My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

From the battlefield to the stage

Image from Wikimedia Commons
How can I not love my job playing piano for just about every type of person that's out there?  I feel am one of the luckiest people in the world because I am in constant contact with others I might not meet or get to know otherwise.  And most musicians would tell you, making music with someone is an intimate act of non-verbal communication - it offers those playing a glimpse into much more than just the other's musical background and training, or lack thereof.  It offers an education about personality and culture among other things.

A few months ago I was asked by a graduate level trumpet student to serve as his pianist for his recital.  As is my custom, I agreed even though I knew nothing about this young man.  At our first meeting face-to-face I learned that he had never worked or played with a pianist before and he was not bashful in saying and showing that he was a bit nervous about it all.  He also told me that that he had never performed a recital by himself before.  I smiled because it's situations like this that I love and as is often the case with me, I believe I ended up learning just as much from this young man as he did, hopefully, from me.  I want to share a bit of the experience here because his recital, for me, was such a huge and powerful statement in so many ways - I can't not share.  

This trumpet student is not only a college student, he is also a Marine, through and through.  He recently served in Iraq and decided to finish up his graduate degree upon his return.  This year in school has been a difficult one for him.  He suffered two major concussions, one of which landed him in the hospital for a period of time which has made headaches a recurring occurrence and hindrance.  
First lesson: It's much easier to play the piano when you have a major headache than it is to play a brass instrument.
Because of the health issues, our first month of rehearsals that we had planned couldn't happen.  After a few cancellations I have to admit that I started to write this guy off.  I had a lot of music to learn aside from his so I moved on.  When it came close to his hearing time, an audition where the student is asked to play through the recital program before a handful of faculty members a month before the scheduled recital date as a way to make sure that the student will be ready, I started to hear from him again - he wanted to begin rehearsals.  A bit surprised that we were actually going to try to throw it all together, I met with him.  He was still struggling physically and I imagine emotionally, but he was determined.  Our rehearsals were far from magical, far from easy.  Having never worked with a pianist before I could tell that he wasn't sure quite how to act in rehearsal with me.  Sensing his uncertainty, I clammed up and tried to just get through my job.  After a few weeks his teacher, along with some of the other faculty members, myself, and the trumpet player decided that we would not be serving the institution or the student in question well by pushing him into a recital that most likely wouldn't be very representative of what we thought this Marine was capable of.  We didn't want to ask him to sacrifice the goal that he and his fellow Marines uphold - "Semper fidelis" - "always faithful."  We were determined to help him be faithful to his mission of giving a graduate level performance.  
Second lesson: It's just important to be faithful to ourselves and to our own goals as it is to be faithful to the music.
Fast forward to the summer.  

Not long after school got out for the summer I heard from our trumpet player again.  It was time to schedule his recital - not an easy task when it means communicating with a handful of professors and school administrators that are all on summer vacation mode.  But a date was found and it was time to start meeting again.  At our first rehearsal I was struck by an insatiable desire in this young man to learn what he could about practicing and about music so that he could deliver a recital that he and everyone else could be proud of.  At seeing his undistracted intensity, my protective wall crumbled and I slowly began giving him more of myself to see what he'd do with it.  At his hearing, not long after we started up rehearsing again, he struggled a bit and was visibly disappointed but it was after that point that he seemed to begin grabbing what he could from lessons and rehearsals and running with it, clutching it all proudly to his chest.  With every rehearsal he showed up having obviously done what had been previously discussed.  I let go and gave - he listened, took, and gave right back.
Third lesson: In any partnership, it's important to remember that it's just that - a partnership.  Both people need to give and both people need to take in order for both to give as one.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
The recital was this past Friday evening and as we were sitting backstage waiting for the recital to begin I couldn't help but feel really wonderful about what was about to happen.  The trumpet player appeared in his full dress uniform looking as good as could be expected - I think that perhaps I even saw a glimmer of excitement.  We weren't expecting a large audience since the summer has left the campus pretty quiet but slowly he saw some of his friends and family trickle in.  After everyone was seated and we were left to gather our thoughts, he looked at me and the professor working backstage and said, "Well, I'm a little nervous.  But hey...I've been through a war.  I can handle this."  He then proceeded to describe to us what he had to carry and wear in the middle of the Iraqi desert on a daily basis and suddenly it became crystal clear to me that walking onto the stage with nothing but your instrument, clothes, and nerves pales in comparison.  That's not to say it's easy, but it definitely gave me some perspective.  It was also a reminder to me of how fortunate I am to be doing what I do.  
Fourth lesson: Although I take it very seriously, music-making is not and should not feel like a matter of life-and-death.  
The recital began and I was literally bursting with pride by the end.  Was it perfect?  No, of course not.  How many recitals are?  But did it feel like a battle?  No, it felt just right.  It was clearly the culmination of a lot of hard work, determination, desire, and heart.  The trumpet player knew where he was and what he was supposed to be doing and he met his mission in a way that I'm sure would make his fellow Marines very proud.
Fifth lesson: Semper fidelis.  Semper fidelis.  To ourselves; to each other; to our passions; to our calling.


  1. Erica
    Very moving -
    This went way beyond the notes -
    Thank you -

  2. Wonderful article, Erica. Very inspiring. All that anxiety along the way usually pays off in spades, doesn't it?

    1. Thank you, LaDona. And yes it does, as long as we can get past the anxiety or find a way to make it work for us.


  3. Erica,

    This is a great blog. What a testament to that trumpet players "stick-to-it-tiveness". I would love to share this with some of my students if that's okay? I am new to the blogging world,as a reader and a writer, but an entry like this is just lovely. I just wanted to thank you for writing.

    1. Thank you for reading and for the encouraging feedback, Jeremy. And yes, please feel free to share it as you wish. Thank you for asking.

      All the best and enjoy discovering the blogging world - there's a lot of great and inspiring information to be found.