Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Musical Excellence

The following was a piece I wrote for The Reporter, the monthly newsletter of Christ Lutheran Church in Natick, Massachusetts, where I am Director of Music.


Since age seven, music has been the raison d'être of my life. There was not a single, solitary instance that my parents had to ask me to practice. There were times when they hoped I would stop.

This is not to say that music has always made me happy. It's just that not doing music made me unhappy, so I really had no choice. I didn't choose music; it chose me.

The times I was unhappiest were the times that music felt like entertainment. When music is entertainment, practicing suddenly becomes a striving for the things that don't matter. No harm is intended when a concertgoer watches a young pianist and says, "Wow, look how fast his fingers are going." But how does that make the young pianist feel? For me, it felt like being a circus attraction. "Wow, look how tall that woman is. Look how fat that man is." It's the fixation with some unusual physical attribute, not an interest in the person. It made me want to practice less, because if practicing made me more "unusual," I didn't want to do it. I wanted to be normal.

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the musical world is the competition. A musical competition is no different from a figure skating tournament in the Olympics. You go on the ice. As soon as you slip, the judges put a checkmark on their sheet. You just went from 10 to 9.75. Slip again -- another checkmark. Now you're at 9.5. And so forth. It's not that the best skater wins; the skater who did least badly wins. The winner isn't chosen; everyone else is eliminated. If the point of my practicing is to prevent the judges' checkmarks, it's very hard to motivate myself to practice.

The times I was happiest were the times that music felt not like entertainment but like healing. When I play a religious service or a concert, the best I can hope for is for someone to say to me afterward, "Thanks, I needed that. I was having a terrible day, and I almost didn't come. But I'm so glad I did, because your music soothed me. I'm feeling so much better than I did before." A doctor may prescribe a pill; the pill might make you feel better, or it might make you sicker. But if I can make people feel better with my music, that is no small feat.

When the goal is healing, then I have a reason to practice. Because now I'm not serving the competition adjudicator, or the circus spectator. Now I'm serving a person on a human level. I'm trying to prepare that piece of music so that its expressive qualities -- indeed, its healing qualities -- can best emerge.

One of the most miraculous things that has occurred to me in a long time occurred right here at CLC. I was in the car with my wife, heading for Natick for that first interview. I fretted the whole way -- to the great annoyance of my wife Jeanette, who wondered why she was wasting the time and fuel to take someone somewhere that he didn't seem to want to go!

We pulled into the parking lot. I walked in the door. I looked up on the wall. And there was Moses.

I was floored, because I instantly knew who the artist was. The reason I instantly knew is because I first met Joe & Sonja Maneri when I was about eight years old. They were like my other parents, the parents that I would have chosen if one could choose one's parents. Joe passed away last August. There is no way to convey my grief at the loss of one of the greatest musicians, and human beings, that I have ever known.

It was Joe Maneri who taught me that music could heal -- and must heal. There is an amazing story, an absolutely true one, which I do not believe was unique in Joe's life. Many years ago his daughter Nina was sick in the hospital. And yet he had this powerful urge inside him to attend a party. He was at war within himself. "My daughter is here sick in the hospital, but why do I want to leave and go to this stupid party? What's wrong with me?" To make a long story short, he quietly left the hospital, went to the party, and there was a young woman, crippled from birth with cerebral palsy, sitting in a wheelchair. Her grandmother sat next to her. Joe took out his clarinet and started to play, "Hava Nagilah," which in Hebrew means, "Let us rejoice." Sonja accompanied on the piano. The girl stood up from her wheelchair and started moving her hips. She was dancing! The girl's grandmother was floored. She said, "I don't know who this Jesus of yours is, but he must be pretty wonderful." Joe returned to the hospital, and his daughter recovered just fine.

I don't know how to heal someone like that. But I should would like to find out! May I always strive for the highest musical excellence. But may it never be for entertainment.

The "Hava Nagilah" story was even wilder than what I wrote in the church article. One day Joe had been wearing a pair of shoes that had seen better days. A woman said, "Joe, if those shoes last another year, I'm going to throw a birthday party for them." A year passed; Joe was still wearing the shoes; and so the party in question was -- get this -- a birthday party for his shoes! Imagine Joe's dilemma: stay with daughter in hospital or go to birthday party for shoes! Just goes to show: sometimes what the Lord asks us to do is more unusual than, "Put $100 in the collection plate," or, "Recite the 'Our Father.'"