Joy Behind Bars

suite italienne

Last night, we attended a violin/viola concert held at a local church.  The soloist hails from Chicago, a man in his early 40s with white hair.  He only played one song I recognized.  As he played, I watched and listened with intensity.  I remember performing and all the hours of work that went into perfecting a piece.  He used sheet music, something a lot of professionals don’t use.

The tiny nave of the church could only hold about 100 people, tops.  And it was 97 degrees.  A couple of lackluster fans spun in the background.  Two stained-glass windows tilted open to let in a cross-breeze.  Though the sun had moved behind the hills more than an hour before, the air hung warm around us.

The soloist started out by tuning.  He played an A in three different octaves.  The pianist, a fine musician in her own right, plucked out the right octave for each.  You have to tune to the stable instrument.  Violins, and most portable instruments, flow in and out of tune easily.

He started playing.  He showed a certain tentativeness in the first selection.  I can only imagine he could tell his stringed friend would be screechy on the high notes.  The warmer the room, the sharper notes tend to get. He played on.  He put more gusto into playing and went after the high cadenza passages. The Dvorak “Romance in F Minor” felt quite poignant.

However, he kept pausing, sometimes even between movements of a piece, in order to tune. His mouth a grim line, he bowed an A.  He mopped his brow.  He picked up the song again.

I thought about how many hours – decades, really – he’d invested in practicing.  His bio said he picked up the violin at age 3.  So…30+ years of playing.  Hours a day.  Before school, after school, weekends, nights.

I could see some notes made him grimace.  The high cadenza passages of the “Concertpiece” by Enescu had him cringing.  He stopped and tuned again before the next song.  His eyes widened on Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” during the Tarantella movement.  Stravinsky built pieces on dissonance and syncopation, throwing the song’s steady beat off in order to challenge the player and the listener.  The violinist wiped his brow again. He allowed himself the tiniest smile at the rich, melodic passage created by the pairing of him and his wooden friend.

I remembered my own years of performing flute concert pieces.  I evaluated every note that came out of the silver tube.  I cringed at the wrong notes, the bad pitches, the sometimes disconnect between me and the accompanist.  I held my mouth in the same grim line while playing. I smiled – not much, because you can’t get a sound out of a flute with all your teeth hanging out – when something gorgeous came out.

Bars make up the partitions of music.  Rhythms and sections and phrases and notes, with bar lines as measure divisions.  Musicians live behind bars, bound to practice and practice, perform and practice some more.  The music can become a prison of sorts.  You put time, sweat, effort and passion into a song.  You play it and you measure yourself by it.  In the world of professional musicians, you’re only as good as your last performance.  Professional performers serve a life sentence, if they choose to accept it.

At the end of the performance, the crowd roared.  We stood to our feet, clapping until the pair came out and put on an encore.  The violinist grinned, his heart on his face, bowing to the audience.   Life behind bars can be pretty good.  You can find your song there.