No longer willing to risk it on the packed ice that took the place of our trail, my hiking buddies and I turned back. At first, I gingerly chose each foot placement, but tracking downward through snow is much more difficult to control than climbing it. Steady footfalls became halting slides and haphazard rump-skidding. Losing my footing, I giggled. By the time I hit the mud, I was beginning to loosen up a little. Choirs sang:
“Dies irae, dies illa
I slipped down a chocolate pudding slope and broke the landing with my wrists, laughing. Now things were beginning to fall in place. Leaving my friends behind, I shook off my remaining reservations and ran headlong, aiming for the puddles along the way, skirting the tree roots and careening ‘round the switchbacks.
“Sanctus! Sanctus! Sa-a-a-a-nctus!”
The trees momentarily gave way to open sky and miles of land and still-frozen lakes below. The view is enormous. I picked up my pace and skipped a bit over stones. Violins began a chromatic descent:
“...repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam.
It’s big! It’s passionate! It’s air in the lungs! It’s violent and glorious and vibrant with life, swelling dramatically, lacking all timidity. I love the way it bites at life ferociously, as though it were tearing at a juicy hunk of rare steak. I love how it stretches for the heavens and descends to the depths of hell, earthy and ethereal all at once.
Were you to ask whether it was the mountain or the opera I describe, I couldn’t say.
"I know you never hate your students, but you're definitely gonna hate me this time." --Olivia
"When the soundpost falls, you feel like the Hoover dam just broke, and you're in the city below it." --Jonathan
"I couldn't get off that note. I was like a stuck truck." --Kayla
"You look like George Washington. He doesn't smile, either." --Isabelle
"If you don't get a sticker, it's like winning only 10 cents on Wheel of Fortune." --Jonathan
"Do-re-mi-fa...If finger four is "So", how will we ever get to the top?" --Melissa
"If I pluck the strings too hard, Melody yells at me. She doesn't like to be hurt like that. Last week she lashed me with her E string and it shot across the room." --Jonathan
"Thanks for giving me a fun lesson anyway." --Olivia
The first time I can remember hearing anything like it was back in 1999 when I drove up the Al-Can highway with my friend Stephanie to spend my first winter in Alaska. That week of September, golden and clear, proved to be perfect for driving thousands of miles through Canadian wilderness. Stopping up toward the Yukon for our third night, we searched the darkness for a campground that seemed perfectly marked in our Milepost travel guide, yet didn’t exist anywhere near the supposed location. After following a gravel road for several miles, we found the site and pitched our tent quickly, if slightly deliriously. Thankful for the bed of musty brown leaves beneath me as I nestled into my bag, I breathed a contented sigh...
I listened. My ears strained to grasp something–-anything-–but all was silent. Not a leaf rustled, not a night critter chirped or squeaked, no cars, no refrigerator, no trickling of water interrupted. It was the purest, most completely isolated quiet I have ever heard. Though peaceful, the stillness was slightly unnerving. Several times during the night, I awoke and scratched at my ears just to make sure they were still working. The entire night passed in inky, ceaseless silence.
Often, my thoughts go back to that night, which has since taken on symbolic meaning. Silence captures the heart of unadorned existence, the essence of preexistence, and even the allusion of death. With the majority of my life wrapped in so many bustling activities, such a reverent silence stands out like a missed heartbeat.
I am a musician; my specialty is sound. I’ve spent most of my life pursuing all kinds of sounds: heavy sounds, bouncy sounds, projecting sounds, whispery sounds, and (of course) perfectly tuned sounds. Day in and day out, I try for different sounds and I preach to my students, “Listen! Listen, do you hear that? What do I have to do to get you to listen?”
Meanwhile, a soreness had begun to creep into my arm. It started last fall from traveling with my case. My elbow was sore. It grew, almost unnoticed, until I played in the pit orchestra this spring, when the soreness crept up into my shoulder. It took a couple of weeks of watching my fingers twitch uncontrollably and grow weak before I would finally admit I'd injured myself. Diagnosis: tendinitis. Treatment: ice, rest, and three weeks complete refrain from all activities.
Three weeks’ rest! Three weeks of nothing! Three weeks without knitting, drawing, practicing, baking, or otherwise creating! The thought absolutely frightened me. What then, with no distractions to occupy my day? What then? I was left there, all alone, with just me, myself, and my rampant mind. For the first time in many years, I fell silent. The dead space made me feel uncomfortable, then angry, then depressed. I wanted to do something–anything–yet many times during the day I found this awkward nothingness and had nothing to do. (I confess, I cheated sometimes, and rolled out croissants on Thursday and played jigs with Sarah on Saturday.)
When I sit still, I begin to wonder things, secret scary things, things we all come to debate in the deep of the night when we're all alone, when all is quiet. So what is it all worth, anyway? What am I worth? Am I an okay person, even though I’m physically fallible? What if I never get better? Am I valuable even if I can never lift my bow again, or bake, or run, or draw, or knit cool lacy things? Or will I wander aimlessly for the remainder of my days, forever burdened by unfulfilled dreams and ambitions?
