Less than twenty-four hours separates me from the first performance of what will be a month-long process: three recitals, a hearing, and the degree recital for my M.M. As many musicians and athletes will attest to, wrestling with mental aspects of performance is almost as difficult if not more difficult than the physical preparation. This process has led me to the following meditation.
The teachings of Sōtō Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki are compiled in a volume titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I have read this book cover to cover many times since receiving it as a gift in undergrad. I fondly remember the first time I read its opening.
“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
My mind raced forward. How can I achieve the expert’s mind? How does one limit their mind and remove extemporaneous possibilities? How do I become the master? Much to my chagrin, I learned that my questions were opposite of what Suzuki was expressing.
The practice of Zen involves exactly that. Practice. Every day you adhere to a routine. Rise early before the sun is up. Strict meal times and vegetarian diet. Work. Meditation. Lecture. Yet this is not the essence of Zen. Suzuki taught that it is the beginner’s mind that we must also strive for. It is a mind that is fresh because it can consider all possibilities. It is limitless because it does not cling to what it has learned or experienced. In essence, it is enlightenment preceding enlightenment. This is the secret of Zen, to always be a beginner, because the beginner exists in the moment.
This recital program was begun almost six months ago and still has a month until its completion. For me, the most difficult part is keeping my ears, mind, and spirit fresh. So I must reaffirm myself to the original goal of performance. While I do hope to represent my playing at its highest level, my greatest wish is to play in a way that is meaningful. My goal is that each person that hears this program will walk away from it feeling like their life has changed just a little bit, that somehow, they are better off having heard it than not. That means letting go of the past and the future by committing to each moment, second by second and note by note. When I see it put in black and white on the page, it seems simple. It is not simple. But this is why we practice, why we strive, why we take risk.
Back by popular demand, the WMU cello quartet featuring Jordan Hamilton, Allyson Perez Monsanto, Adriana Fernandez Vizcaino, and I will be playing for Fontana Chamber Arts’ Crybaby concert series this Saturday, October 18th at 11:00 am at the Eastwood Branch Kalamazoo Public Library. This is a free 45-minute casual concert for families with children under age five. And this time, we have an official name.
If you were to walk into a delicatessen and found a string player buying something at the counter, it would most likely be a cellist. So many of my cellistic brothers and sisters have an appreciate for delicious food (I myself am partial to cold cuts and good wine). Maybe it is because of our rich repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Or perhaps it is because cello is the most expensive instrument to buy, maintain, and repair (as compared to the violin, viola, and bass). Whatever the reason, fine food and fine music go hand in hand!
The menu, a smorgasbord of styles and time periods, will include:
G. P. Telemann
Johann Strauss Jr.
Musicians are a transient breed. Gigs come and go. Our presence is almost as ephemeral as the music that we make. One second it is everything, it consumes us, it drowns our minds and bodies, and the next moment, it is gone. Concerts, ceremonies, recitals, weddings… We enter stage right, play, and exit stage left.
However, this transient way of life allows us to meet a multitude of different people that we would otherwise never come in contact with. I have been welcomed into the special events of many peoples’ lives with generous and open arms. The performances at the Temple B’nai Israel of Kalamazoo are further proof of this. The first time I performed there was back in September for a musical service along side fellow cellist Warren Oja, Prof. emerita Phyllis Rappeport, Prof. Carl Ratner, Dr. Barry Ross, and Prof. Brad Wong. The most recent event was for the temple’s Yom Kippur service with pianist Ahmed Anzaldua and violinist Jacob Olbrot. Ahmed and I play together in WMU’s new music ensemble and Jacob is a colleague from the Kalamazoo Kids in Tune and Kalamazoo Suzuki Academy.
What strikes me about both of the Bloch Jewish Prayer and Bruch’s rendition of the Kol Nidre are their deeply expressive melodies. Phrasing and musicality are dictated by imitation of human voice, specifically, the cantor. They are pieces that really stay with you after the performance and, if it is not too bold to conjecture, I think that they are meant to linger. Like the sacred words of any of the world’s religions, their meaningful and poetic nature inspires us far beyond the moment. Perhaps then the temporal language of music is not so transient. Music, based on traditions hundreds of years old, is passed down through many generations. And as musicians we are the channels through which these echoes may pass. We are its caretakers and also its beneficiaries.
Thus, I must say a special thanks to the Temple B’nai Israel of Kalamazoo and to all of the great artists that I have been able to perform with.
Tchaikovsky and I have a troubled history going back to music history and music theory in undergrad. Being a lover of Germanic music in the western tradition, I love all things Brahms. Tchaikovsky did not share this view with me since in 1886 he wrote in his diary that “The other day I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!” (While I do not have the source, my memory may serve me right in saying that Brahms said of Tchaikovsky something to the extent of “when talking about the music of Tchaikovsky it is best not to say anything at all”.) Adding injury to insult, I have struggled with the beast that we know as the Variations on a Rococo Theme. Tchaikovsky left us cellists with this fantastically tricky concerto which challenges us both musically and technically. And on top of all of this, the Nutcracker does not have a special place in my heart.
It has come as both a great revelation and a relief to play Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony Op. 74, the Pathetique. It is seen by some to be a suicide note in musical form. Having been premiered just a week before his death, historians and music lovers speculate that he committed suicide after drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. Did he write it as his own requiem? We can’t be sure but the slow introduction and dying-away ending are fodder for the imagination.
What we can know for sure is how very emotional and expressive the piece is. Okay, I know, a lot of music is emotional or expressive. But when talking about the Pathetique, it is like a tidal wave that crushes you and drags you out to sea.
But at the same time, there is almost unspeakable tenderness. It is the kind of hopeless-love tragic beauty that we only dare to dream of (14:55). This contrast makes the symphony an absolutely stunning experience to play or listen to.
So I will conclude by saying the only pity that exists with this piece is if you don't listen to it. The concert is at Chenery Auditorium at 3:00 and is presented by the WMU University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruce Uchimura and will also feature Stulberg Silver Soloist Emma Carina Meinrenken playing Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5.