One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons has two windows. The caption under the first is MEN and the drawing depicts a simple light switch with markings for ON and OFF. The second drawing above WOMEN is that of the inside of an airliner cockpit, with all its myriad buttons, switches, gauges, lights, and controls. One can only imagine the operating manual!
As funny as that is, the airline cockpit analogy can also be applied to the playing of a musical instrument. There are a countless number of components, each of which requires literally thousands of hours in a practice room to bring into focus. Some are more apparent than others, but all are vitally important. I am thinking of the importance of an oil pressure gauge being like the correct fingering for a high f-sharp. That particular gauge is not likely placed near the pilot’s main field of vision, but would be something that she or he would monitor in a periodic visual scan of all of the instrumentation. As vital as that detail might be, it is the most important information of speed, altitude and attitude that is reserved to be displayed directly in front of the pilot. Likewise the musician focuses in on the important areas such as tone, rhythm, intensity, and phrasing, while the awareness of a hundred other details runs “in the background.”
Then there is the matter of playing in an orchestra. Here the musician is asked to take his skills into an arena that is fraught with limitless complexities of musical and social interactions. Now not only do you need to bring your very best micro-focused game, but you also need to have a wide angle, macro focused awareness of all that is going on around you. And you need to be able to adjust your playing instantaneously to whatever conditions are presented at each moment, all while working with a group of people with enormous egos that compensate for the fact that they spent a great deal of their childhood in a practice room, and being praised for the result! (Honestly, most orchestral musicians have worked most of this stuff out and are pretty cool people!) Playing in an orchestra is like flying our airliner at full speed in rush hour traffic.
And then there is the matter of the conductor. Now I need to say a few things about this character so that you don’t get the idea that I am going to make an analogy between a conductor and God. The audience’s perception of the maestro is an elegant, enlightened figure standing in front of the orchestra, waving his arms in mysterious ways that somehow elicit a wonderful musical experience. The orchestral musician, on the other hand, views him (generally) with a healthy skepticism. This is born from his experience working with conductors that range in temperament from humble to ego-maniacal and technically from utter incompetence to brilliance. Most fall in the middle, as they are human beings, but all of them hold the fate of the performance in their hands. And some of them even hold the fate of your livelihood in their hands, as well.
Last weekend I was privileged to be involved in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Long Beach Symphony. This is the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere. The piece was so groundbreaking and so shocking that it caused a near riot at its first performance. So complicated was the music that it took over 20 rehearsals to prepare it back then. We did it in four rehearsals, and the music is still mind bending.
The maestro in Long Beach enjoys the good will of the orchestra, as he is someone whose heart is in the music and who treats the orchestra with respect. He prides himself on conducting the performances from memory, which has historically caused a few troubling moments. Generally orchestras can cover such lapses without the audience being at all aware. But in the case of the Rite, the rhythms are so complicated, that any tiny mistake on the conductor’s part, especially in the last 15 minutes of the piece would result in the music coming to a grinding halt – what we call a “train wreck.”
Many expressed concern before the performance that the maestro would conduct by memory, and those concerns were heightened when he indeed came to the stage without his score. It was to be a moment of truth. There were some 85 performers on stage, an all-star cast of LA’s top freelancers, representing a collective professional experience of over 2000 years, ready to play this monumental, complex work with no safety net.
The performance had gone well, so spirits were high as we approached the treacherous ending. As we launched into it an amazing thing happened. As everyone cranked up their personal level of focus and concentration, they also gave in to the process, allowing the orchestra to achieve an incredible level of cohesion that was carried on a wave of tremendous freedom. The performance was a great success.
As in music, so too, in our spiritual life much can be gained through discipline and obedience. I think it is our responsibility to be focused and prepared. But Lent is about letting go. And this story is about letting go, stepping back from all of the work that we do. Ultimately when we come to the end of ourselves, finding that our human efforts are insufficient, we will succeed in that day of testing only by giving ourselves over to God’s processes, turning our focus and trust towards Him. That way we can become the instruments through which He can achieve a command performance.