Why I Do What I Do

December 26, 2011

As a somewhat moody musician, I often ask myself why I am a musician. It’s not always the most pleasant thing, and it isn’t the most lucrative. The majority of society doesn’t get it, and it takes an awful lot of work to get some intangible returns.

On my way home from playing the Christmas Day service at First Church in Boston, I was thinking about how fortunate I’ve been. So many of the things in my life seem to have come as a gift. I don’t come from money, but I am very lucky to have parents who let me explore my interests. Things which advanced my musical career seem to have fallen in my lap. My first stereo, which I never could have afforded new, was a highly discounted floor model; I started my undergraduate career with a full scholarship, allowing me to use saved money to buy a very good practice piano; I found my first harpsichord in the Chicago Reader for only $500 (I talked the owner down to $400); I received a partial scholarship to Yale for graduate school, reducing my student loans and making Yale the least expensive choice among my graduate school options; I purchased my 1966 Dowd harpsichord at a very low price.

While I don’t come from money, these fortunes have made me ask, “Why me?” I’m certainly not God’s gift to music, and, while I’ve orchestrated some of the good things in my life, I couldn’t have come up with so much good fortune on my own. Why me?

So, I was cruising home from the Christmas Day service, and I decided to finish an exceptionally lengthy podcast of The Moth, a weekly broadcast by a non-profit dedicated to the art of story telling. The final brief story was about Mother Teresa. (I was about to paraphrase the story here, but I found it in Anne Bogart’s book And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World.)
 
"My friend Morgan Jenness admired Mother Teresa, now Blessed Mother Teresa, and at difficult personal junctures, the mere thought of her provided inspiration. Although now a playwright's agent, Morgan worked for many years with the legendary producer Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival in New York City. One day, feeling especially depressed about her sense of uselessness in the world, Morgan heard that Mother Teresa would be in Manhattan. She dropped everything and headed to the Indian Embassy in the hope that she might appear. Standing outside the embassy, Mother Teresa did emerge, surrounded by an entourage, and Morgan managed to capture her attention. She stopped, turned, looked at Morgan right in the eyes and asked, 'What can I do for you?' In the midst of her surprise and awe, Morgan described her work in the theatre and how she had lost all her will as she did not see any usefulness in it and then and there declared her determination to go to India and be of use. Mother Teresa spoke sternly, 'There are many famines. In my country there is a famine of the body. In your country there is a famine of the spirit. And that is what you must feed.'"

I’m lucky I didn’t swerve off the road when I heard that! Just moments ago, I had been reflecting on my good fortune--”Why me?”--, and now I had found the answer to why I am a musician.

It’s been some months since I finished recording my album, “Harpsichord Music for a Thin Place.” In my program notes, I write:
 
"A thin place is the threshold between the ordinary and the spiritual. While usually considered a physical location, music, for me, can also be a thin place. In this spirit, it is my greatest desire to bring my audience to a thin place through the beautiful stately elegance of the harpsichord’s most introspective repertoire.

"This recording contains some of my most favorite slow, meditative harpsichord pieces. I was careful to select contemplative works over melancholy ones, favoring major keys over minor keys and avoiding lamentations and tombeaux. In choosing a venue for the recording, I had two criteria: The space had to be good acoustically, and it had to be a thin place where I could feel a sense of prayer and peace.

"From the selection of repertoire to its preparation to the recording venue itself, I have sought to make this recording within a prayerful, meditative context. It is my hope that this CD will touch you and move you to crave other meditative experiences while also encouraging you to seek out harpsichord recitals and recordings."

 
Why do I do what I do?

In my country, there is a famine of spirit. And this is what I must feed.

11 comments

  • Loretta

    Loretta

    This is absolutely lovely. And so, so true.

    This is absolutely lovely. And so, so true.

  • Phyllis

    Phyllis

    Serendipitous fortuity!

    Serendipitous fortuity!

  • Pat B.--FSU

    Pat B.--FSU

    To paraphrase the famous quote, all it takes for evil(or apathy--the spiritual famine)to triumph is for good men to do nothing. I'm glad to know a good man who fights the darkness with the tools he has been given and and has earned. Bravo!!!

    To paraphrase the famous quote, all it takes for evil(or apathy--the spiritual famine)to triumph is for good men to do nothing. I'm glad to know a good man who fights the darkness with the tools he has been given and and has earned. Bravo!!!

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    Well said.

    Well said.

  • Pierre

    Pierre

    Really nice work on this contemplative piece. I wished it would have lasted so much longer. Happy New Year to you, Paul. It has been a pleasure to get to know you. I like your thoughtfulness on this and for putting into words what many of us feel oftentimes. I have to get a copy of your CD for sure.

    Really nice work on this contemplative piece. I wished it would have lasted so much longer. Happy New Year to you, Paul. It has been a pleasure to get to know you. I like your thoughtfulness on this and for putting into words what many of us feel oftentimes. I have to get a copy of your CD for sure.

  • Jonas Cain

    Jonas Cain

    You are right, Paul. This is a Jonas blog. Thank you for sharing your Light with the world. Surely the world is a brighter place because you are here. I know this personally to be true.

    You are right, Paul. This is a Jonas blog. Thank you for sharing your Light with the world. Surely the world is a brighter place because you are here. I know this personally to be true.

  • Yves

    Yves

    Thoughtful and effective musings, Paul. We live in a world here of "thick places" - cultural equivalents of slabs of roast beef, onion rings, fries with that - everything big, heavy, at 130 decibels plus.....where marketers call all music (movements, sonatas, arias, masses, whatever) "songs" ! So those of you who part the curtains and give us these alternate reflections and perceptual treasures are ever so welcome. Many thanks! A special recording indeed, too. Thank you for being inspired to do it.

    Thoughtful and effective musings, Paul. We live in a world here of "thick places" - cultural equivalents of slabs of roast beef, onion rings, fries with that - everything big, heavy, at 130 decibels plus.....where marketers call all music (movements, sonatas, arias, masses, whatever) "songs" ! So those of you who part the curtains and give us these alternate reflections and perceptual treasures are ever so welcome. Many thanks! A special recording indeed, too. Thank you for being inspired to do it.

  • Tara Alves

    Tara Alves Framingham, MA

    It s good to hear meaningful music to empower our community here. Your streghtening self-affirmation and creative inspiration is always welcomed like a breath of fresh air.

    It s good to hear meaningful music to empower our community here. Your streghtening self-affirmation and creative inspiration is always welcomed like a breath of fresh air.

  • Helen A

    Helen A FSU

    Being in a bit of a dark place just now, this was lovely to read.

    Being in a bit of a dark place just now, this was lovely to read.

  • Paul Bertolli

    Paul Bertolli Berkeley, Ca

    Off the point of your recording and the question of "why me?", I just read your book on playing heart that spoke directly to my interest and challenge. This past week landmarking , listening slowly and carefully away from my instrument and visualizing score and hands, I now have a new Chopin nocturne coming from a wholly different place. Thank you!

    Off the point of your recording and the question of "why me?", I just read your book on playing heart that spoke directly to my interest and challenge. This past week landmarking , listening slowly and carefully away from my instrument and visualizing score and hands, I now have a new Chopin nocturne coming from a wholly different place. Thank you!

  • Paul Cienniwa

    Paul Cienniwa

    Wonderful, Mr. Bertolli! I'm so glad that my little book has inspired some Chopin. Thanks for reading.

    Wonderful, Mr. Bertolli! I'm so glad that my little book has inspired some Chopin. Thanks for reading.

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