My student Seth plays lead guitar in the Avett Brothers—a band that has often performed for audiences of 20,000 or 30,000 people. He came to me because he wanted to learn how to play Mozart.
Seth already had experience playing the piano, and in his few months of studying with me he’s accomplished a lot in training his hands to do the precise movements that Mozart requires. Recently he’s also been practicing singing the music while walking around and making arm gestures, to get the music more into his whole body. This has helped him advance too.
But as classical musicians typically say, Mozart is the hardest composer to play. And at his lesson last week, seeing him still frustrated with his ability to really connect with this music at the piano, I asked him, as I have before, why he is so motivated to play Mozart. He tried to describe the special feeling he gets when he listens to Mozart. Finally he just said, “I want to feel closer to God.“
Then he said he was willing to wait a long time for that experience while doing “the boring technical stuff.”
I told him he didn’t have to wait. That he could connect with the heart power of Mozart right now.
I asked him to play the very first sound of the sonata—a simple octave—and just notice how it made him feel inside before playing the next sound. As he held that octave for a few seconds, I saw him light up on my computer screen. I knew he was getting it. When he finished going through the whole first phrase like that, I asked him how it felt. “It feels like church,” he said.
“Music heals,“ I said.
“It does,” he replied.
I told Seth he could let go of his goal of playing the piece up to tempo—that he is free to experience the spiritual power of Mozart every day. And I reminded him of the saying, “God is in the details.”
I’m looking forward to seeing what develops as Seth integrates his newfound ability to listen more deeply with his awareness of musical shapes and his increasingly refined coordination. But witnessing his moment of waking up to the power of pure musical sound was a special gift.
Finding peace now
We’re living in a time of great pain. Violence, injustice, unemployment, and homelessness are rapidly increasing in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. It’s easy to sometimes get swallowed up by fear and anxiety and to lose heart. Yet as musicians, we always have the opportunity to reconnect with our heart, over and over, simply by connecting with one sound after another in playing our instrument. We can always give ourselves this break from the chaos and pain around us.
I encourage you to try it. Go to your instrument and play one sound. Stay with it until you can feel it entering your body and changing how you feel inside. Let each sound feed your spirit and restore your faith in the human spirit altogether.
All is not lost when we can feel our hearts through music. Note by note, harmony by harmony, it can take us home to the soft core of human goodness in ourselves, where we feel beautiful and grateful to be alive.