Why We Make Music
“We don’t choose music. Music chooses us.” This is something I say to my voice students who seem to have a passion for singing; those who eagerly learn and perfect as best they can the sometimes very difficult songs with which I challenge them. The students who express a desire to continue their study past high school; those who apply to a music program, prepare for auditions, eagerly listen to music I share with them. I caution them not to try to do this, become a performer, unless it seems if they don’t try it they might die. That seems extreme, but while it is an immensely rewarding life, it can be very difficult. It’s important they understand what they are pursuing.
In one chapter in my book Eli’s Heart, Eli is given the difficult task of preparing the piano part for the Brahms Piano Quintet in a very short amount of time. The professional string quartet-in-residence at the music conservatory he and his wife Krissy are attending have their scheduled professional pianist cancel a concert less than two weeks prior to the performance. Eli was a child prodigy and they are very much aware of his talent, and they ask him to perform with them. He eagerly accepts the invitation, but begins almost immediately to have second thoughts. Eli the perfectionist likes to practice, and he fears he will not have the time to bring his performance up to the standards set by the quartet members.
He goes through the emotional, visceral experience many … perhaps most … musicians do while preparing to step on stage for this performance, concerned he won’t play as well as he wants to. The best musicians set very high standards for themselves, sometimes almost impossibly high. Perfection in a live performance is very elusive. But at the same time, these musicians must perform. Music has chosen them.
Excerpt from Eli’s Heart (Note: “Walter” is Walter Bergman, the first violinist)
The night of the Quartet concert he paced the floor outside the Recital Hall for the entire first half of the program, his score for the Brahms quintet in his hands. He’d only rehearsed twice with the Quartet; he wished they had rehearsed more. He was convinced it would have been better if their original pianist were playing it with them. He knew when he walked on stage his hands would be shaking, and he would play terribly. He still didn’t feel he had mastered the long first movement. He wished he still had some of the medication Pete had prescribed for him. It would help.
He asked Krissy to sit in the auditorium for the first half of the concert, two Bartok quartets. She wanted to stay with him, but he told her he’d really rather she didn’t. She tried not to look hurt, but he saw in her face she felt he was shutting her out. She was right. He needed it to be him and Brahms right now. He studied the score, his hands trembling.
At intermission Walter told him not to worry, it was going to be great. Krissy found him and walked into his arms, and he held her tight. She didn’t say anything, just held him as close as she could. He relaxed enough to feel he could walk out to the piano. “Hold these for a minute, will you?” He handed her his glasses as he wiped his face and hands with his handkerchief. It distressed her to see his hands shaking. Have I ever been this nervous before a performance? he thought. Krissy replaced his glasses and kissed him, and he relaxed a little more. She smiled and caressed his face, love and concern in her eyes, and went back to her seat.
As Eli waited to go onstage with the Quartet, he tried to turn his thoughts inward, to find that place in himself where he had gone so many times to find the muse. He knew she was there; she was always there. He caught a glimpse of her and held onto it as he walked onstage. He sat at the piano, opening the score. He looked at the score as he heard the strings tuning, focusing on what Brahms was asking from them to bring the printed notes to life.
Think about the music, Eli said to himself. Think about the muse. He heard the music in his head. His hands were no longer shaking; they were steady as he lifted them. He looked at Walter and nodded slightly; he was ready. On Walter's signal Eli brought his hands down on the keyboard, a brief thought crossing his mind: Here we go. He felt and heard the opening unison passage, all of them moving as one. Eli attacked the keyboard for the rapid arpeggios that followed, playing them cleanly; he heard the strings accenting what he was doing. He caught Walter’s signal as they began the main theme, and the music swept through him. He became caught up in the beauty of what they were doing together and the connection he felt with them.
The first movement went almost perfectly, and he began to feel more confident. Eli loved playing with these men. He was part of a team; it was the musical equivalent of playing in the infield with the New York Yankees. The nerves were gone. By the time they began the third movement ... the Scherzo ... everything felt right. His fingers flew over the keyboard with surety, elegantly arcing phrases, weaving the piano part perfectly with the strings. This was why he played; this incredible feeling of making the music soar. There was another rush of adrenalin as they approached the end of the final movement; after the last strong chords there were glances and smiles exchanged on stage. Eli breathed a huge sigh of relief, feeling slightly giddy, elated by the joy of having lived music here in this hall with Brahms, with his colleagues, with this audience. The audience stood and responded with enthusiastic and prolonged applause.
I need to thank my dear friend Scott Besser, a near-genius pianist himself, for some of the insight he gave me in writing this section. Scott’s are the hands that grace the cover of Eli’s Heart, which is on sale on Amazon currently at $3.99 (a steal!) for Kindle and $11.34 for paperback (sale price).
Cover design by Tristan Flanagan