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Pauline Lerner


July 17, 2009 at 6:32 AM

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Americans were totally shocked and terribly saddened. The great twentieth century violinist Isaac Stern wrote about his response in his autobiography. When he heard the news, he was in no mood to play his recital scheduled for that night. He called the appropriate person in the recital management and said that he could not, would not play that night. After arguing about it, the two men came to an agreement: Stern would play the recital, but he could choose whatever he wanted to play and for whatever length of time he chose.

When the recital started, Stern walked onstage and told the audience, "Different people have different ways of praying. Sometimes musicians pray by playing their instruments." Then he played Bach's Chaconne, walked off stage, and went home.


My ex-boyfriend who recently had surgery for lung cancer has been on my mind a lot lately. Of course, I wish the best for him. Other thoughts and strong feelings about him come and go, leaving me unsettled. Then my violin helped me.

Sometimes when I pick up my violin to practice, I have no agenda. I just put my fiddle under my chin and let it sing to me. It can tell me a lot about my mood. This time, my fiddle started playing the kinds of songs -- bluegrass and other traditional American songs -- that we both liked and loved to play together.

A lot of people learned about bluegrass music from the film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" This music shines with vocal and instrumental improvisation, as here, on a grand scale, and tight harmonies. After a while, my fiddle started playing stained glass bluegrass, aka Appalachian gospel, music. These songs tell about suffering in this worldly life and the joy to come in Heaven. Although I'm not a believer, I am moved by many of these songs. I played these and other songs, some over and over, not noticing the passage of time. When I finally stopped playing, I felt calm and at peace.

Today I saw photos of my ex, just a few days out of lung surgery, on Facebook. He looked awful, but he managed to play his mandolin in the hospital. He has spoken about coming back to this part of the country and jamming with his old friends again in just a few months. When I saw the photos of him, some of my confused feelings came back. Again, I played my fiddle, and again, I felt better.

I am so lucky that music has this settling effect on me. I will never be an alcoholic or drug addict. I will always have music. In music lies my strength and my salvation.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on July 17, 2009 at 12:48 PM

Thank you for sharing, Pauline.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 18, 2009 at 2:57 AM

You're welcome, Bart.  Thank you for reading and commenting.

From Catie Rinderknecht
Posted on July 18, 2009 at 3:25 AM

Thank you for sharing these thought with us!  I have often heard music described as "prayer without words" and from the experience I have gathered in my relatively short lifetime, I know this to be true.  

I think I know the same feeling that Stern must have had then.  Bach's music, especially, is a prayer.  In my case, though, I turned to the Adagio from his G minor Sonata.   

From David Allen
Posted on July 18, 2009 at 8:53 PM

Wow, Is that John McKuen on fiddle? They all look so young!

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