Why I Sing.

Most of you who read my little missives know me as a fiber artist; a crochet designer and instructor.  Others know me because of my days in the ministry. Others, still, are fellow musicians.  Music is, and always will be, the primary love of my life. I doubt many of you know (that includes all you choristers) that I studied voice for over 15 years. While I am never going to command the stage alone at Carnegie Hall (I did manage to appear there with the SFGMC in 2001), I have a passable lyric baritone voice with a varied repertoire, from Handel to Barber. Yet, a career, or even a dynamic presence, as a soloist was never meant to be:  in my younger years, stage fright always won the day and, for the last 15 years, severe and often uncontrollable asthma kept me on the sidelines. Even during these past few years of the 28 I have spent with SFGMC I am often unable to answer the bell because of illness. Yet, music still rules my soul and is the overwealming passion in my life.

I am reminded of  the occasion almost 20 years ago when my immediate family gathered to commemorate the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. Now, in my entire life (and I was 41 at the time), I had never seen nor heard my father sing (I inherited my mother’s vocal chords). Sitting in church that I saw my father’s lips move to the words of the hymn we were singing. It was most poignant and allowed me see to beyond the barriers he and I had built for years and years. It was the beginning of reconciliation between us.  A seemingly small gesture opened doors for us.

The following arrived in my email inbox this morning. It illustrates most powerfully how music transforms and inspires. I will leave you with these words. My feelings cannot be expressed any better.

*Welcome address to freshmen at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl
Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory.*
*One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not
properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had
very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they
imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be
more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my
mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she
said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.*
*On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value
of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to
classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its
*So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that
puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and
serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely
nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of
entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.*
*The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient
Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and
astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study
of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and
music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal,
hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving
pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position
of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.*
*One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet
for The End of Time, written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940.
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi
Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across
Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.*
*He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and
a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a
cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet
with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for
four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of
the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.*
*Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps,
why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or
playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food
and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture — why
would anyone bother with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we
have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen;
many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only
focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is
that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without
money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic
respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is
part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is
one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I
reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I
sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice, as was my daily
routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted
the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the
keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought does this
even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right
now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd,
irreverent, and pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in
this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of
getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact
I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again.
And then I observed how we got through the day.
At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We
didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop,
and we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity
that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People
sang around firehouses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people
sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I
remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with
the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief,
our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That
was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military
secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music
in particular, that very night. From these two
experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and
entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a
luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a
plaything or an amusement or a pastime. Music is a basic need of human
survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the
ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to
understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful piece
Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you
may know it as the background music, which accompanied the Oliver Stone
movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of
music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open
like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had.
Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going
on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no
music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been
some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something
very predictable happens at weddings –people get all pent up with all
kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action
of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something.
And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably
30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a
couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us
to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our
insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about
it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with
the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just
the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start
crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie
with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks:
Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal
I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of
my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand
concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were
important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it
made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played
for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers,
foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took
place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago. I was playing
with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often
do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and
dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down
during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are
going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But
in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to
talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play
the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the
front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was
clearly a soldier-even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair,
square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life
in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved
to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it
wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with
the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk
about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances
in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed
The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to
leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again,
but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was
in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I
watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the
Japanese planes that had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the
parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot. And I
watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I
have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of
music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as
though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why
now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was
written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could
handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings
and those memories in me?”
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between
internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have
ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect,
somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost
friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This
is why music matters. What follows is part of the talk I will give to
this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The
responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this: “If we
were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing
appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would
imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your
emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my
friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall
and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul
that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how
well you do your craft. You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you
don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell;
being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used
Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a
firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist
for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical
therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to
line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy
and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I
expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on
this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual
understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from
a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect
it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have
brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace
for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible,
internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the
artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the
evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us
 with our internal, invisible lives."

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