What I should have said


“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13:34

One of my favorite quotes about music comes from C.P.E. Bach. He said, “A musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved.” I did feel moved on Monday at the recital, and I think others did, too. It wasn't because it was perfect, but because the compositions my colleagues and I performed together were also moving us. I realized on Monday that feeling so moved can make it hard to verbalize all you wanted to share in your spoken program notes. As I played the final notes of the last piece, Barber’s Canzonetta, something came up for me; it felt as if something was missing.

I had shared with the audience the conditions that surrounded the composition of this work:  that Samuel Barber had composed it—these his final notes— as he lay dying of cancer in 1981. I had mentioned what few people know about Barber; how struggled with a deep depression and feelings of failure after his opera “Anthony and Cleopatra” had been named a "fiasco."  I said that after the bad reviews, in spite of all his previous successes, Barber never really recovered. He was described by those that knew him to have fallen into a pit of despair, a bad spiral of alcoholism. When the commission came to write an oboe concerto, and he knew he likely wouldn’t live to finish it, he started with the second movement, which was posthumously published on its own, as the Canzonetta. I closed my remarks with the statement that I had a lot of respect for a composer who bravely "sang his song" in face of his despair and his fear of failure. This swan song was simple and lyrical, deeply poignant and expressive at its core. That's all that I had managed to say.  

But as I played, I started thinking about my students and how so many of them are struggling with insecurities and anxiety. I thought of a colleague from my conservatory days who was hospitalized after thoughts of suicide when the expected job offer fell through.  I remembered stories I’d heard in my Artist’s Way group at Grace Church, a tough critic’s words that were never forgotten. 

I had wanted to say that while I cannot name all the oboe can express, I can name is this: we artists should take care of one another. 

Many composers I played on Monday used music as a vehicle to process their feelings of love, loss and longing—and, oh, how lucky we oboists are, to play this beautiful repertoire! Yet, these great composers needed more than music to find healing and peace. We all do. One thing we need is to feel support and connection with fellow musicians, artists, who are there in the trenches with us. Instead of being competitive, envious, or intimidated, we need to feel understood by some of the only people on the planet who "get it." They know the deep feelings that come with dedication to this craft better than anyone. They know firsthand that there will be loss, disappointment, and maybe even despair. These are risks we all take in doing what we do. We must remind each other that we are not alone. I want to believe that we can offer each other a hand to show the way out of our darknesses, when it’s difficult see the light alone.

It moves me to wonder if Barber had felt alone after that great disappointment. I pray he felt the love and support of those around him in his final days, as he penned a simple oboe piece as his farewell. In his music, I hear deep pain, but I hear love and resolution, too.

If you are reading this and find yourself in a similar place to Barber, allow me to remind you: no matter how large your failure, how public your embarrassment, how damaged you feel by your circumstances today or those of your past, these things do not define you. You are not all the auditions you did not win, all the notes you missed, all the bad reviews— those things are just things that happened to you because you were brave enough to try. You are unique and irreplaceable, your voice is necessary to this world, because you are the only you we have. Regardless of how well you perform on any given day, that fact never, ever changes. Take the hand of a friend and fellow artist and walk back into the light. After grieving these painful and challenging times (and I won’t lie and say that part is easy), there will be life abundant waiting for you on the other side. 

This is my favorite thing about Lumina Arts: seeing the power of a community of other artists, who gather round to listen and provide space for the processing of all the feelings. Yes, the act of composing and playing music can be healing, but what I wanted to say after the recital is that I am starting to believe that it isn’t the music itself that is healing, but the connection we find with others in it, composer to performer or performer to listener. Suddenly C.P.E. Bach’s words are ringing truer than ever. 

Wasn't that what Jesus meant in giving this new commandment? Loving God with your heart, soul, and mind—that was only the beginning. I believe Jesus was saying that once you have this love for God, the next step is sharing it with others, and it is only through loving them that it is truly shared. Or put a different way, it is only through being moved that we can move others. Jesus, God’s love personified, is proof that we are not alone, that God himself wants to be near enought to us to enter the trenches, too. Lest we forget, God is an artist. The composer of this great universe understands the depth of all of your feelings of pain and despair. God "gets it." 

Similarly, mastering music, reaching “perfection” as an artist (if that were possible!) is only the beginning. We thought being “good” or winning the audition or playing a perfect recital would be the thing that would make us feel worthy, satisfied, fulfilled. It turns out a lasting sense of fulfillment is found solely in the fellowship of the movers and the moved. This gift that music offers us, this opportunity to love one another as our Artist-God loves us—within it we do find healing, peace, and joy for our weary souls, together. We are loved. And this is enough.

That’s what I wanted to say before my audience receded into the night. That is what I should have said to anyone and everyone I know, in case they needed to hear it. Let’s take care of one another, ok?