The concert began in silence.
It was not immediate. The din of the audience began to die down as the lights were dimmed, reduced to a hum, then a whisper, then to single voices, punctuated by gentle but firm admonitions of ‘Ssh!’ from every corner, and finally gave way to golden silence.
It was a moment of tension, the calm before the storm. Everyone knew that this evening would begin with a torrent: it was Brahms’ epic First Symphony, after all, and the assembly was fully prepared to bathe in the deluge of sound which was now moments away. They were not disappointed. First came the Lieutenant, the leader of the orchestra. The concertmaster’s slow but steady footsteps broke the golden silence, the brittle sound of leather upon wood giving way to the warmth of applause, cursory but sincere. An equally cursory bow followed, his elegant form breaking only slightly at the waist, before turning with polite authority to the oboist, who obliged dutifully with a spark of a note, a pure, firm, floating ‘A’ to which the winds and brass responded enthusiastically. When the moment had passed, the oboist offered her note once more, now to the strings, whose instruments filled the stage with a delightful barrage of open 5ths, music pouring forth even in this moment of preparation.
Taking his seat, the concertmaster seemed to steel himself, the courage and energy taken up in turn by his colleagues on stage. Silence returned once more. A moment passed; then another. The stage door opened, and now emerged the maestro, striding powerfully and purposefully towards the podium. First came the ascent to the platform; a handshake, friendly yet somber, was offered to the concertmaster, who exchanged a knowing glance with the General, who finally turned full on to the audience, bowing gracefully, before finally inviting the Final Silence.
Now another moment, now two, now three. Brahms was ready to share with us his fear and trembling, fear of the Master, trembling from the burden of Bearing the Torch, worrying even with his first notes that this fire should burn him rather than provide light. The tension built….it began a crescendo, a crescendo of deafening silence…and then….
The audience felt the timpani. The relentless hammerstrokes fell, one two three four five six, one two three four five six; wood and cork and felt crashing violently against calfskin and erupting in sound. Now was the ear drawn to sound; the winds, an octave apart drawn together for a descent, the violins and cellos finding a way to struggle ever upward while the basses marched behind the timpani.
Talent! Gasped the audience, swept up in this moment of emotion. What talent is before us! What incredible achievement of Olympus, what benevolence of Calliope has given us privilege to bear witness to this spectacle?
Yes, in the end, there is talent: this was evident in the elation (and, now and then, awe) of the listeners. And yet those on stage knew only too well that their own talent was only the final stage of a complex process; their citizenship was only part of a great musical and human society. It is time to address the others.
A symphony orchestra is a society. At its birth a mere hundred and fifty years ago (give or take), its founders were often explicit in giving it this title: The Musikverein, the Society of the Friends of Music, the Philharmonic-Symphony Association. To be part of it was to belong. And to belong was not easy. It is still not easy; the journey of a musician is long, arduous and often involves heartbreak.
For many musicians, this begins in the early years of childhood. Some musicians begin study as young as 3 or 4. Many are already serious by the ages of 7 or 8. As their classmates graduate from little league fields to full-size diamonds, they trade in their Suzuki and Seitz for unaccompanied Bach, Paganini caprices and concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Saint-Saens. By high school, the real competition begins: preparatory programs and top youth orchestras require mature preparation and present stiff competition, and by age 14 or 15 it is time to think about conservatory. Which teacher, which school? Those are the top two questions, followed closely by How can I find time to practice 6 hours per day?….and the quest for the right instrument.
By the time graduation rolls around, the decision on which conservatory to attend has been made and, that fall, the next stage begins. Conservatory is a grueling 4 (or 6, or 8) year process of study, growth, study, practice, practice, practice….and practice. Repertoire classes, competitions, masterclasses, lessons, recitals, auditions..playing becomes life, and life becomes practice. And then comes the light at the end of the tunnel: the fellowship years or, if one is lucky, the audition circuit, major competitions, and the first job.
Being a musician is not so much a way of making a living as it is building a life. A life in music is what we aspire to: to follow in the footsteps and traditions of the great masters, to somehow seek to understand that which is greater than ourselves. Music gives us that—and then some.
Yet behind every musician are ghosts—some imagined, some very real—who are quite Casperian, who push us along or whisper, almost inaudibly, in our ear. These ghosts are present in every concert hall across the world, their legacies on full display for the world to see and hear. The world just doesn’t think about their presence.
Behind every great musician is a pair of parents. Parents play an enormous role in the shaping of their progeny in many different ways. For the lucky few, there are the parents who are supportive, understanding and passionate. For the even fewer, there are those who are empathetic by virtue of hereditary commonality: professional musicians who pass along their talents and their passions. For many others, there are two basic categories of parents: those who are bewildered, flummoxed but encouraging and those who believe their children are wasting their time.
The two extremes are the most salient examples, to be sure. At one end of one extreme, there is the stage parent, convinced that her child is the next (Mozart, Beethoven, Heifetz) and Heaven help anyone who dares to disagree. On the other end of the same extreme, we see the parent who encourages from the sidelines, allows his child musical (and general) growing pains but will mortgage the house and chose a Hyundai over a Porsche if it means getting his young violinist that 18th Century Italian.
