Recent events in my life have triggered a rather introspective train of thought, which has been travelling to some unexpected and rather surprising destinations. Rather than bore you with the details of said events, let me say simply that I am now compelled to make music with someone who … well, let’s just say we don’t get along very well. My initial reaction to this situation was: “Okay fine, I have to be here, but I don’t play well under duress, so be forewarned, my playing is going to stink, and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”
But that was just my initial reaction. And now with the benefit of about 12 hours and a little sleep under my belt, I find myself thinking differently about this situation. As I showered this morning, the thought actually occurred to me: “Yes, I am being made to do this against my will, but what about the musicians, trapped in Nazi concentration camps, destined to be executed, waiting to die, living in miserable conditions, being compelled by a cadre of jackbooted thugs to write music and play for them?” And I began to wonder not only how they felt about the situation, but perhaps an even bigger question – how could they even have summoned the creative spirit required to compose and perform such amazing music.
After a great deal of thought, it seems to me they could only have created and performed under such conditions if they were firmly in the grasp of the belief that the music was somehow above the situation. Somehow they instinctively knew the music was greater and more important than all of them, that it would in fact elevate their own existence (and perhaps their captors’) through its creation and performance.
Try to put yourself in this same situation. You’ve been taken prisoner by a nation of people who, in your opinion, are under the sway of a mass hysteria – murderous, brutal, ugly. You were never a combatant, but regardless, you’re now their prisoner. They hold you in squalid conditions, body stacked on body, rat-infested quarters. Sporadic food arrives, and even then, it’s barely edible, barely enough to survive. You and your friends are slowly starving. Your quarters are freezing cold. You sleep on a bed of solid wood, and no one has blankets, much less mattresses or linens. They wake you up at all hours of the night, just to interrupt your sleep. From time to time, they come grab your best friend and bunk mate and take him away for a beating because they think he has information they want. Every time he returns, his bruises are so severe, he can’t even lie down.
Now the next day you wake up and there is the most hated guard of the bunch, holding your saxophone and saying, “play something pretty for me.”
How does that feel? What would your reaction be? Really.
It is almost inconceivable to me that anyone could play a single note, much less beautifully, under such conditions. Yet somehow, those prisoners did.
Now, when I think about my current situation, I’m actually ashamed of my own thoughts – that I would even have considered playing an instrument with anything less than my level best. Even under duress. Even when I don’t want to be there. Even when I can’t stand the site of the person in front of me. Even when I don’t like the way the conductor conducts. Even when I think the play is kinda stupid. Even when I have a cold.
Like the prisoners in those concentration camps, I think it’s incumbent on us as musicians to put aside the problems of our own lives, and realize that the music we play is greater than ourselves. We owe a certain debt to it. It gives us so much. By being better than us, it shows us how good we can be. We are servants of the music, and by being a sincere vehicle of music, it can elevate us above the hatred, the jealousy, and all the other negativity and brutality that pervades our daily existence. And if we do it well, our audience can join us in this divine journey.
It is a massive privilege to play music, and in doing so, somehow, for a few brief moments, float above the crap that surrounds us, oblivious to it, enraptured. Don’t take it for granted. Find the music, somehow. Serve it. Love it. Live it. It’s bigger and better than you and me. It deserves everything we can give it. Play your heart out, every time.