Music as a bridge

People listen to music on different levels. When, during a lecture about one of my compositions, I would play a melody on the piano or sing a melody that I was quoting in the piece, and then played the piece itself, I realized that not everybody was hearing the same thing I was hearing.

I’ve been practicing piano quite a bit the last year or so. One of the things I notice is the dichotomy between playing music and practicing music. When you practice, you have to continually be aware of all aspects of musicianship, including the physical aspects: the tension in your shoulders, your physical breathing, the position of your hands and fingers. My mother quoted Franz Liszt to me: “Practice slower”. This advice works really well, since if you practice very slowly, you can be aware of every aspect of music until it becomes almost automatic. At a certain point, your mind detaches itself from the awareness of individual notes or fingerings, and suddenly, without being aware of it, you’re playing the piano, playing music.

Most religions have a form of prayer or meditation. The goal of prayer or meditation is generally in order to get closer to what the religion considers its God or spiritual center. If you read the stories of those privileged individuals who have been able to touch God, you discover that the process is often quite similar to learning to play the piano. Prayer and meditation have to be done slowly and precisely, until suddenly one isn’t praying or meditating anymore, but is making a connection to something bigger than oneself.

I sometimes suspect, that music also serves as this kind of bridge. When some people listen to music, they listen to that bridge, and the details of that bridge play absolutely no role in their being able to reach beyond themselves. Being a trained musician, it’s my job to be able to talk about how and why these bridges work, as well as to be able to construct them myself.

So the question becomes: does the average listener really need to understand how music works? I’ve always believed that the more you understand something, the deeper you can appreciate it. That would imply that I have a certain responsibility to listeners to help them understand and appreciate music on a deeper level. I grew up having the privilege of being able to watch Leonard Bernstein and his Young People’s Concerts. His example proves that you can make even the most technical aspects of music clear to a broad audience. Especially these days, when the domain of classical music is ever decreasing, this task would seem to be even more important than ever.

The composition I was discussing in the lecture was based on a Nigun (a Chassidic song without words) sung by the Domsker rabbi. I was disseminating the melody, trying to get people to hear where and how that melody appears in my composition. Even though I had the feeling that not everybody was following exactly what I was saying, when I played the piece at the end of the lecture in its entirety, it was obvious that the listeners had crossed the bridge and were all experiencing the same force that the Domsker rabbi had implanted in that melody, the same force that had given Yehuda Aschkenasy the power to survive Treblinka.

In just an hour’s time, my audience was able to get closer to something, to feel more connected. Just a few baby steps really, in the true understanding of music. And yet, there they were, together with me, crossing that bridge.

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