The real reason we are here

There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good. ~ “Real Reason” by Brian Andreas

Violin line drawingI once had the infinite pleasure of hearing – and seeing – Itzhak Perlman in concert with the West Virginia Symphony. The experience seared its way into my awareness and, to this day, it’s hard to wrap words around it.

Imagine: a soothing, unintelligible, and almost hypnotic murmuring from the packed audience. A glissando of laughter, a percussive cough, the rustle of paper and clothing. The orchestra’s cacophony of tuning underpins it all, until the concert master signals and the instruments still. Awareness spreads, the silence grows and, within seconds, the hall is deathly quiet, expectant.

From the left, a movement. A man in a black tuxedo holding a violin and bow leans heavily on a set of metal crutches that encircle his forearms like silver bands. Haltingly, he moves toward an empty chair sitting at center stage, step by excruciating step. All eyes are riveted on his oddly elegant walk across that interminable distance.

At first, I think, it’s a pity that someone of his stature must be put through that. Could they not have figured out something different? But in the split second that thought is born, I toss it away. And the hall watches reverently, captured by the moment.

Had there been a pin, and had it dropped, the entire hall would have heard it.

Itzhak Perlman. While his haunting artistry in the movie Schindler’s List to this day can bring me to tears, my memory will ever be of his exuberant joy in music I witnessed that evening. And I’m not talking about his solo work with the symphony accompaniment, which was masterful. I refer to the second half, when he sneaked in with the orchestra to play as one of them. There he sat among the rank and file violinists, playing right along with them on that now-forgotten piece, his smile as big and as real as that evening’s music. His obvious enjoyment of playing was so palpable, but there were no soaring notes atop the rest of the tumult, no Perlman to be singled out by discerning ears. No, he was part of a larger effort, and he applied himself with gusto to be part and parcel of the whole. No more, no less.

That he’s one of the – if not the – most pre-eminent violinists alive today simply wasn’t the point.

Fast forward a few years and meet Tiffany.

Tiffany’s instrument is a wonderfully powerful, spellbindingly beautiful voice. She can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in resonance, and she can bring you to tears. She can sweep you away on a musical journey, and she can drop you, spent, as the last overtone dies.

How marvelous a gift! How terrible a curse.

A curse because, unlike Perlman, she never really learned to lose herself in blending with and creating something bigger for nothing more than the pure synchronicity of the group. Oh, she has the solo quality voice and the ability to lose herself — and you with it — in her singing, but in the group? Not really.

When Tiffany sings with a choir, the audience hears … Tiffany. She dominates. Her voice is so strong, she simply overpowers. And although her voice is compelling and lovely – to die for, even – the choir seems to find itself diminished, its music somehow lacking something crucial.

Unfortunately, as a group musician, Tiffany will likely never be an integral part of something that’s bigger than herself, that’s grander than the most beautiful solo. She’ll never quite lose herself in the awesome power of choral music – the kind that leaves you breathless and exhilarated and so crushed when it’s over. She’s simply not made for that. And I’m sad for her, because I know what she will miss.

And therein lies my perspective shift, for Tiffany’s arrival caused me to lose my center and, for a time, flounder. When you’re the Alpha Soprano in a choir, and you buy into that perspective, it smarts. It doesn’t help that she wasn’t a regular member and was there at the behest of the director. It especially didn’t help that she was really very nice. I simply chose for a time to lose interest, to play hooky. I tried on and wore the cloak of “fair weather” singer. I diminished myself.

Then one day I was haunted by a wisp of music – the theme from Schindler’s List. Just like that, it conjured the memory of Itzhak Perlman with his incredible spirit, his amazing gift, and his joy in music. With something like surprise, I realized that I was sad for Tiffany. I was sad for this person with a huge, impressive voice, because she will never really know the power and immensity of blending what she has with others – not to overpower or lead or drown them out, but to make them all – including herself – more. It’s when we can toss ourselves into the mix along with others’ voices, simply for the sheer joy of making music – that we are truly larger than life. Author Willa Cather once wrote: “that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Oh, I agree. That IS the gift. Itzhak Perlman reminded me of that.

Maybe that’s the real purpose we are here. To find our gifts, and to use them, yes, but also to live among one another with exuberance and joy, putting our shoulders to the task alongside others and accomplishing far more than we might ever dream of alone. It’s so like Itzhak Perlman, who blended his Stradivarius with an ensemble of humbler instruments for no other reason than because it was fun to play.

Forever, I will see that man making his painstaking way across the stage. While I honor his immense talent, I will always see him smiling happily, exuberantly blending into a larger group, making music that truly transcended.

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