried. They thought his creative inspiration would be exhausted. But after facing death and embracing a spiritual practice, Ma felt he had uncovered a deeper meaning to music. His creative direction became clear, and he often felt a fountain of music flowing through him when composing. When applying for Berklee College of Music, he completed the symphony Under the Guidance of Master in only two days. “My inspiration seemed to come from Heaven. It should have taken at least a week to compose such a piece.”
Ma calls that piece of music the second miracle in his life. “After coming overseas, I have never worried about the barriers caused by differences in cultures or nationalities. If someone doesn’t know the language, he or she cannot comprehend others. However, everyone can understand music regardless of gender, age or nationality. Isn’t it magical?”
The period between 1700 and 1850 is recognized as the golden age of Western classical music, and the pieces created during that era have moved and inspired listeners from nearly every walk of life and culture for more than three hundred years. None of their meaning or vitality has been lost. In fact, contemporary performances have even greater power because there are added layers of meaning that have developed through the musical traditions during the intervening years.
Taking Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy, as an example, Ma tells the story of how the composer became completely deaf before completing it, yet he nonetheless set aside his suffering and fame to humbly dedicate it to the glory of God. “Beethoven’s nine symphonies are the process of his life’s sublimation. I believe anyone who really listens to them can feel the divine power within. Many people are moved to tears. I think when a composer with a pious heart towards God tries to have a good influence on others, his music can become divine.”
Classical music maintains its brilliance
Today, classical music still sounds fresh and vibrant as new generations interpret and perform it. During the 20th century, however, music began to change. Composers indulged their base emotions to manipulate young audiences. Divinity gradually left the arts.
“Fortunately, there are people restoring the traditional divine culture,” Ma says. “I heard [a recording of] the music of Shen Yun Performing Arts when I was in China, and it sounded so beautiful. Usually when traditional Chinese instruments are played together with Western instruments, they will either be covered up or stand out. Their frequencies are different. But Shen Yun has been able to perfectly bring these two completely different styles of instruments together. This is a miracle.”
While Western music reached its peak three hundred years ago, the golden age for Chinese music took place over a thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty. “China first adopted the pentatonic scale with the Method of Subtracting and Adding Thirds. There are five notes in total: gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu. Each note corresponds to the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, as well as the body’s five main organs: liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys.” In ancient China, people considered music as part of medicine. They believed that good music had positive and kind energy that could harmonize the environment, improve the health of listeners, and naturally brighten their mindset and behaviour.
Through his studies and practice, Ma learned about the rigour and dignity of the traditional music system. He feels gratitude for his new found freedom of expression. “After I came to Berklee, I felt the ecstasy of a free creative environment for the first time. Living under the Chinese Communist Party was stifling. The condition for Chinese musicians is really dreadful. They cannot create music that truly expresses their minds. The only thing they can do is work for fame and fortune by pleasing the authorities.”
Like so many people who drop the weight of authoritarianism for a new life of freedom, Ma took to his studies like a fish to water. His hard life inspired him to work harder than his peers, and he completed his four-year degree in only two and a half years, something rare at a school known for its rigour.
Now, when Ma composes music for his budding career in the industry, he feels that every note has a life of its own. Each one has its pitch, length, strength, and a complete personality. When put together, the notes create a picture in the mind of the listener. Different arrangements also express different stories, backgrounds and emotions. “Good music should be like a good movie or a good novel. It is a moving story told by the composer. I believe that music is a bridge between God and human beings. I need to correct myself from time to time so that I can be a good messenger. I only want to bring the most beautiful and moving music to the world.”