Today is the 12th day of Christmas, The Epiphany. The word epiphany has such wonderful connotations. It refers to a moment when something is revealed, something wonderful that changes one’s life. Whether great or small, these changes bring new perspective, new knowledge – wisdom. I usually send out holiday cards around this time of year because, as many musicians, I am often working right up until December 25. Plus, it allows me the opportunity to offer good wishes for a new year that might be inspired by epiphanies from the holidays. And, after spending time with family, friends, colleagues, and musicians, I was blessed with many.
When one is lucky enough to work with both great adult professionals and excellent young musicians, opportunities for epiphanies abound. From wherever they come, these moments of discovery can be subtle or dramatic, simple or profound. So on the Epiphany, I want to recount my favorite epiphany story from this past holiday season.
It was December 15th and the Juilliard Pre-College parents were having their annual holiday party for the faculty, staff, and students. It is a great affair when we all get together, have a meal, and enjoy camaraderie that is usually exchanged in brief hall passings the rest of the year. A wonderful event.
One of my conducting students came over and sat down with me and several other students. She is a very bright girl, a talented violinist, and was concertmaster for one of the difficult works on our December 22nd program. At 16, she had already won the concerto competition the previous year. As we ate and discussed the upcoming concert, I asked if she was enjoying working on the Bartok (Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste). She replied:
“I love it. I think it’s my favorite piece on the program. I was really intimidated by it at first, but as I got to know it, I learned so much from it. I really became aware of how vigilant I have to be as a player.”
What about the Beethoven (Fifth Symphony) I asked.
“Well, I love that too. But, you know, I actually think the Beethoven is more difficult than the Bartok in certain ways.…”
I realized that I was not speaking to a mere student anymore, but a young artist, taking in knowledge and training and experience – turning artistic instinct into informed intuition. When these moments of epiphany happen for a student, they are also moments of celebration for a teacher – especially in the arts.
Now, usually one celebrates these small triumphs and moves on. But she continued:
“I was thinking about that article you had us read in conducting class (Edward T. Cone: Three ways of reading a detective story, or a Brahms Intermezzo). It was very close to the experience I had learning the Bartok.”
She had nailed it – knitting together experiences and information from myriad sources, analyzing them, and synthesizing them – turning knowledge into wisdom. In the simple joy of her discoveries, she was unaware of the profound learning that had taken place within her.
The performance the following week was quite good. The Bartok went extremely well, the Beethoven even better. But, more important than the concert, was the process of learning and discovery experienced by all of these young musicians. They met the challenges of extremely demanding repertoire, pushed as far as they could, and created art at a high level – art that came alive because of their collective individuality, unique cohesiveness, talent, and dedication. Perfect? No. But, it was expressive, intelligent, generous, and compelling. I think Bartok and Beethoven would have approved. In one sense, the performance was perfect in its uniqueness and quirkiness – human.
This process, and this result, is what hornist Danielle Kuhlmann so aptly described in “The Pearl Factory,” a recent article in the independent arts publication “The Yard.” In it she compares the beauty of natural pearls to the “perfection” of manufactured pearls as an analogy for the challenges facing our artistic culture. It is what another artist friend of mine calls “the difference between magic and merchandise.” Ms. Kuhlmann admirably stresses the need to reassess the values of the arts “industry.” I agree. This has been a cause close to my heart for quite some time, and I encourage you to read her article. We learn as much about ourselves through the processes of striving as we do from the end of that process – the performance. And, this is why the study of the arts is so important for everyone.
The epiphanies experienced by these young musicians (as well as myself, parents, and the audience) made us a little wiser and our lives a little richer – pearls of wisdom brought about by epiphanies.