Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Musical Gift

I had heard about Joshua Bell, of course.  He was supposed to be the greatest living violinist.  So when offered a free ticket to hear him live in a recital in San Antonio's Majestic Theatre, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived with my three friends, all string players, at the beautiful downtown theatre.  Just entering that building is a marvelous experience.  The massive wood stairs, the intricately carved wooden decorations in the walls and ceilings, and the multicolored backlit stage transports the audience to another world.  We found our seats—almost at the very top.  The stage was far, far below us.  I figured I wouldn't be able to see a thing, but hopefully the acoustics were good enough to hear something.
After a lengthy introduction, violinist Joshua Bell and his pianist stepped onto the stage and bowed.  Mr. Bell looked very small—short and slight with light brown hair, dressed in a long black shirt and baggy black pants.  He was dressed for comfort, not for show.

And then he began to play.  From the very first note, I forgot everything else.  It didn't matter that I sat in the "nosebleed" section, that he was so far away.  Joshua Bell's music pulled me down on that stage with him and I forgot everything else.  It wasn't the fact that he had the most pure and beautiful sound, as if the instrument were truly his voice.  It wasn't that his technique was perfectly executed as he made 32nd and 64th notes sound effortless and also as he played a fugue—three different parts simultaneously—a feat impossible for many pianists to accomplish.

It was the fact that this man became the music; he merely used the violin as his instrument to express it.  I'd always told my students to "play from the heart," but Mr. Bell did far more than that--he gave himself, body, soul, and spirit to that performance.   

In between numbers he would talk about the music, how he came to own his 200 year old Stradivarius, and share tidbits about himself so the audience could know him as a mortal human being, but while playing he transcended the physical world.  There was more than joy in music at work here; it was enharmonic rhapsody, as if he were flying on the notes of each song and pulling us along on the tail of a kite.

By the end of the recital, Mr. Bell was dripping wet.  He looked exhausted.  But even from my far-away seat I could see his grin and the way his face lit up, still reflecting that ecstasy of musical flight.  He had given this audience a gift, not just of glorious music, but of himself.  We were privileged to now carry a piece of Joshua Bell with us for the rest of our lives.

Finally, after thirty years, I realized why I'd had to change my college major from music performance to music education:  I wasn't able to pour myself into each performance like Joshua Bell did.  I practiced my fingers off.  I lived in the practice rooms at the music building.  I thought I loved playing the music, but I focused on the notes, on the technique, on making it "perfect" instead of letting go and letting the music perfect me.  Only then can music pour from the instrument of a human heart and become a shared experience with human listeners.  Truly a gift.

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