This same aversion to silence won’t let me go to bed at night, since nighttime is the quiet time, the time to rest. But only in the prolonged rest do I finally hear the Still Small Voice:
Listen! Listen, do you hear that? What do I have to do to get you to listen? Your fears and anxieties are nagging you. Your personal demon shouts at you to keep striving or fail miserably and be cast down. The volume rises until it becomes difficult for you to even think straight. Your arms are begging for something inside to change. Now, be still for a time and listen.
In the stillness, I begin to remember I am already loved in my unadorned existence, even though I’ve convinced myself otherwise. Perhaps this is the root of the issue that, when embraced, will heal me from the inside out. I hope so. I really hope so. I have a lot of good things left to do.
One of my students gave me a basket of candy-filled eggs nestled in wheat grass. Over the course of three days, we ate the candy and watched the grass grow, which my friends and I found to be great evening entertainment. Today, Ben discovered the green shag sitting in the corner of the living room and excitedly paraded it for all to see.
Here's to rebirth!
1 Easter egg
Mush ingredients all together in a bowl with a fork (peel egg first and discard shell) and spread it on a toasted whole wheat english muffin. Total prep time: however fast your toaster is. Calories: about 220. Completely healthy, incredibly tasty. Serve with a hot bowl of borscht, and it's even better!
At the stop light, I watched as he lurched in front of me. Our eyes met for an instant, and he shook his index finger at me with a vacant smile, eyes dodging this way and that, limbs flailing whimsically. The old man flirted with the traffic, then bounced along the top of the snowbank next to the sidewalk, pausing between emphatic sprints to glance at his feet. “He’s lost it, George, hasn’t he?” I asked, wide-eyed. At last, the long winter had taken its toll; the man had gone mad.
When do we qualify as mad? Can’t we allow for certain eccentricities, quirks, or harmless abhorrent behaviors in our society? If so, then when has a human being crossed the line that determines sanity? I’d say, for example, when it involves playing indiscretely in traffic. At that point, someone should check “mental disorder” in the little box on the evaluation sheet and begin some kind of intervention that would prevent the poor soul from wreaking havoc on traffic patterns (not to mention endangering others and himself). For someone who has lost the ability to recognize the realities and consequences of their actions to this extreme, a safer place must be constructed. Something enclosed. Something that wards off the elements. Something without dangerous objects, with no hard surfaces, no corners. With padded walls...
But tell me, is obsession a form of crazy?
In an episode of Northern Exposure, one of the wealthy locals, Maurice Minifield, seeks to purchase a Guarneri del Gesu solely for investment purposes. To ensure the quality of the financial transaction, he hires a virtuoso from Europe to try out the fiddle. With all expenses covered, the violinist can’t refuse. He arrives, plays a few phrases, and quickly realises its unearthly beauty. Not only that, he is entranced. He cannot stop thinking about the magical sound, the perfect tone, the complete work of art that is this del Gesu. When he discovers that the violin will be placed in a vault for several years while it appreciates, he cries out in objection. The violin must be played! It was created to be played! It must sing, or it will suffocate and its voice will die!
Lacking any understanding whatsoever, Maurice refuses to oblige the urgent pleas of the violinist and sends him away. Even so, the violinist won’t leave, obsessed by the sound of the Guarneri del Gesu. He sleeps in his car and waits in the street. He follows Maurice at a distance, watching for some sign of relent. He even offers to purchase the violin himself by selling all his possessions, giving up his future inheritance, and rounding up donations from area symphonies. Finally, in the name of all that is art, he conspires to murder Maurice by planting a pipe bomb in his truck. The bomb fails its mission (of course), and the authorities then take the violinist away. The court decides in favor of insanity, and off goes the violinist to the loony bin.
Maurice, in a change of heart, brings the Guarneri to the asylum once a week and lets the violinist play it. In the final scene, he’s seen there, happily playing a Bach fugue while surrounded by straight jackets and white coated wardens, his somber phrases floating around in the cell. A doctor gazes through a window at him, as Maurice listens. “He really looks forward to these Sundays. If we ever have a discipline problem, we just tell him that we’re not gonna let you bring the violin anymore. ...Comes around pronto. Takes his medicine, participates in group therapy...”
Was the violinist inappropriately institutionalized because of an unpremeditated crime of passion? By some viewpoints, his actions may appear perfectly justifiable and logical; therefore, an innocent victim lost his freedom. Someone please put and end to the government oppression, the unsolicited tyranny, the jaws of the crunching machine of conformity! A wrongly labeled human being now suffers unnecessarily in the hands of a narrow-minded society!
With sanity comes great responsibility. Lunacy, in response, thumbs its nose at consequence.
Tell me, how may of you would trade your current existence to live in a mental ward if it meant playing on a Guarneri del Gesu once a week? You might be crazy, but then again, you might not even notice that. You might even meet up with a kindred spirit or two. Talk a bit with people who are there to listen to you. Paint with watercolors. Take up knitting (once they grant you your highly supervised needles). Swallow a couple of pills. And the soft padded walls are safe, warm, and comforting, not unlike a mother’s womb...
Tempting, isn’t it?
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Emily Grossman is from Soldotna, Alaska. Biography
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