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But... you should also remember this

May 9 2009 at 12:30 AM

MrAlto  (Login MrAlto)
NFCS Member

Response to A singer's life: what you can expect

Not to be pollyanna but this was in my mailbox today...

This short speech was sent to me. It affected me in a truly profound way and I want to share it with you. So often we are caught up in "ego" and we lose sight of what our calling is truly about. Please stop the reacting to the drama for a moment, read this and consider it. It puts it all in perspective.


Karl Paulnack Welcome Address

Below is an excerpt from a welcome address given to parents of
incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004, by
Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division.


One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not
properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn't be appreciated. I had
very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and
they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I
might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still
remember my mother's remark when I announced my decision to apply to
music school she said, "you're wasting your SAT scores!" On some
level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of
music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened
to classical music all the time. They just weren't really clear about
its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live
in a society that puts music in the "arts and entertainment" section
of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to
engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment,
in fact it's the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit
about music, and how it works.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were
the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks
said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin.
Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable,
permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of
relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. *Music has a
way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and
souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let
me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the
Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier
Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the
war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of
1940 and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper
and a place to compose, and fortunate to have musician colleagues in
the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist. Messiaen wrote
his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in
January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison
camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the

Given what we have since learned about life in the Nazi camps, why
would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or
playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find
food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape
torture why would anyone bother with music? And yet even from the
concentration camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual
art; it wasn't just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people
created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on
survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art
must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money,
without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic
respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art
is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are.
Art is one of the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has

In September of 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. On the morning of
September 12, 2001 I reached a new understanding of my art and its
relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10
AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit,
without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and
opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off
the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't
this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what
happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent,
pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in
time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey
of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and
in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the
piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.

At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble.
We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't
shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized
activity that I saw in New York, on the very evening of September
11th, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people
sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots of people sang America the Beautiful.
The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms
Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York
Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our
first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That
was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military
secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music
in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is
not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would
have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from
leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass
time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the
ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express
feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with
our hearts when we can't with our minds.

Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heart wrenchingly beautiful piece
Adagio for Strings. If you don't know it by that name, then some of
you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver
Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that
piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your
heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn't
know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at
what's really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

Very few of you have ever been to a wedding where there was absolutely
no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have
been some really bad music, but with few exceptions there is some
music. And something very predictable happens at weddings people get
all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there's some musical
moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or
plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if
the quality isn't good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who
are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music
starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big
invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can
express what we feel even when we can't talk about it. Can you imagine
watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but
no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right
moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at
exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with
the music stripped out, it wouldn't happen that way. The Greeks. Music
is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal

I'll give you one more example, the story of the most important
concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a
thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I
thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed
playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St.
Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music
critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most
important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in a
small Midwestern town a few years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We
began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland's Sonata, which was written
during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a
young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our
audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing
them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began
the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later
in the program and to just come out and play the music without

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near
the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later
met, was clearly a soldier even in his 70's, it was clear from his
buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a
good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd
that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of
that particular piece, but it wasn't the first time I've heard crying
in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to
talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the
circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its
dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience
became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly
figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage
afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: "During World War II, I was a pilot, and I
was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes was
hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but
the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned
across the parachute cords so as to separate the parachute from the
pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing
that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but
during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to
me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn't
understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out
to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost
pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do
that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?"

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships
between internal objects. The concert in the nursing home was the most
important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier
and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect
their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn
his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman
class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I
will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student
practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because
you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz
into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life.
Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your
concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is
overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again
will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a
musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm
not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a
rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human
soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist,
someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line
up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy
and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music;
I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness
on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual
understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come
from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even
expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem
to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a
future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of
how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it
will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the
concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones
who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."

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