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.