Sunday, February 17, 2013

Why I Play

I haven’t written here in my online journal for a couple of weeks because I haven’t had much to say. I don’t keep a paper journal, but if I did, my guess is I wouldn’t crack the spine on it for weeks at a time as well. I’ve begun to look at this blog as a journal, a place to keep a record of life as it happens, and sometimes life happens more slowly than at other times.

Last night, life happened at break-neck speed, and I have something to say about it. The Tuscarawas Philharmonic performed what we called Celtic Cavalcade. The official definition of “cavalcade” is “a procession of vehicles or ships” or “a dramatic sequence or procession.” For this concert, we’ll go with the procession, and we’ll even call it dramatic.

For a few weeks, we’ve been referring to this event as a circus because we included so many guests—a fiddler, a mandolin player, a hammered dulcimer virtuoso, a tenor to break your heart, a pipe and drum band and a team of Irish dancers. Oh, and a full orchestra.

We performed pieces with just the traditional orchestra—the third and fourth movements from Stanford’s Irish Symphony and Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances, but most of what we presented included a guest or two…or twenty. About half-way through Davies’ Orkney Wedding, a solo bagpiper was raised from the depths through the stage floor, and he joined us to finish the piece.

A little bit later, an entire pipe and drum band began playing from the lobby, heard just faintly in the hall so that one of the audience members wondered if someone’s cell phone had gone off, but then we began a piece called Marches and Airs composed by our conductor, Eric Benjamin. As we played, the pipers and drummers marched into the hall and met us on stage for a grand presentation that actually made people cry, it was so powerful. The horns were seated in the back row of the orchestra as usual, and I would occasionally look over the heads of the other musicians (and beyond the conductor who I should have been following) to watch the drummers twirl and to admire the full regalia of the pipers. They performed two numbers on their own, and we performed a quick reprise to get them off the stage, and I was choked up by the display.

And all of that was just the first half. The second half included Mark O’Connor’s insightful Strings and Threads performed by our guest fiddler; Liz Langford, a duet by Liz and Jon Estes on mandolin; a piece by Tina Bergmann who is one of the best hammered dulcimer players around; and something by all three. Then they performed one more number upstaged by a pack of Irish dancers with masses of bouncy curls that could put your eye out.

The orchestra came back with the most delicate and innovative arrangement of Danny Boy I have ever heard, and we had the honor of premiering it and acknowledging our conductor as the arranger. Eric went to the trouble because we have discovered a tenor who sings like an angel, Kyle Kelvingston. Kyle began off stage and then slowly walked forward to join us and the fiddle et al, and again, people cried.

And we capped it all off with another of Eric’s pieces, Jigs and Reels. Lining the front of the stage were the dancers again, including a world champion.

Throughout the entire evening, which ran longer than our usual performances, we could count on enthusiastic applause and shouts of “bravo.” And we were honored with an entire house packed with people (that’s over 1,000 souls on board) standing on their feet and cheering at the end. That kind of reception parts your hair, so to speak, but it also reminds you why you practice and fret and lose a finger nail or two and show up for rehearsals and appear on stage in your best black, instrument at the ready.

Okay, in all honesty, playing for audience approval is just one reason we play in the orchestra, and despite how great it feels to receive such approval, it might be the least of the reasons. I’ll speak personally—I play because they let me. Beyond that, I play because working to match the skills required by the music on the page is one of my greatest joys and challenges. Don’t the two often go hand in hand when you match the challenges with hard work? I don’t always reach the bar, but the attempt builds me up in ways that have affected every aspect of my life.

I play because being in the midst of great music, not just as an observer but as a participant, gives me a dopamine fix like nothing else can. Being a part of beauty is the apex of living, I have come to believe. And I play because if I didn’t, I would have such a hole to fill, and I cannot imagine anything that could fill it. I look back on life before playing as lacking some color. If you’re a graphics person and familiar with Photoshop, imagine working with a vibrant, full color image and adjusting the saturation slider a little to the left, just enough to realize something essential is missing. You make the necessary adjustments to make the image complete, and you never want to slide back to the left again.

As I thought about what I might say in this post, I rifled through the mistakes I made, the momentary fears I felt on stage and my regrets—the horns had quite a few rips in this music, screaming up to high notes second horn parts rarely call for, and I only hit about half of them even though I am quite capable of playing them correctly. But none of that matters today. None of it mattered last night either, come to think of it, because what we created on that stage was about the ensemble and the pride we feel when we finish a piece, when the baton is still lingering after a cut off, and we’ve yet to lower our instruments, and we seem to be corporately holding our breath. That single moment of awe, silent after great noise, is the most important moment I can point to. It’s why we—it’s why I—play.

Well, after the concert, we gathered for Guinness and ale at the lobby bar to toast our success. Here is evidence, Conductor Eric in his kilt and I knowing we had just done magic:


dive said...

Awesome, Robyn!
Pure inspiration.
I can't wait to see the footage.

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