Archive for December, 2008

Make Music with What You Have Left

December 8, 2008

The intent of this blog is not to relate personal stories. But, for the second post in a row, I'm going to do exactly that. 

My 6th grade daughter had a “harrowing” night last week. She plays the harp in 6th grade orchestra. In her first concert this fall, she used the school harp. She wrongly assumed the same would hold true for the concert last week. Instead, her teacher expected her to bring the one rent for practice at home.

My daughter was mortified (I know these are strong words but they’re accurate). Trying to fight through her embarrassment she found me in the packed auditorium to help her move the school harp to the gym. First, it had to be tuned in about 10 minutes. Hands trembling, she got through the job, all the while telling me how this was the most humiliating thing to happen to anyone in the universe.

I stood by and cautiously tried to offer some perspective that, perhaps, others have endured similar or worse fates. I quickly realized that was not the right tact (I’m new to middle school, too). I needed to let her have this experience and let perspective come later.

Because we had to transport the harp to the gym, my daughter had to sit alone in the jam packed gymnasium waiting 5 minutes (an eternity) for the other members of the orchestra arrive. Yet, when the time came to play she sat tall in her seat and played with a look of confidence.

Little did we know that midway through the performance one of her harp strings snapped. From our location on the far end of the gym, she played on as if all was fine. She simply shifted octaves and played on. All the while, she was thinking, “How will I pay for the string.”

She was petrified (again another strong word but captures the moment) to report the news of the broken string to her teacher. She recruited me again to move the harp and be by her side when she “fessed up.” Her teacher, the epitome of calm among chaos, immediately put her at ease and erasing the evening’s anxiety. My daughter left the building knowing she could be proud that she’d played on.

I was inspired to write this blog with the perspective that came from a friend a day later. She sent a newspaper column which my daughter and I read together.

At the risk of making this an obnoxiously long post, here is the column by Jack Riemer of the Houston Chronicle. It takes your breath away.

ITZHAK PERLMAN IMPROVISES

– by Jack Riemer, Houston Chronicle, February 10, 2001

 

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches.  To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward.  Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs.  They wait until he is ready to play. But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room.  There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.  People who were there that night said later: "We figured he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – to either find another violin or else find another string for this one."  But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.  Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings.  I know that and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awed silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us and then he said – not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left." What a powerful line that is.  It has stayed in my mind ever since I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the definition of life – not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any he had ever made before, when he had four strings. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.

Uncle Edmund

December 2, 2008

I have been thinking about my multi-great Uncle Edmund tonight. Some email and article exchanges prompted me to think of him. He’s a man I met only a few times in my life. He also gave me advice that changed the course of my life.

 

I began college as many people do with a utilitarian mindset. What major will lead me to a good job at a good salary? I began with plans to be an engineer. By the end of my freshman year, I knew that wasn’t for me. I enjoyed finance and statistics so I turned next to the business school. I was cruising along through my sophmore year satisfied with my choice. Then, out of the blue, I received a letter from Uncle Edmund.

 

Uncle Edmund was a business school professor, teaching in an MBA program. Seems he heard through the family grapevine that I was in business school as an undergraduate. He was not impressed.

 

His letter was short and to the point. It went something like this: What are you doing? If you are going to be a professional of any note, you will have to go to graduate school. Why in the world are you pursuing a professional degree at this time in your life. You are missing your last opportunity for a liberal arts education.

 

Uncle Edmund’s opinion carried weight in our family. I took his advice to heart and I looked into what it would take to switch to a liberal arts major. It was the best thing I ever did. I fell in love with economics, which led me toward public policy. I took classes in South African History and learned about a part of the world I’d barely heard of before, gleaning lessons of human tenacity I still think about today. I took literature classes and Western Civilization, which gave me the opportunity to read classics I would have completely missed. I had the chance to study with a history professor who ripped my essays to shreds and motivated me to stretch myself. I entered subject areas that were far outside my comfort zone. And, for the first time in my life I experience the joy of serendipitous learning – discovering things I did not know existed.

 

Liberal Arts is not for everyone. And, there is a need to be a bit utilitarian when it comes to investing in college.  I understand that. And, thank goodness we have people who stick with the engineering. But, I also learned that it’s easy to get caught up on a practical track and miss out on a lot that education and the world has to offer.

 

I still earned a business degree. I was far enough along that with an extra semester I earned two degrees.  I also left college with with an education I never imagined was possible because it didn’t seem the sensible thing to do.

 

I appreciate my Uncle Edmund.