Heaven’s happy gate
There was a time when making me play violin on a Friday night would have seemed like the worst punishment in the world. But it’s one of my favorite things about Fridays now. It’s a perfect way to unwind the day, to begin practicing for my weekly gig, reading through pages of Telemann, Biber, improvising (badly) on plainchant.
Sometime over the summer, the rector of our church called me over as we waked into Mass. He told me that when he was on vacation he went to another church and there was a violinist there who played very softly before the Mass began, as people were shuffling in, dabbing their foreheads with holy water and kneeling down to pray. “It was so beautiful,” he said. “It made me feel closer to God.” This sounds very earnest and sincere, but our priest has a hefty Brooklyn accent, so it sounded a little less devotional than fuhgeddaboutit.
But how could I say no?
Last Sunday he told me they were opening the choir loft early so I could come anytime I wanted. So Sunday I will be there at 8:15 instead of 8:29. I’m going to improvise on Ave maris stella, my favorite non-Hildegardian chant. I am a lousy improviser, but no one will care. At that time of day, few will be there. But if it’s something that will make the priest happy who’s made us feel so at home, it’s the least I can do.
When I was younger, playing was all about getting things right. Playing the notes, sweating the details, perfecting the technique. That’s why practicing on Friday night would have been a chore. Now, though, I’ve learned that it’s more about telling someone else what you hear, what you think is beautiful, or important, or difficult, or joyous or sad. The funny thing is that once you learn that, the getting things right part gets easier. It’s the secret they never tell you. My intonation is better, my hand more relaxed. “There’s something else driving the bus,” I once tried to explain to a friend. I’m not a better player. I may even be worse. But I think I sound better. At least from my perch in the choir loft, where I don’t have to see the people I’m trying to reach.
The moment I realized the difference — or acknowledged it at least — was at Maundy Thursday services. I played an unaccompanied violin solo, a difficult early baroque sonata, during a long meditative part of the service. I’ve been playing it on and off since college, but had never played it in public. Somehow, in the candlelit church at that moment, I wanted someone else to hear it the way I heard it. I lost track of myself in the music and I played it as well as I ever had.
Sometime while I was in grad school, I read Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s well-known book Flow, about the mental state usually described as “hyperfocus,” but I’d say that doesn’t quite catch it. It’s a focus through being so absorbed that you forget about yourself, even as you are most yourself. For me, this requires the absorption of both body and mind, physical and mental activity at once. I find it easily when I conduct, and on my yoga mat, and even with my guitar. But until recently, it had eluded me with the violin. I think, to some extent, I had to undo the thought patterns I’d taught myself when I was younger. And I think those thought patterns focused on the physical practice at the expense of the mental. I had less to say about the music than I do now, which I suspect is partly a function of age and experience.
I’m thinking about this a lot as I watch AJ, an almost teenager, looking less and less comfortable in his own skin. I remember that well. I think few of us totally forget it. And that’s what makes it so hard to watch. Imagine if you could set out of that relentless critical narcissism for a few minutes and feel like you were a part of something else, something meaningful and not too overexposed, something that took you places. Can you imagine the relief? I wish I could show AJ how to find it. I think maybe he knows, maybe he senses it on the practice field where he plays football. But it’s hard at 12. It’s just hard.
I’m sitting in my favorite chair, the red hammock of a chair, rapidly disintegrating into a pile of much-loved rags, in the V-shaped bay window listening to the voices of people walking down the street or sitting on their stoops and the occasional buzz of a skateboard heading down the hill. Out the window to my right, there are no stars, but the lights of the lower Manhattan skyline are twinkling. On the left shines an enormous harvest moon. I am giving myself whiplash trying to see out both windows at once. There’s not flow here. My mind and body are both tired. There’s no quiet either. But there is peace. And in my head, I am unraveling the ancient chant: Ave maris stella, dei mater alma, atque semper virgo, felix coeli porta.