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Searching for another song

Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

The lesson begins with a warmup. Five simple notes, moving left to right on the piano, then five more notes coming back. Robby McNeill plays them, slow and deliberate. It’s how he does most everything now.


“Get in the right position,” says his instructor, John Fulton.


“Good,” Fulton says.

They are here twice a week at Charlotte’s Covenant Presbyterian Church, in a choir room under the sanctuary, in front of a black grand piano. Robby sits on the left side of the bench. His right hand is on the piano keys. His left hand, as always, rests on his lap.

A half hour of piano, a half hour of voice. All of it is elementary stuff, the kind of material Robby mastered long ago. He was a musician then, a songwriter and guitarist. He had a band and a dream and a chance.

But 11 months ago, three men robbed his apartment in Wilmington, where he was attending college. They took a couple of cell phones, a small amount of cash. Then they shot Robby in the head.

Now he is here, searching for the rest of what they stole.

“Last one,” says Fulton. “Easy enough.”


“Nice,” the instructor says, and turns a page. “Let’s do this one: ‘Ode to Joy.’ ”

He has always had his guitar.

It was there at the beginning, 4-year-old Robby and his toy instrument, smiling for a camera.

It provided a path through his school years as he struggled with dyslexia, and through his teenage years as he fought to find himself.

By the time Robby went to college in Wilmington, the music had given him direction – to write and play songs and craft a “sustainable life” from that. He was good enough, maybe. He’d been writing for years – perceptive lyrics and striking music. His band was getting ready to play at a festival in Wilmington.

“It’s my passion,” he says. “It’s my life. I’m very little without it.”

But on Jan. 24, 2013 – a Thursday night – three men in hooded sweatshirts stormed into an apartment Robby shared with a roommate. Robby wonders now if they might have heard he had music equipment there, or if they thought Robby and his roommate were dealing marijuana. They weren’t.

He remembers being trampled by the men, and he remembers the screaming. “I remember being on the floor with a gun pressed to my head,” he says.

There have since been hospitals, and more hospitals, and surgeries – seven of them. Robby landed, finally, at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center for brain injury rehabilitation, where doctors put him through rounds of tests. “They were the ‘what-can-you-do tests’,” Robby says. But they also told him what he couldn’t do: move freely with the left side of his body. His left leg. His left arm. The hand that held the neck of his guitar.

“Are you in the right position?” Fulton says. “Does it feel right?”

Twenty minutes into the lesson now. Robby nods, expressionless. He plays a few more notes on the piano. “Perfect,” Fulton says, warmly.

When Robby came home to Charlotte this summer, his parents searched for activities beyond therapy. Robby was fighting depression; he could hardly get out of bed. His world had become an expanding list of what he was no longer able to do. “There was no escape from it,” he says.

His parents called around the Covenant Presbyterian community. Was there someone who could give Robby some basic music lessons? One name came up often: John Fulton, a Charlotte native and opera singer who performs around the world.

Fulton was unsure at first. He’d never taught music before, and truth be told, piano was probably his worst instrument. But, he says now, “this has made me go outside my box, too.”

They meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the choir room. They’re working on recovering Robby’s vocal range and expanding it with lows and highs. They’re working on stringing together piano notes and chords, which is what’s next on this night.

C-major, third inversion. “Is that comfortable?” Fulton says, and he has Robby adjust his hand. Robby lands the chord firmly. “That feels more natural,” he says.

They don’t know where this is headed, but it’s headed somewhere, and that’s what counts. At times, Robby says, he’s felt there’s a different him out there, lost and floating. Finding that person has been another thing he can’t do, but here, on the bench with John, there are glimpses.

“It almost connects me to the freedom I had,” he says. Even with so far still to go, he’s thankful for those moments.

E-flat major now. “Hold on,” Fulton says. “You’re playing a G-major.” Robby tries again. “That’s it,” Fulton says. “That’s a cool chord.”

Fulton reaches up to the laptop computer to find the next lesson, and Robby keeps his fingers on the keys. G-flat major again, then a different chord, then some more notes that aren’t from any instruction book. He leans into the moment – a riff that’s slow and exquisite.

Fulton lifts his head at the sound. “What was that?” he asks with a curious smile.

Robby smiles back. “That,” he says, “was ‘Robby’s mind wanders.’”

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