Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Big Picture: How Music Can Remind Us of the Most Important Things in Life

Originally delivered as a short talk at the East Ridge Seventh-day Adventist Church on July 31, 2015.

During my junior year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, my piano teacher, Sin-Hsing Tsai, announced that the great pianist Walter Hautzig would present a masterclass in the area, in which a handful of us would be chosen to participate. I was lucky enough to be selected. Since the selection of students had been based on the repertoire we’d submitted, I had no choice but to play the very difficult fourth Scherzo of Chopin, the title of which I had optimistically submitted with the vain hope that I could learn it in time. My anxiety began to increase as my first encounter with the 92-year-old Austrian legend drew nigh. I was not ready, but the show must go on. As luck would have it, I was slated to play last on the program. Hautzig, the strait-talking Peabody Conservatory Emeritus, was not one to butter up students who played badly, and as the masterclass went on it became clear that he was not going to be impressed if I played as sloppily as I expected to.

Finally it was my turn… and yes, I played every bit as sloppily as I expected to—and more. The ten-minute Scherzo seemed to go on for hours and I began to feel as though I would never get out of it alive. When, finally, the last bumbles had been made, the last notes finished sounding, and the smoke cleared, I sat sheepishly on the piano bench, feeling rather like a wet cat. After what seemed like eons (but was probably only seconds), it was Hautzig’s Austrian accent that broke the silence: “I have just one piece of advice for you: Don’t change a single note.” My teacher, Dr. Tsai, was in tears as Hautzig proceeded to rave for several minutes about how incredible my performance was and to predict what a phenomenal career I would have as a pianist. All the while I sat dazed at the piano bench, not sure if I was hearing correctly. Is he talking about ME? If so, which one of us is crazy?  I thought I’d done a lousy job, but now I was the star of the show.

Almost like the prodigal son upon returning home in embarrassment at his failures, I felt I was being honored far beyond what I deserved. After all, Hautzig seemed to be completely ignoring my obvious mistakes, as if they hadn’t happened: “Don’t change a single note.” It’s also a bit like the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, in which the “sheep” are surprised that God thinks they are anything special, almost as if they thought, “You’ve got the wrong sheep.” To this day I still don’t know exactly what happened on that mysterious evening, when I was thinking something along the lines of “Let my shame go where it doth deserve”[1] (in this case, back to the practice room). The only thing I can figure is that he saw something that I didn’t see: the big picture. Where I saw nothing but a wreckage of wrong notes, sloppy scales and arpeggios, blurry pedaling, and the angry face of Frederic Chopin rolling over in his grave, Hautzig saw music—and behind it he perceived a heart that loved it beyond the fingers’ ability to adequately express that love. Beyond this, he also saw potential for what I could become. That has inspired me to try to do the same for others.

Never before had I realized just how important the big picture is and how it effects almost every aspect of life. When we don’t see the big picture, it’s very easy to be judgmental, either of ourselves or of others. When I hear a musician making a mistake on something that’s relatively easy and start to think, O brother, what’s wrong with him? it behooves me to look back on my experience with Hautzig, and also on a few experiences I’ve had collaborating with other musicians. For example, during my years as a student accompanist I played piano for a talented singer who once had a “train wreck” on stage, even though she had practiced very thoroughly and everything had gone perfectly well in rehearsal. On the day of the springtime concert her pollen allergies began to flair up, but she decided to go ahead with the performance, underestimating the effect the allergies would have on her voice. I couldn’t help but think, If only the audience knew how well she can sing this music! And I have to wonder, would I have been so sympathetic had I been in the audience, not knowing the whole story? Probably not.

Of course, this principle applies to situations in everyday life as well. For example, there are people who look in the mirror in the morning and see nothing but moles, pimples, and worry lines, while the rest of us see them as nothing short of beautiful. They don’t see the big picture that we see; they are too zoomed in on insignificant details. Or when we see someone else who looks really rough to us, we don’t know what they are going through, and therefore don’t see the big picture that they see. Jesus, however, always sees the big picture, and that’s why he picked disciples who seemed to have so many issues. He saw past all of the surface stuff. Similarly, in 1 Samuel 16 we read of a simple, unassuming shepherd that God chose to be the King of Israel, even though all of his older brothers seemed more qualified for the job. Nobody else wanted to believe that David had the potential, but God knew, because he saw the big picture that nobody else could see. In the very next chapter, we see in plain colors how right God’s choice was: The brothers find themselves on the front lines of battle, and David is the only one willing to take on the giant. Perhaps his brothers then began to see just a bit more of the big picture. We are told that “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Zooming out evening further, let’s consider another musical analogy. A composer who memorably illustrates the importance of the big picture is Gustav Mahler, who fashioned some of the most colossal musical structures ever conceived of. Especially near and dear to me is his Symphony 2, a one-and-a-half-hour-long work, characteristically scored for a gargantuan orchestra, chorus, and soloists. The text deals with deep, existential crises, finally culminating with the hope of life beyond the grave. Because of the Symphony’s glorious ending, some record companies have seen fit to excerpt the last three minutes of the work on “best of” collections of classical music. That has always bothered me, somehow. Yes, the ending of the Mahler 2 constitutes three of the most transcendent minutes in music history, but skipping the hour and 27 minutes of struggle leading up to it has always seemed to me a bit like cheating—like the character “Ignorance” in The Pilgrim’s Progress, taking a shortcut to the pearly gates and expecting to be allowed in. No, it’s only after the gut-wrenching struggle that the triumph of Mahler’s 2nd is fully grasped.

And what of the Symphony’s final chord, a fortissimo E-flat major that lasts an entire 30 seconds all by itself? I’ve heard people complain about how ridiculous it is. Indeed, in the context of a three-minute work, it would be pretty silly, but what if we zoom out and look at the whole hour and 30 minutes? Then it becomes clear how essential that ending chord is in balancing the enormous musical monolith. And, going back to our existential crisis, once we finally get to the end of the turmoil, we need the sense of solidarity and the idea of eternity captured in that closing chord. It’s a reaching for the infinite—it seems like it’s never going to end— and it’s only in the larger context of the complete work, as Mahler attended us to hear it, that that makes sense: After all our wandering, we are home to stay… forever. That’s what the Symphony is all about.

And this brings us to the most important point: We don’t see the big picture that God sees, and that’s why existential crises are very real in all of our lives. That’s why the Mahler 2 is so moving. That’s why age-old questions like “Why is there is so much pain, suffering, and death in the world?” never go away. We can’t fully answer them, try as we might. Sometimes we just have to let it go and accept that we don’t fully understand because we can’t see the big picture yet, and trust that someday everything will be made clear. The Apostle Paul, in the famous “love” chapter in 1 Corinthians, wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). God, by contrast, sees and knows everything already: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).  In Isaiah 55:9 God himself says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is not God’s way of looking down at us and saying “na-na na-boo-boo,” but rather a means of bringing us a measure of peace—as if to say, “If you don’t understand what in the world is going on, here’s why.” Jesus said simply, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (Mark 5:38).

In short, the trick is to try and see the big picture whenever we can—and to remember that it exists even when we can’t see it. At least one thing is sure: We are each a part of something that is much bigger than our everyday existence—something that ultimately will explain all of the confusion around us. Both Mahler’s Symphony and The Pilgrim’s Progress remind us that, if we don’t give up, the hardest struggles of this life will lead us to the gates of eternity. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.

[1] A quotation from George Herbert’s poem, “Love bade me welcome.”