On one end of the opposite extreme, we see the parent who ignores: the child must beg for lessons, drag mom and dad to her recitals and endure social scorns from her peers without understanding (‘Well, honey, maybe if you spent less time with your cello and more time doing normal kid things, people wouldn’t make fun of you!’) And then there is the other extreme: the parent who is willing to disparage and even disown their child for choosing to pursue a life in music. It has happened—and there are some famous examples.
Make no mistake: parenting a child means making sacrifices. Sometimes it means making big sacrifices. It doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re on: if you are supportive, be prepared to give up your weekends, money, and easy conversations around the water cooler (“Hey Jim, didja see the game last night?” ‘No, Ted, but Susan played the most amazing Bach I’ve ever heard her play! Her intonation was flawless, too!’ “…Wow, that’s, um…great?) If you’re on the latter end of things, be prepared to lose a connection—a fundamental, essential and even existential connection—with your child.
And even if you think you’re getting off easy, you may be in for a surprise. Sure, little Johnny decided to play the piccolo instead of the double bass, so woo-hoo—no minivan necessary! Or maybe Tina decided on the oboe instead of the violin—and having seen the prices on violins, it seems like a financial victory. Then reality hits: have you listened to the orchestral exerpts for piccolo…over….and over, and over…and over? And as for oboe, I leave you with one word: reeds.
But parents shape their children, for good or for bad. Even the bad can have incredible results (see Mozart, Wolfgang and Bernstein, Leonard.) The sacrifices are always worth it. And speaking of worth….
The violin is a romantic instrument. There is no other way to describe it. It is perfectly fitting that the very shape of the instrument is patterned after the female body, that perfect design of nature, capable of genesis and unqualified beauty all at once. The violin is not an easy instrument, not by a long shot. It is one of the most physically demanding instruments to play, particularly in the orchestral and chamber repertoire, where their parts rarely afford prolonged breaks in playing. Nor is the instrument easy: each is unique and, along with its own (often powerful) history comes a personality. It will not respond simply because it is touched, nor yield merely because the talents of its player may be seductive. Like a cross between Excalibur and Audrey Hepburn, it combines exquisite power and timeless beauty, always aware of its value and giving in only to those it deems worthy.
The amount of skill needed to produce such an instrument from raw wood is immense. It is a marvel of technology and engineering: its basic design has remained virtually unchanged in the last 400 years. A violin takes 200 years just to mature. From the shaping of its body to the finesse required to detail its purfling and scroll—aesthetic details that are nonetheless essential to quality and pedigree—it takes a steady hand, vivid imagination and years of experience to master the art of luthiery.
Oh, and it takes talent.
Atop the field stand three giants, a veritable Trinity of makers: Amati, Guarneri and Stradavari. To mention the word Strad, even to the uninitiated, elicits a certain effect of awe. And yet these works are so rare—everyone knows that you cannot simply walk into a violin shop and say ‘I want the best, and money is no object. I’ll take a Strad.’
The representation of this talent on a concert stage is enormous. Along with the old Italian violins (and violas and cellos) are 19th century French and masterful modern instruments. Each has a history, a pedigree—an energy that can work with or against a player, a relationship that plays out dramatically and publicly each time bow is put to string. The hopes, dreams, tragedies, triumphs, tribulations, lives and loves of their makers resound even centuries after their death, the violin a living legacy to their talent, craftsmanship and, in some cases, genius.
Not to be outdone, the winds, brass and percussion instruments are also artistic triumphs. From hand-made clarinets to hand-hammered timpani, shining trumpets, carefully wrapped timpani mallets to the very baton wielded by the conductor, a lifetime of training and passion lies behind each and every instrument on stage.
Last but certainly not least on our list, we come to the teachers.
What would a great musician be without an inspiring teacher?
Teachers are about love; they are about tradition; they are about sharing themselves—their experience, their sense of possibility—in a way that none other can. To teach is to hope for better days, to feel the love of a parent and the responsibility of a statesman. It is to mix a respect for craft with the fire of invention, to instill a sense of duty and tradition along with discipline and endless curiosity.
A great teacher helps their student discover what is possible. A great teacher helps a student to find the right questions, not merely the right answers. They attract with magnetism—a reputation, a body of work, even a status as a living legend—and deliver with integrity.
A teacher combines it all: they help balance the setting and situation (parents), the talent (student) and medium (instrument) and shape not only an artist, but a citizen.
As the final chords of Brahms come crashing down, the silence of the audience is broken at last. Energy turns to sound, and the warmth of the ovation matches the sweetness of the music.
On-stage, the musicians share a collective bitter-sweetness: the evenings work is done, and a well deserved break is at hand. But they know, as they smile at the audience, that they are not alone. Behind them and within them stand the Ghosts of music: inner demons, silent muses, kindred spirits, delighted craftsmen. They have been here the whole time: watching, listening, willing. They, too, have touched the audience—and their legacy will endure peacefully shrouded in silence.